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Manifesto analysis: what do they say about local power?
Grace Pollard, Senior Policy Researcher, NLGN, 27 November, 2019

The future of our public services is a debate rumbling through the election campaign. Now that the manifestos have been published it is possible to take stock of the real prospects for local services. We can also compare the Parties’ attitudes towards what we call ‘communitisation’ – giving real power and resources to the local communities. With this Community Paradigm front and centre in our minds, here’s our take on the highlights from each party’s manifesto and what these say about their vision for local government and communities.

The Conservatives

Most notable here is the revival of the devolution agenda, offering an opportunity for more power to transfer to local government. Within the spirit of the 2011 Localism Act, there is an interesting commitment around a Community Ownership Fund, but little else about handing more power to communities.

Key promises:

  • Publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out plans next year
  • Towns Fund will go to an initial 100 towns
  • Investment of £500 million in new youth clubs and services
  • Establish a £150 million Community Ownership Fund
  • £250 million cultural capital programme

Labour

There is a welcome funding commitment here, but little on further devolution. In terms of communities, there is an interesting reference to building community wealth, but not much on the mechanisms by which power can be handed to local communities and shift how services are delivered. In fact, in the proposal to set up a National Care Service, there is every indication that the direction of travel will be to greater centralisation of key services.

Key promises:

  • Restore council spending powers to 2010 levels over the lifetime of the Parliament
  • Act to bring services back in house within the next Parliament
  • Build a new National Care Service
  • Give communities power and resources to build community wealth
  • Set up a Co-operative Development Agency
  • Build a National Youth Service

The Lib-Dems

There is a welcome funding commitment, and also a lot of the focus on further devolution of powers to local government. There is some interesting discussion of giving more power to people through them taking charge of aspects of their local development, but not a lot of further detail on other ways to shift power to communities.

Key promises:

  • Commit to a real increase in local government funding throughout the Parliament
  • Move towards single place-based budgets for health and social care to encourage greater collaboration between local NHS and local authorities
  • Decentralise decision-making by inviting local areas to take control of services which matter to them most
  • Give people more power, for example communities taking charge of aspects of their own local development, such as establishing local banks and community energy cooperatives
  • Devolve further revenue-raising powers from Westminster to regions
  • Devolve more decision-making power over key levers of economic development

The Greens

There is a welcome funding commitment and some real elements of ‘communitisation’ with commitments to more use of participatory democracy tools and opportunities for communities to collaborate with public services.

Key promises:

  • Increase central government funding to councils by £10 billion a year
  • Commit to annual, rolling multi-year financial settlements
  • Give councils access to an additional £3 billion a year Climate Adaption Fund
  • Support councils to further democratise their processes, such as through using more participatory democracy
  • Introduce participatory budgeting enabling citizens to decide how to allocate part of the council budget

This quick tour through each of the manifestos highlights some welcome commitments, a few windows of opportunity, and a handful of more promising proposals that recognise the potential role of communities in achieving change. But what is missing is a more ambitious agenda to shift power to local government and communities so that they can collaborate to deliver the real change needed in their local areas.

In the Community Paradigm, we started to sketch out what this emerging agenda might look like. We made the case for a major process of devolution; adoption of more participatory and deliberative approaches to decision making; greater collaboration between services and users; and a greater role for communities in commissioning services. Building on this, Our Director Adam Lent has recently set out the case for a Community Power Act – a piece of legislation aimed at transferring power from state institutions to communities.

This is the start of a conversation about the principle of harnessing the power of communities to solve their own problems. We are already seeing the most innovative parts of local government building on this principle. National parties should be looking to these examples in order to build a real agenda for change which will restore trust in public institutions and shape a more preventative and collaborative approach to delivering public services.