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02/07/2020

Starmer calls for ‘new relationship’ between central and local government

Words: Simon Wicks
Keir Starmer

Town halls should be given the powers to lead the response to coronavirus crisis and the rebuilding of the nation’s economy, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told a virtual audience at the Local Government Association’s Annual Conference.

In the longer term, a “new relationship” between national and local government should give local councils and communities more powers to make decisions on planning and housing – as well as proper representation in a revamped second parliamentary chamber.

This could build a platform both for restoring trust in government and for local authorities to address local problems in a more targeted way.

“Councils are often the first to see where national government is going wrong and yet too often they are ignored and central government is slow to respond,” the Labour leader stressed.

“We need to change that. Under my leadership, we are already giving local government a much bigger part... Every shadow cabinet member is partnered with a local government leader.”

In a speech and Q&A with representatives of local authorities, Starmer went on to address topics ranging from track and trace to jobs protection, reframing Boris Johnson’s “build, build, build” slogan as “jobs, jobs, jobs” – particularly for young people. He also reiterated Labour’s call for a ‘green new deal’ to provide these jobs.

While stressing support for some aspects of the government’s approach to containing the Covid-19 epidemic, including the principles of lockdown and the furlough scheme, Starmer was nevertheless highly critical of much of the government’s management of the crisis.

“The prime minister is good at rhetoric but he can’t govern, and his failure to plan, to act quickly and decisively, to take the right decisions at the right time, has held Britain back,” he said. “As a result, those at the front line have too often lacked the powers and resources they need. Nowhere is this truer than in local government.”

He called for government to do much more to recognise the £10 billion “funding black hole” facing English local authorities and to fill the vacuum created by falling business rates, funding cuts and the extra costs of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“I’ve raised this with the prime minister at Prime Minister’s Questions over the last two weeks but as you may have seen I’ve not had many answers – at least not many coherent ones. I’m not even sure the prime minister has understood the scale of the crisis for local councils or how central local authorities will be in the next phase of the crisis and in preventing a second spike.”

Starmer on….

Planning powers

“Councils know their communities and they know the planning decisions that need to be made. So we want more control locally not less control locally. Obviously this has been the focus of a considerable amount of attention in the last few days. But the idea that the housing crisis is all about the planning problem is completely misconceived in my view. Let’s put planning decisions where they belong, which is in local communities and made by local councils, and let’s recognise that we can deal with the housing crisis not by changing the planning system but by actually putting our shoulders to the wheels and building the houses we have promised so many, many times.”

Economic recovery

“Nobody’s against building and investment in infrastructure – schools, hospitals, you name it. But my concern about the speech the prime minister gave yesterday is that actually not much of it is new. We did an audit of the promises he made yesterday against existing promises or manifesto commitments and there’s a massive overlap and it’s not much of a deal. My concern is that because of the furlough schemes, which have been very good and which we’ve supported, and because of the support for the self-employed, which again has been good and we’ve supported, there are gaps in implementation and there are gaps that some people have fallen through and that’s a massive problem.  

“But we’ve got half, I think, of the entire UK workforce on either furlough or effectively unemployed. Therefore we’re facing the prospect over the next three to six months of unemployment on a scale we haven’t seen for a generation. I feel that because of the support schemes we’re collectively shielded from this and I don’t think people have completely appreciated what is about to happen. You can see the early evidence – Airbus, easyJet, Rolls-Royce, many other manufacturers making announcements about job losses. As we go through the next few weeks and months and the furlough scheme is wound down I think there is the real prospect of millions of people becoming unemployed and that really has to be the focus. Building over a five or 10-year period is not going to help those people so I think the focus has to be on jobs.

“I don’t think the new deal is anywhere near enough. The focus has to be on jobs. My strong view is that there should be a July Budget. I can’t believe that we’re going into a period where there could be millions unemployed this autumn and we’re not having a July Budget. If we don’t have it in July, we won’t be having a Budget until October or November, and we’ll be deep in economic crisis by then.

“I would support infrastructure projects being brought forward but we need to do a number of other things. One is the job retention scheme, the furlough scheme, needs to be more flexible. Some sectors are beginning to go back, others are just not going to be able to in the time frame available. The furlough scheme ends at the end of October. If you’re in hospitality, if you’re in retail, aspects of travel or some service sectors you’re not going to be able to function at the end of October in any meaningful way. We need to provide ongoing support for the sectors that need it. Otherwise businesses are going to go bust and people are going to lose their jobs. These are viable businesses that are only going to go bust because of circumstances they find themselves in with coronavirus.

“The other thing I would do is to have an equivalent of the future jobs fund that the Labour Government put in place in 2009, which is a scheme to ensure that where people do lose their jobs there is support and a planned route back into jobs, particularly for young people. The focus for me would be on jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The green new deal

“The green new deal is vitally important and we can’t afford to make the same mistake as we did coming out of the 08/09 crash where because of the scale of the financial crash, the focus was taken off climate change. There was a lost decade where climate change didn’t have the priority it should have done. We can’t make that mistake again. As we rebuild coming out of this crisis we’ve got to ensure that the green new deal is hardwired into everything that we do, that climate change is very much part of the central priority as we go forward. We can’t take our eye off that ball again.”

Rough sleeping

“Everybody’s been shocked by the increase in rough sleeping over recent years. The government did the right thing by ensuring when we started going through the health aspect of this pandemic measures were taken to help people off the streets into accommodation and, frankly, that showed that this was always a political issue that could have been resolved earlier in my view because if you’ve got political will to do something about it, something could be done about it. What we can’t do now is hopefully come through the pandemic which is going to take time and then just go back to business as usual and allow people to drift back to the streets. That means providing not just shelter but all the support that goes around it. That has to be seen as an investment. I’ve been urging the government to make central funds available for it because I think it’s very difficult for local authorities to find the funds for that sort of shelter and that sort of support. I know lots of you are doing this, but it’s got to be seen as a central government responsibility.”

A ‘new relationship’ between local and central government

“We need much stronger and more focused leadership and to build a new relationship between local and national government, to end the over-centralisation of power in Westminster and push it much closer to local communities.

“My commitment to local government doesn’t just exist in opposition. We would win power in order to hand it back to the nations, regions, cities and towns across the country. We would give local government a much bigger say over investments and services, through plans created and rooted in communities.

“We would put local government, its power and innovation straight at the heart of Westminster by replacing the House of Lords with a democratic second chamber representing the nations and regions of the UK. 

“The principle I operate to is that decisions about people should be made as near to people as possible. I support the idea of power leaving Whitehall and being much closer through local authorities. There’s been a lot of innovation on this, where councils are able to put decision-making back closer to people and that has been a huge success. There’s a huge amount I think we can learn politically from what local councils are doing because there’s been lots of innovation there over the last few years. We need to pick that up, hold it up to the light and learn from it.”

Image credit | Shutterstock

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