Former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, is credited with the quote 'All politics is local' and I think that adage has never been more apt than at present.
Having spoken at and attended a number of packed fringes at all of the main party conferences recently I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that there is a reawakening by the political parties that many of the most pressing policy issues are best resolved at a local government level.
Whether it is public health; housing; climate change; or promoting economic growth, politicians, of the parliamentary and assembly breed, are realising that you can’t solve hugely complex issues by central diktat from hundreds of miles away. In order to understand the varying local circumstances, where these problems play out, you really need to have boots on the ground. Local government can provide this. What it needs in return is for the UK central administrations to provide clarity and coherency in policy terms.
Whilst devolution to combined authorities could be transformational in itself, it will not succeed if it places further financial reductions onto areas which have already struggled to absorb huge cuts. Devolving business rates could create the vehicle to incentivise economic growth at a local level but only if issues around redistribution are addressed and handled fairly.
The localisation of housing revenue accounts looked as if it would give 30 years of stability and allow headroom for borrowing for new build to help solve the UK’s housing crisis. However, the recent announcement by the Chancellor that social housing rents would fall by 1% a year for the next 4 years, combined with proposals that local authorities will have to sell off their most valuable stock to pay for right to buy for housing association tenants, has blown a huge hole in Council’s business plans.
The transfer of responsibility for public health strategy back to local government from April 2013 was welcome but now we have also seen a significant reduction in funding.
With regard to tackling climate change, many authorities, encouraged by government, invested time and resources in establishing renewable energy schemes to then have tariffs cut and removed.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that some are suspicious that devolution and localism are not only a way of passing on the responsibility for some of the most difficult issues of our time but also for making cuts.
It’s probably fair to suggest that it’s not only an exciting time for local government but also a frightening one. Despite these huge challenges we all know that ultimately local government delivers, it would just be easier if central government were consistent and honest about their focus and intent.