A chance for Labour’s revival?
The Tory assault on local government began in 1979 and continued until 2017, when Metropolitan mayors became possible under new legislation. In the meantime, local authorities had their finances reduced, particularly in the ‘austerity years’ after 2010. Their housing stock was removed through compulsory council house sales and it became difficult for them to become serious house builders again. We are now in a time when the importance of local government is once again becoming recognised and the Tories, ever sensitive to the way in which the wind of public opinion is blowing, have responded to this with the creation of new local government structures with enhanced powers. Few of the current electorate will remember the destruction of local government during the Thatcher-Major years, untouched by Brown and Blair and resumed under Cameron. Fewer still will care if the Tories are seen to be the revivers of local government. The newly created metropolitan areas do, however, represent an opportunity for Labour if it can grasp it.
There are now 8 city-regions covering 12 million people with directly elected metropolitan mayors. Although powers vary between each of these, it is true today that most of them have powers over housing, transport, skills training and business support. Some also have a role in health and social care. In addition, some of them will be able to start franchising bus transport as is currently the case only in Greater London. These are the current Metropolitan authorities, mayors and political affiliations: Greater Manchester (Andy Burnham, Labour); Liverpool City Region (Steve Rotherham, Labour); North of Tyne (Jamie Driscoll, Labour); Sheffield City Region (Dan Jarvis, Labour); West Midlands (Andy Street, Conservative); Tees Valley (Ben Houchen, Conservative); West of England (Tim Bowles, Conservative); Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (James Palmer, Conservative).
A few things are worth mentioning. First, the majority are Labour, but at least one, Teeside, a traditional Labour area, is controlled by the Conservatives. Second, although centred around large or medium sized cities they also take in surrounding towns and semi-rural areas. Third, there is some evidence that they are using their powers to benefit their populations, for example providing travel concessions for young people and improving transport links. Fourth, by far the greatest area of England is not covered by a metropolitan authority and there is a danger that these areas will eventually be left behind if the existing metropolitan authorities are successful. There is also a danger that these metropolitan areas will focus resources on large cities like Birmingham or Manchester and lead to the further neglect of surrounding towns and villages.
However, there are also advantages to this kind of organisation. First, they are high profile and can attract attention at the level of national politics. Andy Burnham showed this when he confronted the Prime Minister about inadequate Covid support for his city region. Second, they are large enough to include the surrounding area including towns and villages and to make up a significant economic region which can be planned for as a whole. Third, some of the powers that they now have will enable them to do something significant in the areas that they represent. The potential is there to create jobs, build new public housing and improve transport and amenities. They already have some successes, for example, Greater Manchester is on the way to co-ordinating further education provision in the area and, like other metropolitan areas, has provided bus passes to young people. It is also seeking to take control of the area’s bus services. Birmingham is improving its transport, re-opening a suburban railway to provide better access to the city. This is a reminder that Tory-held metropolitan areas can also provide improvements to their residents and it should be a warning to Labour that an area like Teeside, centred around Middlesbrough could be led by a Conservative mayor. If Ben Houchen’s authority turns out to be a success, matters could go ill for Labour in Teeside in the future. Houchen has helped to revive the local airport, secured a Freeport for Teeside, which may be of questionable benefit, and has financially supported local businesses.
This journal has consistently argued against ‘household budget economics’ as a way of running a sovereign and independent country like the UK. Availability of resources and statutory powers, not availability of money is the central constraint. And there is scope for mobilising resources and improving the amenities of the metropolitan areas through a Labour government working with those areas. The 2019 Labour manifesto recognised the importance of restoring funding to local authorities but was vague about what it would do. If residents are not convinced that you have a practical plan for improving their lives then, no matter what money you promise them, they will not take you seriously. Now is the time to show exactly how Labour can bring jobs, homes and amenities to the metropolitan areas by putting in more money and removing barriers to authorities taking effective action in areas like environmental protection and enhancement, digital connection, transport, business development and housing. Without good transport, people will not be able to travel to work, training or study within a reasonable distance. Economic activity will not increase and businesses will not locate to an area with poor levels of transport, education, digital connection, security, housing and inadequate training. If Labour can develop economic activity and attract business to an area, putting money in people’s pockets, then an area will revive through a multiplier effect as the circulation of wages stimulates the growth of local businesses. The Welsh Labour Party understands this – why is it so difficult for the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Shadow Cabinet?
With the aid of the local labour parties, trade unions, universities, colleges and other civil society organisations and consulting with residents, Labour should be capable of developing proposals for each metropolitan area, showing in detail how they intend to work with metropolitan authorities to improve transport, housing, education and training, attract businesses, digital communication, improve amenities, including facilities for young people over a five year period. Such plans should have a timescale and cost attached to them for which a Labour government and labour-led metropolitan authorities would be accountable. If Labour in 2019 could be criticised for being far too vague about what they would do, there is currently a policy void. Labour seems afraid of its 2019 manifesto. The problem with this manifesto though was not its radicalism, it was that it was not accompanied by some detailed thinking about how peoples’ lives in their own areas could be improved and communicating that to their electorates. Unfortunately there is little sign that it has learned this lesson apart, from the work of some Labour metropolitan mayors and Welsh Labour. A limited start has been made by some of the metro authorities. North of Tyne for example, has plans for housing, developing the economy, including local supply chains, tourism and offshore infrastructure. It also prides itself on job creation.
Local Labour parties can only do so much on their own. They need the support of the national party, with a commitment to expand the resources and the powers of local government. They can then ask local labour and other organisations what is needed in their areas and can draw up local manifestos to show in detail how they are going to make a big difference to the quality of people’s lives. Failure to do that will lead to the steady erosion of what remains of Labour’s support among working people and their families. This erosion is already evident in the latest opinion polls, a sign that Labour needs to start thinking seriously about policies for those parts of the country that they still hope to represent in the future.
 Here is a good introduction to them: