My reflections of the Labour Party’s Local Government Association Conference 2016

It’s only the second ever time I’ve been to an LGA event and like the first time, I came away feeling part of a much larger local government family and in particular part of a much larger Labour family.

It’s hard sometimes, stuck in Northamptonshire, to keep up with how councils work elsewhere and be aware of some of the things they do. So it was great to hear from leaders and cabinet members of Labour-led authorities about some of the genuinely imaginative and innovative things they are doing to deal with the cuts, but also to still provide good, if not enhanced public services to their residents.

Only used to Tory leadership, it was like a breath of fresh air to hear from exciting and passionate council leaders who are leading by example and showing councils can be run with people at the heart of their decision making, and not just a balance sheet. But that’s not to say that finance doesn’t matter! For me the main thing I took away from the conference was the determination of Labour Councillors to put forward credible financial solutions to the funding crisis we are all facing. That started with an announcement from Tom Watson, the deputy leader that Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow cabinet were adamant there should be no councils trying to set illegal budgets in response the government cuts, a fairly obvious statement and if anything this was greeted by delegates by surprise that they even felt the need to state it.

Finance

Leading on from that nicely, the first discussion we had was on local government finance and led by the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury along with the leader of Stevenage Council. They spoke about the cross-party agreement within the LGA about the concerns of government cuts and even though Tory council leaders were currently being ignored by their parliamentary colleagues, there was implied speculation about how much longer this could go on for although the inequality of the cuts it was also pointed out, with cuts to some of the poorest areas being 18 times worse than some of the wealthiest.

There was a general feeling that short-term cuts equated to long term costs with the cuts in building flood defences and the recent disasters in the north-west being a prime example of this and the phrase false economy was used time and time again which particularly resonated with me because I’ve heard that phrase used a lot lately by councillors on all sides when discussing the County’s budget proposals.

As you know the government have been reducing the Revenue Support Grant they give to councils year-on-year and intent to totally scarp it in a couple of years time with councils set to get the lions’ share of their income from business rates (the biggest chunk of which currently goers directly to central government). Concern was raised, which I totally agree with, of the plans for this being muddled an not yet being clear and of the danger of the tariff and top-up system not being fair (this is the system that would need to be in place for wealthy areas with lots of business and therefore business rates income, paying a tariff to subsidise other areas where there isn’t enough business to cover public services). There is also a huge issue with the system for appeals by businesses against the rates they pay because the current system leaves councils in an unpredictable position and having difficulties therefore to plan for the future. The appeals process needs to be fairer and quicker. These future plans already leave a budget shortfall in 2017/18 of £1.2bn but ignoring that problem, councils are in crisis now and in particular in the area of Adult Social Care and it was stressed again and again that in this are and in areas of safeguarding, if adequate services aren’t there, people will die! (more on care issues later).

Housing

Housing finance was discussed which particularly interests me as I’m desperately trying to come up with a finance proposal to put to Kettering Borough Council that would allow us to build more council houses. The government’s policy over council house rents over the next 4 years has created all sorts of problems for those councils, like Kettering, that still have their own housing stock and Stevenage announced that his had taken £220m out of their 30-year housing business plan and effectively stopped dead their plans to build council houses. In Kettering, we are smaller but the effect is still a £65m reduction and has also stopped us building any homes. We can’t even afford to replace the ones we lose each year under the Right to Buy Scheme. The leader of Croydon council later said the Tories “had declared war on social housing” and reported they had had £450m taken out of their plan by this move, and remember this isn’t money that would have come from central government, or from the local council tax payer, it was local money that could have and would have been reinvested in housing stock in either repairs or improvements or building new stock.

I was massively impressed by John Healy MP the Shadow Housing Secretary who was extremely knowledgeable about his subject. He announced that by losing the election the Labour party had failed us Labour Councillors, but also failed millions of people up and down the county who replied ion Labour to give them support, and he went on to give examples of why that was. Recently for example the Tories had voted against a perfectly reasonable idea that all rented accommodation, both public and private, should be fit for human habitation.

By 2020 we could build 100,000 council and housing association homes, by simply putting the original capital expenditure programme back to where it was. The original Labour plan for this would have been paid for in only 26 years and thereafter there would have been a surplus going back into housing budgets (with my finance head on I would have to say that seems a great plan, normally that sort of capital expenditure won’t see a return for sometimes as long a s 50 years or longer).

John called the lack of social or affordable housing is “a national disgrace”, but a very good point was made by a speaker from Liverpool (whose Council had been doing some very imaginative things in this area), that there was not a national housing crisis, there were lots of different housing crises all over the country because housing markets were different around the country, and therefore the solutions would need to be different and the successful things Liverpool Council had done might not work elsewhere.

One council spoke about the local authority mortgage scheme they used to run with Lloyds bank to help local first time buyers, but the bank had pulled out of that scheme because they could make more profit under the governments starter homes scheme, but another council leader from the south of England announced that in his area you needed a household income of at least £77,000 to be able to qualify for that.

For me the two main things that need to change that came out of the discussion were for councils to be able to keep all the money they receive under the Right to Buy scheme, and for capital borrowing limits to be removed for housing providing a viable business case was put forward, and apparently even Conservative members of the LGA agree with that one.

It was confirmed later by Jeremy Corbyn that Labour will oppose the extension of RTB to housing associations which many people may know has plunged the industry into chaos and has led to a sharp rise in rents with some associations talking about deregistering as social landlords and simply becoming commercial developers, thereby moving away from the very ethos that caused them to set up in the first place.

Adult Social Care & Public Health

We heard from shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander and others about the pressures on all councils that provide social care services (for us in Northamptonshire that’s the County Council) and explained the general [cross-party] view from councils, that the government’s policies have “pushed social care to the brink”. The Chancellors response to this announced in the recent Autumn Statement was the 2% adult Social care precept about to be levied on council tax bills and it was explained this is “woefully inadequate”, a view I totally agree with and recently wrote a piece for Kettering Labour’s website on this subject explaining it was a complete con. Even if every council who could levy this charge did, it would still leave a£3.5bn funding gap and everyone knows that the warnings from the providers of these services, from nursing homes to those offering care visits and support, is that the whole industry is on the verge of collapse and the private care industry which the sector relies on is completely destabilised.

The point was well made a couple of times during the day about this being hidden from the public because most people don’t come into contact with these services unless they are unfortunate to because frail and elderly or perhaps have a relative who needs help, and I’ve seen time and time again the expectations people have about the service they think they will receive being much, much higher than the reality, and also not understanding the financial burden they or their relatives will have to take on if they are unlucky enough to need social care.

There is a desperate need for dementia services in the country (and that is very true in Northamptonshire with its ageing population) and we were given the staggering figure that 1 in 4 hospital beds are taken up by people with dementia and reminded once again of the problems hospitals have in discharging people into adequate social care with the cost of delayed discharges being £900m p.a. and a recent survey of NHS leaders highlights this with 99% of them saying that government led cuts to Adult Social Care budgets has pushed additional costs on to the NHS which is massively important as hospitals will be £2bn in deficit this year.

I was busy scribbling notes when I think it was quoted from a recent report that every £1 spent by councils on Adult Social Care saves the NHS £70 in acute services. I say I think that’s what they said, because it’s just such an amazing figure I couldn’t really believe it, I’ll be checking with our Adult Social Care spokesperson on the County Council because she will have undoubtedly seen this report.

However, there was good news as well with schemes reported from Labour authorities that enabled some of the cuts to be managed by new ways of working, for example using technology to support people to continue to live at home, with one authority reporting a 5% reduction in hospital admissions. Another scheme I was particular interest in from Lambeth was ‘South London Cares’ where 20/30 year olds were encouraged to befriend elderly people in their own homes and as seen a massive improvement in people’s lives and therefore a reduction in the need for expensive social care.

There was however concern that the community and voluntary sector was being used more and more as a direct replacement for public services, and while within the Labour party we have very strong links with the third sector (most party members I know myself included, seem to be on the boards of charities and voluntary organisations) and recognise they do offer very good value for money relying on them for statutory responsibilities was a dangerous strategy.

On the NHS side, the shadow health secretary called it “an absolute disgrace” that we weren’t training our own nurses and therefore having to recruit from overseas. When the Tories first came into government they cut the training budget for 8,000 nurses and this is another example of a short term cut with longer term consequences.

Devolution

As you might imagine there was a lot of talk about plans for devolution when powers currently held centrally will be passed down to local regions and councils. Needless to say there was a lot of support for this because even though the Conservatives have tried to claim these policies as their own, the whole devolution argument has always come from Labour with many Labour led councils paving the way. For example the Northern Powerhouse that George Osborne is so fond of speaking about came from discussions between various Labour Councils in the region and there was some annoyance expressed that listening to Osborne you would think that he himself had come up with the idea.

There is a strong belief within Labour that devolution should be used to benefit local people and support issues of social justice but concern raised that members of the general public do not understand government’s pronouncements on this . Others spoke about concerns that it won’t work if it isn’t done properly with a very good point made by one of the speakers that “if you are just devolving inadequate budgets, you are just devolving the blame”. To a certain extent this isn’t quite so important for us in Northamptonshire as other areas that are already going ahead full-steam with bids to government. Although locally there is quite rightly a lot of discussion going on with local councils in our area about collaborative working and not only the savings that this could gain, but the benefits to people. Al l of this however has been scuppered locally by the County Council’s big brother approach which has put the back-up of all the local district and borough councils and it was quite amusing for me recently listening to all the Tory leaders of the districts line up to ridicule the approach Jim Harker (Tory leader of the County Council) had taken to try to impose on them a formal combined authority working arrangement and came up with a ‘finger-in-the-air’ figure of a £4m saving for next year’s county budget. That proposal, and that saving has since quietly disappeared given the hostile response it provoked. But while we may have local difficulties in Northamptonshire, other Labour Councils across the country are embracing the opportunities devolution can bring for their residents.

Innovation in Local Government

There were lots of examples about councils ‘thinking-out-of the box’ and the point was well made that because of cuts to the back-office to protect front line services, councillors were having to come up with far more imaginative ideas but this seemed to sit nicely with Labour councillors more than some others because our party has much longer traditions of thinking radically and coming up with examples of new ways of working. One council leader spoke of his pride in walking past a plague every day from 1931 commemoration the first ever council housing for the elderly.

More up to date examples were given with the leader of Greater Manchester telling us of the work his council along with others in the region, had done to take over the local rail franchises which they hoped, in a couple of years time mean that this public transport will be run by the public sector on behalf of the public. Other councils spoke of revenue generating schemes and using capital investment to bring about long-term revenue sachems into councils. This is something I have long been an advocate of and had my previous proposals in this area been taken up by the County Council, they wouldn’t be in the financial mess they find themselves in now. Interesting Kettering Council are planning to do exactly this, with the leader acknowledging that he first got the idea from me when listening to my speeches on the matter at the County. One council have a very interesting plan to extend their local shopping centre which of course will not only be a boost to their retail centre and local economy but also not only pay for itself but bring in cash for other services. Another spoke about investing in the private housing market, not to offer social housing, but purely to create revenue which they could then spend on the other vital services they needed.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Speech

The strap line to the speech was ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’ and this was the second time I’m heard Jeremy speak and must admit to being impressed on both times by the straightforward way he spoke and the sensible things he spoke about. I’m sure had there been a Daily Mail journalist in the audience they would have heard a totally different speech to me, but there wasn’t a single word he spoke that I could have disagreed with.

He spoke about the imaginative way Labour councils were working had to protect their residents in things like setting up energy companies to bring in money and offer lower bills to their residents (I think Corby are doing this). He also spoke about the housing issues and about how Labour Councils were making a difference to people’s lives and that as councillors we should always stand up for public services and their accountability to the local people (very apt in Northamptonshire). He wants councils to have far more flexibility to do what they think is best for their local people and would allow them to borrow to invest in the sort of revenue creation schemes I mentioned above, because he rightly sees councils as the public entrepreneurs of the twenty-first century. He mentioned councils setting up co-operatives to deliver their services rather than outsourcing to private sector organisations and is a strong believer in direct public provision of services giving a better deal to local people than private companies and as we were in Nottingham, gave the example of Nottingham who have always had an excellent municipal bus service compared with Davis Cameron’s Oxfordshire where 118 bus routes are about to be cut.

On wider economic points he spoke about the long-term economic plans of the Tories having already failed and recognised it was because of this failure that not only has the national debt risen to unprecedented levels but this was why more and more cuts were being pushed onto local codicils.

Conclusion

I came back from the conference very pleased that I had attended. It can sometimes get a bit soul destroying being a local councillor. You sort of get used to the cynicism and contempt of some people and its hard sometimes to see out of the insular local way of doing things, and in Tory Northamptonshire where we get to listen to cabinet members pontificate on how they are always right and there is no other option than doing the things they propose (even though sometimes they don’t seem to know what they are planning themselves), it was great to meet intelligent and passionate people that are shrugging of all that negativity and simply getting on with the job.

I’ve often thought that the big difference between Labour and Conservative councillors isn’t their ability or capabilities (although clearly it sometimes is), it’s their motivation. Some Councillors seem to want to do the job simply for the status (I would question whether there is any but that’s another discussion), while some come at it because they genuinely think they have a natural ability or some sort of given right to lead, while the Labour Councillors I met and heard from at the conference all had exactly the same motivation. They were absolutely committed to their local communities and wanted to change things to help their residents. As Jeremy Corbyn rightly said in his speech “Labour is at the heart of every community”.

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