I gave a speech today at the LGA conference in Harrogate outlining the challenges faced by local authorities, including housing, devolution, diversity, as well as highlighting the important work done by councillors across the country. The full text from the speech is below:
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Harriet Harman MP, Acting Leader of the Labour Party, in a speech at the LGA Annual Conference in Harrogate, said:
Thank you for inviting me here to speak today.
I would first like to pay tribute to Councillor David Sparks who has led Dudley Council with distinction for so many years, and who served as your Chair - all be it for too brief a time.
And can I congratulate his successor, Councillor Gary Porter - you take on the role of leading the LGA at a critical time for local government. And though we are not in the same party, I want to say clearly to you Gary, that we will work to back you up in your role of championing the cause of local government – and I hope you will see us as strong allies, standing up for local government in Westminster.
And I’m delighted that this session is being chaired by a great councillor and a good friend - Jim McMahon.
I’m here with Emma Reynolds, who having led for us on Housing is now Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
And Steve Reed, our Shadow Minister for Local Government – who will be known to many of you as the former leader of Lambeth Council, and who is in the tradition of some of the best council leaders who then bring that experience to Parliament.
This is an important conference.
And it’s great meeting here in the historic and beautiful spa town of Harrogate.
Some people come to Harrogate to relax, unwind, have a bit of pampering and feel good about themselves.
Others come to LGA Conference.
It won’t be restful, but it will be invigorating because we care about local government.
So I’m delighted to be here today. Though sorry I’m speaking to you today as the Opposition, rather than a Minister - but that’s democracy for you.
We wanted to be in government but that’s not the job we got. The job we did get is, nonetheless, very important, which is to be the Opposition, to scrutinise the government plans and to hold them to account.
And we will need to, as we embark on the next five years of opposition take a serious look within our own party at our own relationship between our party in parliament and in local government.
We can’t be behind where the people are. And while people want a coherent centre doing what it needs to do, they have no time for things being done centrally which should be done locally and for a top-down approach.
I think, in our party, we all feel that we can do it better both in terms of the devolution agenda, the financial framework for local government and the political partnership between the central and the local. And that means change in the policies but also in the processes and the politics.
Your role as local politicians is important
We meet here at a turbulent time for democratic politics
For too many people politics is a dirty word and politician is a term of abuse.
And we all, in our different ways, have to work to re-build and sustain confidence in our democratic politics.
And you – elected councillors and council leaders - are a crucial part of that.
At a time when people feel that politicians live on a different planet, you are local – you live in the Authority you represent.
You are out and about in your communities.
You are the politician that people are not only most likely to see, but also to know.
When you take up a problem on someone’s behalf, it can make a real difference to their lives.
As people see you responding to their individual concerns and complaints and involving yourself in improving your area and local services, you are building and sustaining trust in politics.
And whether it’s caring for the elderly, caring for the disabled, protecting vulnerable children and looking after children in care.
Or whether it’s schools, libraries, leisure centres, parks and children’s centres.
The work that Councils do is of huge importance and is greatly valued.
A challenging time to be a local councillor
In this difficult time for local government, by far the most pressing issue is the challenge of Council finances.
Undoubtedly this is a time of a general fall in public spending when tough choices need to be made. But the Government’s choices are having a disproportionate impact on local government.
You have already undergone many years of falling funding, cut by 40 per cent over the period of the last Parliament, disproportionately hitting more deprived areas.
On top of this, even without any further reductions in next week’s Budget or the Autumn Statement, you’re set to face further cuts of £3.3 billion in 2016/17.
The report you published last week shows this will leave councils facing a funding gap of £9.5 billion by the end of the decade.
I know it’s a great deal easier to say than to do – but it’s to your credit, on behalf of people in your areas, that you’ve risen to the challenge so far by looking afresh at what you do and how you do it.
Whether by pooling staff and sharing services as Bolsover and North East Derbyshire councils have done.
Or Blackburn and Darwen council saving £2.2 million in just one year by using pioneering TeleCare technology
Or in Lewisham, Lambeth and Southwark where they developed community budgets that work across borough boundaries to support people into work and improve local skills with less.
Or Wigan council changing its entire approach to prevention of ill health to reduce costs in the health budget
These examples are Labour councils but I know you have been doing this across the board.
But local government financing is at a tipping point.
And these further cuts come at a time when there is a need for you to be doing more.
Whether it’s safeguarding children at risk from neglect, violence or sexual abuse.
Whether it’s looking after children in your care.
Whether it’s supporting disabled people.
Or whether it’s caring for the elderly.
On elderly care, three things are together creating a perfect storm.
Our population is aging.
There is growing concern about quality of care.
And there is less money for it.
Council services are vital for helping keep older people healthy in their own homes and out of hospital – whether it’s a grab rail at home, some home cooked meals or a day centre.
And we’ve seen Councils pioneering work on this agenda from Councils from Derbyshire to Torbay.
This is not only important for the people who get the care - without these services there would be even greater pressure on the already over-stretched NHS.
And there are big issues at the other end of the life cycle as well.
Not only with public concern about safeguarding the most vulnerable children, but public demand for childcare provision.
Last week’s report by the Family and Childcare Trust, showed that in one quarter of Local Authorities there is a shortage of places for three and four year olds.
In one third of Local Authorities a shortage of places for two year olds.
And in a third of Local Authorities there is a shortage of after school care and holiday play schemes.
Early Years provision is so important for children to get a good start in life and for parents to be able to work.
And there is a demand for more, but central government cut backs have already constrained the vital work of Children’s Centres.
When there’s less money, the growing demand for statutory services puts even greater pressure on the other important things that Councils do, and that people want you to do.
Like supporting arts and culture, parks, libraries, leisure centres.
This work shapes communities and gives a sense of neighbourhood identity – that people really value.
There’s no chance of the Big Society if locally, services that build communities are undermined.
All of this is having the greatest impact on the communities you serve that have the greatest needs.
There just is a sense of unfairness that over the last five years, the ten most deprived areas had their spending power cut by twelve times the amount of the ten least deprived areas.
And the workforce delivering services have already faced a squeeze – both in numbers and in their pay.
Many of them low paid and relying on tax credits – which are set to be cut.
We all know that the public finances need to be brought back into balance.
But this shouldn’t be done in such a way that compromises the basic viability of vital council services.
You cannot empower local government if you choose to impoverish it.
But empowering local government is exactly what needs to be done.
This must be the devolution era.
We know that devolution is key to driving economic growth throughout the country, raising productivity and crucially in re-balancing our economy.
Devolving will help us reform our public services and ensure they better meet local needs by giving places the freedom to innovate and tailor services to meet the specific needs of the communities they serve
It’s good for our politics - re-engaging people at the local level.
o The devolution to Scotland, Wales and London – which we initiated - has energised the whole devolution agenda more widely – and rightly so.
o Against a background of mistrust in politics, people want decisions taken closer to them, by people who they think know what’s going on.
o And against a backdrop of the financial squeeze, working together across services, within and across local areas, is not just a luxury, but an imperative.
You’ve shown what can be done when local government gets more freedom to innovate and redesign services to meet the needs of their communities.
When it comes to devolution, it’s not enough to talk about it. It’s got to be done and it’s got to be done everywhere.
It’s got to be in our County Regions, our towns and suburbs, as well as our great cities.
o It’s got to be coherent, not piecemeal. No area must be left behind.
o And Government must walk the walk on devolution, actually handing power over. Not just saying they are.
And not dictating how it should be done.
It’s a contradiction in terms to do devolution from the top down.
I think it’s wrong for central government to say you can have devolution, but only if you accept the Mayoral structure which we’re dictating.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is going through Parliament.
We want greater devolution in housing, adult skills, transport, back to work schemes and business support. Money as well as powers.
And I pledge that we will work with you to ensure that your perspective is reflected in that legislation.
There is widespread agreement that the country is facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation.
We are building fewer than half the number of homes we need.
People want to be able to own their own home.
But the percentage of people who own their own homes is going down.
And the age at which people get to buy their own homes has gone up to 33.
Which means more and more people continuing to live at home with their parents.
The Government are not doing enough to get new homes built.
We want people to be able to buy their own homes.
We want to see as many people as possible fulfilling that aspiration.
But the Government’s proposals on extending the Right to Buy to Housing Associations, risk making the housing crisis worse.
They plan to force Housing Associations, which are independent organisations, to sell homes to their tenants with a discount, to be paid for by Councils selling off their most valuable council homes.
Their promise that every home sold would be replaced is not worth the paper it’s written on bearing in mind that though they made that promise for council house sales, for every ten sold only one was built.
And forcing Councils to sell their high value properties would strip you of the ability to manage your own housing stock and lead to some quite bizarre outcomes like Councils being forced to sell off new properties before even the first tenant has gone in.
So far the Government have been wholly unconvincing in whether this scheme can be made to work at all.
We’ll see what the government brings forward but any housing policy must ease rather than deepen the housing crisis.
And when it comes to legislation, we are determined to ensure that the EU referendum doesn’t happen on the same day as any of the elections for local government.
Either in 2016, or 2017.
As well as being elected yourselves, you are the gatekeepers of our democracy.
The framework is set in Westminster. But you appoint the people responsible for running the electoral registration system.
Over the years, the system has developed a number of major flaws and the latest changes that the Government has introduced is set to make the problem worse.
The Electoral Commission estimate that already up to 7.5 million people are not on the electoral register.
But the people who are not registered are not evenly spread throughout the population.
If you are over 60, white, own your own home and live in a non-metropolitan area, you will be on the electoral register.
But if you are young, black and live in an inner city you are very likely not to be on the register.
This is discriminatory in the people who don’t get a right to vote.
It’s supposed to be that everyone has an equal right to vote.
But they don’t if there isn’t equality in the electoral register.
And it also undermines our democracy because it’s on the basis of the electoral registers as they will be at the end of this year, that the new parliamentary constituency boundaries will be based.
So I hope you will, in amongst all the other pressing demands on you, address this fundamental problem by continuing crucial work to ensure that everyone who should be, is on the register.
We all know that part of the work of building trust in politics is making sure that people can see in politics a representative cross-section of society.
That means women as well as men, people from our diverse ethnic communities, people from all walks of life and all ages.
It’s great that at this conference there are councillors here in their 20s right up to councillors in their 70s.
This is not just about people seeing politicians who understand their lives.
It’s also about better decision making - bringing in vital first-hand understanding of the diversity of people’s different lives.
It avoids narrow group think – a balanced and diverse, genuinely representative team, makes better decisions.
Can I conclude by reaffirming that you can count on us to hold the Government to account and be a challenging Opposition.
But there has got to be some challenge from within the Government too.
I’m sure you will all be glad you have a new Secretary of State.
You will all have seen his work on the City Deals and you will be hearing from him later today.
He has a very important job in the Cabinet.
Unless he makes the case for, and stands up for Local Government, then Local Government will struggle and will not be able to achieve its future potential.
For all that means for the economy, as well as local communities.
And the people you represent will suffer.
Speaking as someone who has done 30 years of political service in Westminster, some of the politicians I most admire from around the country are people who have done decades of political service in local government.
Thank you for what you do.