They were neither the worst of speeches nor the best of speeches. The two men who will stand against each other for the right to be Prime Minister after the next election each got the long campaign under way this week. We learnt little about whether we’re entering an age of wisdom, belief and light, or foolishness, incredulity and darkness. But did we learn a little more about what the plans of Rishi Sunak or Sir Keir Starmer will mean for local government?
After three months of facing up to each other at Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday, it felt this week like the phoney war was coming to end and electoral hostilities were taking shape. Sunak and Starmer both delivered speeches that to a greater or lesser extent set out their stalls for the next general election, whenever it may come.
While both men have their detractors and neither has the feverish support of their 2019 general election predecessors, for me the prospect of a choice between Sunak and Starmer is huge step forward from a choice between Johnson and Corbyn. If there was a sharp contrast between the two speeches, it was borne out of the fact that the two start from very different positions. Sunak is Prime Minister and therefore needs to spend the time between now and the next general election focusing on delivery and ensuring that things get noticeably better for voters before they go to the ballot box.
Starmer on the other hand has the freedom of opposition and no responsibility to deliver, so instead needs to set out a plan and demonstrate that he can be trusted by the electorate to make their lives better.
So, what did we hear and how would the two men’s differing plans and priorities effect councils and councillors? Sunak had a five point plan to halve inflation, grow the economy, cut the national debt and NHS waiting lists and stop small boats crossing the Channel. He added in the ‘silver bullet’ of education and vaguer commitments on high streets, innovation and support for families. It would be unrealistic to expect specific comments on local government in a speech that was pitching directly to the public so to read the runes for local government one has to do some reading between the lines.
The pledge on inflation matches the current expectation of the Office for Budget Responsibility. I suspect that Sunak has calculated that there is a fair chance of energy prices stabilising, global supply chains (including between the UK and the EU) improving and the value of the pound rising. If that triumvirate of improvements comes together then he would overdeliver on this pledge. As high inflation is proving the biggest challenge to council budgets at the moment this would be very beneficial to councils but it is very dependent on Sunak aligning those stars and no other sudden inflationary shocks hitting the economy.
Growing the economy would obviously be good for local authorities as it would boost revenues and reduce demand. But which mainstream politician has ever stood on a pledge to shrink the economy?
Cutting the national debt is similarly obvious. Much as I agree with Sunak that we need a medium-term plan to reduce the deficit, finance portfolio holders and Section 151 officers will view this with apprehension: We all know which element of public spending was first in line for cuts at the beginning of the 2010 deficit reduction programme.
Reducing NHS waiting lists and A&E waiting times has to be the top priority for the government. It can’t be done without the assistance of local government. Moving patients into care settings and out of hospital wards much more rapidly is a prerequisite to freeing up capacity in hospitals. If the Prime Minister wants to see this happen he’ll need to work with his Chancellor to create more capacity in social care, and that means more cash for the local authorities that oversee and deliver that care. Over recent days there have been some small moves in that direction but if there is going to be more cash it is likely to be in one-off payments rather than part of a longer-term settlement for care providing councils.
Whether the government can really get a grip on the seemingly ever growing numbers of boats crossing the channel remains to be seen. Electorally it needs to be done. Voters, particularly to the traditional right of the Conservative Party will not be forgiving if this isn’t tackled. The crisis is creating extra workloads for councils that have to find emergency accommodation for migrants and ensure that living conditions are appropriate. A reduction in this workload would surely be welcome for staff who need to free up time for other, equally pressing and important, matters.
The remaining commitments in his speech were again only loosely connected to the day-to-day work of local authorities. There is a genuine passion for improving education but the plan to extend compulsory maths to the age of eighteen dominated that element of the announcements and there was nothing to suggest that Sunak would seek a rebalancing of education responsibilities between councils and academy chains. Investment in high streets will require the ongoing involvement of councils but few council leaders would welcome a continuation of the current round of bidding into central government for funds to improve town centres. There is little hope that councils will be given the core funding powers to enable them to undertake meaningful regeneration work without having to go ‘cap in hand’ to the government.
Sunak’s speech was designed to get the new year going and offer some reassurance to a public that is increasingly concerned about inflation, the economy, health service waiting times and small boats crossing the Channel. It aimed to set the pitch for Sunak to be able to demonstrate that he delivers on his promises. For local government there was little to suggest that life would be any easier in 2023 than it was in 2022.
Sir Keir Starmer finds himself in a very different place to the Prime Minister. With Labour flying high in the opinion polls but no mechanism (yet) to enact any national policy his role is to keep those poll leads where they are, or least as close to that level as possible.
He played things relatively safe in his well delivered speech. Starmer and his shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves are going to great lengths to avoid making unfunded spending commitments so there was nothing on boosting funding for councils above what the sector is already expecting. The same rule applied when Starmer was pressed on pay deals for public sector workers and even the totemic issue of university tuition fees. Anyone looking for announcements of that sort from the Labour Party was left disappointed.
The ‘big’ part of Starmer’s speech from a local government point of view was the commitment to devolve powers to local areas. In one sense it is an obvious commitment to make when you’re an opposition leader looking to announce something that doesn’t come with a big price tag. As many local government leaders will be all too happy to tell you, meaningful devolution should save the taxpayer money rather cost more. But as well as this there was some substance behind the commitment and the ever so cheeky ‘Take Back Control’ bill that would be the Parliamentary delivery mechanism.
Over recent months former PM Gordon Brown has been working on a constitutional review that included recommendations to abolish the unelected House of Lords. Starmer’s announcement of a Take Back Control Bill that would devolve powers relating to employment support, transport, climate change, culture and childcare provision along with more financial flexibility for councils is a more electorate friendly iteration of Brown’s long report.
Hackneyed observers of local government will be forgiven for feeling like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, waking up to hear the same old song being played again. Pledging more powers and freedoms for local government is what opposition parties do. It’s done for a variety of reasons, not least that bashing the Westminster system is a good crowd pleaser and that when a Party is in opposition its senior councillors tend to have a greater influence over policy direction than when the Party is in government.
Should council leaders welcome the Labour Party and Gordon Brown’s conversion to cause of localism and more freedoms for councils? Of course, any commitment to real devolution from the leaders of the main political parties is exactly what local government should be pursuing. The devil will always be in the detail though. Starmer’s speech stopped short of committing to devolving significant funding, freedoms and responsibilities to councils. It is likely that many of the policy areas mentioned would be passed not to councils but to regional or sub regional bodies, including mayors. That’s not wholly different to what Michael Gove is currently delivering in some areas. The last time we had a Labour Government, unelected regional assemblies were created, and local government was bound up in micro-management from the centre through countless directives, targets and reporting frameworks. If this is what the Labour Party means by devolution then that won’t be welcomed by local government.
However, while we have heard it all before it would unfair to not give the Leader of the Opposition some benefit of the doubt. If he can flesh out the ideas, and demonstrate how those ideas will empower local communities through strengthened councils, he should be applauded. He hasn’t done so yet though.
In short there was little in either speech to give local leaders any concrete assurances that they would be given more help and freedoms from the centre to assist in their missions to support and empower local communities. Both party leaders must now prove themselves over the coming year. For Sunak that means lowering the inflationary pressures that are hitting councils and relieving the additional pressures coming in from a shrinking economy, growing NHS waiting lists and the small boats crisis in the Channel. For Starmer it means adding some meat to the bones of his devolutionary commitments and showing to councils that they will be supported and given new powers by a Labour Government.