The essay series ’England expects: The new English deal and the politics of positivity’ by Richard Carr and Dominic Rustecki is a really important contribution to the debate about why we need to transfer power down to communities. I hope you find them as thought-provoking and stimulating as I have.
I believe the case for devolution – a new English deal – is now overwhelming. Why ?
Because it’s change we must make if we are going to do something about the crisis of confidence in our politics and the alienation that flows from it. The global economic crash came as a great shock, living standards have fallen, parents think about pensions, housing or the environment and wonder whether the future for their children will be better than the life they have enjoyed, and many people feel that too many decisions are taken too far away from them.
Because for too long, we have fallen prey to consumerist politics; people demanding of government and then sitting back to wait for things to happen. The changes I want to see are based on the idea of contributory politics. It’s up to all of us to put something in because by taking responsibility we can take back power over our own lives. The only way we are going to rebuild confidence in the power of people working together to create something better – the thing we call politics – is to give people the power to do precisely that for themselves.
And because of the fiscal situation a Labour government will inherit. Public services are already being pushed to breaking point. Nowhere is this more apparent than in local government where it’s becoming harder for councils to keep services going, let alone cope with rising demand for social care, as they bear the brunt of the Coalition’s austerity. Councils are having their funding cut by over 40 per cent, and the poorest areas have been unfairly hit the hardest.
It is clear that our current system has reached the limit of its capacity to cope with less funding without radical change. David Cameron’s weakness in failing to take the decisions needed in Whitehall to push power and resources down has a huge cost. Labour’s determination to get the current budget into surplus and the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament demands a new approach. We will have to change the way in which public money is spent, using it to best effect by supporting local collaboration between public bodies, rather that perpetuating duplication and overlap. Public services need to be run and organised around people and places, and not Whitehall silos and departmental boundaries.
There is, of course, one other reason why this fundamental change is needed. While the last Labour government devolved to Wales and Scotland, England remained largely unreformed. This is unfinished business, and while there isn’t public appetite for another tier of elected politicians, there is a justified sense that too much power is hoarded in Whitehall. That’s why we need a shift from the centre to the local – communities, towns, cities and counties – which gives more power to people and to the elected politicians we already have. And in doing this, we can rediscover the proud roots of the Labour party and rekindle the tradition where people came together locally and did things for themselves.
We have reached a defining moment for our democracy and our politics, and a new English deal is all about a new relationship between the centre and the local. These essays will play an important part in building the momentum for change.
Hilary Benn is shadow secretary of state for communities and local government. The three part series ’England expects: The new English deal and the politics of positivity’ by Richard Carr and Dominic Rustecki is available to read on the Fabian Review online.