Does the Labour party really have a plan for devolution to England’s cities?

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at conference. Image: Getty.

With conference season behind us, the chief executive of the Centre for Cities surveys the political landscape around devolution policy. First up: Labour.

This year’s Labour Party conference will be largely remembered primarily for the leadership’s successful bid to empower its membership – through the successful ‘McDonnell amendment’ (which means future leadership contestants can be nominated with the support of just 10 per cent of party MPs), and through the decision to give members a bigger platform in the conference itself.

It is ironic, however, that in these efforts to give a greater voice to grass-roots members and people outside the Westminster bubble, the party has side-lined its two most visible and important representatives outside London: Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the metro mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool city region respectively. Indeed, Sadiq Khan, who as mayor of London is the most powerful labour politician in England and has the biggest personal mandate in British politics, was only granted an opportunity to address the conference last-minute, having campaigned for a slot for weeks.

This seems particularly odd given the rhetoric from the Labour leadership and shadow cabinet this conference season about its plans for devolution. For example, Jeremy Corbyn used a fringe event to reiterate his vision of spreading ‘municipal socialism’ across Britain, and vowed to end what he described as the government’s ‘piecemeal devolution’ by empowering local government. This echoed comments by Andrew Gwynne, the shadow communities secretary, who promised that in power Labour would oversee a “local government renaissance”, rowing back austerity and devolving more powers to places than the current government.

In truth however, this year’s conference – and the decision to snub the mayors in particular – highlighted the ambivalence of the Labour leadership when it comes to devolution, and the growing sense of a divide between the national party and local leadership.

For a start, beyond the rhetoric about going further than the Conservatives in handing down powers from the top, there was nothing at this year’s conference to suggest that the party has an ambitious plan or well-developed polices on how it would do that. Indeed, at the Centre for Cities fringe event on the future of urban leadership, Steve Rotheram admitted that the party’s policy on devolution is unclear, while Andy Burnham described it as “half-hearted”.

Moreover, all the key polices set out by Labour in this conference season, and in its general election manifesto earlier this year, reflect a top-down centralised approach to policy-making – from the proposal to abolish PFI contrasts, to plans to nationalise the railways and introduce national education and care services. Rather than offering a vision of empowering a local government renaissance, these policies suggest that a Corbyn government would primarily view local government as a platform to deliver its big national policy priorities.

This would be a mistake. While the national leadership has been emboldened by its showing in the last general election, it nonetheless has significant ground to make up if it is to have a chance of taking power at the national level. Indeed, while in the last election Labour consolidated its support in big cities across the North and Midlands, it also lost ground in some of its traditional strongholds – conceding the Stoke South seat to the Conservatives (having held it for 80 years), and also losing former safe seats of Mansfield and Middlesbrough South.


As such, Labour cannot afford to be complacent about its support across the North and Midlands. One obvious way to shore up that support – and to win back votes in these places – is to shout loudly about what the party can do for people and places when it has power, which is why Labour should be making the most of its mayors and local government leaders. Indeed, in cities across the UK (and towns, counties and districts), Labour is already in government. Collectively, Labour mayors and councillors represent around 31m people across England and Wales.

The metro mayors are the most visible manifestation of this, and less than five months into office are already having a big impact on the national and local political stage. This has been most evident in the campaign for more investment in Northern transport links spearheaded by Burnham and Rotheram in recent months. Without the intervention of the mayors, it’s hard to imagine this issue – which seems unlikely to fade anytime soon – having gained such national prominence.

Furthermore, if Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has in part been characterised by his promise of offering a “new way of doing politics”, this is exactly what the metro mayors offer – bringing decision-making away from Whitehall and much closer to the communities they represent. Similarly, if the vote for Brexit was characterised by the desire to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, the mayors are enabling people in places like Greater Manchester to take back control over issues such as housing, transport and education.

The Labour leadership should support this by countering the traditional ‘Whitehall knows best’ attitude which dominates British politics, and which represents a formidable obstacle to the mayors having an impact in their city regions. However, replacing one centralising government with another, even if it was a Labour government, would do nothing to readdress this problem.

In the coming years, we can expect the profile of the mayoralities to grow, and the impact they are having in their city regions to become more visible. Labour’s national leadership is missing a trick by failing to get squarely behind them.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article previously appeared.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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