Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Labour Party, said today in a speech to the Local Government Association annual conference:
Thank you for inviting me to address your conference here in Birmingham today.
I want to thank all of you – councillors and officials, people of all political parties and none – for the work you do on behalf of your local communities.
I see the work of my own local councillors.
So much of it unrecognised.
Men and women, young and old, who know their neighbourhoods.
Who make that extra call on behalf of the family who desperately need a home.
Who make it possible for young people to have somewhere to go and something to do.
Who back the community group who need new changing rooms at the sports ground.
At a time when politics gets a bad name, let me thank every councillor in this country for your work.
And I want to pay particular tribute to one person, not from my party.
For the work she has done and her willingness to speak truth to power, the outgoing chair of the LGA, Margaret Eaton.
Margaret, we all thank you.
Your job in local government has never been more demanding than today.
Because you are the ones in the frontline.
Today I want to talk to you about my priorities for our country and how we can achieve them together.
I see three big challenges, and in each local government has a vital role to play.
The first is to honour what I call the “Promise of Britain” –that each generation should have the opportunity to do better than the last.
That promise is in doubt for the first time in living memory.
You hear it in your communities:
Can my son or daughter get a job?
Can they even afford to get the qualifications they need?
How can they buy or rent a house?
We can only honour the Promise of Britain with strong local government delivering the Sure Start centres, the good schools, and the affordable housing.
The second challenge must be to address the crisis of living standards facing so many people in this country.
Struggling to make ends meet.
The plight of the squeezed middle is holding our economy back.
That’s why Ed Balls and I have called for a temporary cut in VAT to secure stronger economic growth and create jobs.
And it’s why central and local government must ensure all tax payers get value for money.
But the squeeze on families is not just financial.
People are finding themselves squeezed between the demands of looking after their kids, and caring for their aging Mum or Dad.
Again local authorities are on the front line.
From nursery places to meals on wheels.
The third challenge is how we help people build a life beyond the bottom line.
Strong communities are not built by market forces or Whitehall targets.
They are built by people working together at local level.
But this is a world changing so fast that people ask, who will be there to protect the things we value?
Local government should be empowered to be that champion, so you can shape and improve your communities.
How we address these three challenges is my test for our generation of politicians.
If we pass on to our children diminished life prospects, stagnating living standards, and weakened communities, then we do risk national decline.
But if we pull together as a country, as we have done so often in the past, I believe we can meet the challenges head on and emerge stronger as a result.
Of course there are difficult decisions to be made, including on public spending.
But we should set our deficit reduction plans in a way that supports our vision for the kind of country we want to be.
Unfortunately, I do not believe the Government has chosen that course.
That is why they have failed to build a national consensus for their plans.
Nothing symbolises that more clearly than the strike action by hundreds of thousands of public sector workers taking place today.
I understand the anger of workers who feel they are being singled out by a reckless and provocative government.
But I believe this action is wrong.
Negotiations are ongoing.
So it is a mistake to go on strike because of the effect on the people who rely upon these services.
And it is mistake because it will not help to win the argument.
The Labour Party I lead will always be the party of the Mums and Dads who know the value of a day’s education.
But as I have also said, strikes are a sign of failure on both sides.
This disruption could have been avoided if ministers had been willing to engage with the concerns of those affected by changes to public sector pensions.
The Government’s handling of the issue has been high-handed and arrogant.
And as the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, showed this morning, ignorant of the facts as well.
As you know when we were in government, we made significant changes to public sector pension schemes.
We did so without strike action.
With an ageing population, there is a need for change.
But the Government has gone about making that change happen in exactly the wrong way.
Announcing a 3% surcharge on public sector workers before John Hutton had even published his report setting out sensible starting points for reform.
Then announcing their final position, when negotiations were still going on.
My message to both sides is this:
What the British people want and expect is that you now get back to the negotiating table and redouble your efforts to find an agreed solution.
Put aside the rhetoric, and avoid any further disruption to parents and the public.
Unfortunately we see the same high-handedness, the same unwillingness to work for a national consensus in the Government’s approach to local authorities.
No government has been immune from taking high handed decisions when it comes to local government.
But I cannot be alone in being appalled by both the substance and style of this Government’s approach.
The way you have been singled out for disproportionate cuts.
The front-loading of those cuts, making it nearly impossible for local leaders to sensibly plan ahead.
The unfairness so that poorer communities will be hit hardest.
On top of that, the breathtaking arrogance.
The decisions you are making will profoundly affect the lives of millions.
So people deserve a grown up politics.
You deserve a grown up politics.
You know that you need to bear down on the costs of consultants and senior pay.
But it’s not grown up politics for the government to pretend that this will deliver 28% savings.
You know that it’s important to save money on back office functions. That’s what many of you have been doing.
But it’s not grown up politics for the government to pretend that the 9% that is spent on the back office can deliver all the savings.
You know that we should be protecting frontline services.
But it’s not grown up politics to blame you for the cuts being imposed too far too fast by central government.
It’s not grown up. It’s grotesque.
They singled out one council, and claimed that the council were making people redundant as a political gesture.
What a disgraceful slur.
But let’s be honest, it could have been any of you if it had suited them.
It’s the politics of arrogance and smear.
None of us, from whatever party we come, should have any truck with it.
It’s an insult to you, the people you represent, and to your communities.
Let’s say today from Birmingham, end the insults, end the smears, it must stop.
And the Big Society idea that volunteers will simply fill the void left by these cuts is being exposed as a fantasy.
Those of you who have devoted your lives to local government know that civic improvement needs more than goodwill.
They talk about volunteering.
But the Government’s plans have turned into the biggest attack on the voluntary sector in living memory.
The same applies to the Government’s much heralded commitment to localism.
It has ended up devolving responsibility for the cuts and little else.
A reduction in the number of top down targets is something I support.
But has the Government really given power away to local authorities and communities?
If anything we are seeing the opposite.
The Secretary of State for Local Government is creating a hundred and forty two new powers for himself in the Localism Bill.
It’s the same in education - 50 new powers for Michael Gove, including the right to micro-manage individual teachers.
And by attempting to cut local government out of education we know what their goal is.
To manage Britain’s 20,000 schools from Whitehall.
So much for localism.
This Government has used the language of localism, simply to centralise power while devolving blame.
We can do better than this.
What you know is that many councils across the country have improved year on year on year.
And more and more it is to innovative Local Authorities that people turn for inspiration.
So now is exactly the wrong time to return to the distrust, and disempowerment of the past.
How do we get it right in the future?
Let me set out the key arguments that underpin our thinking, and the work Caroline Flint is leading in our policy review.
First, we need a genuine partnership between central and local government.
One based on mutual respect.
Above all, getting away from the idea that it’s clever to shift blame to local government while hoarding power.
When government makes tough decisions at the centre, it should be candid about them.
The government at Westminster does need to set national priorities.
The answer won’t always be local discretion.
But in my experience if central government sets priorities, then from Sure Start to safer neighbourhood teams, we can work together with great success.
And central government should recognise there are things you can do that it can never do and should never do.
Co-ordinate the work of your local schools.
Give voice to local health priorities.
And shape the character of the local community on behalf of your citizens.
Second, we need to devolve real powers to the local level, including city regions.
Let me say it plainly: Britain is still far too centralised as a country.
We should ask ourselves why it is that many European cities and regions seem to find it easier to develop dynamic economic futures and generate jobs.
What is it that constrains some of our own cities from achieving this?
One vital factor is leadership with real powers over issues which matter to local people – transport, economic development and policing.
Different people have different views about the Mayoral system.
But I do believe done right, especially in major cities, it can make a positive difference.
It is right to give people that choice.
Because, in the end, it is for local people to make the decision.
And it is right to say that local leaders, with clear accountability, should be given real powers to drive economic growth and create jobs.
That is why Caroline Flint and I welcome the ideas coming forward from the leaders of our big cities to learn the lessons from London of devolving housing, transport and wider powers over economic development.
Let’s devolve real power to our cities, and towns across England.
Thirdly, strong local leadership should have a wider role in championing your communities far beyond the important role of service provider.
We want to build on the idea of Total Place, which gave you that voice around all local services.
And you need to have the power to stand up for local people whenever the things they value most are under threat.
The high streets colonised by betting shops.
Inappropriate adverts that spring up on billboards close to our schools.
Local councils should be there in the first line of defence against bureaucratic or corporate interests.
It is why we proposed an amendment to the Localism Bill giving local councils power to shape the character of their high streets in line with the wishes of people.
The Government rejected our proposal, but it is something to which I am determined a future Labour government will return.
Fourthly, the partnership between Town Halls and local communities must continue to evolve.
Some of you have been leading the way in rethinking this partnership locally for many years.
In Durham, area action partnerships have devolved millions of pounds, successfully engaging and involving thousands of local people in deciding how money is spent.
Later this year, Lambeth and others will be launching the Co-op councils’ network– looking to different solutions for providing frontline services.
The real test of experiments like this should be the contribution they make to building stronger communities and delivering services that are more responsive to local needs.