What do the Conservatives have in store for local government?
Like previous governing parties the Conservatives have kept their cards close to their chest in regards to the policies on which they will fight the forthcoming general election. It is difficult for governing parties to distinguish between the business of governing and the development of future party policy. Flying political kites while in office is thwart with difficulties. We are told that the key themes for their manifesto are: public finances, jobs, tax levels, home ownership, education and retirement. And if normal conventions are followed then we can expect it to be published immediately after Parliament is dissolved next Monday. But given it is a longer campaign this time around, they may leave it to the following week.
Last week’s Budget confirmed the Conservatives are committing to securing an overall budget surplus by 2019-2020 without raising taxes but involving a £30 billion in cut in welfare and public services and a crackdown on tax avoidance; offering the prospect of austerity ending early, in 2018-19. While protecting the budgets for health and schools, most likely international aid and potentially defence – all putting considerable pressure on un-protected budgets like local government. But while we ponder where all these cuts will come from, it is worth reflecting that according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies the last five general elections have all been followed by net tax rises of more than £5 billion per year in today’s terms, regardless of what might have been promised on the election hustings at the time.
Turning to education David Cameron has warned that those schools which ‘require improvement’, and cannot demonstrate a capacity to improve, will be converted into an academy; while creating 500 new free schools and extending the powers of the eight Regional Schools Commissioners to oversee local authority maintained schools. But will Cameron be able to totally ignore the calls from his backbenches to support the expansion of the grammar schools sector – either through new grammars or expanding existing schools?
Unlike the other political parties, the Conservatives have so far stopped short of putting a figure on the homes they will deliver. But point out that they expect to reach the 200,000 homes per year milestone in 2017, three years ahead of Labour’s own target. They have pledged to build 200,000 discounted starter homes for young first time buyers, extend the ‘Help-to-Buy’ equity loan scheme to 2020 and introduce a new ‘Help-to-Buy’ ISA enabling first time buyers to save for a house deposit which attracts a government top-up. While all the press speculation is that Ian Duncan-Smith has won the argument to extend the ‘Right to Buy’ to housing association tenants.
The Conservatives say they will continue to negotiate bespoke local growth deals promising to go “further and deeper” as they do. One way the current policy might be extended is through introducing ‘shire deals’ in Tory heartlands like Essex and Kent which according to party insiders is the next logical step following the success of ‘city deals’. We can also expect the manifesto to demonstrate a commitment to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ strategy to strengthen England’s northern cities; but how far will that go in bringing HS3 to fruition and in devolving the kinds of powers and budgets heading in Greater Manchester’s direction, to other cities?
A structural review of the business rates was launched this month, and while the outcome will be ‘fiscally neutral’ the opportunity to promote growth among small businesses and on the high street will no doubt be brought to the electorate’s attention. In the meantime David Cameron has pledged to raise the proportion of business rates growth retained by local authorities from half to at least two-thirds together with pilots in Cambridge, Peterborough and potentially Greater Manchester where the uplift will be fully retained locally.
The empowerment of neighbourhoods and parishes will continue through a “further increase” in neighbourhood planning, and a greater use of direct democracy including local referendums on local issues; while the Conservative will continue to encourage the press and public to hold local politicians to account. But will the current transparency champion, Eric Pickles, still be around to lift the lid on local government? If returned to office Cameron will have a string new MPs with ministerial ambitions to satisfy, but Pickles’ loyalty and competence will not be lost on the Prime Minister.
That prompts that perennial question as to whether the Department for Communities and Local Government will continue to exist after May. To my mind it is a bit of a ‘red herring’ in influencing course taken on local government policy and decentralisation. That said a second term Conservative government maybe more confident to undertake some machinery of government changes. In addition to DCLG, there are plenty of other notable targets including: culture, media and sport and the offices within the UK government for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And there are Tory politicians who would relish seeing a government department or two, thrown onto the bonfire. But it will not automatically lead to a much smaller Whitehall. It also ignores the need for Prime Ministers to retain the power of ministerial patronage, so do not expect the cabinet table to get smaller as a result; especially if we have another coalition.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. This is likely to be one of the most unpredictable and close general elections, we have seen for forty years.
This post is based on Mark Upton’s Local Government Information Unit member briefing “Conservative Party – policy in the lead up to 2015 General Election”.