THE QUEEN’S Speech was laced with lots of rhetoric about devolution and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ but in reality it’s what lies beneath those top lines that will really matter to us all.
This isn’t the Queen’s Speech, of course, it is written by ministers, and it always has added significance after a General Election.
It is the list of laws that the government hopes will be passed by Parliament in the coming year and – given that we’ve all just been to the ballot boxes after months debating priorities and direction – there were few surprises.
What remains, however, are many unanswered questions not necessarily about what the government plans to do, but how it will fund it.
The General Election campaign produced a host of promises with very little clarity on exactly where cuts will be made and that detail will be the battleground for the Parliamentary year ahead.
Many of us in local government do at least welcome the appointment of Greg Clark as the new Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government – replacing Eric Pickles.
Greg is pro-devolution, sensible and will hopefully not be as keen as his predecessor to offer the sector up for deeper and harder financial hits.
But whether it is Mr Pickles or Mr Clark at the Cabinet table, the message from local government will be the same: there is simply no fat left to cut. Further reductions will have clear consequences for communities and services – and that means residents can no longer be shielded from their impact.
Since 2010 councils have had their budgets reduced by 40 per cent on average with real terms spending on service provision reduced by more than 50 per cent in some areas. Oldham has already had a £141 million cut in funding and must find another £60 million by 2017. That’s a total of £201 million – or half of our funding. That not only has serious consequences for the most vulnerable of our folk, it also puts additional strain on social care, community life and our local NHS.
Earlier this month I signed a letter to the Observer newspaper with 375 other council leaders of all political colours. We urged the new government that further cuts in our funding simply cannot be a option in the next ‘wave of austerity’ if our services are to survive a further five years.
Councils like ours can only ensure that elderly and disabled people receive the care they need, that young people are equipped with skills to find local jobs, that desperately needed homes are built, that roads are maintained and bins are collected, if they are properly and fairly funded.
This Queen’s Speech is a double-edged sword for local government and Oldham. I believe in devolution – and in more local accountability and control over the services we use – and the government’s Cities Devolution Bill will go some way to delivering decentralisation from Whitehall to big cities like Greater Manchester.
The promise of greater powers over housing, transport, planning and policing to our cities can only be positive news. We must, however, continue to work with the government to ensure this downwards trend of power sharing reaches every corner of the country.
The government has a devolution model for our cities now, but where is the plan for our non-metropolitan areas that create 56 per cent of our entire economic output? If the system is broken why keep it in those areas?
Towns like Oldham also know only too well about the need for more homes and we’ve worked tirelessly to get this moving with strong partnership schemes like those at Primrose Bank, North Werneth, St Mary’s and others to come, like the plans for the former Hartford Mill. But all councils will find it hard to play their part if the government continues to attack their capability in this area.
Disappointingly this Queen’s Speech focused not on how to spur local authorities or incentivise homebuilding, but how to encourage existing renters to buy their housing association home – a policy which has very clear echoes from another era.
The government has promised that every housing association home sold under the newly evolved ‘right to buy’ scheme will be replaced one-for-one with a new property. It is absolutely vital to places like Oldham that this promise is kept. We will be holding them to account on this because we simply can’t afford to see another generational loss of housing stock with ever-growing waiting lists.
In London, for example, there are currently 255,000 households on social housing waiting lists – slightly bigger than the entire population of our borough – and this penchant to promote private home ownership cannot be allowed to stop us delivering the next generation of affordable homes.
The government’s drive towards forced academisation of schools will also be strengthened by this Queen’s Speech with schools judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted being forced to convert and a new Regional Schools Commissioner being established.
Locally we’ve taken action to identify and tackle our education and skills challenges by setting up a special commission, chaired by Estelle Morris. We know we’re very much at the start of a long journey with that but, contrary to government thinking, I believe the support of local councils for schools is essential to their success.
Whitehall lacks the capability and local knowledge to oversee the 4,400 academy schools already established in England and councils like us need the powers to quickly hold any failing schools to account, regardless of their status.
The Queen’s Speech likely signals the start of an even tougher period for our communities, especially in the provision of services to the most vulnerable, but we must also remain positive.
Here in Oldham we have much to look forward to in the years ahead as our regeneration programme pays off – and we will continue to fight for the fair deal you deserve.
Thanks for listening,