Devolving power to our communities

The idea of devolution has been talked about a lot since the Scottish referendum a few weeks ago. The feeling that the current balance of power needs to change – in some way yet to be defined – has really captivated people.

Personally I do think that change is possible and even necessary, but I don’t believe an English parliament or ‘English votes for English laws’ is the way forward. To me that just sounds like extra layers of bureaucracy, when what ordinary people are crying out for is to better connected to the decisions that affect them.

For this reason, I strongly support the call for greater devolution of powers to our cities; the ‘City Centred’ approach.

However, when we talk about London in this – rather than say Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool – people generally tend to assume London already has the power it needs. Either by simple proximity to Westminster, or through assuming that we got our settlement with the reform to the GLA and the Mayor of London role in 2000.

But the picture for many London boroughs like Lambeth is quite different. We house some of the most deprived communities in the country, and record some of the highest levels of unemployment and other complex problems. Our populations are vast and growing, yet meanwhile our funding has been dramatically cut – in Lambeth we’ve lost 50% of our budget since 2010.

As a council we hold some really significant responsibilities; whether it’s housing our growing population, safeguarding the most vulnerable in our communities or keeping our streets clean and safe.

But in trying to meet the needs of our communities, we often find ourselves stymied by a lack of powers – such as to tax and spend as we see fit to invest into building more homes, stimulating local jobs and growth or investing in children’s early years. Simply – if we were better able to manage our own income, we would be better able to deliver on the things our residents tell us are their priority.

Furthermore, the devolution London has been handed so far doesn’t necessarily work for us. Often the powers of the London Mayor conflict with our ambitions for our borough. That couldn’t be made clearer than in our commitment to building more affordable housing, where amongst other frustrations, the Mayor of London has allowed developers to set ‘affordable’ rent as 80% of market rents – that is simply unaffordable for most of the people we would want to benefit from affordable housing. (You can read more about this in my blog here).

But it’s not just about London or London boroughs getting more powers per se. In doing so it means we can do more to represent the communities we’re inherently better connected to; which I feel the London Mayor is much more abstracted from. As a local council we interact with our communities daily; and in Lambeth we’ve even been giving our residents a central role in the services they want and how they are delivered.

In this way, councils like ours are at the forefront of innovation and efficiency in public service delivery. Working with our communities to co-deliver services and interventions that they want and need, and working with them to identify both problems and opportunities early on – we are simply more efficient. We make better policy.

Greater fiscal powers for councils like ours, or for groupings of like-minded authorities, would mean we could craft policy that betters suits the needs and aspirations of our communities. We’re already working with Southwark and Lewisham to help our residents into work, and with Southwark to look at affordable childcare solutions. But whether we’re running local employment support services, fully taking over from the desultory Work Programme, or working together to develop Children’s Centres as key community hubs – there is so much more we could do given the chance.

Bringing decision-making closer to the real people it affects – and giving people a real voice so they are not just passive recipients of public services – also goes a long way to combating that sense of disillusionment and apathy that has become so rife of late.

You can read more about the potentials for greater devolution for London in this excellent piece of work from London Councils, which outlines some of the key policy areas we could make a real difference in – given the powers to do so.

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