Gary Porter: The voters demand more local control. We should listen to them.

1 Feb

Lord Porter is the Leader of South Holland District Council and a former Chairman of the Local Government Association.

I find myself writing something I wasn’t sure I would ever do: Kier Starmer is right.

Or at least when he says “that once the priorities of coping with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic and Brexit are under control, the focus should be on subsidiarity” and “how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level.”

As he explained at the launch of the Labour Party’s Constitutional Commission, “this is not an exercise in shifting power from one Parliament to another – of moving a few jobs out of London, or to devolve and to forget. It will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation.”

The popular appetite for this type of initiative was confirmed by a poll, carried out by ComRes for the Effective Governance Forum (EGF) in May 2019, to determine people’s attitudes toward devolution.

It showed that:

  • 70 per cent of the electorate want more localism.
  • 60 per cent would like to see a greater proportion of their taxes raised by and spent for their local community.
  • Their priorities for localism were housing, social care, transport, health and education.
  • There was almost no difference in the attitudes to localism between Conservative – Labour voters, Remain – Leave voters, or amongst socio-economic categories.

A soon-to-be-published report by the EGF ‘A Comparison of the UK’s System of Government with ten Peer Countries’ reveals that the UK’s historic piecemeal approach to devolution is unique amongst the medium and large countries studied:

  •  The UK is by far the most centralised country.
  • The devolved assemblies and UK Local Government has by far the fewest devolved responsibilities and the least financial control.
  • England, the largest nation, has none and no parliament or assembly at all.
  • Devolution has been enacted in a piecemeal manner where similar bodies in the same Tier of government have very different responsibilities and fund-raising powers.

Since the end of the Victorian era, central government of all political persuasions has taken greater and greater control of a huge range of services that were either the responsibility of civil society or local councils. This is made easy to understand by share of national expenditure: at the beginning of the 20th Century, central government’s share equated to 12 per cent of GDP; by the end of the century this had risen to 43 per cent. This increased centralisation has not only led to a huge increase in costs; it has also increasingly led to damaging outcomes for people, communities, public services, and for local government.  Of the countries studied by EGF, the UK is placed in the bottom of the league for people’s trust in government, satisfaction with life, and GDP per capita.

The Conservative Party will have to respond to Labour’s initiative and it has a simple choice – to argue for the status quo, or to adopt a truly localist constitutional reform programme.

I firmly believe it should be the latter, having spent my political life campaigning for greater subsidiarity. But devolution is of such importance that all parties should work together to design a solution so that leaders in every tier of government feel that they, not just central government, are responsible for the prosperity and wellbeing of their places.

And they, not central government, have the place-based authority within their areas:

  • to decide what initiatives are needed and how services are delivered
  • to decide how funds are allocated amongst the services they provide
  • to raise the majority of funds needed to meet the level of expenditure that they have determined.

Thus giving voters greater control over important aspects that affect their daily lives – access to good housing, medical care, education, policing, roads without potholes – it could help, in the long term, to restore that sense of community and local pride that was such a powerful force in the industrial revolution.

Gary Porter: To level up, we need alumni networks for state schools

9 Sep

Lord Porter is the Leader of South Holland District Council and a former Chairman of the Local Government Association.

We all know that the Conservative Party is the party of real opportunity for all. For decades now we have worked to create a society where anyone who wants to succeed and is prepared to work for it can do so – no matter what their background.

If I can make it into the House of Lords after a career as a bricklayer there’s no limit to what children in our schools today can achieve.

The message that every child should have the opportunity to succeed, no matter what their start in life, is also central to the charity, Future First’s, philosophy and at the heart of their new crowdfunding effort to help set up alumni networks in every state school in the country.

The support I needed to succeed didn’t come when I was at school but much later when I entered politics. Politicians get support from their peer group all the time and that is especially true of the Local Government Association. Unfortunately, there is still much we need to do to inspire children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the belief that they can succeed. Often, the alumni networks that can provide support and advice from those who have done it before don’t exist.

So, I’m delighted to be supporting Future First’s effort at such a crucial time, when the confidence and resilience of our young people is likely to have been knocked by the chaos of the coronavirus crisis. There’s never been a more important time to give our young people the reassurance they have every chance of pursuing their dreams.

As many of us who went to a state school will know, it’s very easy to think the odds are stacked against you – that all the best careers out there are only open to young people lucky enough to go to independent schools.

In truth, the reason so many young people do well – whether in the independent sector or the state sector – is down to belief. They know other people – just like them – have left their school and gone on to achieve great things. That sense of belief gives them the confidence and resilience to go out and succeed for themselves.

Unlike their counterparts from more privileged backgrounds, 35 per cent of disadvantaged young people don’t know anyone in a job they want to do. It’s frankly a scandal that so many young people just don’t know that there is a world of opportunity out there. That’s where Future First can step in and help.

South Holland District Council and Future First are piloting the Crowdfunder to see if the community can help build these networks. If successful, it will be rolled out nationally so every child in every school will be able to benefit from the experience of former pupils who have left before them.

Creating these networks in every school won’t just be good news for pupils – it will be good news for councils too, because these pupils will be the local workers of the future. And with a successful workforce comes economic growth and prosperity.

It’s a cause that every Conservative councillor in the country should get behind.

There are more details of Future First’s crowdfunder appeal here.