Following the Conservative General Election victory, my local newspaper complained about Labour’s negativity and ‘the same old faces doing the same old things for the last five general elections’.
I can only agree; some have been councillors for 40 years, leaving Labour in a time warp, vilifying success and aspiration, wasting money, and overseeing the gradual decline of our town centre. Yet the party is still in control, despite five seats being added to the Conservative tally (taken from Labour and the LibDems, replacing some of those ‘old faces’ with fresh young blood).
Other Tories will now be in similar frustrated opposition, envying those wresting back control of their councils and those which strengthened their positions in overall control. But their time will come as they consolidate, especially if they capitalise on their growing appeal to young voters.
Labour lost support not just for their regressive manifesto and ‘Edstone’ but because they took voters for granted in their ‘safe’ seats; Tories have done the same in the past, turning good majorities into losses by removing them from ‘target’ lists.
Many of those have now been recovered, but successful councillors must put in the work to secure future support and see more victories. This is especially true in councils with annual elections, where candidates should be selected now, giving them plenty of time to establish themselves as a local voice on local issues for 2016.
So, whilst we celebrate success, don’t put away the campaigning boots and clipboards, as happened in many areas after 2010; with Labour in disarray nationally, it’s vital not to lose that all-important impetus. It’s essential to capitalise on the goodwill which generated such a good and unexpected outcome, and that means continuing to communicate with the electorate, reminding them of who their local representatives are whilst delivering on promises made, reinforcing the central message of economic competence and aspiration.
One way to do this is working more closely with the Local Enterprise Partnerships. Their scope and funding will undoubtedly be enhanced by the new Business Secretary because most have proved themselves to be far more focused and competent than Labour’s Regional Development Agencies (what a waste of money they were, with their vast empires and huge costs). They also have the advantage of being closer to business than any council, and are empowered by decisive action.
Nevertheless, when I talk to businesses, whether established or start-ups, few seem to understand the role of their local LEP, and the opportunities to bid for grants, even if they have heard of it. There is an evident disconnect between the various institutions, and some local authorities appear to positively discriminate against their LEP, merely paying lip service to its existence, instead of embracing it.
However, with housing a key priority across the country, I was surprised to learn that local authorities are pretty much united in opposing any LEP involvement in its delivery, yet linking the right type of housing in the right locations to attract inward investment and jobs growth is critical.
Thriving economic development goes hand in hand with a buoyant housing market. Delaying planning decisions merely puts up costs, and means that potential investors will take their money elsewhere, leaving brownfield sites disfiguring town centres which need that investment if they are to reinvent themselves. We need to make our towns attractive to incomers, so they feel safe and welcome, and have somewhere to spend their money and enjoy new friendships.
Education is another important factor; entrepreneurs and professionals won’t move their families to locations where education is poor and skills in short supply. Over the last decade or so, too many local authorities have overseen a decline in quality education which needs to be addressed urgently, yet all I ever hear about is ‘such and such is under review’. Which means more reports, rather than action – hardly an advert for excellence.
During the General Election campaign it became increasingly obvious that many of our coastal towns are suffering, and need to be reinvigorated, so I hope that counties and districts will direct their energies to finding solutions, with short timelines for improvements. There is no excuse for their continued neglect when a few simple priorities would make a big difference to whole neighbourhoods.
Just look at what Urban Splash is doing in previously run down locations – creating housing, jobs and communities. The very best of the social enterprise culture which could be emulated with essential vision and commitment.
Unless councils work with their LEPs, they cannot possibly achieve all this whilst being proactive in attracting investors with a truly dynamic welcome and offer of financial and cabinet support ; it requires a change in mindset at all levels. A lack of engagement merely results in silos, duplication and waste.
Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse was an inspiration; it can be emulated across the country to a lesser or greater degree, with some imagination and determination from council leaderships who commit to driving it forward in partnership with their local LEP.