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What now for Labour’s neighbourhoods?

 

Delivering results that sent a shiver through both coalition parties, Labour took control of 22 authorities and gained over 800 new councillors in this month’s English local elections.

Across the UK, the party consolidated its hold over Liverpool, following the landslide victory of Joe Anderson as the city’s first directly elected mayor, became the largest party in Glasgow, re-asserted itself in Wales and entrenched its position in dozens of authorities it already ran. Every seat in my home town of Knowsley is occupied by a Labour member; my folks couldn’t even vote because no other party contested their ward.

The party’s local pitch to voters promised ‘help in tough times’, with new homes and jobs featuring prominently on leaflets pushed through letterboxes and handed out at school gates.

This message was particularly effective in neighbourhoods which are feeling the brunt of cutbacks and closures as the first and, let’s remember, the smallest round of annual spending cuts are taking effect. As a result, the party strengthened its power-base in local government and gave a timely fillip to Ed Miliband’s leadership.

But what now for the neighbourhoods that Labour can once again call their own?

In our age of skint localism, what can Labour councils do to support the poorest neighbourhoods, as newly elected members are required to push through further and deeper rounds of cuts?

When Labour was in power nationally, neighbourhood policies were set at the centre. Councils operated within the frameworks provided by the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal and Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder schemes.

The Area-Based Grant provided considerable additional funding, while programmes like Sure Start and Building Schools for the Future built new infrastructure and channelled further investment into the poorest neighbourhoods. The implicit deal was limited freedom in exchange for large amounts of cash.

The landscape today is very different. For the first time in over forty years, there is no national regeneration programme for England. The Area-Based Grant has been abolished. Sure Start centres and other community facilities are being closed or rationed. Local community and voluntary groups are scrambling to survive as their grants are disappearing.

Within the Labour Party, Ed Miliband’s wide-ranging policy review, deliberately stretched out to avoid making commitments too soon before the 2015 General Election, also deprives Labour councils of a national lead to follow. And it’s unclear at best, as I argued last year, whether urban deprivation will feature in the review process.

The landscape is rocky, but for once, Labour councils can actually set their own path toward urban renewal.

There are some interesting movements out there. Seventeen Labour groups have signed up the co-operative council network. Cllr. Steve Reed, the leader of Lambeth – and an early tip for Labour’s candidate for London mayor in 2016 – has provided the dynamism behind the agenda. The purpose is to revitalise public services through community-run co-operatives and mutual ventures.

Islington’s ‘Fairness Commission’ has made a series of recommendations for tackling social and spatial inequalities in the borough which also rely on more open and collaborative ways of working with local communities.

The risk is that the party tries to make the old solutions work, and goes back to its traditional reliance on top-down programmes to deliver neighbourhood change. The prospect of ‘regeneration’, although it featured in many manifestos, is not as appealing to residents as politicians think.

I was at an event for community activists recently. One local resident explained how the new community-led programme she was involved with would be different from previous approaches.

‘It’s all about making the area better,’ she said ‘but it’s not as traumatic as regeneration. The local people decide what they want to happen.’

The challenge is to find new ways to deliver urban renewal outside of the confines of central control and without additional funding. It won’t be easy, but the starting point has to be meaningful engagement with the activists and community groups who are leading the search for solutions in the post-regeneration landscape.

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