“Poverty is a political choice” – not our words, but those of the UN inspectorate on the impact of Tory austerity economics on vulnerable people all over the UK.
Nowhere is the interdependence of every level of government more apparent than when it comes to the economic choices each branch of government makes. Central government embarks on economically-ruinous austerity; funding for local councils is cut; and councils, left to make hard choices, cut essential services on which people depend.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The reduction in local police presence, in social care provision, in buses and road maintenance, all comes down to the same central plank of Tory policy – austerity. Labour in government will end austerity with a fully-costed programme to restore public services, and one of the ways we will all benefit is through improved access to the vital services provided by local government.
The Preston Model
Let’s talk about the Preston model. Also known as the “Preston miracle”, an example of how local political choices can support local businesses.
Under Tory austerity, the city council of Preston in Lancashire faced the same challenges as any council in England. From 2011 to 2017 Preston’s central government grant was almost halved. Matthew Brown, Labour’s visionary leader in Preston, commented “the intention was to devolve cuts and blame it on us. But you can become more self-sufficient.”
That vision of self-sufficiency saved Preston, and turned its local economy around. Brown coordinated the city’s public sector buyers – council offices, schools, hospitals, the housing association – encouraging them to offer contracts, wherever feasible, to Preston-based businesses.
Printing contracts for the police force; council renovation contracts; and school food contracts were all given to local providers, creating jobs and apprenticeships in the local economy. The results were remarkable. In 2013 six Preston public bodies spent £38m of their budget in Preston, £292m in Lancashire. By 2017 the numbers were £111m in Preston, £486m in Lancashire – even with overall budgets cut by central government.
And how has the “Preston miracle” promoted buying from local farmers? To quote Aditya Chakrabortty, “in 2015, Lancashire county council put a contract to provide school meals out to tender. That was impossibly large for local firms, so officers broke it into bite-size chunks. There was a tender to provide yoghurt, others for sandwich fillings, eggs, cheese, milk, and so on…Local suppliers using Lancashire farmers won every contract and provided an estimated £2m boost to the county.”
Tailoring public contracts to local providers works. It boosts local employers, creating jobs and putting the money spent right back into the local economy. Local firms, and local farmers, could fulfil many or perhaps all of our region’s public tenders. Preston has already shown that it can be done. Labour in Sevenoaks and Swanley will help local businesses by doing the same.
Challenging poverty and inequality by opposing the roll-out of universal credit
We cannot say it often enough – everything is connected. Poverty in our district and our communities is, as the UN reprimanded the Tory national government, “a political choice”. If Sevenoaks District Council cannot provide the basic services vulnerable people in our district need, that is a political choice by the national government, and it is a political choice we will never support.
The roll-out of universal credit is, likewise, a political choice. This disastrous policy has been shown beyond reasonable doubt to destroy the lives of vulnerable people. It deprives people of the resources they need to live dignified, fulfilling lives.
At every level of government, Labour will not stand idly by and let universal credit wreck our communities. Labour councillors will do everything they can to prevent universal credit being brought in here.
Tackling fuel poverty
One of the causes, and one of the tragedies, of poverty is having to choose between food or heating and light. Everyone will have read, last winter or the winter before, of vulnerable people, usually families, facing this terrible choice.
Labour’s plan for a community-owned, non-profit local energy company would make tackling fuel poverty an easy part of our general new green deal. Being left behind by austerity should not force families to choose between feeding their children or heating their homes in winter. Labour’s new green deal will include a provision to end fuel poverty out of our locally-owned energy company.
Tackling homelessness and poverty through genuinely affordable and social housing
Finally, Labour’s promise to support housing developments only if they include a reasonable provision for housing that is genuinely affordable for local people on an average household income; our promise to support developments only if they commit to genuinely integrated social housing provision; and our promise to support developments only if they include necessary environmental protections including tree planting, community gardens and allotments, all mean that local homelessness and housing precarity, which have gone up here since the Tories took power nationally in 2010, can finally be reversed.