Telling it like it was, by Vivienne Russell

12 Jun 08
Ahead of his address to the CIPFA conference, John Prescott talks to Vivienne Russell about the most pressing issues that Labour faces, and what he considers to be his legacy to local government from his ten years as deputy prime minister

13 June 2008

Ahead of his address to the CIPFA conference, John Prescott talks to Vivienne Russell about the most pressing issues that Labour faces, and what he considers to be his legacy to local government from his ten years as deputy prime minister

CIPFA members flocking to the fringe lecture at this year's annual conference are in for a treat. There can be no doubt that John Prescott, former deputy prime minister and deputy leader of the Labour Party, is one of the most colourful politicians of recent years. Whether it was the infamous fist in the face of a protester during 2001's general election campaign, the 'two Jags' label or croquet on the lawns of Dorneywood, the Hull MP has entertained, amused, enraged and sometimes baffled.

Along with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Prescott was the third member of the New Labour triumvirate that helped sweep the party to victory in 1997. A veteran of the trade union movement, he was vital in winning the hearts and minds of the party faithful as the leadership accelerated the process of reform.

Once in power, Prescott's reward was the 'super' Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which gradually evolved into the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, leaving him in charge of local government, housing and planning.

There have been triumphs. Prescott was an early champion of Local Area Agreements, now hailed as the means of redefining the relationship between central and local government and through which local services will be planned and delivered.

But there have also been disappointments. The rejection of a regional assembly by the people of the Northeast in 2004 shattered his dreams of elected regional government.

Ahead of his address, he shared with Public Finance his thoughts on public service reform and Labour's future challenges.

Are you proud of the government's record on public services after more than ten years in power?

I am very proud to have been part of a Labour government that has done so much for the UK. For more than ten years we have provided a stable and prosperous economy, bringing about over 2 million more jobs.

We have also brought schools standards up and waiting lists down, put more police on our streets and rejuvenated our cities and towns.

We have achieved all this against a backdrop of devolving more power and record resources to local government. It's people who work in local authorities who have helped to restore pride and prosperity to our towns and cities, ensuring they are again the engines of growth in our economy. And they have also worked to make their neighbourhoods cleaner, greener and safer. I'm also proud to have brought in new models of funding for our public services through public-private financing. It has meant new life for public services. So there has been major investment in transport and housing and capital investment in schools and hospitals – about £53bn of public-private finance investment.

I'm also proud of other innovative financing, such as congestion charging, which was included in my Transport Act 2000 and required that the revenue raised from the charge was hypothecated for public transport. Bond financing allowed us to rescue the Channel Tunnel Rail Link deal, which was collapsing when we came into power in 1997. And the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is set to open this November – on time, on budget – the first new railway line in this country for 100 years and, of course, without it, there would be no Olympics or billions of pounds of investment in regenerating London.

Looking forward, what would you say are the big challenges the government faces?

Bill Clinton in his campaign to become president of the US used the phrase 'it's the economy, stupid!' It's true that lately the economy has become the number one factor in people's mind in the UK. But with Gordon Brown we have weathered two global slowdowns already. I have no doubt we are most strongly placed to come through this latest slowdown.

Now, with oil prices at more than $130 a barrel – it was $30 a barrel in 1997 – these are tough times. We now also have a considerable amount of private debt. This has partly been created by the pursuit of high yield and greed. From the events we have seen, you could argue that private debt has got out of control and will be really hard to bring back under control.

Another problem is high house prices – especially for first-time buyers and those looking for affordable homes. I'm proud to have made a start in this area, but more needs to be done to meet the expectations of those who simply want to buy a home.

Do you think the relationship between central and local government has improved under Labour?

Of course, it has. Just look at how Labour invested in local government, with an increase of some 39% between 1997 and 2008. Compare that with the last four years of the Tories, which saw a cut of 7% in real terms. And it's not just about the money. We established a relationship of equals between central and local government. It's local government that has been crucial in delivering the changes needed in the UK in schools and housing and in our communities.

There is still considerable economic inequality between the North and South. Will the regional reforms proposed in the sub-national review be sufficient to overcome this?

I was disappointed that regional government was rejected for some English regions – particularly in the Northeast, which had long campaigned for such a move. I believe that one day there will be regional government for some English regions.

You're right that there are inequalities between North and South and I believe a regional assembly would have helped to put that right. Crucially, it would also have meant that elected politicians make decisions on spending and allocation – not civil servants as it is now.

I have long been an advocate of devolution of power. I'm very proud that Scotland and Wales were able to establish their own governments. One of my first decisions in government was to set up the regional development agencies, which have had great successes in helping local economies be the very best that they can be. But more needs to be done. It's an issue Gordon Brown takes very seriously.

Given the recent result in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, is David Cameron right to announce the end of New Labour?

No. But what it does mean is that we are now in a serious fight. I know Labour can win that fight, whenever the next general election is. Yes, we have taken a kicking. We would be foolish to ignore this. But Gordon Brown and the government, with their policies of social justice and economic prosperity, have a very serious and convincing case to put before the electorate, while David Cameron simply has empty, uncosted promises.

People say 'Gordon doesn't smile much' – something that always used to be levelled at me. But I say 'when you get on an aeroplane you don't care whether the pilot is smiling or not – you just want to know that he or she can safely land and take off!' I know Gordon is the right man to pilot us through these uncertain economic times.

You've announced you will stand down at the next general election. What are your plans?

I am still active as MP for East Hull. I also lead the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. As for life after the next general election, I'm not sure. It's a possibility I could go to the Lords… but then again maybe not. I know I still want to be active in politics. After all, I never expected to end up as deputy prime minister when I set out in politics. We'll just have to see how it turns out.

John Prescott will be speaking at the fringe meeting of the CIPFA conference on Tuesday, June 17


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