News from the Labour Party conference in Brighton September 26-30

30 Sep 04
The government will come under renewed pressure to announce a wholesale review of council housing investment after a deal to look at alternative funding options was abandoned on the eve of the Labour Party conference.

01 October 2004

Timing scuppers fourth housing option deal

The government will come under renewed pressure to announce a wholesale review of council housing investment after a deal to look at alternative funding options was abandoned on the eve of the Labour Party conference.

After the breakdown of talks between trades unions, local authority leaders and ministers, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott suffered an embarrassing defeat as delegates voted four to one in favour of introducing a 'fourth option' for council housing.

The motion calls for tenants who choose to remain under the management of councils not to be 'financially disadvantaged' and funds for stock transfers to be 'equally available to councils'.

Privately, Prescott has warned unions that he will simply ignore the motion as it will interfere with his 2010 decent homes target.

Under party rules, however, the motion should now become government policy. Members are warning that without some movement on the issue, the relationship between the government and its stakeholders will come under increasing strain.

Labour Party sources said it was likely that Prescott will be forced to compromise and announce a review of housing investment, which could effectively halt large-scale voluntary transfers while councils await the outcome.

He had used this device to try to head off the initial motion late last week, after failing to get the issue resolved at July's National Policy Forum at Warwick. Days before the conference Prescott had apparently agreed to a review after authorities and unions argued that public investment was no more expensive than the three current options: stock transfer, the Private Finance Initiative and arm's-length management organisations.

A fourth option, they claimed, would give tenants who wanted to stay under council control more choice, and avoid the kind of limbo seen at the London Borough of Camden, where all options have been rejected.

However, it was the timetable for the review that scuppered the deal. Unions rejected it after officials said it would be published around the same time as the Lyons' review into council funding in late 2005.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, leader of the Labour Group and vice chair of the Local Government Association, conceded that there was considerable disappointment. 'We came tantalisingly close to an agreement which would have recognised the need for a level playing field and led to a review of the system and a reasonable chance of change,' he told Public Finance.

We must share a national purpose, says Brown

The drive to increase 'flexibility, accountability and choice' in public services will be stepped up but the Labour Party must reach out and build a 'shared national purpose' with the public, Chancellor Gordon Brown told the conference.

In a speech heavy with references to a 'progressive consensus' and 'social justice', Brown said there was no room for battles between the private and public sectors. He pledged to push ahead with civil service reforms and the cull of thousands of Whitehall workers, in a stark reply to threats of industrial action by the Public and Commercial Services union.

He focused heavily on children's services, indicating that November's Pre-Budget Report would set out proposals for 'high- quality child care for all' and would sponsor the creation of local forums to 'listen to parents, so that their voices are heard and their needs come first'.

Brown also shot down any hopes of rail renationalisation despite a later successful vote on the issue, the party's second policy defeat. 'If the government had £22bn to spend it will not be for an expensive renationalisation. We will put investment in schools and hospitals first,' he said.

In an implicit reference to 'new localism', Brown said Labour must learn lessons from its past and show that it is rooted in communities, not 'remote from them'. He said Labour's 'big idea' should be a 'progressive consensus' that reflects the public's aspirations.

Regional boundaries 'could be reviewed'

The government could review the powers and boundaries of the elected regional assemblies once they are operational, regions minister Nick Raynsford told a fringe event.

Raynsford said he would look again at the most 'appropriate needs' of the assemblies once he could compare the first two, the Greater London and the prospective Northeast body.

He told the New Local Government Network event on September 27 that he would not rule out granting the GLA the same powers over housing investment as the Northeast assembly, which would gain its responsibilities from the Housing Corporation.

Speaking to Public Finance later, Raynsford indicated that London was likely to remain the only assembly with powers over the police as, outside the capital, this did not 'lend itself' to regional organisation.

He added that he would be willing to re-examine the boundaries of the prospective assemblies 'at a future date'.

'There is not much in common between Milton Keynes and Dover, but if we did that now we'd be caught up in the debate and couldn't move forward,' he said.


Did you enjoy this article?