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General Election 2024: Locality reacts to the party manifestos

Locality's Director of Policy and Engagement, Ed Wallis, sets out what the different manifestos could mean for communities across the country.

This week has been a key moment in the general election campaign: the publication of party manifestos.

So far, three weeks in and with three to go, the underlying picture remains about as it was when we started, with Labour clearly and consistently ahead in the polls. This is despite the Conservatives throwing big new policy proposals around, and Ed Davey throwing himself around our theme parks and waterways.

Will the manifestos do anything to shift the dial in either direction? The suspicion must be they will not. Labour has doubled down on its basic “change through stability” message. Keir Starmer took criticism that there was nothing new in the party’s manifesto as a badge of honour. Despite being challenged on how they will tackle big problems while balancing the books, the party insists that everything has been carefully tested and costed – they want to be sure the plans can survive contact with office. This is at the heart of what feels like the party’s emerging big idea: of respect for the electorate. Not grand promises, but change people can believe in. It’s captured in Starmer’s foreword to the manifesto, when he describes growing up at a time when similar challenges abounded, but were accompanied by a hope of progress “that may not sound high-minded or particularly idealistic, but which families like mine could build a life around”.

The Conservative manifesto focuses on the idea that “the economy is turning a corner” and, as Rishi Sunak puts it, “we must stick to this plan and take bold action to secure the future of our nation and society”. The manifesto offers more in terms of new policy commitments, stemming from the fact that the Conservatives need to find something that will change the dynamics of the campaign. However, analysts like Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies have put on record “a degree of scepticism” about how the big tax give aways will be funded. Others have argued that despite the volume of policy proposals, they lack the wow factor to cut through the noise.

The community power test

We published our own Locality manifesto back in November. We set out an optimistic vision for the future, built on the work we see community organisations doing every day. We made the case that this local transformation provides the hope our country needs in these most challenging of times. What the next government needs to do is put in place some big reforms to rewire policy, so it actively supports this community power, rather than standing in its way.

Do any of the main party’s manifestos meet this challenge?

It seems everyone’s got the memo that our country is too centralised and we need to push power out of Westminster. For Labour this is at the core of its approach, promising to “transfer power out of Westminster, and into our communities, with landmark devolution legislation to take back control”. Manifestos are inevitably high-level documents that lack the policy detail on exactly how this will happen in practice. It’s clear Labour is attached to the sub-regional devolution model, with plans for more Mayors and Combined Authorities with more powers. There is less clarity on how to ensure the devolution journey doesn’t end there and continues onward to the neighbourhood level. Senior Labour figures like Angela Rayner and Steve Reed have committed to implementing a Community Right to Buy, which will be a key means of doing this.

The Conservative Manifesto also commits to “empower communities through devolution and new powers”, with more devolution deals and deeper local levers for areas which already have Mayors. There is also a welcome promise to extend the Community Ownership Fund for three more years, giving more communities the opportunity to “take control of vital community assets like pubs, music venues, libraries, green spaces, leisure centres and more”.

The Liberal Democrats have similar plans to “decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster” and “enhance powers over community assets”, as well as promising to expand Neighbourhood Planning across England.

None of the manifestos could honestly be described as a blueprint for a community power revolution. But each of them provides an important signal of a new consensus. Whitehall doesn’t have the answers: the next government will need to look local.

Ed Wallis
Director of Policy and Engagement

Mainstreaming community power

Away from devolution, there are a range of interesting proposals that would support the core argument we make in the Locality Manifesto: that in a world of tight fiscal constraint, we need to ensure the next government’s core programmes and priorities align with community power, rather than getting in its way.

Labour’s Local Power Plan is a good example of this. This is a core part of its promise to “switch on Great British Energy”, with local community organisations a key partner in installing “thousands of clean power projects”. Labour will “invite communities to come forward with projects, and work with local leaders and devolved governments to ensure local people benefit directly from this energy production”.

Similarly, Labour’s manifesto talks about how “the National Health Service needs to move to a Neighbourhood Health Service, with more care delivered in local communities to spot problems earlier”. The manifesto goes on to talk about tackling the social determinants of health, with an ambition of “halving the gap in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest regions in England”. Locality’s work on the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Alliance has been developing a strong body of evidence for how community anchor organisations provide exactly this neighbourhood-level, social determinants-focussed approach.

The Conservatives propose to expand their Long-Term Plan for Towns, which has taken a more community-focussed approach to economic development. This programme provides a £20m “endowment fund for local people to change their town’s future”, and has the ambition of giving communities more control to shape plans. The manifesto also makes community-led housing an explicit part of the party’s plan to tackle the housing crisis, promising to support “more community housing schemes”.

Looking local

None of the manifestos could honestly be described as a blueprint for a community power revolution. But each of them provides – in how they frame the challenges we face and where they seek solutions – an important signal of a new consensus. Whitehall doesn’t have the answers: the next government will need to look local. This feels significant, and we look forward to developing the detail with whoever walks into Downing Street on 5 July.