Norwich: A Fine Fabian City

Chris Smith writes about the importance of learning best practice from CLP's and local Councils, as well as celebrating our excellent Labour Councillors and grassroots activists across the country. 

Local government is rightly cited by many Labour MPs and leading Fabians as an area the party must learn lessons from in order to win at Westminster.

The “Preston Model” is rightly lauded for its ambition and invitation and the pages of Fabian review full of praise for councils and mayors from Hackney to Plymouth often in the form of fine pieces from the very politicians carrying out these brave works local works such as Anntoinette Bramble’s account of being on the front line in the most recent Fabian Review.

Before winning the party leadership Keir Starmer’s address to the Fabians New Year’s conference stressed the need for the Shadow Cabinet to hold close the leaders of town and city halls who currently wield power on behalf of Labour. I would like to take this opportunity to contribute and celebrate the achievements of my home city, in Norwich, led by an inspirational group of Labour councillors.

Sitting in the heart of rural Norfolk it is hardly “traditional Labour territory” and having to operate underneath a rock-solid Tory county council leaves its room for manoeuvre more limited than unitary authorities.

But innovate the council still does and its councillors win local elections where it fails to pick up Westminster seats.

Labour holds every council seat in the Norwich North constituency which sits within the boundary of the City Council. Norwich North has been Tory since 2009 and last December sadly saw off the challenge of local councillor Karen Davis. The full story of this is another blog but the campaign which I played a small part in on the doorstep shows Norwich as a microcosm for the nation.

Labour can win on local issues where citizens see and appreciate the difference Labour in city hall makes to them. It could not win a seat for Westminster because voters did not like at the time the party leader or its position on Brexit.

As a whole the city voted remain but its two constituencies were split, the South where Clive Lewis MP was returned being strongly remain, the North where a brilliant local councillor could not replace an unloved Tory MP voted for Leave. I hope this brief analysis sets out why Norwich has greater significance to make to national consciousness than Alan Partridge.

Now to those amazing achievements of an award-winning council.

Norwich is home to largest single development of Passivhaus standard housing in the UK. This means that the most energy efficient housing in the UK is occupied by council tenants who enjoy energy bills 70% below average. As these homes were built by the council and are fully owned by it they are rented to tenants making them genuine council housing of the kind needed to solve the countries housing crisis. It is also means the tenants enjoy a secure tenancy, safe from the type of evictions seen so graphically in the private rented sector. Whilst those energy efficiency standards contribute to lessen the climate crisis, they also help those who would otherwise be suffering fuel poverty.

They are also the first ever social housing to win the prestigious Stirling architecture prize for design, dispelling the myth council housing must be poor quality best and aesthetically depressing. It made national news in the Guardian and in Norwich, Goldsmith Street is almost a campaigning slogan in itself for how Labour in power makes tangible difference in changing lives.

I feel the project does not receive the promotion it deserves. I hope that changes as how many more socialist objectives can one policy achieve?

The generation of revenue, to support vital services, has never been important given the 40% cuts to local government inflicted by the Tories since 2010. To raise much needed funding the council created its own company, Norwich Regeneration Ltd. This has been building more Passivhaus standard housing in the city for commercial sale at full market rate as well at truly affordable rates.

Like other councils Norwich has launched a White Label Energy Supplier in tandem with ethical and green supplier Octopus energy, with a special solidarity tariff in which customers can opt to pay to help those who live in fuel poverty (as this rate is still lower, for me at least than my previous supplier it seems a mutually beneficial deal for all).

Through shrewd financial management by hardworking Labour councillors the city has also been in the forefront of borrowing from the public loans board at low rates to invest in commercial property that generates revenue. This is something COVID 19 has undermined but in “normal times” simply sound economic planning.

The significance being these revenue raising efforts have allowed the council to protect services and, in some cases, even expand them. It is one of only a handful of authorities to retain a full council tax exemption for those on the lowest incomes as well as those returning home from long time care. Finally, the council has recently been shortlisted for a second prestigious award, and again the only local authority to be so. It is through to the final three entrants for a “Global Good Awards” in recognition for its efforts in reducing its emissions by 59.6% since 2007. A significant reason for this being the council rolling out a food waste recycling scheme so again increasing services at a time when many councils are having to cut the regularity of standard refuse collection.

As a local teacher I repeatedly see the consequences of children living in families affected by the damage and limitations of poverty pay, poor employment practice and the vagaries of the ever-increasing ‘gig economy’. On this issue, the real Living Wage campaign is yet another area my council has both pioneered and led within the city. Our City Council knows that we need an economy which is different and works for working people. 

Labour in Norwich has introduced a real Living Wage at Norwich City Council and ensures that private contractors who want to work with the council pay their staff the living wage. Outsourced services are steadily returning to direct control with robust oversight. Recently, it has organised a meeting with employers and trade unions to look at how a ‘Fine City Employers Charter’ might be developed to raise the standard and practice of employment in the city. Councillors have repeatedly stood shoulder to shoulder with trade unionists in offering support to those protesting poor employment practices and the growing movements against the gig economy. By itself there is of course a limitation on the capacity of the council to change such significant often nationally determined issues. But through a concerted approach, over time, victories have been achieved.

There are many, many further achievements which have created the practical expressions of ‘municipal socialism’ in a city which ‘does different’.  

I hope those reading this will react to some of these achievements with a shrug that it is nothing new to what their local Labour council is also doing.

If so brilliant, please shout about your home as I have done so we can all learn from each other how to get Labour back into power. If this has been news to you then when lock down is over, make sure you pay a visit to Norwich it really is a fine Fabian city!

Chris Smith teaches politics and history in Norwich in Norfolk largest comprehensive school where he is also Labour party city council candidate and divisional executive member of  the National Education Union.
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