Levelling up failures unforgivable, Starmer says as he warns on council spending

It is “unforgivable” the Tories did not follow through on their pledge to level up left behind areas of the UK, Sir Keir Starmer said as he launched Labour’s local election campaign.

The Labour leader would not however commit to “turn the taps on” and help ailing local councils to fill their funding black holes.

Sir Keir also suggested the local elections were a chance for voters to send “another message” to the Conservatives, as he urged Rishi Sunak to call a general election.

Ahead of the May 2 council and mayoral polls, the Labour leader touted his party’s “local growth plan”, and suggested he favoured longer-term funding deals for councils if his party were to win power at a general election.

At the launch in West Midlands town Dudley alongside his deputy Angela Rayner, Sir Keir appeared to praise the sentiment behind the Conservative’s levelling up agenda.

But he claimed the Government “didn’t do the hard yards” on the plan to reduce regional inequality, and suggested his party would drive a “fundamental shift” in politics through devolution.

He added: “My frustration of the past 14 years, but particularly since 2019, is that in saying levelling up, the Government was tapping into something real that people yearned for, but they didn’t have a viable plan. And they didn’t do the hard yards. That’s unforgivable.

Keir Starmer visit to West Midlands
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was appearing at the launch alongside his deputy Angela Rayner (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

“And we intend to turn that around and make sure that we can make that connection real and change places across the Black Country.”

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove hit back at the Labour leader, telling broadcasters: “Keir Starmer couldn’t be more wrong.

“We are the party that’s been leading on levelling up for years now.”

The Government minister added that neglected areas had seen “an infusion of cash and a power surge” under the Tories and that Labour had “come with nothing new to say”.

Labour would bring forward a “Take Back Control Act”, Sir Keir said, which would give new powers to regional mayors over transport, skills, energy, and planning, a pledge he branded as “full-fat devolution”.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove argued the Tories had overseen an ‘an infusion of cash’ into neglected areas (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

The Local Government Association, which represents councils across England, has warned they face a £4 billion gap in their budgets over the next two years.

Pressed about whether Labour would seek to plug these shortfalls, Sir Keir said: “There is no playing political games on this, councils of all political stripes are struggling with the lack of funding they have had over a prolonged period and we need to turn that around.”

Sir Keir said there was “scope for different kinds of funding settlements” pointing to longer three-year deals for councils, rather than the current one-year settlements.

But he added: “I can’t pretend that we can turn the taps on, pretend that damage hasn’t been done to the economy, it has. The way out of that is to grow our economy and that takes me back to the plan that we are launching today.”

Sir Keir said on Sky News that councils would only be better funded “at the end of an incoming Labour government” and that it would not be through a “lump-sum cash injection”, but by “reducing the burden on councils” through measures such as curbing inflation and banning no-fault evictions.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner during the Labour Party local elections campaign launch
Sir Keir Starmer, centre, said the local elections were a chance for voters to send ‘another message’ to the Conservatives (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

The Labour leader also said he had “full confidence” in his deputy as she continues to face questions about the sale of her council house, and the pair sought to portray a relaxed mood at the top of the party.

Ms Rayner joked the Prime Minister was “the political equivalent of that friend from back home who says he will get the first round in if you pay for the taxi and yet when you get to the bar he is nowhere to be seen”, but described the Labour leader as “the man who does always get his round in”.

Sir Keir referred to his deputy informally as “Ange”, and continued the joke, adding: “Don’t be tempted by her favourite drink, the venom cocktail, or you will live to regret it.”

Referring to the general election, the Labour leader said he had hoped to launched “a different election campaign here today, but the Prime Minister bottled it”.

“He wants one last drawn-out summer tour with his beloved helicopter. So we need to send him another message, show his party once again that their time is up, the dithering must stop, the date must be set,” he added.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claimed Labour’s local election launch was a “smokescreen”, as it sought to move on from suggestions it would not not honour the Government’s new childcare provision.

He told broadcasters: “The Labour Party in office devolved no powers to local authorities.

“In just the last two years we have devolved powers to two-thirds of local authorities.

“I am afraid this is a smokescreen for the fact that just this week the Labour Party have said they are refusing to guarantee the free childcare offer for every child over the age of nine months.

“That is going to be a hammer blow for families up and down the country who from next week are going to start to benefit from the biggest ever rollout of childcare in our history.”