A few days in Birmingham

Last Sunday week it was off to Birmingham for the annual gathering of Conservatives. I caught the train from Ely arriving at New Street Station for the third time in three weeks. I decided I’d do much better to embrace the new station concourse layout rather than try to get my bearings based on where things used to be and that worked much better. Off to the Hotel on Broad Street and then to the conference. The ICC is a great but equally confusingly layout that takes time to remember where all the halls are.

That evening I was invited to a round table dinner organised jointly by the Stoke Association, Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation. I was delighted to see Cllr. Colette Wyatt-Lowe the chairman of the Hertfordshire Health and Wellbeing Board and my successor as Chairman of the Lead Member for Adult Social Services Network in the Eastern Region there as well. Also there was Cllr. Rob Waltham Cabinet member for the People’s Directorate at North Lincolnshire Council with whom I remarked it’s a s small world and I’d see him shortly as I was to be the Councillor Peer at the upcoming Local Government Association’s Adult Safeguarding Peer Review he and his a team had requested.

Interesting conversations about how those organisations could better engage with Conservative Local and national Government as they seek to influence the Public Health Agenda.

Afterwards it was off to the annual Conservative Councillor Association Reception to chat up with other Conservative Councillors about the coming three days. Speeches by the Chairman of the Party Grant Shapps MP who seems to have moved on from his time judged ‘scout Leaders’ comments of old and then an amusing speech from the DCLG Secretary of State the inimitable Eric Pickles MP.

As others drifted off to the bar I declined and went back to my room as I had an early start to deliver a speech the next day to a Fridge organised by the Swanswell Organisation the national Alcohol and Drug Charity talking primarily about how to curb Drink Driving, so I thought it would be best that should be err…’well rested’.

The LGA Conference Part 2

Last Wednesday and Thursday at the LGA Conference in Bournemouth was the usual sea of plenary and breakout sessions, causal chats with colleagues and lots of networking discussing the coming election and the future role of local government. One of the highlights was a private meeting arranged for the Next Generation for Local Government arranged by Christina Dykes, who has been the driving force behind the Conservative side of the programme for the past 9 years, with the Secretary of State Eric Pickles. As we left the room I reminded Christina it was the very room some 9 years earlier at the Party conference that she launched the first year cohort of the then new programme and we first met. As we walked out of the conference centre we reminisced about some of characters we had known from the course, who has achieved what and who was still in the local government world, she can be very proud of the work she has done and that a couple of hundred or so of councillors are significantly more effective as Conservative councillors that they would be without her efforts.

The overriding theme of the conference was for the LGA to launch its ‘first 100 days’ document for the next parliament moving the ‘Rewiring Public Services’ agenda, launched a year ago, on to the next phase of the lobbying indicating the sort of devolution local government now has the confidence to seek from central government. They say timing is everything and it was interesting to be at a conference where essentially the same thing was being said by the House of Commons Select Committee for Local Government at the exact same time. Namely that areas that are allowed to run more of their own affairs do economically better. The message is clear to an incoming government, stop talking about decentralisation and get on with it, we are ready, willing and more importantly able to do a better job at serving our communities than Whitehall, just get on with it!

What more Tax?

Yesterday I blogged about Labour controlled Ipswich Borough Council’s ever rising bills, and the contrast with Conservative controlled organisations.

A fine example of this is Tim Passmore the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner who is for the second year running proposing a 0% rise in the Police precept again fulfilled his promise to freeze the police element of the council tax bill, so across Suffolk freezing the policing element of the council tax this year means that the average amount paid by every household in Suffolk remains at £166.77 a year which is just £3.20 a week (based on a Band D property).

Heard yesterday that IBC Labour master’s have finally admitted, surprise, surprise, that they intend to impose another increase and are planning to put up the Council Tax by 1.99% which is of course just below the threshold requiring them to ask the residents what they think of their further tax grab. Contrast that with the budget consultation across Suffolk from the County Council where way back in October we were discussing our thoughts about the budget and council tax, the contrast in all respects is quite startling.

Of course this is even worse when you realise that they will have to hand back the Government 1% incentive to do the right thing and not put up Council Tax. Can you imagine what Labour would be demanding if there were no referendum trigger! Seems to me they just don’t get how hard it is for hard working families struggling to pay the bills, they say they do, but demonstrably they do not.

All the residents of Ipswich can now hope is that today or tomorrow the Secretary of State Eric Pickles MP lowers the threshold to trigger a referendum to 1.49% or better still 0%.

Come on Eric the good people Ipswich need you to save them money!


Annual Conservative Councillor Association Conference in Leeds

Last Friday I packed my bag and left early to catch the train to attend the annual Conservative Councillors Association (CCA) conference at the Queens Hotel, Leeds which conveniently has an entrance right in the station concourse, so it’s a long way but very easy to get to by train!

Cllr. Robert Gordon, Leader of Hertfordshire, opened the one day conference in his role as Chairman of the CCA and was later re-elected along with most of the existing Baord members.

The only change was that Paul Bettison, the Leader of Bracknell Forest was elected back onto the board which was good to see.

The session before lunch started with an opening address by Bob Neill MP and then a Q&A session with him and Greg Clark MP.

After lunch we had the whole local government team of Eric Pickles MP, Bob Neill MP, Greg Clarke MP, Grant Shapps MP and Baroness Hanham; and we got a clear sense of their frustration with Local authorities who have put up their element of the council tax and they did not spare the Police authorities in this criticism, indeed there was much comment about the forth coming Police and Crime Commissioner and how they might be better at getting the police to understand the need to live within their means, than evidently is the case this year.

Mr. Pickles said he was pleased that over 90% of authorities including Police and Fire authorities have delivered a 0%; he went on to say how the more disappointing those such as Surrey were and if they truly thought that was the best way to serve their residents they should have the bottle to put their increases to referendum.

We then went into the breakout sessions and there were lots of interesting sessions discussing everything from Mutuals to the use of twitter:

Learning for the 21st Century – Councils role in Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning.

The localism Act: Innovations, Entrepreneurship and Local Services

Strategic Asset Management – Key to Service Transformation?

Enabling and Encouraging Communities.

I attended the Using Yourcllr.com and Twitter session to learn more about blogging and my use of twitter.

Then I attended the ‘Be a Councillor’ campaign update session which is something I am very passionate about and lead for the Conservatives in Norfolk and Suffolk on.

In the evening Matthew Hancock our West Suffolk MP was the guest speaker at the dinner and spoke of the issues the national government face and the important role Councillor’s play in delivering the very difficult job and message of shrinking the state. He also spoke about the Unions and that Council Tax payers would be shocked to learn that we have salaried staff who we allow to spend time partly or fully undertaking trade union activities and that we should not wait for the Department of Local Government and Communities (DLGC) but to tackle the issue now ourselves.

Afterwards Matthew and I agreed to have an early breakfast and chat about Constituency matters before he left for home, so I arrived at 7am and who was sitting with Matthew, Eric Pickles and whilst we did not get a chance to talk about West Suffolk we did have very interesting hour discussing councils and conservative values, and of course I did not miss the chance to gently lobby the head man on a few thoughts of my own.

More plenary sessions followed and ended with Mr.Pickles giving the closing address talking about the truly amazing chances that are coming with the introduction of the different elements of the Localism Bill not least the removal of pre-determination.

He then spoke of ‘Pilgrims’ and this is what Matthew Hancock was speaking about those salaried employees we allow to spend part or all of their time on Union activities.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this practice but from my perspective I want to hear what Council Tax payers I represent think to the practice before I make up my mind, after all its their money.

All in all it was an excellent quick conference, back on the train and home, did not get to see much of Leeds which is a shame because it’s a great city, that I have visited quite a few times and really enjoyed.

Conservative Councillor Association Conference 2011

Got back late yesterday afternoon from the Conservative Councillor Conference at Chesford Grange, Warwick, this is a gathering of Councillors from across the county and senior Conservative MPs who are now the team at the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities, Grant Shapps MP, Minister for Housing and Local Government, Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark MP, Minister for Decentralisation, and Stephen Hammond MP, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Eric Pickles.

It’s quite  a whistle stop day and a half; I arrived with a fellow Councillor Robin Millar who is on Forest Heath District Council and the former PPC for Bangor, very green as we car share to the event or is that now very mean as we need to share the fuel costs!

We arrived to banners, megaphones, lots of protesters and police and security, marvellous what a different being in Government makes! I have been going to this event since I became a Councillor 4 year ago and no one has ever paid any attention to us before. It was amusing to see the slightly shocked looking hotel staff with police on every entrance, don’t think they were used to that!

Anyway checked in, had a coffee and into the opening speech of retiring Chairman of the Association Cllr. Merrick Cockell, Leader of Kensington and Chelsea, as it was his last year and the election for all the officer posts would be later that day, who ended his speech introducing Eric Pickles MP Secretary of State.

Eric said that it was his 33rd CCA Conference and that gives you an idea of his local government background as the former Leader of Bradford City Council, his home town, and his journey as the party has won, lost and now won power again with him very much at the centre of things; He also spoke about the speech he gave 3 years ago, before the financial crash hit, to the same conference and how the predictions he made then were now so very true.

So that’s 2 Eric Pickles speeches in 24 hours, some would say that’s above and beyond but it was fascinating to see the subtle differences in his words from the one to a small group of Leaders, where I was substituting for Jeremy Pembroke, to one to a wider audience of  Conservative Councillors.

The rest of the day pasted in a blur of break out sessions and question and answer sessions, I most notable f which was the planning one with Greg Clarke, now I know this is my bread and butter but it was fascinating at the depth of change coming and the real Councillor decision making they want to put back into the process; real decisions’ real democracy delivered at the town and village level. The question is will it work, will it get Britain building the homes we need or will it become a NIMBY’s charter; that will come down entirely to the Leadership that will be shown by Councillor’s in their own Communities.

Anyway then came the drama of the Officers elections, Merrick made another eloquent speech followed by Alan Mabutt’s annual moment announcing the results. He mused on should he change the format to more of a ‘Dancing on Ice’ one but had decided to simply do it in reverse order like the best beauty pageants. Cllr. Robert Gordon, Leader of Hertfordshire County Council and the team of like minded fellow members he had put together and lobbied us on, won and handsomely at that. The new Treasurer Cllr. David Simmons who is the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Children’s Services at Hillingdon Council is an old political friend and fellow alumni of the Leadership Centre for Local Government 1st year cohort with me four years ago.

It was fascinating how this lobbing and the notion of a ‘slate’ was received by those I talked to during the Conference; some were amused and some were not but it rather struck me that Councillors putting together a team and lobbying, whatever next you would think they were politicians!

Off to my room, quick shower and change, and to the Conference Dinner where I met up with another of the Leadership Centres 1st year Alumni and political friend Cllr. Louise McKinlay who is now Leader of Brentwood District Council; a dinner with the usual Breast of Chicken, an after dinner speech by Caroline Spelman MP Minister for State for DEFRA, a quick drink in the bar and off to sleep.

The following day there were sessions on LEP’s, Local Government Finance, New Homes Bonus, Business rates and various other subjects; a bit dry but if you are in this business of representing your community then important stuff.

In closing the conference Robert Gordon gave an excellent speech as introduction to Bob Neild MP who had kindly stayed to give the closing address. In Robert’s speech he commented on a subject I had discussed with him the night before and came up with an excellent catch phase ‘if we fight the coming election in two tiers it will end in tears’, at lunch I congratulated him on it and said I wanted to use it in one of my speeches and we agreed he needed to patent it!

As we drove back both Robin and I were very mindful of how different a conference the last 24 hours had been; as the Association were now looking to forge the relationship with the Politicians in the Department for Local Government and our Secretary of State Eric Pickles MP; exciting times and I think a time for Local Government to deliver real local governance, different in different areas based on the needs, wishes and aspirations of our communities rather than local administration of central government dictates as has been the hallmark of 13 years of Labour mismanagement.

Meeting with Lord Heseltine and Eric Pickles MP

Yesterday I had a busy day with various meetings and then off to London to represent the Leader of Suffolk County Council Jeremy Pembroke at the LGA Councillors Forum meeting in general session, i.e. all the political parties with, Lord Heseltine who spoke of his personal political journey to conclude that elected Mayors are the absolutely the only way forward, those in the room were polite but in general disagreed and he had quite a rough time, not that that fussed him at all. Fortunately there was no mention of a directly elected Mayor as the right solution for shire county solution, which is good. He also articulated his passion that Unitary Councils are the only logical only way forward!, very off-message to say the least.  

Then on to the group meeting where Eric Pickles MP gave us a sort of short ‘state of the nation’ speech and there was a full and frank exchange of views as to the issues before us, I suppose he was very on-message but then again as he rather writesd the messages for Local Government I suspose he is always on message, power indeed!

He then went on to talk about some of the exciting developments that will be rolled out over the coming months as we seek to redefine the relationship between local and Central government. He was as relaxed I have seen him at an event, reflective on the first year in power and excited by the challenges that lay ahead, as we all are.  

Whilst there is lots that I cannot blog about, he made an interesting comment ‘In politics never get tied up with power, go for influence’ which I thought was interesting.

Meeting finished and I rushed back to Liverpool Street Station to get back to Endeavour House in Ipswich for a meeting with the Directors and Trustee’s of the ICENI Project to discuss their future and what funding we could make available to them; All in all a busy day.

County Council Network Conference 2010

On Saturday I learnt that the Deputy Leader of Suffolk could not go to the CCN conference and so the Leader Jeremy asked if I might be able to go along, I said we had a family Sunday Lunch plans but I could come along after that so late Sunday afternoon I picked him up and off we drove to Gatwick Crowne Plaza, a County Council Network Conference in the middle of Gatwick!

The conference was excellent and it never ceases to amaze me that somehow over a period of time you get to know a lot of different people and beyond the sessions and discussion groups some of the most useful time is spent over coffee or a glass of wine chatting about the challenges we face, none more so as this was sort f the first get together after the announcements of the Comprehensive spending revue and we are getting a clear steer as to the cuts that are coming our way.

Ben Page from Ipsos Mori was his usual funny and very informative self as to exactly what the public think about the coalition, CSP and of course Councils, which is err…. shall we say not a lot!

In the private Conservative CCN Group Meeting each county represented gave a brief overview of their issues and a number of common themes emerged that we all agreed to work on. I thought the best quote of the session was “If you are going to stop something do it quickly don’t let it fester!” and there was a general sense that the scale of the savings required needed us all to have a very open and honest dialogue with our residents as to what is required rather than attempt to shield them from the harsh realities.

A line I am certainly taking when I speak on the Radio or write an article for a Parish magazine or two is that if you don’t agree with a cut proposal that’s fine but in commenting you have the responsibility that you must suggest where else that saving should come from, you simply cannot oppose a cut without having that thought process because there is simply not an alternative ‘do nothing’ position.

Eric Pickles MP was guest speaker at the Dinner but was not tight lipped about exactly what was to be in the Localism Bill but he did go around the tables chatting here and there.

Jeremy and I left the conference this morning with a clear sense that we are not alone in our concerns as to the scale of the saving required and the inevitable cuts that would require but that we, through our New Strategic Direction, seem to be slightly ahead of some with a strategy as to how we want to do it.

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