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!

Last Week’s LGA Conference Day 1

As is tradition before the LGA Conference proper the political parties gather and at the Conservative group meeting I was delighted to be announced as re-elected to the Conservative Group Executive. A real honour and I was quite chuffed at the faith shown by colleagues after what has been a bruising year, (self-inflicted I might add) and I hope I can use the role to, in some small way, help local government have that vital voice, it needs, in setting the local government policy agenda at Westminster and across the increasing partnership working with Health .

As is the way of these things the conference was its usual mixture of networking, breakout sessions, some interesting and some less than interesting plenary sessions, drinks, food, and many, many planned and casual conversations. Beyond these I had a couple of formal contributions to make as I was booked to make 2 speeches and take part in the subsequent discussions. The first was in the, well……innovative, innovation zone hosted by the great Chairman of the LGA Innovation Board, Cllr. Peter Fleming, how was his usual self, fun, irreverent, enthusiastic and beyond the somewhat colourful outfits actually someone who has really championed and driven innovation as a key way we are going to continue to serve our communities as the money diminishes. I gave a short speech about my commitment to the Networked Councillor programme being delivered by the excellent Public-I and hopefully contributed to the important debate about the role of social media in how we connect with our residents, and hopefully explain and co-produce some of the new ways we need to deliver services in the future.

Then later, as other headed down the pier or to this or that venue for drinks receptions, I delivered a speech on Complaints with Mick King, Executive Director of the Local Government Ombudsman about the value and way in which we interpret complaints both to Councils and ultimately to his organisation, are they a reputational threat or something to inform organisational learning, which was the point I hope I got across.

Off to Bournemouth via Ipswich

Last Monday I covered some mileage, firstly attending a Conservative group meeting at Suffolk County Council about strategies to deal with the budget gap, then off to Bournemouth for the LGA Conference.
After 6 years in Suffolk County Council’s cabinet it was slightly surreal to sit in yet another facilitated meeting but now free to voice my opinions without having to bite my tongue at…….., quite liberating in fact. Of course the wider funding picture has many possible hick-ups ahead and the biggest issues before us are the emerging Better Care Fund thinking and the implications of next April’s Care Bill introduction. If these bite as I think they will, I talked about and pondered what the implications of these would be. after a couple of hours and speaking of the bigger picture it was then off the Bournemouth.
On the way down I reflected that this was to be my 7th LGA Conference and a return to Bournemouth since my first and how over that time my roles have changed. Even more so this year having been purged for now, along with my identifiable supporters, from the County Council political hierarchy. So I went representing Forest Heath District Council thinking about the issues facing us as a District Council, how we make sure our residents get a fair share of Suffolk’s overall spend and that our District has a voice in the national local government debates. After checking into the once grand but now fading Carlton Hotel, still with a wonderful position atop the cliffs but a shadow of the hotel I spend many a family holiday in when I was a kid, it was off to have dinner with the rest of the Conservative Group Executive and to wish Sir Merrick Cockell one last goodbye as he contemplated his farewell speech to the Conservative group the next day and then to the wider Conference at its opening on Tuesday afternoon.

A bit of a do at the LGA

Last Wednesday evening I popped along from a meeting in London to the drinks reception at Local Government House for Sir Merrick Cockell, it’s Chairman’s, retirement.

The Conservative have narrowly lost control of the LGA and so the next Chairman will be the Labour’s David Sparks OBE. The Conservatives still have a vastly overwhelming majority of Councillors, being more than all the other parties put together, but in the strange LGA block vote system that decides these things Labour narrowly have the majority.

This means for the first time since I became a Councillor, the LGA will no longer have a Conservative Chairman. Some will ask does it matter and to some extent you have to judge does the LGA matter in answering that. Personally I think it is an effective voice for local government and as someone once said to me if it did not exist we would invent it. Equally to my mind Sir Merrick has been a very effective, hard working Chairman and has provided Local Government with a charming national voice and with the ‘Re-Wiring’ paper, a renewed sense of where we want to go and some bite to the lexicon. His and the LGA influence was in some ways summed up by the number of Westminster politicians in attendance despite having to leave promptly for a vote in the House, Secretary of State for Local Government Eric Pickles MP gave a warm speech, Minister of State Brandon Lewis MP was there along with Labour’s shadow team of Hilary Benn MP and Andy Sawford MP amongst others. The challenge for the new Labour Chairman will be how he can engage with a Conservative Local Government team and hopefully will have to for the next parliament as well!

Next week’s LGA conference will see the launch of the LGA’s ‘first 100 days’ document for an incoming government and such is the way of these things, they have to be cross party, so it’s aimed at whichever party wins. Broadly speaking local government is one of this country’s success stories, it has absorbed the cuts, becoming simply the most efficient arm of the public service, which is in no small way due to having elected councillors to hold it to account and shape its direction. I can think of a few areas where such democratic representation would have a positive effect, not least the NHS, but I digress. Of course it must do even better in the years ahead, but I think it has earned the right be to masters of our own destiny more than ever before, and that self-determination will allow us to shape our organisations to continue to deliver the services people need at a reduced cost to the public purse and I suspect that will be the central plank of the document for launch next week. It will be interest to see.

The LGA Conference and iced Frappuccinos

I felt rather guilty about being in Bournemouth this week for the Local Governments Group Annual Conference.

There are some who say why do you need to go to Conferences and seminars in order to represent me. And indeed that was said to me the week before I went when someone asked for a meeting the following week.

So with this ringing in my ears I packed my bags and headed for Bournemouth, determined to answer the question when I got back, by really thinking about what is the benefit of going or should I just stay at home and read about it later.

Unless you regularly go to conferences or training seminars or indeed networking events I am not sure you are going to accept that they have a positive impact on what you do, more a bit of a jolly and you probably won’t change your views by anything I say.

Having said that, one of the important things about being a Councillor and indeed an officer is not to reinvent wheels and to make sure you learn from others bright ideas to save money or improve a service. In my experience that knowledge does not come form newsletters of guides but from hearing first hand about what others are doing and their passion or otherwise for a particular programme; without conferences and chats over a latte or as it was so hot an iced Frappuccino you don’t get the first hand up close candid words that convince you to take something back to try out.

Also it was an opportunity to hear and question the policy shapers at first hand and in this respect the Conference was quite something but not in the way I expected.

Firstly Eric Pickles MP was there for most of Tuesday and all day Wednesday and spoke at a number of events and was really interested to talk and listen to our concerns a refreshing change from the previous minister who last year ‘swanned in’ gave a prepared speech and legged it back to London just as fast as he could, I sat outside having a coffee on the Wednesday morning and he was going from table to table talking to people, quite something and a very different approach.

Eric, Bob Neal MP and then Greg Clarke MP, Minister of State (Decentralisation) all spoke on aspects of what I thought they might cuts and localism, but what did surprise was an additional theme – the sheer lack, intentional lack of directive they intend to issue.

Greg Clarke even visualised this with a clip from Yes Minister and a Sainsbury’s extra strong bag which he brought on stage with 13.5kgs of the regional special strategy that just fitted in the bag and then proudly proclaimed the 30 grammes of 5 sides of A4 that replaced it.

Time and time again we were told that they will not be issuing directives.

Time and time again we were told its up to you how you do things; what you want your council to look like; what you want your council to deliver; how you want your council to work.

And time and time again it struck me that is exactly what we are doing with Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction and the sort of questions we are asking ourselves as to what we want to be and how we want to deal with the cuts coming our ways

Time and time again it struck me we are well ahead of the game here in Suffolk; talking with people, whenever I mentioned our programme I was asked to send them a copy and could they then talk some more with us about what we are doing.

Actually when you read the Big Society paper, listened to how they want to empower us and implement change and then how this all sits with our New Strategic Direction, it’s a bit spooky really.

So to answer the question ‘why do you need to go to Conferences and seminars in order to represent me?’ – I go because it improves my knowledge and helps me suggest better ways of doing things and is that worth the three days out from work and away from my family to go? – yes on balance it is.

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