Inaugural Chamberlain Lecture

On Monday evening I was invited to attend the inaugural Chamberlain Lecture hosted by BT at BT Tower in London. Sir Merrick Cockell, former Chairman of the LGA, opened the proceeding, introducing Lord Heseltine who spent the next hour weaving a fine speech about Chamberlain’s time in local Government, and as a Westminster politician with his own life story, his time influencing Local Government and snippets from his ‘No stone unturned’ paper.  Followed by a Q&A session chaired by Rt. Hon Stephen Dorrell.

He spoke of mayors and unitary authorities and his time as number 2 to Peter Walker the then Local Government Minister and the notion to reorganise Local Government broadly speak on County Boundaries in the 1970’s.  It never happened in England, but it did happen in Scotland where the Conservative government created county unitary councils, slightly ironic that since Scottish devolution the Scottish Parliament, with precious little to do, has taken stripped Scottish councils of the powers given to them by a Conservative government all those years ago, but I digress.

Fast forward to the Conservative Government of 2015, and Lord Heseltine found himself back in favour and following on from his paper ‘No stone unturned’ and with the support of the new Prime Minister, David Cameron and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourn.  Lord Heseltine worked alongside SoS DCLG Greg Clarke MP to drive forward English Devolution.  I was leading Suffolk County Council at the time and remember well the meeting on 15th February 2016 we held in Cambridge where we discussed what was going to happen which proved to be very different to what actually happened.

2016_02_15 Devolution with Lord H & Greg Clarke

The picture above is from my archives, and I recall the blog I wrote on 16th February 2016 which you can find by scrolling down this page, how times flies!  Then, it was about Combined Authorities with a Mayor, and I think when I look at those created they are far too complicated.  Nowadays perhaps the debate is more centred on unitary councils forming.  To my mind, this is sensible.

Let’s face it unitaries make sense; two-tier does not.  Lord Heseltine did reform Local Government in Scotland and putting aside the issues with the Scottish Parliament, can you imagine today saying to the large county based unitary authorities in Scotland we are now going to propose two-tier.  Where some duties are going to remain you, but others are going to smaller councils, and the public will have to figure out for themselves which is which, confusing or what!  Once a place goes unitary no one would ever suggest a return to two-tier, and I think that is an acid test.

What struck me as I listened to Lord Heseltine on Monday evening, sitting next to Martin Tett the Leader of Buckinghamshire who is currently trying to lead a unitary Buckinghamshire bid, that each new idea in Government is often not that new and each has a window of opportunity that comes along and goes almost as quickly.  Today the debate seems to be is centred on the creation of new unitary councils, so fundamentally possible reorganisation with little new money attached; and slowly we seem to be moving to a discussion, not on Majors or devolution but the size of unitary councils rather than the concept of unitary.

Of course, Lord Heseltine continues to propose that change comes with Mayors as influential leaders of place able to get things down, a system that seems a bit un-British as we instead like our discussions and complexity.  But we do have some Mayors, and it is interesting to watch as they seek to forge a way forward for themselves and their embryonic power base.  I think the jury is out on these at the moment and of course, each of them has a complex system of governance to work with, not to mention fellow politicians and councillors!

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.

All Councils are equal but some are more equal than others

Last Thursday Local Government watched and pondered what fresh challenge George Osborne was going to put to us in his autumn statement. As it was, much of what has been said to government by various Local Government figures not least Sir Merrick Cockell, Chairman of the LGA that Councils that as a sector are, over the next 4 years, starting to reach the end of the level of savings it can make without having to look at front line services; this seems to be beginning to be accepted in government circles, which is probably the reasons why on balance local government was broadly left alone and not subject to the further cuts announced. The danger with this comment is that it can be misconstrued as the pressures off which it most certainly is not, the savings Suffolk County Council has to make of £156million of the next 4 year period are significant particularly coming on the back of the previous savings requirement of £90 million, which we have achieved, all at the same time of 3 years of no Council Tax increase and our commitment to no increases in the next 4 years.

Yet if you talk with ministers and highlight the good work we have been doing in Suffolk – such as the joining up of the back offices of most of the Districts and Boroughs. Minsters will say, yes good work, but there are still far too many councils in this county who simply are not getting the message. Of course we don’t have to look very far just look at Labour controlled Ipswich Borough Council who as always say they are for the people usually just before they push up the Council tax, whereas every other Suffolk Council finds ways to freeze it.

Further afield I was reminded of this at the weekend when I was in Barnsley, a Labour dominated Metropolitan Council, I was driving along when I saw a large black stretched new 7 Series BMW with the number plate ‘THE 1’ and a Chauffeur, I turned to my partner Lisa’s brother and said who’s car is that and was told ‘oh that’s the Mayor’s car!’, I honestly though he was joking until I saw the council logo on the side!

OK I admit Suffolk County Council does have some Ford Fiesta pool cars for the staff to use to get to meetings, but when you see a spectacular like that on the streets of Barnsley you sort of have to agree with Ministers. So whilst all councils are working hard to protect your hard earned council tax monies and finding ways to make the savings required; some Council bosses are doing it from the back of a Chauffeur driven stretched limo with a £500k personal plate!

Who will be the next Leader of the LGA

I have known Baroness Margret Eaton since I was introduced to her by Christina Dykes in the Conservatory room at the BIC in Bournemouth when I was lucky enough to be picked to be a part of the Leadership Centre for Local Government, Next Generation Programme’s first year cohort. Since then I have meet her on many occasion most notably when we went out canvassing in a Leeds ward after a CCA conference at Oulton Hall. In her time as first Chairman of the CCA then in her role as Chairman of the LGA she has steadfastly sort to promote the role of Local Government, I have found her to be very personable and charming, and always felt that she had a strength of character and determination to well represent those she has been elected to. She will be sadly missed as she spends more time on the red leather benches of the House of Lords.

A few days ago, the Leader of Leicestershire County Council, David Parsons through his hat into the ring on Conservative Home and I, like most, waited for David Shakespeare to do the same, but it appears he had more domestic matters to attend to and I hear he lost the Leadership of Buckinghamshire, which was a surprise, but after 10 years in post often groups seek a change. 

The other known candidate is Sir Merrick Cockell, Leader of Kensington & Chelsea, who until this year was the Chairman of the Conservative Councillor’s Association.

I have met and chatted with them both and watched as David Parsons has carved out a role for himself at the LGA on leading the improvement side of things and Merrick Cockell steered the CCA as its Chairman as the party focused on winning at Westminster. I also know David Sparsons, my opposite number in Leicestershire quite well and he speaks highly of his Leader.

The past year has been a remarkable one for the LGA as it has sort to forge a new relationship with a Conservative Sec of State in the formidable Eric Pickles MP and at the same time I have rarely hear such dissension in the ranks of its performance, not so much about it relationship with Eric Pickles but more its relevance in the new order, which is some ways is a little short sighted. A number of Councils have served notice to quit and I think the organisation is having a real battle to define its message and indeed usefulness.

Personally I think that the LGA needs to elect David Parsons, as Merrick, whilst a fine chap is, I believe, perceived as veryLondoncentric. He may argue otherwise but this perception comes from his time as Chairman of the CCA and as we know the vast majority of the Councils and particularly Conservative controlled ones are simply outsideLondon.

Many councillors I speak to question the value of this alreadyLondoncentric organisation and its cost of membership. If indeed it does electMerrickthen I think a number of County Councils will look towards other organisations for a voice after all the £100,000 fee, in this day and age is not an inconsiderable amount of Council tax payer’s money.

Me thinks a pivotal moment for the LGA looms

%d bloggers like this: