Thursday, 30 July 2009

Cautiously hopeful after a fruitful meeting

A meeting called to discuss areas of contention between the United Residents' Association of Ivybridge (URA) and the management of the Bridgelink Centre yesterday provided a welcome first opportunity for most of the main protagonists in last week's battle for Committee posts to get together around a table.

The meeting itself had been requested by the former URA Chair Tony Smith, who despite no longer being in the hot spot was able to give voice to some of his concerns. However, for me the value of the meeting was that it provided an opportunity for dialogue at such a crucial time. New Chair Al Ayoby thanked me for my support following his election and lost no time in stressing his desire to unite the estate and to "start again". He held his own counsel throughout most of the constructive discussion and exuded the demeanour of a man who wants to stop the squabbling on the estate and get things done for local residents.

I am not so naive as to believe that there will be no more talk anywhere of challenges to the outcome of the AGM, but I am hopeful that Al's magnanimous approach will serve to dampen any enthusiasm for prolonging the unpleasantness and rally people to the cause of the greater good.

Councillor Paul Fisher and I assured both the Bridgelink management and the URA of our continued help and support, and thankfully there were signs of a more joined-up approach to all our work in the future.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Big news from Norwich - ideas win elections

The following article was written by William Rees-Mogg and appeared in Mail Online, to whom acknowledgements. It is reproduced here as a debating point on the question of party politics and the rise of independents and single-issue parties. Publication does not imply agreement with the author on every issue.

One should not over-elaborate the analysis of elections. The central question is always the same. Who won? This is certainly true of the Norwich North by-election, where Chloe Smith turned Dr Ian Gibson's Labour majority of 5,459 in 2005's General Election into a Conservative majority of 7,348.

Allowing for all the special circumstances, that is probably a good enough result to produce a Conservative victory next year, both nationally and in Norwich North. That is what matters; it is natural for the Conservatives to be delighted with last Thursday's result as well as relieved. Miss Smith is more than entitled to enjoy her triumph.

There are, however, some interesting undercurrents revealed in the Norwich North results. First, there is one piece of excellent news, which I had not totally expected. After its relatively successful result in the European Elections, the British National Party (BNP) thought it a good idea to put up a candidate in Norwich North. It was mistaken. The BNP was beaten into seventh place with just 941 votes.

That does not mean the BNP may not become a future threat, but it does show it has limited appeal outside a few deprived areas. Seventh place in a by-election is a joke position for a group claiming to be a national party.

The result put the Conservatives in first place, Labour second, the Liberal Democrats third, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) fourth and the Greens fifth.

The result is disastrously bad for Labour. Undoubtedly, Labour voters resented the brutal dismissal of Dr Gibson, a popular and independent-minded local MP. The Labour vote fell by 70 per cent from 21,097 in 2005 to 6,243 in 2009. The opinion polls have been reporting that Labour support in the country has fallen from 36 per cent at the last General Election to a figure in the mid-20s now. Norwich has confirmed the opinion polls reflect reality.

The Conservatives won the seat largely because Labour has become so unpopular. In 2005, the Tories came second in the Norwich seat with 15,638 votes; in last week's by-election they came comfortably first with 13,591. The Tories would have been able to win the seat simply by retaining the support of their past voters, though they did well to increase their share of the votes.

The Lib Dems also had a lower vote in 2009 than they had had in 2005. At the by-election they came third, but they had only 4,803 votes to the 7,616 they had won in 2005. Although Labour did by far the worst, all three traditional parties won fewer votes than they had won at the last General Election.

The three leading parties, taken together, saw their vote fall from 44,300 in 2005 to 26,700 in 2009. Resentment over parliamentary expenses may have partly caused the decline, but an analysis of the vote for the new parties suggests there is more to it than that.

Two of the new parties came just below the three traditional parties in the ranking order. Both had performed reasonably well in the European Elections. UKIP increased its 2005 vote from 1,122 to 4,068 at the by-election. That put it in fourth place. Indeed, UKIP was fewer than 1,000 votes behind the Lib Dems. The Greens increased their General Election vote of 1,252 to 3,350.

Both parties are perceived by the public as single-issue parties. Nevertheless, both were able to increase their votes at a by-election in which the three major parties were unable to do so. Labour's vote was catastrophically lower. Obviously, the European and Green issues are important to voters.

Last week, Labour lost some 15,000 votes, votes that Dr Gibson had won in 2005. No doubt many of these voters simply abstained, but the two new parties gained 5,000 voters.

If Britain had adopted electoral reform, which is the long-standing policy of the Lib Dems, these new parties, including the BNP, would have an opportunity to grow to the point at which they would become natural coalition partners. The parties that are the biggest threat to the established parties would also make the most attractive coalition parties.

The Lib Dems would be attractive coalition partners for Labour, as they have been in Scotland; UKIP might be a potential coalition partner for the Tories, though that would be resisted. The Greens are a threat to the Lib Dems, but could also be their partners. As we do not have proportional representation, this change-your-partners dance will not take place - yet.

Nevertheless, British politics will increasingly be influenced by the single-issue parties. It is no longer reasonable to think UKIP or the Greens are merely crankish parties, bound to fade away. The opinion polls suggest both are in the interesting situation of being single-issue parties whose issues have strong public appeal. Most voters are certainly more conscious of Green issues than they used to be a generation ago; most voters have also become increasingly critical of the European Union and the Lisbon Treaty.

The Lib Dems in the House of Lords voted with the Government against the Lisbon referendum, which the country had been promised. Obviously, Eurosceptics will hesitate before they vote Lib Dem. Support for Green issues crosses the boundaries of other parties - the Tories can claim to have been a Green party for a long time in that they were always the countryside party.

I would not particularly welcome coalitions of conflicting ideas - which electoral reform has created in Scotland - into Westminster. But I do welcome the mixture of ideas which is fermenting in our politics. The Norwich North result supports the forecast that Labour is on the way out and the Tories are on the way in.

Yet it also supports the view that the politics of ideas, which we knew in the Forties, may be coming back. It was the ideas-based parties, UKIP and the Greens, which were the only ones to increase their votes in the Norwich North by-election.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Out of chaos comes opportunity?

If this is true, then hopefully the chaos that was that last night's (Thursday's) Annual General Meeting of the United Residents' Association of Ivybridge (URA) - which I chaired, at least for part of the time - will not have been in vain.

I arrived at the meeting just in time to fulfil the request of the outgoing Committee that I should chair the meeting and oversee the election of a new Committee. The presence of over 100 residents made it clear to me that there was a mood for change, but the agenda was straightforward - the outgoing Chair would give a report, and then there would be a vote at which a new Chair would be elected for the coming year.

It was during the reading of the minutes of the 2008 AGM that I was challenged by a particular individual, a notoriously obsessive and well-known New Labour agitator - a man who pines even today for a return to the old NITA system of One Labour Party Member, One Vote - who questioned my right to be chairing the meeting. Although I was under no obligation to do so, I called for a vote on whether I had the confidence of the meeting to continue acting as Chair. Sadly, the group of people who had attended with a view to changing the face of the Committee allowed themselves to be persuaded that I would try to subvert the outcome of the election - which I absolutely would not have done - and when the vote was taken the result was perilously close. Although, after two recounts, it seemed I had a slight majority in favour of allowing me to continue, I felt that under the circumstances the agitator and his new very temporary friends should be given the opportunity to find their own Chair, and so I voluntarily stood down.

After some deliberation, estate resident and former Labour candidate Chris Boucher stepped forward (supported enthusiastically by the agitator, whose objection to me had been that I was "political") and oversaw the election of former ICG Committee member Al Ayoby to the post of Chair, a task which he performed admirably under very difficult circumstances. Al then took control of the meeting and a Vice Chair, Treasurer and Secretary were duly elected. A second meeting will be held next week to decide which 14 of the remaining 23 volunteers will form the remainder of the new Committee, or indeed if a way can be found to include all of them given their willingness to serve the estate.

Whilst the meeting was chaotic the outcome was clearly that a new team had been elected which seemed to reflect very well the social diversity of the estate. Somali residents who had supported the "coup" queued up to explain to me after the meeting that they had sought nothing but fair and equal representation proportionate to their number, an aspiration that they felt, rightly or wrongly, that they'd not been able to realise under the outgoing regime.

Nominations to the new Committee comprise new additions as well as old stalwarts. Ironically, in spite of all the upheaval it will probably, in terms of manpower and ability, prove to be the strongest the estate has ever had.

I would like to pay tribute to the hard work undertaken by the outgoing Chair Tony Smith, former Chair Tina Howe and those other members of the Committee who have stood down. Equally I would like to congratulate Al Ayoby on his elevation to the top job, and to wish him all the very best in his new role.

Notwithstanding recriminations at the AGM it is right and fair that the new team should be allowed space in which to carve its niche, whatever that might turn out to be. I urge estate residents to get behind them and to work with Al - an honest and decent man - for the future benefit of the estate.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Now we're all community councillors!

There's an old quote by somebody or other - possibly G.K. Chesterton - which has it that the essence of democracy is simple. First the people ask for something, and then they get it.

My colleague, ICG Chair Councillor Jon Hardy captured this principle to perfection when seconding my Motion on Community Engagement to Borough Council yesterday. Empowering communities need not entail the pure but impractical concept of the classic Grecian democracy, in which citizens partake in endless referenda about what time the local tavern should cease dispensing alcoholic beverages or how much one should be expected to pay for a tin of beans. Instead, it is simply a case of identifying what it is that people want and then delivering it with the minimum of fuss.

My Motion was quite deliberately basic. It read:

"This Council calls to expand upon the Motion passed on 4th March 2008, which sought to improve Community Engagement and to develop relations with residents’ organisations and civic groups around the Borough.

"This Council now requires that timelines be set in place for the full and final implementation of a radical and robust Community Engagement strategy, which will necessitate the buy-in and full co-operation of all employees of the organisation.

"This Council therefore authorises the Lead Member for Community Engagement to draw up a six-month programme for the incorporation of an unambiguous empowerment strategy into all work undertaken by the local authority, and asserts that the programme will come into operation no later than six months from the passing of this Motion”.

The purpose of the Motion was, self-evidently, to put an end to the dichotomy which exists at present in which the administration expresses its desire to engage in a genuine and meaningful way with our communities, and yet the bureaucracy continues to act as a barrier to such engagement, often treating our residents and their organisations as a problem without which the business of running a local authority would be so much easier, and forever finding reasons why anything remotely inspirational, imaginative or different cannot be done.

Jon emphasised the point quite brilliantly. We want Section 106 money spent on improving the fabric of our communities when they are affected by development - so why is it so difficult to quantify and access? We want clean air for our residents living within sniffing distance of Mogden Sewage Treatment Works - so why are we no further down the line than we were when we assumed power three years ago, with the bureaucracy constantly battling with and fobbing off residents who have the temerity to ask what we are doing to support them? Why does the organisation seem constructed in such a way as to provide built-in, knee-jerk obstacles to more or less everything positive that we aspire to achieve?

What was particularly significant about this Motion - and the importance of this cannot be overstated - was that it received unanimous, cross-party support. When I began the debate on this topic back in March 2008 the Labour Group abstained and my earlier Motion was described by Hounslow Independent Alliance councillor John Connelly as "meaningless" (i.e not about money). This time every hand went up, and I was even taken to task by Andrew Dakers for the Liberal Democrats and Labour's Matt Harmer for not having gone far enough - a bit of politicking, maybe, but a significant indication of the direction in which things are moving.

The London Borough of Hounslow now has six months to do what it has not done up till now, either under this administration or the previous one, and transform itself into an outward-facing, people-focused facilitator of real community participation. The unanimity of the vote means there is no question any more of waiting for a change of administration in the hope that members will revert to bickering about budgets and forget about the more aspirational side of a local authority's work.

The message to the naysayers from last night's vote was that henceforth whoever is in office, the call for a New Way will still be heard.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Proud to support our successful community football club

In gave me great pleasure on Friday to welcome Manager Andy Scott, Captain Kevin O'Connor and several other delegates from Brentford Football Club to a Reception given by the Mayor at Hounslow Civic Centre in recognition of their success in gaining promotion to League One last season as League Two Champions.

Both the Mayor and the Deputy Leader of the Council, Mark Bowen - standing in for the Council Leader - paid tribute in two moving speeches not only to the team's prowess on the pitch, but also to its repeated success as a community club, providing learnin
g and sporting opportunities for local youngsters across the borough. I was privileged to be able to say a few words myself too, before handing over to Andy Scott.

My wife Caroline (Councillor Andrews to some), my kids Rosie and Joe, and Rosie's friend Siobhan - a Brentford nut - also came along and seemed to enjoy the evening. They are pictured above posing with Kevin and Andy, and Joe is below with the Le
ague Two trophy.

Stars shine on Ivybridge as hundreds of youngsters participate in Street Athletics

Hundreds of residents gathered on Ivybridge last week for the local heats of Street Athletics, a community-focused youth engagement programme created by Olympic Gold medalists Linford Christie and Darren Campbell, both of whom came along to the event. The 2009 programme will incorporate 24 venues nationally followed by the London Final on Saturday 6th September and the National Final in Manchester on Saturday 20th September.

Unlike some "celebs" who turn up to engagements with agents in tow and sign a few autographs and pose for a few photos before disappearing as quickly as they had arrived, Linford and Darren remained throughout the event - in which youngsters of all ages participated, cheered on by parents, friends and wellwishers - chatting to the locals and encouraging the youngsters. As well as kids from Ivybridge, there were delegations from other parts of the neighbourhood including a team going under the name of the "Worton Warriors". Community councillors Paul Fisher, Shirley Fisher and Dr. Genevieve Hibbs were there to support the event, as well as Councillor John Todd from Chiswick and, not least of course, the Mayor.

This hugely successful project was facilitated by Hounslow Positive Futures (ably managed by Jen Emeny from the Brentford FC Community Sports Trust) and Nuff Respect.

The very considerable support shown for this project, following on from the similarly successful Ivybridge Fun Day held a couple of days earlier, demonstrates the vast reservoir of enthusiasm and goodwill that exists on Ivybridge, as elsewhere in Isleworth, when our people are motivated. There was a clearly perceptible sense of community spirit and pride around these events which reassures those of us who desire to build a strong and engaged community that it is there for the taking once we have succeeded in getting the attitude right throughout the local authority.

The advantages of projects like this one for Community Cohesion cannot be overstated. There was nothing that divided the people who came out onto Summerwood Road last week to take part in this massively successful event and Darren and Linford by their presence and attitude empitomised everything that was great and positive about our society.

I believe it is imperative that we do as much as we can to garner this new positivity in the months remaining to us within the administration at the council and, if following next year's local elections fate gives us another crack of the whip, to cement it irrevocably into the heart of our local thinking.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Persisting to apply common sense

Although I am no longer a member of the London Borough of Hounslow's Executive, as Leader of the Community Group I naturally keep a keen eye on the recommendations that come forward for approval. One which caught my eye prior to last night's meeting was proposed by the Deputy Leader of the Council and Executive Member for Complaints Mark Bowen and was entitled Dealing with Abusive, Vexatious or Persistent Complainants.

Now it hopefully goes without saying that if a member of the public is abusive towards officers of the local authority, or makes complaints which are clearly vexatious, there must be a point at which we can reasonably terminate our dealings with such a complainant. Our officers should not be expected to put up with abuse, insults or obscenities, and we make no apology for protecting them from such. Most large organisations have a policy of this kind, and much of the report which was brought to Executive concentrated on ratifying what was essentially the obvious and the indisputable.

However my attention was drawn to the reference to "Persistent Complainants", as this as a concept is not so easy to define. A complainant might, for instance, make the same complaint repeatedly despite it being self-evidently unreasonable or not upheld following a proper investigation. It is right that at some point we as organisation need to be able to say that enough is enough and discontinue a conversation that has clearly run its course.

On the other hand a persistent complainant could of course be someone who makes a series of different but nonetheless valid complaints, possibly acting on behalf of a residents' group or civic society. Or a person who, having not received a proper answer to a first complaint, pursues the matter in the hope of achieving appropriate closure.

One fairly recent example of the latter was a correspondent from the Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG), who had to ask a question of a senior officer thirteen times before he would provide a substantive answer. Even after councillor intervention the officer continued either to evade the question or, on other occasions, to ignore it completely. Under such circumstances the MRAG representative could not in all good sense be labelled a persistent complainant and cut adrift from the process - indeed the officer should have been disciplined by his seniors, who had been copied in to most of the correspondence.

Councillor Bowen, probably more than any other elected member, is a tenacious advocate of the member-led council. Nevertheless even the most competent batsman can be bowled out as a result of a momentary lapse in concentration, and so my ICG colleague Councillor Jon Hardy proposed an amendment to the recommendation which ensured that the relevant ward councillors, together with the Lead Member himself, would be given prior notice before the extreme and, I would hope, exceptional step of discontinuing communication with a complainant would be taken. The amendment was accepted.

To make doubly sure - and I hope I am not breaching any confidences by sharing this - I contacted Councillor Bowen this afternoon and he agreed with me that this power would not be allowed to be misused to silence genuine complainants, even those whose correspondence is frequent or challenging.

So, anybody within the organisation who might have had ideas about using the approval of this report against community activists and representatives of such groups as MRAG or The Isleworth Society (TIS) would do well to disavow themselves of them right now. To do so would effectively be a declaration of non co-operation with the Community Group and as such an unacceptable challenge to the authority of the coalition administration.

This recommendation was a sensible one, but requires sensible implementation. My colleagues in the community can be assured that for at least as long as we have anything to do with it this principle will be applied at all times.

Getting away from it all

When your twelve-year-old daughter would rather stay at home and nip across the road to a fete at her old primary school that go away on a family holiday, you realise that you are either a terrifically boring father organising terrifically boring outings or that the kids are just fast growing up.

But Rosie is Rosie, and as a consequence of her decision we concluded that I should go away with Joe for my quarterly £9.50 pilgrimage to the Isle of Wight while the girls would remain back home in Isleworth. For about the third time in a row, we stayed at the excellent Rookley Country Park, although we did also pay a visit to our other stamping grounds at Fairway, Lower Hyde, Whitecliff Bay, Thorness Bay and Landguard.

And didn't he just love the attention? A whole weekend of flitting from toy shop to burger joint to amusement arcade. The computer may say no but unfortunately Daddy always says yes, and without the tempering influence of his more sensible mother I was always going to be a lamb to the slaughter.

But much though I love my home town it is always good to get across the sea (inasmuch as the Solent is a sea) and recharge the batteries, whatever the collateral damage.

Now I'm back, albeit exhausted and impoverished, and raring to go once again.

Our Time has Come - the Empowered Community is here to stay!

I've been intending to blog for over a week following the successful series of meetings organised by Liberal Democrat PPC and councillor Andrew Dakers to discuss parliamentary reform and the implications of the Sustainable Communities Act for the Community Empowerment agenda.

Sadly (if predictably) the meetings were boycotted by New Labour, but the participation of the Conservatives, the Greens and John Connelly from the Hounslow Independent Alliance, as well of course as the Community Group and Lib Dems, made for a good amount of cross-party discussion, and sometimes disagreement.

I sat on the Panel at the first of the four meetings, held at Isleworth Public Hall, where I was joined by Conservative councillor Adrian Lee, Green Party PPC John Hunt and Councillor Dakers, as well as the Chair David Pavett from the residents' group Campion Concerns.

Isleworth residents are obviously familiar with the empowerment idea, having elected Community councillors at the last three local elections, and the discussion started with the premise that giving more power to the grass roots was in principle the right thing to do. Whilst the sulky absence of a counter argument did unquestionably detract from the wholeness of the debate, the other members of the Panel all gave good accounts of themselves (I'll let others be the judges of my performance) and I think it would not be unreasonable for me to say that there was a feeling of general acceptance, and largely of enthusiasm, that the community agenda was in the ascendancy.

Meetings also took place in Hounslow, Brentford and Chiswick. I attended the Brentford one, albeit arriving late after trying unsuccessfully to purchase a car (needed for the ensuing weekend), but in time to witness a very impressive performance by my ICG colleague Jon Hardy. Several commentators on the community forum later delivered themselves of the view that Jon had been the pick of the bunch, despite the presence of three Prospective Parliamentary Candidates on the platform.

These fairly well-attended
but (in my view) unnecessarily expensive meetings will, I hope, prove to be the herald of a new era in the progress of the community agenda. Those who compliment us on the physical progress of the ICG over the past decade and a half - whilst their compliments are of course gratefully received - are, in fact, only half appreciating the magnitude of what has happened over that period of time and what is going on in our local politics. And what has happened is not only that the ICG has built itself up to six councillors and a working majority on the local Area Committee, but also that its political platform has begun to find favour in the most unlikely of places - in the thoughts of some of the political parties themselves!

Of course the ICG cannot in all good sense claim all the credit for the "new localism" which is being embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm by politicians of all hues on the national as well as the local scene. However, how gratifying the realisation is that the half-dozen disenfranchised and slightly angry members of the hoi polloi who sat around a beer-sodden table in the Harlequin back in '93 deliberating over how the community could kick its way back into local community life were so thoroughly ahead of their time.

At the Isleworth meeting I publicly confessed that the culture at the heart of Hounslow Civic Centre had not in my view been changed as thoroughly as I'd have hoped by now in spite of the new administration having been in place for over three years. I also resolved that I would make up for lost time in rectifying that situation. Next week a Motion will go before Borough Council pledging total sign-up at all levels of the organisation within six months.

Community Empowerment is happening. We look forward to working with all those who welcome it. Those who don't can carry on sulking, but it is happening all the same.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Take Back Power in Hounslow - Isleworth Public Hall, Monday 6th July 2009

Generally I don't make a habit of arranging and participating in deliveries of leaflets around my own ward on behalf of political parties who every four years fight my Independent Community Group (ICG) colleagues and I for our seats. However the TakeBackPowerHounslow campaign led by Brentford Liberal Democrat councillor Andrew Dakers, who is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for his party in Brentford & Isleworth constituency, offers to place the whole area of Community Engagement onto the parliamentary agenda and as such presents us with a very rare opportunity of rolling out what is essence an ICG programme across the whole country just a few short years after our own unsuccessful venture into the world of parliamentary politics.

The campaign, put in its simplest form, proposes sweeping changes in the way in which our MPs are held to account. New proposals, such as giving voters the power to "sack" MPs who underperform or abuse the system, would radically transform the way in which we're governed. At a time when confidence in politicians is perhaps at an all-time low in the wake of the expenses scandal, such an audacious programme might just be what is needed to restore confidence and thus arrest the drift towards extremism which threatens to cash in on the legitimate public disgust at the disappointing conduct of a discredited political centre.

A series of public meetings has been organised to debate the change agenda, beginning with what I hope will be a well-supported event in Isleworth. Full details are as follows:

ISLEWORTH: Monday, 6th July 2009 - Isleworth Public Hall, 7.30 pm

Chair - David Pavett (Chairman, Campion Concerns)
Councillor Phil Andrews (ICG)
Councillor Andrew Dakers (Lib Dem PPC, Brentford & Isleworth)
John Hunt (Green Party)

HOUNSLOW: Tuesday, 7th July 2009 - Montague Hall, 7.30 pm

Chair - Peter Hughes (President, Brentford Chamber of Commerce)
Councillor John Connelly (Hounslow Independent Alliance)
Councillor Andrew Dakers (Lib Dem PPC, Brentford & Isleworth)
John Hunt (Green Party)

BRENTFORD: Wednesday, 8th July 2009 - St. Paul's Church, 7.30 pm

Chair - Kath Richardson (Editor, Brentford
Councillor Andrew Dakers (Lib Dem PPC, Brentford & Isleworth)
Councillor Jon Hardy (ICG)
John Hunt (Green Party)
Mary Macleod (Conservative PPC, Brentford & Isleworth)

CHISWICK: Thursday, 9th July 2009 - Chiswick Town Hall, 7.30 pm

Chair - Helen Barnes (Editor, Hounslow & Brentford Times)
Councillor Andrew Dakers (Lib Dem PPC, Brentford & Isleworth)
Henry Gewanter (Independent, involved in expenses leak to Telegraph)
Mary Macleod (Conservative PPC, Brentford & Isleworth)

I hope as many people as possible will come along and join in the debate, not just about MPs' expenses but also on the whole issue of democratic reform. More on this will follow the first meeting on Monday evening.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Notes from the LGA Conference

I write as I am grabbing a few last minutes before being forcibly decanted from my hotel room in Harrogate, where I have been spending a few days at the Local Government Association Conference (in Harrogate, not in my hotel room). This year, promisingly, the theme was "Big Issues, Local Solutions".

The highlight of the event, as always, was a series of speeches from political heavyweights in which their commitment to empowering local authorities was once again reasserted. And yet, after many years of such speeches by notables from all the main political parties, the same local authorities remain by and large unempowered. Is this likely to change?

One can but listen to the cases they make. First into the fray yesterday was Dr. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham as well as Shadow Chancellor and Deputy Leader. When it came to my own approval rating Dr. Cable enjoyed an unfair advantage, due to the respect I have for him as a result of his work on behalf of residents suffering the activities of Mogden Sewage Treatment Works, which of course affects his own constituency as well as ours. Delivering an impressive presentation, Dr. Cable argued that local authorities can never be truly empowered for as long as they are dependent upon central government finance for the larger part of their budgets. After his speech I had the opportunity for a brief chat with Dr. Cable in which I stressed my support for the decentralist agenda which he appeared pleased we shared.

An hour or so later it was the turn of the Rt. Hon. David Cameron, Leader of the Opposition, who spoke of a "genuine localist revolution in government". Mr. Cameron acknowledged that delegates will have heard promises of more powers being devloved to local authorities before, but insisted that this time it was for real. He spoke of a new deal in which central government would hand much of its power to councils whilst expecting those same councils to hand more of their power "down" (why not "up"? - Ed.) to the communities themselves.

If he means it, and he gets the opportunity to do it, this can only be a good thing. However it came accompanied by a warning that significant resources would not be made available with which to finance the transformation. We would, instead, need to do "more for less" - a concept which, whilst I accept is sometimes doable by means of genuine efficiencies and eliminating waste - is more often in politics a justification for simply not doing at all. We shall see.

Lastly came the Rt. Hon John Denham, Secretary of State for Local Government. I make no political point when I say that I didn't really grasp the essential message of his speech. Possibly it was conference fatigue, or just maybe as a servant of the incumbent government his brief was to be more circumspect than those who aspire to power but don't yet have it. I know from personal experience that it is much easier to criticise from opposition.

In a couple of hours my colleague Councillor Paul Fisher and I will be heading back for London on the train, following the Leader of the Council whose reservation is for an hour earlier and other colleagues who departed yesterday. This evening we have an ICG social evening at a local hostelry at which we will discuss local issues and make plans for the immediate future. So much for the theory, this is the new localism in action.