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.

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