Do they even care about us?
Yesterday the Prime Minister attended the LGG conference and spoke to the masses. He was apparently the first serving PM to do so in history, and began by quipping that perhaps afterwards he would know why none of his predecessors had done so.
He was due to talk about localism, so thanks to a timely heads-up from @dominiccampbell I tuned in to the live web stream and listened as he began outlining localism. It started well, with reference to what in effect used to be known as Total Place, and went on to mention the current deregulating of local government.
However, before long the conversation turned away from local government. Mr Cameron instead turned the focus of the discussion over to the current headline issue – public sector pensions – and in effect used his key note speech to speak directly to the media. He set out why he was doing what he was doing, and how important it was that his party’s plans were followed through.
The discussion around the rights and wrongs of this debate are not the topic for this post, and in any case are being picked apart by far brighter and more informed minds than mine. My interest in this is instead to be a little narked at the way local government appears to have been casually tossed aside here.
I understand and accept the need for politicians to make use of opportunities to address the public effectively when they can; PR is both drummed into them at every turn by real life Malcom Tuckers as well as being a natural gift of successful politicians. However, local government is itself addressing some massive changes right now. The budget cuts and settlement are leading to unprecedented service cuts and job losses, with real impact on local communities. Hugely difficult decisions – with no right answers – are being made up and down the country, and local people are being asked to also chip in.
The Localism Bill is also on the horizon, which aims to fundamentally alter the interaction between local people and local government. In recent memory, never to my mind has local government itself been more in the public consciousness, never had so much change happening and never had more issues worthy of discussion. If a kay note speech can’t be filled with local government focussed issues now, it never will be.
Instead of any of this though we heard about the central government controlled pensions issue, with some questions around high speed rail thrown in from the audience for good measure. I know that these issues and others brought up do certainly affect public sector workers across the country, but they are also something over which local government has no control and it seems precious little influence.
Mr Cameron told us that he wanted to create a frank and honest relationship between local government and Whitehall, where each side can openly tell the other when they disagree with them. I wish he had then taken the opportunity to do just that; talk about things he agreed with or didn’t which local government could respond to. I wish he had even brought up some criticism of something – anything – to do with local government’s attitude to change. Instead I heard a speech which could have been made at any venue or press conference at the moment rather than to a group of local government specialists at an event made to look at local government issues.
An ex-colleague once told me that central government sees local government as a joke, an aside, a necessary evil that needs to be kept around for practicalities sake but bore no real relevance in the grand scheme of things. I’d love to hear something solid that gives me cause to disagree with them.
To my chagrin, yesterday I began to think they may just have been telling the truth.