LGAging behind


The Leader of all Local Government?

The WLLG team have been known to be fairly critical of our friends at the LGA. In a time of severe strain on the local government sector and when public understanding of local government seems to be reaching all time lows the response of the LGA has been, in our opinion, insipid.

As we noted on Friday the response to the Queen’s Speech was not a howl of outrage but a reminder that:

  • The LGA will continue its parliamentary lobbying work to ensure the best outcome for our member councils.
  • Councils have already shown remarkable resilience in coping with the spending cuts and local government is already the most efficient, transparent and trusted part of the public sector.
  • Within our legislative lobbying work we will be campaigning to ensure there is sustainable funding for local government going forward.

This is not to say that the LGA has been totally inactive. The letter organised by Sir Merrick Cockell pushing the Government to act now on Adult Social Care funding reform was a pleasant example of what the LGA should be doing. The fact that it was roundly ignored by the Government was a subtle reminder of the ineffectiveness of local government to influence the national agenda.

This is not the only example of failed leadership.

After the riots in August the LGA, as the national local government representative body had an ideal chance, indeed some might say a duty, to inform the Government’s response. As Richard Vize noted at the time:

The truth is, of course, that local government knows the issues better than anyone – from the underlying causes to the most effective ways to tackle them. Council staff know how neat, clear solutions designed in Whitehall need to be adapted and changed locally to have a chance of success. They know how tough it is to turn around chaotic lives, where poverty, addiction, worklessness, poor education, broken families and lack of ambition provide a deadly cocktail of hopelessness….

The riots are a major opportunity for councils to demonstrate what they can do, and why the answers to wicked issues are to be found locally, not in a rushed ministerial report.

What was the LGA able to do in response? Not a lot really.

And how about the nonsense over the supposed council tax freeze grant that actually made the situation worse? Nothing much

Mad policy to reward council’s who switch back to weekly bin collections even if their residents don’t want it? Nope.

Ok, how about massive cuts to Government grant disproportionately effecting local government? Very little.

Reading the above, and feeling like me about it, you might take the same opinion as councils like Doncaster and Birmingham and threaten to quit the organisation.

However, and this is a big however, I don’t really think it is the LGA’s fault.

How can local government, and thus the LGA ever really take a collective and considered view on anything? After all local authorities are political bodies. It is therefore very unlikely that the LGA will ever be able to gather together a coherent line on anything but the most anodyne of statements? If the statement above after the Queen’s Speech had been similar to that written by WLLG or the LGIU wouldn’t the Tories in the LGA have been livid? Indeed, surely local government is all about localism so if every authority was able to have a shared opinion crafted by the LGA that would be a very sad state of affairs.

Thinking of the situation in that way it is not surprising that the LGA becomes largely a technical organisation working behind the scenes to improve things around the margins and linking local authorities together.

So, is it even possible for local government to have a collective view and to really fight for the sector in a way that would make it something less than just an adjunct of Whitehall decision making? After all, if local government cedes the batten then we leave responsibility with the marginally ineffective DCLG.

I believe there is an alternative but it requires two things, a change in style from the LGA and other similar bodies and a relaxation from the overly centralised political parties in this country.

On the first point we need groupings of local authorities that are variable depending on the issues. Sometimes these will be geographical (although organisations like London Councils do pick up some of this) but others will be based on party allegiance or policy focus. We then need politicians to invest real time in taking the messages of these groups to central Government. The Government will almost certainly try and play different councils off against each other but my sincere hope is that the lively debate will at least improve the policy making process, as it relates to local government in this country.

Secondly, the parties need to let go. Labour are still haunted by the 1980s and the Conservatives have never liked division but as the politics of this country starts to disintegrate the parties need to recognise that unity can only last so long. The leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the LGA (Gerald Vernon-Jackson for the record) or the Labour (Cllr David Sparks) and Tory groups (Cllr Gary Porter) should be national figures. They should be the first to comment on local government issues and the most vocal advocates for the policies they think are needed. Likewise, we need regional leaders and policy leaders and combinations of the all of the above.

All in all we need our local politicians to step up to the plate and recognise that being a politician is not just about doing a good job within your local community. It requires more.

Now, I know that my solution is far-fetched but I hope we move, if only ever so slightly, in that direction.

Local Government will never, and should never, be coherent. But for that reason, if no other, it is far too important to be left in the hands of Westminster politicians and Whitehall bureaucrats.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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