Last week’s Local Government Association conference was addressed on its final day by three representatives from Westminster who’d made the journey northwards to Harrogate to face the serried ranks of senior local government councillors and officers.
The Lib Dems were represented by Vince Cable MP, given an early morning slot that not everyone got to. He was warmly received by all those who were there, in any case, which may represent that it was just the Lib Dem LGA group present. His speech covered his history as a councillor himself in the early 1970s when local government had greater discretion – but when many of his colleagues had ended up in prison as a result of decisions they had taken. He covered how localism has come to mean different things to the different parties and how we are all proponents of localism, but mean different things by it:
There is the ‘localism’ which involves strengthening the autonomy of schools, colleges and other bodies by stripping local authorities of their role. There is the localism which really means individual choice at the expense of local community choice. There is localism in the form of regional devolution; devolution to local authorities; and devolution within local authorities. I want to talk about localism in the traditional sense of decentralisation to local communities and their elected councils: not just because I am talking to you but because I believe it is right, and an urgent priority. That is what my party means by localism though I am not sure it is true of our opponents.
Labour sent their new-in-post Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to the antepenultimate slot of the day. Twitter’s CllrTim thought the Tory and Lib Dem groups had been warned to stay away, and indeed the hall was pitifully empty by the time he took to the podium. I’m sure that rather than any organised boycott, delegates were aware the minister had been in post scant minutes, would have little new to say, and were aware of how hellish it is to leave Harrogate in peak traffic.
As it was, John Denham gave a good round up of the current awful state of Government policy in regards to local government. He even defended the Comprehensive Area Assessment, Labour’s latest wheeze for Whitehall to inspect Town Halls and bestow them with red and green flags (red flags being bad, much to the chagrin of some of my Labour colleagues in Nottingham). Earlier in the day, Vince Cable had promised to remove almost all of the inspection process and save some £800m.
Finally David Cameron, who bounded onto the stage just before lunch to a packed auditorium. The Conservatives control the LGA as they have the majority of the nation’s councillors, and so they were there in number. Contrasted with the other speakers, Cameron has never been a councillor himself. But he has spoken to the LGA three times, and he knows what buttons to press.
Many of the promises he made to councillors were welcome, if they can be believed. Like Vince, he promised less regulation and fewer inspections; an end to the Standards Board and an end to top-down reorganisations.
But the quid pro quo of the greater powers and the higher responsibilities was that a Tory government will give no more money to councils. Any further improvement or achievement will have to come as a zero sum game. His model for this was the supermarkets, and he mocked Labour’s view that cuts in expenditure necessarily lead to cuts in services by calling on the slogans our supermarkets use:
“Good food costs more at Sainsbury’s”.
“At Tesco every little bit doesn’t so much as help – in fact it’d be a 10 per cent cut in the quality of the food”.
Asda wouldn’t boast “permanently low prices – but “permanently more and more cuts in quality and service”.
But to use the supermarkets as the model for local government in the future is a deeply depressing outlook. Those low prices come from an almost monopolistic market position that local councils can never have and from an abysmal, abusive relationship with suppliers that is not a model for anyone, least of all local authorities. I well remember my student and summer work in supermarkets. They were not not the decentralised beacons of autonomy Cameron earlier said he wanted for local government: I can remember night shifts restocking shelves based on a map from head office that showed precisely what went where and hanging advertising banners from the roof based on diagrams from HQ. Even our interactions with customers on the checkouts were precisely defined: opening all conversations with references to loyalty cards with the threat of mystery shoppers to enforce it; the tills monitoring our transaction speeds and getting operators to tap in data on the shopfloor – QUEUE LENGTH??
And the spectre of less money is one that will resonate with those who were in local government during the last Conservative government. My council chamber frequently resonates with the sound of waxing lyrical along themes of schools starved of capital investment, where boilers failed and roofs leaked; of roads in states of disrepair for decades; of the one investment in transport for an entire year, a single set of traffic lights (long since removed as pedestrianisation swept in).
Dave’s final point however was an interesting exercise in transparency pinned around a phrase of “Google Government”. His idea was that councils should make available everything they spend their money on, after a model of Windsor and Maidenhead who make public every item of expenditure over £500. (Mind you, I have looked at their website, and can’t immediately see where they are doing this). The idea is that bloggers, opposition activists and councillors can more immediately hold councils for account for the spending decisions they make – and even that providers can undercut each other in a savage, dog-eat-dog frenzy that leads to local government paying you to empty your bin.
This has begun to begin in Nottingham and there are already local bloggers – some staffed by disgruntled ex-council employees who know where the bodies are buried – who are fast becoming thorns in the sides of the City Council. One of their key tools is FOI legislation, and the handy portal What Do They Know. So maybe Google governance has traction. But in £500 increments? Nottingham City Council now spends over £1bn a year – who has the stones to inspect up to two million expenditure entries? And how are we to meaningfully publish that? And ultimately – is it the sort of top-down imposition that Cameron opened his speech by saying he would abolish?
Alex Foster is a councillor in Nottingham City and attended the LGA conference for the first time last week.