Top RSS tips for local campaigners

The attentive amongst you will have spotted amongst the 30 tips from m’colleague Mark Park for aspirant politicians:

Subscribe to at least 20 sites using an RSS reader, 10 of which are not party political. Using an RSS (feed) reader is a huge time-saver and an effective way of keeping up with news and information. But there’s no point just being an expert on party politics if you want to be an elected official.

RSS readers are many and various – my favoured one is Google Reader – and having just returned from engaging in another of Mark’s tips, a week without an internet connection – mine is currently recording thousands of unread posts. Clearly I need to make progress on project inbox zero.

But here are some tips for RSS feeds for local campaigners:

  1. www.fixmystreet.com allows individuals to report problems in their street to their local council, wherever they live in the country. You can click on a map, upload a photo to show what’s wrong, and the website reports it directly to the relevant local authority. But for local campaigners… you can get a feed. Click the “Local alerts” link at the top page, key in a post code and choose whether you want a geographical radius, a council ward or all the reports for your local authority. Handy to see the sorts of things happening at a street level in your area – and sometimes gives you helpful ideas for focus leaflets.
  2. Like Fix My Street, www.theyworkforyou.com is a MySociety project, but this one is based around Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings.  You can get oodles of feeds, but the most  useful ones are the ones for your local MPs.  What are they saying?  What questions are they asking? How do they vote?  Keeping tabs on them is just a few clicks away.
  3. Just as handy, and also from the MySociety stable is www.WhatDoTheyKnow.com.  This site lets people submit Freedom of Information requests, and then tracks the responses.  There are feeds for each public body, including your local councils.  By following the link for Nottingham City, I know now that the city council owns nearly 2,000 empty commercial premises and that far more people applied for voluntary redundancy than were allowed to go.  Just think what you can learn about your local council!
  4. Flickr groups – I have the feed for the Nottingham pool of images uploaded to the Flickr website. Shortly after pretty much any interesting public event, there’s a series of interesting pictures of them.  Few of them are useful politically, but they brighten my day and give me interesting new ways of looking at my city. Some of them would be great in a FOCUS leaflet – but if you’re going to do that, make certain you have the appropriate permission from the photographer to use their image.

Other suggestions to populate your RSS reader – do any local politicians of any colour have blogs?  You can track twitter searches as an RSS feed – so set up searches with references to your name, or your town, and see what people are tweeting about. What feeds do your local press and radio offer?

And finally – if you’re going to be out and about leafleting regularly, it’s helpful to know what the weather will do.  You can get a feed of the MET Office’s Severe Weather Warnings and there’s the ever useful IsItGoingToRainToday.

Opinion: Cameron’s vision for local government is bleak

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.

Cllr Tim Ball has the full text of Vince Cable’s speech; and Iain Browne of Birkdale Focus gives an account and his reaction to it.

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.

News from Sheffield and Ashfield

Two articles drop into my inbox this morning bringing news of Lib Dem administrations on two councils north of the Trent.

Firstly Sheffield where Lib Dems are celebrating a year in control of the Council, and where the local newspaper has written a long, balanced article about what has been done in that time.

So what have the Lib Dems done for Sheffield? They have certainly been busy and, at the end of the first year, have produced a list of more than 50 decisions, ranging from multi-million pound strategies to community projects.

It wasn’t long before they were deciding to refund drivers fined for going through the Hillsborough bus and tram gates and stopping a proposed wind farm at Westwood Country Park at High Green.

They have provided free green waste collections at the kerbside, appointed an extra 15 officers to deal with crime and anti-social behaviour, planted 5,000 trees and given parents a ballot on school changes.

The list extends to naming a road Derek Dooley Way, providing extra security for Bishops House in Meersbrook Park and giving a free book to every child starting school.

It also includes “securing £674m of Government funding to improve Sheffield’s streets over the next 25 years from 2011″

And secondly Ashfield, a council in Nottinghamshire in the constituency represented by Geoff Hoon, where the Lib Dems have spent two years in minority control running the council with a cabinet composed almost entirely of first-time councillors under thirty.

In an unexpected move, Conservatives and independents on the council chose the annual meeting to vote the Labour party back into power. Here’s the statement issued by former leader Jason Zadrozny:

“I am obviously disappointed that my group will no longer be forming the administration. Over the past two years we have tried to turn around the Council after many years of failure and neglect by the Labour Party.

“In 2007, Ashfield people rejected a Labour Party tired of ideas. Unfortunately for residents they have now found themselves with a Labour-led Council without having cast a vote for it.

“Many Ashfield residents will be angry and disappointed that when they backed Independent or Conservative candidates in the last elections to remove Labour from office, little did they know that they would vote them back in.

“Since the last election the Liberal Democrats have received several votes of confidence from Ashfield people. We have had landslide wins in election after election in Sutton West, Underwood, Annesley and Jacksdale. This has been a clear message from the people that they like the direction we have been taking Ashfield in. In all these elections, Labour and their allies have all seen their support crumble. The new administration is in effect a “coalition of losers.”

“My hope now is that the new administration will not undo the progress we have been making and scupper the plans we have put in place to make Ashfield safer, cleaner and greener.

“I wish the new Leader every success and the Liberal Democrats will continue to play the fullest role possible in Council affairs. We will be a constructive and effective opposition and we will hold the new administration to account.

“Liberal Democrat Councillors believe that local people need to come first and we will of course continue to fight tirelessly for the people we represent. We look forward to the County Council elections in a few weeks time where voters will have their chance to pass their verdict on which party they want to run the County Council. Residents now know there is only one chance for change in Ashfield and that is the Liberal Democrats. Votes for the Conservatives or Independents will mean that Labour will return to power.”

Tories: put your money where your mouth is

Cllr Richard Kemp, leader of the Lib Dems in local government, has challenged Tories to take action on their new pledge to push for more mayors in English cities.

We covered this tangentially whilst discussing lovebombing last week, when we also linked to Millennium Elephant’s masterful dismissal of the entire policy:

The proposal to increase accountability will actually DILUTE it; the promise to return power to people will really move power IN to a new centre that is less representative and more remote; the plan to free local government from central government control will, in reality, SHACKLE local councils even further.

Cllr Kemp has slightly more gravitas than Millennium – and a really valid point, which is if the Tories really wanted more mayors, why haven’t they taken steps to achieve it already?

Cllr Kemp says: “In Coventry you have sufficient votes to get a resolution through the council committing the council to hold an immediate referendum on the question of whether or not there should be an elected Mayor for Coventry.

“There is no need to wait for Tory legislation when you could, in fact, do it now.

“In Leeds and Birmingham you do not have sufficient votes to get a resolution through the council but you do share control in both those cities.”