Thorncliffe has been at the Local Government Association conference this week and one of our senior Labour colleagues reflects on the mood of the meeting.
The continued reductions to local government finance was one of the main subjects of discussion at this week’s LGA conference, the conference where senior councillors from all parties get together to talk shop. The figures are pretty horrific however you look at them – £16bn has been removed from local government over the past eight years of self-imposed austerity. What is interesting from a Labour point of view is how the penny is slowly dropping among our Conservative colleagues that our sector is being hung out to dry and we are on the verge of having to make some decisions that are going to have long-term consequences for local services that our residents have, rightly, come to expect.
James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, came along to tell us what a great job we are all doing and that we are incredible force for good, which I suppose was nice after Sajid Javid rocked up last year and said that we were about as democratic as Afganistan. Apparently James’ father was Chief Executive of Greenwich, though I imagine that this was in the good days of settled finance and in-house services. Anyway, after we had had our heads rubbed in what some might call a rather patronising fashion, our attention turned to the horror stories, rumours about internal party wrangling of normal local council business. It sounds a bit old fashioned to say this but most of us give up evenings and weekends because – in exactly the same way as councillors from other parties – we have a perhaps slightly old-fashioned view that local representative decision-making is the right and best way to deliver vital services for local people.
We spent plenty of time talking about housing. I’m fortunate to be able to see this vital issue from two sides – the councillor with a growing waiting list of people in genuine need of somewhere safe, affordable and secure to live, and the public affairs professional that knows that our clients want to follow the rules and sometimes have to cope with those rules changing at short notice. Anyway, there was the usual criticism about developers failing to play by the rules, reinforcing my view that good public affairs is about building trust between our clients and local decision makers.
As one long-standing councillor said to me, asking developers to solve the housing crisis is like asking Thresher’s to solve alcoholism. The appetite for councils to deliver their own housing grows, with many councils having set up their own development companies. I think that there is plenty of scope for growth in this sector, though it does feel that many councils are on the same learning journey.
We talked about internal party issues. It’s sunny and there’s a World Cup on so I doubt very much that you have been following our party’s internal review of democracy. However, for many of us there are real concerns that potential changes will actually reduce democratic transparency and mean that elected councillors are mandated to make decisions by people who are unelected with personal interests that they will never be mandated to declare, rather than by our local residents who we speak to most days. Party officials are now in no doubt how we feel.
Councillors are far from perfect but – mostly regardless of party – we are trying to do our best under pressures that are, frankly, going to get worse. So when you next meet us at a planning committee, be nice to us.