England & Wales

Harrogate, Cable, Cameron and Denham – do they get local democracy?

“It felt like I was there with you” someone said, commenting on the frequency of my Twitter updates from Harrogate. Micro-blogging is great for fast moving occasions like the 3 day LGA Annual Conference. Blogging is better I think for more reflective posts. My overall impression of the week was of the confidence of local government. It’s been one heck of a year since the last conference in Bournemouth, in those innocent days before the economic storm hit us. So it might be surprising to hear that the conference was more lively than ever and that the sector seemed resolutely upbeat and ready for action. Some thoughts on why this is… First, local government has been galvanised by the hugely important job that councils have to support businesses and communities through the recession. Difficult challenges, with big consequences, can be exciting. Meeting them unleashes creativity, removes obstacles, spurs ambition, demands leadership. I have seen this at first hand in the many councils I visit up and down the country. Second, local government knows that when it comes to meeting the challenges of our times, including the need to rebuild our politics after the collapse in trust in Parliamentarians, that local government can hold it’s head high and say: we have improved a lot and we are generally operating to high standards of both ethics and performance. Third, there is a rush to support ‘localism’. In Harrogate Vince Cable, David Cameron and John Denham were falling over themselves to ‘out localist’ each other. I don’t doubt their personal commitment, but depth and, more crucially breadth, is still lacking. Real localism isn’t about ‘local government’ in a pigeon holed sense… it isnt good enough to just talk about council’s in institutional terms. Real localism is about saying here are the biggest challenges… economic prosperity, reducing poverty and welfare dependency, mitigating climate change, ageing society… and here is how central government is going to scale back so that council’s can get on with working with local people to meet them in diverse ways. The acceptence of local diversity is the key, variations in and between localities is a good thing, because what people want and need from their local councils and other public service providers varies hugely. So in short, I still don’t think ‘they’ – the Westminster politicians – get ‘it’ – why we need to shift power to local councils.