England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Highlights from the party conferences


The three party conferences inevitably concentrate on the major national issues, particularly the economy, and the media focuses (too much?) on personalities and leaders. Local government does not feature much in the main speeches, but there is much discussion of local democracy and localism in the fringes.

The announcements most relevant to local government that made the headlines (and were trailed heavily before they were made) were the extended freeze on council tax and the additional money to encourage weekly bin collections. More details are set out here. There seemed to be little or no serious discussion about the role of local government by senior politicians in their speeches.

The document below sets out – which can be downloaded for free) and comments on the announcements that were made and considers what the conferences may tell us about the future political battleground and agenda. It also describes fringe events hosted by the LGiU on social care and on the role of local authorities in education.

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Local government did not feature much on the conference floor of the Liberal Democrats and Labour conferences. Local government was given more prominence by the Conservatives – largely due to the announcements on the continuing freeze on council tax and the weekly bin collections. But local government was clearly not at the core of any of the conferences. Certainly there was no expression of a refreshed vision for local government or serious discussion (any discussion?) by senior politicians in their speeches of the right constitutional role for local government.

None of the three leaders mentioned local government once. Is that unusual? No, not really, but it is slightly disappointing all the same. Jonathan Carr-West, a director at the LGiU, put it like this in a recent Total Politics blog:

‘Big ideas matter, so does political leadership. We need them to set the tone of the debate and to define our aspirations. But as we abandon ourselves to the frenzy of the conference season we should never forget that by themselves they do not actually achieve anything. Real progress is local and messy and iterative. Politicians of all parties, if they are wise, will remember this’.

What did not gain prominence can be illuminating: David Cameron certainly mentioned the Big Society in his speech, but he did not give it centre stage; the environment and green issues were not top of anyone’s agenda; and the riots were referred to by Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and David Cameron but were only discussed in depth by Iain Duncan Smith. Two months is a long time in politics.

Party conferences, especially at this stage in the election cycle, are about themes and visions, not policy details. Ed Miliband’s call for councils to reward prospective tenants that contribute to their communities is a good example – it fitted well with his theme of responsibility from everyone in society, but there was no idea about how councils could possibly implement it.

What issues will be at the top of the agenda in the next period? There will be continued controversy about the planning reforms which the government are still firmly committed to, but where they may have to make concessions. It is not clear whether they believe the problem is, however, more around perception than policy. Housing is a key political issue – David Cameron focused on new housing in his speech and ministers made commitments on new house building that will be difficult to deliver.

Reform of social care is critical, but since the publication of Dilnot has it slipped down the political agenda? Even though it was discussed at fringe meetings there was no sense on the conference floor that it was an urgent priority – and where the government found additional money, it was for bins and freezing council tax, not for social care.

What else? Police cuts and elected commissioners will be high on the opposition’s agenda. The potential impact of reforms to business rates and localisation of council tax benefit may not have featured in the conferences, but they will loom large in local government thinking over the next year.

Critical policy areas, such as health, economic growth, welfare reform, housing supply, were, of course, prominent in debates, but ministers and shadow ministers did not spell out the importance of local government in achieving their objectives.

As John Tizard (director Public Service Partnerships) said in Public Finance, localism was debated across the party conferences in fringe meetings, but it is time for it to move to’ centre stage’. He adds

“The present government has made some positive statements and there is much in the Localism Bill to support genuine localism. However, this support seemingly is limited and it remains to be seen if localism will win against centralism right across Whitehall and even in Communities and Local Government”.

The announcements on council tax and bins, even if welcomed by some in local government, reflect these tensions. As John also says:

“Local government has to be recognised and respected as local government and not local administration”.

This clearly has not yet quite happened.