LGiU held fringe meetings at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences. In both cases the event was entitled ‘Who governs? Bridging the gap between localism and parliamentary sovereignty’. Roshni Mistry reports from the Conservative conference event.
Jonathan Carr-West, Chief Executive, LGiU
Cllr Sean Anstee, Leader of Trafford Council
Cllr Colin Noble, Leader of Suffolk County Council
Baroness Scott, Leader of Wiltshire Council
Mark Boleat, Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, City of London
As the title of the fringe suggests, much of the fringe discussion centred on the role local government has to play post Brexit. Not surprisingly the issue of devolution and the role of elected mayors were a large part of the discussion with differing opinions across the panel. Our discussions took place against a backdrop of an unusually quiet secretary of state for communities and local government who has not given much away about his future plans for this department.
Baroness Scott’s opening remarks touched on the issue of sovereignty; she felt that the country had lost control over policymaking, which is why she campaigned to leave the European Union. This caused some disagreement on the panel, with Mark Boleat dismissing Baroness Scott’s claims arguing that no country could achieve absolute sovereignty. He said that cities were growth points – with most economic growth centred round cities. Surveys had shown, he noted, that immigration was good for London and he suggested that how far the UK left the EU would be as important as the actual vote to leave. The differences of opinion highlight the difficulty the government has in negotiating a deal which suits rural heartlands like Wiltshire who voted to leave and metropolitan cities like London who voted to stay.
Baroness Scott went on to stress now is the time, for a sovereign British government to set priorities, policy and allocate funding accordingly. Cllr Noble picked up on the issue of EU funding post Brexit, stressing that central government needed to reassure local government that funding streams would continue.
An important point made by Mark Boleat is the fact that Brexit negotiations are going to tie up the government machine for years – a consequence of this may be the devolution agenda being placed onto the backburner.
Cllr Anstee opened saying he felt there is a real, ‘thirst’ for a discussion on the powers of Government and local authorities. He highlighted the scepticism and disenfranchisement felt by many towards central and local government. He stressed the need for an industrial strategy that would achieve inclusive growth and highlighted the opportunity that devolution could offer to address long standing social issues.
A contentious issue between panellists, which has proved divisive around the country, is the role of elected mayors. Baroness Scott argued that she was opposed to the idea of elected mayors, instead stressing the importance of reducing the number of councils and moving towards a unitary and county structure of governance. Whereas Cllr Noble argued there is a lot of support for directly elected mayors – in a post brexit world relationships with businesses needed to change and a directly elected mayor could, ‘galvanise’ this to encourage growth.
Cllr Anstee, leader of Trafford (and now Conservative mayoral candidate in Greater Manchester) –responded to a question of the rise of ‘socialist labour mayors’ in the north. He said that Conservatives should not have a defeatist attitude in the north, instead articulate better what it means to be a northern conservative.
We ran a live poll of the audience during the fringe with questions on Brexit and local government. A majority – 62 per cent – in the room felt that Brexit would be positive for local government; but, interestingly a overwhelming 90 per cent said that local government’s views would not be properly represented it the Brexit negotiations.