Enhancing local democracy: south east employers conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version. I am delighted to be here today to see for myself that you are taking up…

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

I am delighted to be here today to see for myself that you are taking up the challenge of this new Coalition government and thinking seriously about how you can work differently within your local areas in the context of localism and Big Society.

I know that councils in the South East have a reputation of rising to a challenge and that you have already started to think about some of those big things that will produce efficiencies and savings without compromising the quality of services you provide.

I have been interested in the work that Kent and Hampshire have been doing on capital and assets and leading the way on big procurement contracts. I know that others have been getting involved in that.

I am hearted by the desire to think differently about sharing Chief Executives and management teams like in East Hampshire and Havant, and Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire.

But there is a far greater potential for more joint working in the public sector, including the sharing of back office functions. We will support greater cooperation between councils and other local public bodies.

You and I both know that we find ourselves facing tough choices around funding, and this needs to be balanced with the protection of front line services.

We have been left with a legacy that means we can either give up and say that cuts in government spending mean worse services for people. Or we can rise to the challenge and say that we can sort this in a radical and creative way.

I want us to do the latter.

And that means we need to start by giving local people and those they elected to represent them, that’s you councillors, the wherewithal to change the way that services are delivered.

Localism isn’t just about a better conversation between Whitehall and local councils. It’s about a fundamental shift in the balance of power in this country and that is why we are bold enough to say that we must put the power right back to the people who elected us.

And we mean it.

People must have a genuine voice. A reason to get involved. A sense of responsibility for their neighbourhood.

We can’t any longer get away with Whitehall trying to dictate to local people what they want or can have. They must be able to have some control over that decision making themselves and you, as local leaders, need to help them with that.

That is why we have made things easier for you. To free you up to focus on what really matters in your area and cutting the bureaucracy that was stifling you.

In the 60 days that we have been in power we have showed that we listened to you and have got things done:

  • we have ended CAA
  • we have abolished Home Information Packs
  • we have handed back of powers to councils over garden grabbing and housing densities
  • we have scrapped regional strategies, regional assemblies and bins taxes
  • we have started to de-ring-fence more grants to give more local discretion over funding - with more to come
  • we have abolished the Standards Board for England, whilst ensuring that Councillors will remain answerable to their electorate

And we won’t stop there.

Greg Clark has already asked you what further burdens you need help with lifting and I know that councils in the South East responded positively to this with some excellent ideas. We are taking those seriously.

As the Deputy Prime Minister said when he launched his campaign to promote ‘your freedom’. “For too long new laws and regulations have taken away people’s freedoms, interfered in everyday life, and made it difficult for businesses to get by.”

We are doing something about that. We want to free you up so that you can make decisions in your local areas without worrying about some archaic piece of legislation that is preventing you from doing something sensible for your local people.

Going forward there will be less red-tape and greater public transparency and accountability - councils focusing on the frontline services that matter.

Transparency is vital for strong accountable local government. It is clear many councils have taken up the challenge since the Secretary of State wrote to council leaders at the beginning of June urging them to publish spend over £500. Windsor and Maidenhead are a good example of this and I know that other councils in the South East are following suit.

We must drive this agenda together. The best standards are ones worked up organically and collaboratively by those people that produce and use data - not ones imposed by arms-length committees. So I am grateful to those councils getting involved in the online debate around standards and challenges n this agenda. I am not underestimating those challenges. But it is not surprising that anything worth doing will test our resilience. But we all know that it is worth doing.

We will be judged on our ability to be open in sharing data with people - data about their money which the public sector spends, be it on salaries, expenses, services. And finally let’s not forget the information which individuals can contribute back to councils - say on graffiti or fly tipping incidents. Citizens can be the councils’ eyes and ears about how well your services are doing - they can feed your metrics and your own assessments for free.

And it’s not just about transparency. This is just the start.

We said in the Coalition Agreement that we will “promote a radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”. We want to make sure that we treat Local Government like grown-ups rather than insisting that a nanny state knows best.

So again we have showed that we will live up to our promises by:

  • introducing new incentives so local communities benefit directly from business and housing growth
  • implementing a review of local government finance
  • giving councils freedom to decide their own structures
  • building on the Sustainable Communities Act
  • we will work with local government to deliver a council tax freeze in 2011-12 while protecting vital local services
  • and, of course, a general power of competence.

As Eric Pickles said in his speech last week to the LGA conference, “For the first time in decades, councillors have the chance to make real decisions.”

And we want to make it easier for you to do this.

Much of this will be done through our planned Localism Bill to devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities control over housing and planning decisions. It will help set the foundations for the Big Society by radically transforming the relationships between central government, local government, communities and individuals.

The changes that will at last mean that there will be clearer accountability to the people you serve.

But I want to end on the most important point of all. We’ve got to use this opportunity to usher in not just a shift of power but of culture.

We’ll know we’ve been successful when it has become routine for local citizens - and for that matter the national media - to turn to locally-elected leaders for answers rather than the despatch box in Westminster. We want local deliverers to be much more accountable to the people they serve rather than thinking Whitehall knows best.

We have to ask those hard questions about whether we can shift power more directly into people’s hands before we assume the state has the answer to their problems.

Because in the end, it’s not really a matter of the centre letting go or councils taking the lead. It’s not just a question of how much power can be shifted.

The culture needs to be changed. And people need to see and believe in that change.

There’s a lot to be done to achieve this. But it is achievable and we need to work together to make it happen.

My colleagues and I are relying on you to take up this challenge to turn localism into a reality for you and your communities.