Local Government Association annual conference 2011

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. Let me start by thanking Baroness Margaret Eaton for her forthright, constructive…

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

Let me start by thanking Baroness Margaret Eaton for her forthright, constructive, tenacious leadership on behalf of local government over the past three years.

I welcome Sir Merrick Cockell to his new role. Merrick, everyone here will be familiar with your remarkable achievements as leader of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and I look forward to working with you in the months to come.

And let me say it is a privilege and an honour that Lady Bruce-Lockhart is here today, whose late husband was instrumental in making this organisation what it is today, and shaping the legacy that Merrick is now taking on.

A year ago, the Coalition Agreement - building on the manifestos of the two coalition partners - pledged a shift of power from Westminster to the people.

We promised new powers to councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.

It’s been a year now and there can be no doubt; that shift has begun.

We are dismantling the command and control apparatus of the Whitehall state.

Comprehensive Area Assessment is gone. In turn, the Audit Commission will follow.

The National Indicator Set has been scrapped. The new Single Data List will further scale back the proliferation of data demands and stealth targets by Whitehall and its quangos.

The Government Offices for the Regions have closed their doors. The Regional Strategies and a whole tier of regional bureaucracy are going too.

The discredited Standards Board regime is winding up. New rights to stop the gold-plating of the predetermination rules will strengthen freedom of speech for councillors.

We’re scaling back the interfering Best Value regime. And we will bring a General Power of Competence into force. No more will councils need to fill out Whitehall paperwork in triplicate for permission.

We’re phasing out the ring-fencing of local government grants.

And as the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government is embracing genuine fiscal devolution - letting councils keep the business rates they collect. Tax Incremental Financing will boost local regeneration and local development across the country.

This is a decisive, fundamental and irreversible change in England’s political geography, one of the world’s most centralised states. We are taking power away from Whitehall and putting it back in the hands of councillors and councils.

This first year is only a start. There is much more to do and much more to bed in.

Many of the reforms will be delivered upon the Localism Bill receiving Royal Assent, which should receive Royal Assent at the end of this year. A Local Government Finance Bill will follow to deliver on local retention of business rates and Tax Incremental Financing Powers.

An end to councils having to come to Whitehall with a begging bowl. Instead, you will have greater autonomy to plan and control your finances.

I believe as well we can change the culture and confidence of local government. When I was a council leader, I found you could only get more money for my area by talking it down. Stressing our weaknesses, not our strengths.

Local retention of business rates, in conjunction with the New Homes Bonus and a reformed Community Infrastructure Levy, will mean that councils will get more money for looking forward, not back.

Exploiting opportunity and growth and unleashing a new wave of municipal activism.

Local councils’ place is at the very centre of growth.

Confidence within local government is growing with time.

I appreciate the Government’s radical agenda and pace has been a challenge to some of our friends among the local government officers.

When abolishing regional planning, I was asked - what central guidance is being put in its place? We’re aren’t. It’s called localism.

And we’ve been quizzed - what will be put in place of Local Area Agreements or the Place Survey?…It’s called localism.

But what about statutory duties?

We have sought your help in building a clearer list of the statutory duties that Whitehall places on local government.

To some in local government, these duties are a comfort blanket. A justification for opposing change. A scary thing to look at.

The review - of which we are publishing a summary of responses in parliament today - is the first time in modern history that government has counted these duties.

Not to undermine frontline services, but as a way of attacking the foundations of Whitehall centralism from within Whitehall.

A single list itself will help put a stop to the insidious accumulation of statutory duties dumped bit by bit on councils.

Amazingly, half of all the current legal duties imposed on local government since the 1840s were imposed since 1997.

The inclusion of a duty on that list is not and never an indication that the Government was considering its removal.

The trade union Unison suggested that drawing up this list was proof we intended to abolish food safety, animal welfare, child protection, even the requirement for councils to bury the dead.

And we have said unequivocally that we would and will not remove statutory duties that protect vital frontline services.

But let’s be reasonable…

Will the sky fall in without the statutory duty to produce a petition scheme?

Does local government need a statutory “duty to promote democracy” when we have these things called local elections?

Is it really right that councils should have to seek permission of the Secretary of State before erecting a statue?

We want to strip away needless red tape to let councils get on with what matters.

At the same time as we set local government free, we want to strengthen the role of individual councillors.

Councillors are the beating heart of the Town Hall.

The champion and the advocates of the communities who elected them.

So if councillors want to return to the Committee system, let them. There is no one-size fits-all model for local government.

But we should wake up to the fact that in many councils, scrutiny isn’t working.

In licensing and health, councillors will have a stronger say to stand up for the interests of their local communities.

And on chief executive salaries, if a council wants to appoint staff on six-figure salaries, let the decision be taken in the full light of a public vote of Full Council - and then let councillors justify the decision to the press and public.

Councillors and monitoring officers now have to grapple with the latest missive from the Information Commissioner.

Councillors are being told to pay £35 a year to register as a data controller. If you don’t pay, you face the threat of court, a criminal conviction, and an unlimited fine.

Clearly, councillors should respect data protection rules.

But we will be working with the Ministry of Justice to find a common sense solution, such as allowing councillors to be covered by their corporate council registration.

Councillors shouldn’t have to pay £140 over their term of office to be allowed to reply to their constituents’ letters.

This is nothing less than a tax on volunteering.

As a former councillor myself, I recognise the skills, the talent and the ingenuity of councillors and officials - especially in challenging financial times.

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The interest on the national debt costs more than is raised from council tax, stamp duty and inheritance tax combined.

Local government accounts for a quarter of all public spending. We can’t pay off this deficit unless every part of the public sector does its bit.

As we watch the daily uncertainty of our European neighbours with smaller deficits than ours, be in no doubt the tough decisions that you took with your council’s budget made a big contribution to our county’s stability and to our country’s low interest rates.

The cost of Local Government Pension to taxpayers has trebled since 1997, to £6 billion a year. That’s equivalent to £300 per household.

Without reform, in years to come, that cost will soar even more as our population ages. It needs reform. But reforms should be fair to employees as well as taxpayers. I want to publicly acknowledge the great help the Local Government Association has given in focusing in on the qualities of a well funded scheme. I am utterly convinced that we can arrive at something that protects the rights of council taxpayers, protects pensioners and ensures people remain in the scheme.

Despite tough fiscal times, there is still money to spend.

But unlike the implicit suggestion given by the BBC television programme, ‘The Street That Cut Everything’, local councils have £53 billion to spend this year.

We’ve cut the strings attached to allow you to decide how best to spend it.

And it’s been heartening - over the past year - to see many town halls are getting things right.

There are five things I’d like to draw to your attention.

First, good councils are getting the basics right.

Seeking to deliver the very best services to local residents.

Emptying the bins. Cleaning the streets.

From Hackney to Reading - seeking not just to protect, but to strengthen their ties with the local charity, community and voluntary groups.

Second, the best councils are making prudent savings - while protecting the front line.

The fact is that there is scope, in many, places to do things more intelligently.

Tackling fraud.

Improving procurement.

Sharing services with neighbours could both save cash, and bump up standards - yet still only three in ten councils are doing it.

Getting more for less. The best show it can be done.

Like Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster, well under way with their plans to bring services together, reducing costs and improving service standards.

Third, the best councils are driving local growth - recognising that a strong local economy is the basis of a strong local community.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Like the councils in the Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership - working with banks to get quick and easy access to finance for start-up industries.

Fourth, the best councils are thinking for the long term.

Seeing this moment where reform is vital not as a quick fix, but a chance to consider profound reform of services.

Community Budgets exemplify this approach.

If we could only get in there early - and bring services together - to reach the one hundred and twenty thousand families across the country who account for more than their fair share of unemployment, truancy, drugs, crime… we could make a lasting difference in these people’s lives. And the lives of their communities.

So I salute the councils seeking to do just that.

Like Hull, forging links between youth crime programmes and support to adult offenders so that, where a whole family has a problem, the whole family gets support - not piecemeal bits and bobs.

And fifth, the best councils are throwing open their doors - becoming more transparent, more accessible and more responsive to the local people they serve.

Not just because it’s the right thing to do - but because there is no better way of preventing waste and duplication.

Trafford have gone further still, creating a free application for the iPhone to make it easier and more convenient for residents to access council services on the go.

And Redbridge developed the online budget consultation tool ‘YouChoose’ to consult citizens on budget decisions.

Local transparency and open data will change the way we work. It undermines the raison d’etre for Whitehall inspection. Robust local accountability gives the political space to justify more devolution and more power for local government.

These examples - just a selection of the wide spread of best practice across the country - are proof of the ingenuity in our town halls.

The determination of councillors to deliver a better deal for residents.

And the talent and hard work of officials - like all those who took part in the Local Government challenge.

Yet, in the wake of an unsustainable legacy of government borrowing and debt, all of our communities face challenging times.

And though all of our public services need to deliver better results on tight budgets.

This is not the time to wring our hands.

It is the time for everyone in local government to look forward and be ambitious.

Our communities are looking to you to be their champions.

Making change happen.

Championing growth.

Making services work.

Championing the communities themselves.

And making their hard-earned council tax go as far it possible can.

So whether this is your first Local Government Association conference or you’ve been here for a few years: you couldn’t have picked a more exciting time to take up the mantle.