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Burt: Local vision for local members

Speech to the Local Leadership Conference, Birmingham

"I am delighted to have been asked to open this working conference by offering a view on the likelihood of local government becoming more local in the future, and what this may mean for Councillors in the light of a seemingly common political agenda to devolve more power down to the community.

I recall my short time as a councillor as amongst the most difficult in my career and not simply because as a Conservative in a distinctly pre New Labour Haringey Council the experience of opposition was going to be painful. But trying to hold down a job and learn the ropes of being a representative politician in an area where good councillors and officers were wrestling with the problems of an outer London Borough with inner London characteristics was a daily challenge. I learnt and never forgot the efforts being made through public service at this level to provide answers to some of society's most intractable problems. Retaining a sympathy and understanding of local government ever since has not been difficult. It is good to be with you.

Talk of localism is cheap and easy. But will it ever be delivered?

In my view there are two necessary conditions for this development in local government to take serious root. Firstly there must be a political structure which re-draws the relationship between central and local government, and secondly some manifest change of attitude is necessary to ensure that warm words are said with true conviction, and that new structures grow up from a different mindset than exists at present.

That a change of structure is necessary is unlikely to be contradicted by anyone here today I suspect, and of course we meet in a still expectant climate anticipating both the White Paper and Lyons.

For all sorts of reasons England has proved particularly susceptible to centralism. Despite all efforts, we are still seen by those beyond our shores to be in thrall to London economically, commercially and politically.

With the political trend having lurched towards 'more legislation is best' for as long as we can remember, it has been inevitable that MPs and Governments have seen an answer to a problem as lying in the greater concentration of power in their own hands rather than in anyone else's.

Whilst acknowledging openly that previous Conservative Governments also found it irresistible to centralise for all sorts of reasons, some good and others less so, the present administration has further extended a centralist structure onto which true localism has no chance of being grafted. It will be impossible to be realistic about local councillors opportunities to influence life locally unless some things change in a major and significant way.

The Government's audit, inspection and performance monitoring regime is out of control and beyond sense. Simon Jenkins, who writes trenchantly on these subjects, describes sitting in a Chief Executives office in 1999 in a local authority being told of the 620 performance indicators upon which he was judged. He talks of the main agencies of centralism after 2001, the Audit Commission, the Treasury and Cabinet Office as going 'near berserk'.

The CPA process for local authorities ensures that local government increasingly looks for its approval not outwards to its public, the electorate, who pay all our wages, but upwards, to the appropriate government department. Its marking of performance, the criteria of which is its own agenda, can make or mar public perception and career prospects.

The process of regionalisation, overt through the creation of unelected regional assemblies which have absorbed powers upwards from existing democratic bodies, or covert from the continuing re-organisations of ambulance services, health services, and the police into larger regional units, with a greater distance between their directing influences and local communities, is hardly designed to give a boost to the local council or councillor.

Now while central government, of any political shade, is popular and in tune with the people it can kid itself that the public is quite happy to see it run everything from the centre. But a distinct chill has settled over national politics and political parties in this country. We can no longer kid ourselves that we govern with the approval of a public content to live in a democratic paradise.

National parties and politics are unpopular as rarely before in a country where, conversely, interest in political issues, at local or national level has rarely been higher.

Our memberships have been in decline, and we have found it increasingly hard to identify and bring forward the public spirited citizen who believes that his or her concern for the community can be best served through local political service.

I think therefore this intense look into the mirror has helped to persuade Westminster that all politics are indeed local, and ensured that localism or double devolution is favour of the month.

But if it is ever to be more than this, and if national politicians are to be seen to be serious, the centralising mania I described above has to change. As far as Conservatives are concerned I can reaffirm today that we will scrap regional assemblies. We will abolish them and return their powers to the local authorities where they belong.

Secondly you should be freer to make your own spending priorities.

We will progressively phase out the ring-fencing of government grant. And we will minimise the directives, audit systems, best value regimes and all of the stark paraphernalia that tells local authorities what they can and can't do.

Thirdly I do not think we can ignore the impact the Standards Board, and the extraordinary extension of what is deemed to be a vested interest which stops a local councillor from discussing issues with the electorate and voting accordingly, is having at grass roots level. The Standards Board is also going to go, and we must recover common sense in terms of interests which truly require a denial of voting rights.

And we don't think we need another local government reorganisation.

We want to see stability in local government structures. We favour more co-operative working between councils, will wish to consider carefully local initiatives such as more elected mayors and wish to be permissive towards experiments in local democracy, but we are against a wholescale, expensive and time consuming re-organisation exercise.

But if re-structuring local government is one pillar upon which localism must be built, the second concerns the changes in attitude to which I referred earlier.

A first change in attitude is implied from the suggestions for a re-drawn relationship between the centre and local authorities. For Government to take such steps will involve 'risk'; the risk that Councils might be elected to do something which Government may not like, to have a mandate to spend in a way its local electorate may prefer, and that, horror of horrors, this may mean that public service delivery of libraries may not be the same in Newquay and Newcastle. We believe we have all grown up enough from the 80s and beyond to recreate such trust.

Secondly, too often the suggestion is made that somehow the public needs to be 'saved' from local government. When double devolution was raised by David Miliband it was not presented as an antidote to Government centralism, but rather as a check on the power of councils.

He said:-

"Devolution is a deal. It is conditional on local government taking on new powers from central government, but then sharing power with citizens, neighbourhoods and the third sector, not hoarding it." (David Miliband's speech Tuesday February 21, 2006)

Furthermore, in presenting the role of neighbourhoods at his New Local Government Network speech in January this year, Mr Miliband seemed to be suggesting that these new powers were needed to keep the foot of the people even more tightly on the neck of local government. He spoke of the need to 'extend and strengthen the power of petitions to force issues on the councils agenda' and 'trigger inquiries to force consideration of changes in local service provision'

I am not sure that he meant it, but this language does seem to perpetuate the attitude that local government is the bad guy; that it was failing people and leaving them unsatisfied through circumstances entirely within their control, which Government was now stepping in to remedy. This of course serves Government's own purposes and neatly ignores the question of whether increased freedom for councils to assess their own, ie their people's, needs, without the constraints of Government I raised earlier, might have met some of the criticisms of the public through another route!

Government has got to move away from such patronising attitudes, and embrace local government again as a rather more equal partner than it has been doing, if localism is to work. The public need the sense that in a constantly evolving and sophisticated democracy such as ours, with ever changing demands, expectations and means of delivery, the machinery of Government is never fixed and that together politicians, local and national government public servants, and the voluntary and independent sectors are also seeking new ways of doing their collective job, and see revitalised neighbourhoods as part of that development.

This language risks discussions about neighbourhood powers becoming centred around a confrontation between councils, councillors and the neighbourhood, and that some alternative local delivery mechanism must be set up to overcome perceived lack of listening and service. It is vital that councillors are drawn into these discussions. How else will we convince people that local councillors can be 'local champions'? If they and the council are continually presented as being a barrier to what a neighbourhood might want, the people who like to say 'no', then a recipe is being created for constant local ward conflict, rather than resolution and better government.

However, even with these issues addressed, there are further practical ones.

How is power to be exercised and decisions taken if not through a formalised democratic body? What can you short circuit? What and who bears risk? How do we cope with mistake and failure, and learn from these? How expensive does a failure have to be before an experiment is terminated? What risks are a local council prepared to take to see if there are new ways to listen, consider, decide and deliver?

And how will all this play in communities which risk being polarised, and then exploited by the politically dangerous?

I am not naïve enough to ignore the risks that devolved budgets might cause, or how to ensure that the loudest voices do not necessarily always hold sway, but I do believe that we should be encouraging the pilots and experiments currently going on, and looking for what is working.

Do ward councillors want a small budget? Kent and Oxford would probably be amongst those saying yes: there must be a fine balance to be found between empowerment and being overwhelmed with requests, but I am not sure that localism can be confined to more sophisticated and lowest tier consultation and discussion unless something tangible and financial results.

What about our much discussed Cabinet committee system? Does this increase efficiency at the expense of back-bench involvement? Does the perceived exclusion of some decision makers seep through to their communities? Is there further reform and rethinking needing done here?

I return, finally, to a point I made earlier that while interest and confidence in national politicians and party politics has taken a severe mauling, I find citizens locally active about issues from the obvious ones which engage them personally such as schools, crime and planning to the wider world affairs such as trade justice or climate change. It is in all our interests that communities connect their concerns with our own; that we as national and local elected politicians have truly and effectively communicated that we share these concerns so much that our involvement with local politics in our way is as meaningful and selfless as theirs is.

In a cynical world this is not easy, but a reconnected democracy is a big prize when it is becoming easier to fragment, and where we desperately need to find a way to re-discover that our neighbourhoods are building blocks for a wider shared community, rather than enclaves of increasing isolationism. Councillors will have a tremendous role to play in such an evolving, and devolving world. I and my colleagues look forward to sharing that journey with you."

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