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May: Local Government - Opportunities and Challenges Ahead

Speech at the Conservative Local Government Conference 2002

"Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be with you at your conference today. The Chairman has just set the scene for your work this weekend by describing clearly the important role that local government plays electorally.

"The forthcoming local elections are indeed important to us and we must recognise as a party that, in rebuilding our electoral fortunes from the grass roots, local government plays a key role.

"But today I want to go further. I want to talk not just about local government in terms of winning elections. I want to stand back and set out clearly what we as Conservatives believe about local democracy, local government and the role of local councillors.

"I was talking recently to the chief executive of a unitary authority who told me about a management development programme they had been on involving local authority chief executives and senior civil servants. They had asked one of the senior civil servants what they and ministers saw as the role of local government. Quick as a flash, without a moment's hesitation he said: 'To act as a buffer between ministers and people'.

"If that is the view in Westminster and Whitehall little wonder at the treatment local government has received over the years from central government. It has become central government's whipping boy.

"And let's make no bones about it. While Labour has increased centralisation significantly, previous Conservative governments do not have a blameless record in their approach to local government. But what started as an attempt by central government to protect people from the worst excesses of bad local councils has now, under Labour, been made a means of control, a tool for imposing Westminster's priorities over local priorities.

"For example, now the Government decides directly how some 15% of local authorities' budgets must be spent, through specific grants - what is in effect ring-fenced funding. But as you all know the true figure is far higher because local councils find themselves on the receiving end of more and more imposition from the centre - imposition of bureaucracy, of regulations, of targets and of course of moral suasion as to how the budget should be spent.

"Today local government is desperately trying to salvage some of its freedom against a Government in Westminster that sees local government merely as the tool of the centre.

"Today I want to make clear our commitment as Conservatives to local democracy. We stand alongside local government in the fight for its freedom.

"Against this background of centralisation, is it little wonder that the electorate has become so disenchanted with local democracy. With so much of what happens locally effectively being decided by central government, people wonder whether there is any point in voting in local elections.

"So the result of this increasing centralisation has been an erosion of local democracy. But centralisation also damages the effective delivery of public services and the ability of local councillors to respond to the needs of their local community.

"It hasn't always been like this. There was a time when responsive and effective local government was the engine for change delivering innovations at a local level that then became national in their scope.

"Services providing running water, sewerage, gas electricity, universal education, much of the health service and a safety net for the poor were pioneered by enterprising local corporations. They were introduced by council leaders of vision who saw the needs in their local communities and delivered public service solutions.

"We should be proud as Conservatives of the role we played in those heady days of local government when Conservative vision through men like Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham was put into practice in many of our great cities.

"That is our heritage. But in recent years as we as a party have developed policies generally to match our fundamental belief in freedom and choice for individuals so we have failed to translate that into our view of local government.

"The time has come for us as a party to stand back and ask what do we believe is the role of local government? I suggest our answer is a simple one. Good local government is about improving people's quality of life.

"Local authorities are responsible for a wide range of services that directly affect people's everyday quality of life. And the role of local government is to deliver the high quality local services that people want.

"Just think about the impact a council has on people's day-to-day life - imagine someone walking out of their front door. Has the uneven pavement been mended? Is the street clean or full of litter? Has the rubbish been properly collected? Do the street lights work?

"Have the potholes in the road been repaired? Has the traffic got worse since the council gave permission for that new development on the outskirts of the town? Why did they bring in that one-way system? And now of course the primary school's full and what's more the new houses don't even look nice. Mrs Smith next door is worried because her husband's still in hospital - they simply can't get him anywhere in a care home locally because they're all closing.

"Indeed the Department for Transport Local Government and the Regions is what I call the quality of life department because with transport and local government together it is responsible for the things that so often make the difference between having a good or bad day.

"Strong independent local government unburdened by impositions from the centre is essential to the quality of life and to re-building local democracy. Local authorities need to be able to recognise and respond to local needs, exercising community leadership and championing local interests.

"This is our model of local government. A model built on our key principles as a party of freedom, choice and independence. Unlike Labour we do not believe that Whitehall knows best. We believe in minimal state interference. We want to give people the opportunity to live their lives free from unnecessary and burdensome interference from the state.

"We also believe in diversity, not rigid conformity. The policy that works in inner city Liverpool won't necessarily work in Bradford or Hackney let alone in Basildon or Mole Valley. But finding the solution that works in a particular local area is only possible if local government has the freedom to get on with the job.

"As Iain Duncan Smith said in August, 'There should be no room for ambiguity or doubt - the Conservative Party is pro-local government. Conservatives favour the decentralisation of power. We believe in diversity, variety and pluralism.'

"So our aim in our forthcoming policy review will be quite simply to re-define radically the relationship between central and local government.

"We want to roll back the intervention from the centre.

"We want to remove regulations and restrictions on local government autonomy.

"We want to reduce the amount of ring-fenced funding,

"We want to cut the burdens imposed by central government.

"We want to revive local involvement in decision making.

"We will be the party that gives power back to local councillors to make a real difference for their local communities.

"This is not local government as a tool or adjunct of central government. It is true community government where the needs and interests of local people come first. That is our vision as Conservatives.

"Now I can understand that some of you may be sceptical about yet another Westminster politician coming down and telling you that we will listen and that we will give you more power.

"But like you, I have been a councillor. I've been on the receiving end of government decisions - what's more it was our own government! I appreciate and value the often unrecognised difference that good local government can make.

"That is why I want to work with you over the coming months to develop our vision of local government into a firm package of policies that we will deliver.

"We will be working with you to determine the regulations that can be abolished, the plans that can be scrapped, the bureaucracy that can be binned.

"And I already have some examples. You have told us that best Value is expensive and ineffective. But it's getting worse. Now the Government has decided that many parish councils will face soaring audit costs because of the imposition of Best Value - including having to pay for a full-time clerk to deal with it. Even the Local Government White Paper concedes that it will cost some parishes a staggering £30,000 a year. It is little wonder why many parish councillors are becoming increasingly despondent of the red-tape and regulations they must comply with.

"We will abolish Best Value and work with you to determine what should replace it.

"But let's look further to the bloated level of inspectorate regimes across local government. In total, including Best Value they cost the taxpayer £600 million a year.

"I can announce that I want our policy review to investigate how these tiers of inspection can be cut back. Inspection should focused on failing councils and be risk-based. Why should all councils be held back by the Hackneys of this world.

"But we should not stop there. The tiers of inspection are just part of the larger burden of targets and plans. Today, councils are judged against close to 150 performance indicators and must agree up to 66 plans with central government. Such burdens waste money and distort priorities.

"Together we will identify examples of regulatory regimes that should be dismantled in favour of local discretion.

"Together we will show that devolving power downwards is the best policy for delivering quality services to meet local needs.

"And you are already showing that Conservatives make a difference in local government. On Monday I spent a blustery and cold time at the Magna Carta School in Egham launching the Yellow School Bus Initiative put together by Conservative controlled Runnymede Borough Council with the Runnymede Business Partnership and the Magna Carta and Fullbrook secondary Schools. A Conservative council delivering for local people.

"Surrey County Council brought in a private sector company to turn around a failing school and is soon to launch its Pegasus project for school transport which will focus on primary schools. A Conservative council delivering for local people.

"Kent County Council has launched its Dependency Reduction Programme - which aims to support and help people trapped in dependency to lift themselves back into independence, employment and a better quality of life.

"Westminster Council's CCTV van, staffed by trained council officers, has played a significant role in reducing levels of crime in parts of the Borough. A Conservative council delivering for local people.

"If that is what you can achieve despite the imposition and burdens from the centre think what more good you could be doing for your local communities if you had your freedom.

"Of course Stephen Byers has claimed that the plans in his Local Government White Paper will give new freedoms to local authorities. But his plans depend on a deeply flawed concept - that of earned autonomy.

"You will be judged by the Audit Commission as high performing, coasting, striving or poor performing councils. If you are high performing then the Government will give you some extra freedom. Or so they say - freedom like the right to have ring-fenced grant replaced by targeted grant "where the council and Government judge it desirable". Or the freedom to agree reductions in plan requirements "with Government". If you do what the Government wants you will have the freedom to do - what the Government wants.

"Hardly a policy for encouraging local initiatives to meet local needs. If local democracy is to mean anything then the power to say whether or not a council is doing well should rest with the voters in the ballot box. In stark contrast to Labour's principle of 'earned autonomy' - we believe that all councils should be given freedom.

"Of course it is right that there should be powers to intervene where a local authority is clearly failing in its duty, but this should be the exception and we should always presume freedom rather than regulation.

"It is now almost five years since Labour were elected. Five years since their warm words of decentralisation - how they would 'give back responsibility to local communities', that they would 'take the shackles off local government' and that they would create 'powerful new roles for all councillors'. Five years on, not only has this not happened, but in many cases, the reverse has been the case -and the Local Government White Paper promises more of the same.

"I would like to thank everyone in this room and all our Conservative councillors for the dedication and commitment you show day in and day out in your localities.

"You are proving that if we in Westminster could have the courage to stand back and give you more freedom and power to deliver for your local communities then we could improve the quality of local services and improve the quality of people's lives.

"The Conservatives will have that courage. We will trust local government. Together we will deliver community government that delivers for all people."

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