I think it is fair to say that my first few weeks as Chairman of the LGA have been a baptism of fire rather than a honeymoon.
The Icelandic banking crisis has dominated the news over the past fortnight and we know that 123 councils are affected (with investments totaling £920 million).
As Chairman of the LGA I have led our response and been directly involved in the efforts to ensure the best possible outcome for the authorities affected.
Discussions with the administrators have been encouraging. They have indicated that the book value of the assets of each business appears to be similar to liabilities, although it is too early to give exact figures.
Questions have quite understandably been posed about why councils
invested with these banks. These must be addressed but it is also the
case that these institutions had relatively high credit ratings until
very shortly before the crisis began. The LGA has called for an enquiry
into the advice given to councils by credit agencies.
Looking beyond this immediate issue, I would like to use this forum to
briefly outline my ambitions for the LGA and for local government as a
One key lesson from the past decade is that successful governments do not try to control everything from the centre.
Councils need to be treated as equal partners and not as instruments of
Whitehall; they have a pivotal role to play in delivering solutions to
many of the problems that we face, such as caring for an ageing
population, combating crime and extremism, delivering quality housing,
tackling climate change and regenerating our cities.
These issues form the core of our Putting People First Campaign. There
is a wealth of information about this (and the various mini campaigns)
at www.lga.gov.uk Here you can also find out about our Smith Square
Debates which offer an opportunity to explore in detail how localist
solutions can address the big issues of the day.
As LGA Chairman it is my job to push this agenda forward, to argue the
case for local government as a sector and to represent the interests of
our member councils.
No party has overall control of the LGA (although the Conservative
Group is the largest bloc) and the fact that we have a Labour
Government means that we have to deal constructively with them in order
to try and get the possible deal for our members (the Icelandic banking
crisis being a prime example of this).
Clearly this poses challenges for me as a Conservative, as it did for
my predecessors, Lord Bruce-Lockhart and Sir Simon Milton. The six
years I spent leading Bradford Council, a politically hung authority,
has proved to be rather useful training.
My approach is a simple one which will also apply to a Conservative
Government; when the Government does something that benefits our
members (such as reducing the number of central targets and indicators)
I will acknowledge it. Equally, I will not be afraid to speak out when
it acts against the interests of local government.
A prime example of this is its determination to impose ‘Eco Towns’ in a
number of areas despite strong opposition from local communities and
The LGA has been very vocal on this issue and will continue to be so as
long as the Government pursues its plans against local wishes.
Local government finance is of course an area of concern to all
councils and to all council tax payers. The LGA has been particularly
vocal on this issue in recent years and a number of our campaigns have
gained widespread coverage.
Whilst acknowledging the economic benefits that come with immigration
we have clearly demonstrated that the influx of migrants and associated
demand on services has resulted in increased costs for many councils
which have not been properly reflected in funding from central
government. An ongoing area of concerns is the accuracy (or lack of) in
ONS population figures, upon which funding is based.
To highlight just a couple of further examples, the LGA has vigorously
lobbied the Government on the need for concessionary fares to be
properly funded funding and we also remain very concerned about the
continued underfunding of adult social care – a problem that will only
increase as the population continues to age.
It is when it is campaigning on these issues, which directly affect its
members, that the LGA is at its best and under my Chairmanship the
pressure will be maintained.
As LGA Chairman I am accountable to our member councils. I know that
there is a perception amongst some that the organisation it is too
London-centric, although I hope that, given my background, this is not
something that I will be accused of.
Out of necessity, much of the LGA’s work does take place in Westminster
since that is where much of the governance of the country is based.
However, under my Chairmanship the LGA will be a body that represents
and speaks on behalf of all councils regardless of tier, size or
The LGA must also ensure value for money for the subscriptions paid by
member councils, particularly with the pressures we all face on our
I believe that there is no substitute for visiting councils and I will
ensure that much of my time as Chairman is spent directly engaging with
our members in order that I am fully aware of the issues that are
affecting them and their residents.
The local government page on ConservativeHome is a very useful resource
and I look forward to providing further updates on my work in the
months to come.