Cllr John Whelan, Conservative opposition leader on Lambeth Council, says that Conservative Councils can make a tangible difference.
The Tory signature is beginning to take shape in local government and the voters increasing like what they see. Cue immediately to Staffordshire where on June 4 the Conservatives gained control from Labour after 25 years with a majority of 36 and an impressive 46 per cent share of the votes cast. For Philip Atkins, a new addition to the Tory Council Leaders' Club, that gave him the satisfaction of casting 76 weighted votes in the ballot for Leader of the LGA Conservative Group. Yet the real achievement for Atkins and the other 48 members of the Tory Group was getting across a simple message — building a local authority that looks outward and focuses on the people it serves.
And how? “By reviewing local services to make them better, lowering the council tax, and fundamentally changing the way we operate,” says Atkins,” but without damaging front line services.”
That this in turn involves radical approach is clear from the success of Conservative Hammersmith and Fulham, where the Conservatives took control again after long years in the wilderness in 2006. The Leader Stephen Greenhalgh, whose political heroine is Margaret Thatcher, has now delivered three years of successive annual council tax cuts and helped to craft the Tory rebranding of local government with his insistence that “we cannot settle for doing the same things better than our political opponents.”
And how? “Reducing our head count by 566 and agency spend by £3 million lopping £20 million off debt, market testing of services saving £1.3 million, and cutting office costs by £1.3 million,” says Greenhalgh.
Now flash back to May 2008. In Wolverhampton, the Conservatives emerged as the largest single party for the first time in 16 years and formed a minority administration. Instead of ducking challenges and playing it safe, Leader Neville Patten produced a savings package of £41 million involving a cut of 150 jobs. Despite the siren voices of numerous jeremiahs, the cuts proved popular with the public and the Tories retained two marginal by-election seats when the cuts were going through.
The Moral of the story? Voters as well as the Taxpayers' Alliance actually approve of leaders who vow to cut down the size of local government and get rid of non jobs. Famously, my own authority, Labour-controlled Lambeth Council, advertised for a post that amounted in plain English to a “flower pot co-ordinator” for its public buildings.
Being radical may also be the only game in town if the expected severe cuts in public spending materialise after May 2010. Ian McPherson, lead director for local government at Tribal recruitment specialists
in London warns:
“Many of the public sector spending plans announced by the government and opposition will feel the pinch of the recession. We believe the instincts of a Conservative Government would be to push market testing and the outsourcing of services more strongly.”
Reinterpreted into language for the doorstep what that really means is that Conservative local government costs you less — a message from the 20th century which is even more relevant in the 21st.
Councillor John Whelan, Conservative Group Leader in Lambeth since 1998, started his career as a professional journalist on the Burnley Express, Lancashire, in 1970.