Many thanks to all those who came along to the Conservative Home "Innovation and Improvement in Local Government Conference" in Westminster yesterday afternoon. There were some excellent contributions from Council leaders and the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles (whose speech is reported in the Daily Telegraph) as well as some of the pioneers in establishing free schools. Where there is a text available it will be posted on this site. But also lots of well informed points from the floor.
Special thanks to the sponsors of the event Spikes Cavell. They have done a great job in making spending transparency intelligible by showing how much goes on each category. You can see which councils have already signed up here. Among the new additions is the City of Westminster which will be helpful to us in Hammersmith and Fulham as previously we were the only London borough.
The mood of the event was certainly upbeat. Of course Eric Pickles got a hero's welcome after the astonishing amount he has achieved in just one year to reduce bureaucracy and pursue localism. Similarly we were delighted to welcome Cllr David Burbage, the leader of Windsor of Maidenhead Council and the Lead Member for Policy Cllr Liam Maxwell. Earlier this month they gained 14 seats from the Lib Dems. Then we had Cllr Alex Williams, Deputy Leader of Trafford Council. Trafford had been reported as a "Labour target". The Conservatives romped home with no loss of seats. There are 37 Conservatives on Trafford compared to Labour's 22.
But the prevailing mood was one of impatience to ensure Conservative policies were being implemented effectively. We heard from Southampton leader Cllr Royston Smith how the Big Society was being made a reality with volunteers not only helping to keep the existing libraries open but also to reopen ones in redundant library buildings closed by Labour years earlier.
The challenge that cutting services is not inevitable because invariably the councils concerned could have achieved more savings through shared services was pursued. My own council leader Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh and Cllr Merrick Cockell of Kensington and Chelsea spoke about what great potential.
But some contributions from the floor pointed to why it doesn't happen more. Sharing services has to be politically driven not something you can rely on the senior officers to pursue – turkeys don't vote for Christmas. There will be political problems too. The Council leaders have to like each other on a personal level. There is a problem is neighbouring councils are run by different political parties. So often the bureucrats and councillors will just find it easier to cut services instead.
On free schools there could be a big problem of success for the Government. We had a panel discussion with Toby Young of the West London Free School, Natalie Evans of the New Schools Network and Mark Lehain of the Bedford and Kempston Free School.
The number of groups putting in applications is growing rapidly. What if we have several hundred, perhaps over a thousand, put in over the next year? There are will a backlash if they are rejected not because there is anything wrong with hem but purely because there is only enough money for the Government to buy a handful of sites. There need to be changes to make it easier to lease a site instead of having to buy one – as well as allowing new providers to make a profit. If those who have worked hard on perfectly good applications are told there just isn't enough capital funding for them to have the new school they desperately need you can expect a lot of Conservative (and Lib Dem) MPs to hear about it and to pass on the grievance to Michael Gove. Much better for the Government to sort this out sooner rather than later.
Lots of other subjects raised. A very successful event.