Before becoming a Member of Parliament I served as Leader of the Conservative Group and then as Leader of the Council. You can imagine, then, my excitement at being offered the opportunity to take up a position at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Better still, my brief specifically includes Local Government, alongside responsibility for fire services and pubs.
My time at Brentwood Council was, I believe, essential experience for me before becoming an MP. In my opinion, local government is a hugely important part of government in our day to day to life. We see the actions of local councils when we take out our rubbish, get in our cars, get on a bus, take our kids to school – the list is endless. While life in Westminster fluctuates between one frenetic activity and another, local councils continue to monitor and improve the services that we, as residents, often take for granted on a day to day basis.
When I am out and about in Great Yarmouth talking to constituents I am often struck that, while they may have firm opinions on one or two national policies, the uniting factor always comes down to street lights, potholes or similar. I am very proud, therefore, to be able to play a part in one of the most exciting times for local government in many years.
As I have already intimated, Westminster can legislate until MPs are blue in the face but if local government does not have the power and determination to deliver these changes then the entire exercise can be futile. It is important too that councils are not simply a mouthpiece for central government, as we saw so frequently under the last government, rather they must deliver services and programmes with a local flavour. The transport system in Cumbria or Cornwall has entirely different needs and priorities to that of London or Birmingham for example.
The Localism Act is giving these powers back to local people and local councils to run their areas according to their needs. I do not believe that the importance of this should be underestimated – local government is the machine that delivers national legislation, as well as its own. If that machine is hindered by outside influences then it cannot be expected to operate properly for the residents it represents.
Economic growth is a prime example of how a well equipped council can really make a difference. Local Enterprise Partnerships – one of the flagship policies of the Conservative led government – are there to encourage local businesses to expand, put money back into local economies and create jobs for local people. The Partnerships would not and could not work if the government was not taking the hands off approach that it has.
Allowing councils to work direct with businesses means that those who have an in depth knowledge of the area and its needs can make a real difference to their own area. As tempting as it is for any government to continue to expand its power and levels of interference (see Labour 1997 to 2010), the state must trust that people know more about their area than Whitehall ever can.
We are in the difficult situation, however, where the state has been rolled out to such an extent that simply withdrawing would leave councils and local bodies high and dry. I am pleased then that this government is giving power back to councils through Enterprise Partnerships – a clear division of responsibility allows for less confusion and more confident councils who know that they can really sink their teeth into developing their area and work with the private sector to the benefit of their constituents.
The idea of rolling back the state is too often a go-to expression for politicians who, once gaining power, do precisely the opposite. This is not the case here and I for one am glad of it. The new general power of competence should be embraced as it gives council a level of autonomy and power never before enjoyed.
This brings me to my current role. So far, this article may give the impression that I am the minister responsible for making myself obsolete. To a certain extent that is true. There could not be a more interesting time for a Conservative who believes in the power of localism to be in my department. We are going to see powers transferred on a grand scale, from economic growth and education to infrastructure and environment.
If local government is the machine for delivering legislation then the job of me and my colleagues will be to provide the oil required to make the machine run properly. My aim is to work with local councils through the changes, making their new powers and responsibilities clear and ironing out difficulties along the way.
To come at local government from this angle having been a member of a Council for so many years will be absolutely fascinating and I look forward to travelling the country to see the different ways that councils implement legislation and find local answers to local problems. Also, I am very happy to hear from local government if there are things we can do to help and more poignantly more areas where we can help by getting central government out of the way.
There are exciting times ahead and I hope that I have demonstrated why these changes are so important for all of us across the country. By 2015 the governing structure of the UK will be far removed from the top-down, London centric ways of the past. I for one can think of nothing better.