An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Dispatches from LGA Conference

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To Birmingham for LGA conference, the Glastonbury of localism, just with beef stew instead of Goan fish curry and Richard Kemp instead of Bono. The new Chair of the LGA is Sir Merrick Cockell, late of the London Councils parish and a localist with a proven track record of working with all parties and sticking up for local government. I think he is an excellent choice by the Conservative Group, and he marked his appointment with a thoughtful speech. He made clear that local government needs to rise to its reputational challenge and win back public trust and emphasised the value of local democratic leadership in what I took as an implicit rebuke to the prevailing tendency to undervalue local democracy and to fetishise community groups and volunteers.

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Then to the launch of a new book by Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham and all round public service guru. The session explored some of the many ideas in the publication about the ways decisions are made, the ways policy can be improved and the ways things get done in the public sector. He used the example of Kevin Hines, his quest to prevent suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge and the response of public officials to a complex problem. His example brought to mind two imaginative responses from elsewhere in the world, both Big Society in their way. In Belgrade the number of a local support group is projected onto the water with the message “you are not alone”, while in China a man named Chen Si spends his days on the Nanjing Bridge, persuading people not to jump. Community champions and public sector responses come in many forms.

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Business rates and the Local Government Resource Review provides the backdrop to this conference, as potentially the most serious reform to local government in the coming years. London Councils has made their own contribution to the debate, designing a model that would not only work in London but would also ensure fairness across the country. Nick Clegg’s speech to conference this morning contained a much trailed announcement about the future of business rates, but much of the detail remains obscure. Anna Turley has a good summary of the main issues at Left Foot Forward.

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Finally for now, a plenary session on ‘councillors as social entrepreneurs’, and the way local politicians can work with local social enterprises and community groups to deliver services and change in their areas. Inspiring as much of the work so many community projects do, the correct role for local democratic leadership is an elusive one. There is a danger that in simply being vague supporters and enablers of local projects, councillor roles are reduced to simply being the people who know the way around the Town Hall, the person with the officer’s phone number, which I don’t think says a lot about the importance of their democratic legitimacy.

Steve Reed of Lambeth perhaps pointed to a solution to this question by explaining how his council are seeking to reshape how their services are delivered to give more power to local people, doing services with people rather than to people. For him, councillors are the democratic leaders of the community, changing the council so that it is better able to meet the needs and aspirations of residents.

Another speaker compared councillors to Gandalf. I will leave you to make up your own jokes.

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Written by samelliot

June 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Finance, Localism

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