Wednesday, July 7, 2010


To Bournemouth and my first Local Government Association conference. It’s better than it sounds, particularly given the Coalition Government’s pending bill on `Localism’.

This was trailed in a fringe meeting by Andrew Stunell MP, a Lib Dem Local Government Minister. These include a mixture of operational freedoms for Councils about which the public probably cared little – the abolition of the Standards Board, abolition of the Comprehensive Area Assessment, freedom to revert from the Cabinet system to a Committee system) .

But, more interestingly Stunell spoke of an updated version of `Total Place’ – I think they termed it Area Based Budgets - to include a wide range of public sector spending over which, as an elected body, Councils would take the strategic lead (Councils directly spend only about 15% of public money in a given place). While this leaves unanswered the knotty question of how you boss the other 85%, it feels like a step in the right direction.

Later on we hear from the porcine Eric Pickles who manages to combine a tangible air of menace with being rather funny. He sounds as thick as mince, like a fat bloke down the pub with his Daily Mail - but this belies a bright mind and sharp political instincts. While Pickles is more likely to drop dead than get promoted, I hope he gets taken seriously rather than just written up as merely a thug.
I escape an utterly tedious seminar about the recession-beating efforts of Broadland Council (Norfolk, if you’re interested No? ) and go visit the stands.

Here the local government support-industry is out wearing its best smile. Serco are there with free juice and a funkily-lit set that wouldn’t look out of place on the Other Stage at Glastonbury. You could get free Domino Pizza (yes please) and I spend a long time talking to two richly-accented northerners trying to promote the de-industrialised wastelands of East Lancashire where I grew up as a trendy new place called ‘Pennine Lancashire’. Their lovely video and photo-boards depict not the pitbulls, derelict shops and former factories I remember but people mountain-biking and holding hands on windy moorland. Apparently the designer Wayne Hemingway helped on the rebrand. Boy, does it need it.

I then head off the workshop entitled `Inspirational Speaker’. I am a sucker for a good story so I lapped up Karren Brady’s account of her time with Birmingham City. She comes across as real-nice but I tell you, I wouldn’t mess. Indeed when one of her players called out “I can see your tits from here” as she walked past on the coach, she joked back that he wouldn’t be able to see them from Crewe. Which is where he was by the following week – playing for the lowly Alexandra. She may not have a dick, she told us, but she has big balls.

Brady’s serious message, which I liked, was that talent is useless without persistence, hard work and stick-ability. She is no genius and she knows it. But she is tenacious, determined and therefore and inspiration for non-geniuses everywhere who see a bit of themselves in her. She also understands culture and its importance to success. People need to be energized and leadership is about creating an atmosphere of success and shared purpose. This, she tells us, means dealing with our R.I.P.s – Retired in Post. People who have given up and just don’t care any more. Plenty of those in local government, of course.

I thought I had seen the best of the day but then landed up in a seminar run by CIPFA – the Chartered Institute of Professional Financial People – or some-such. This deeply unpromising event turned into the highlight of my day. We heard from the CEO of Brent Council, the Leader of Kent and the head of CIPFA who was that rare thing – an engaging accountant.

The focus was finance. Everyone agreed that some kind of enhanced pooling of public money at local level is a necessity. `Kent PLC’ spends eight billion a year of public money which only about a billion comes under the direct rule of Kent County Council. All railed against the protection of health and the refusal of health to come into any local co-working. As for Lansleys proposal to give 80 billion to GPs, the CEO of Brent (rather incautiously) compared it to giving vampires control of the nation’s Blood Banks.

There was consensus about the slack still there from non-front-line roles. Fascinatingly, only 29% of Brent Council’s staff are `front-line’ or people-facing. This can be raised to 40 or 50 %. For this reason their CEO feels most of the pain can be absorbed away from the front-line. But only if cutbacks do not exceed 25%. The 40% bandied around in last weekend’s papers would, all agreed, not be possible to implement without the risk of serious breakdown in service-provision and the potential for unrest that this would create.

Three things were striking about this session. The first was the unanimity that the level of deficit spending has to be attacked quite radically and within a single Parliament. The second was the preparedness of local authorities to move well beyond what they have previously done in terms of reshaping themselves as smaller, more facilitative entities rather than as large, slowly growing providers.

The third was the shocking level of duplication in services and spend across the public sector – and how unresponsive this has been so far to any form of political co-ordination and control. Local Area Agreements and Total Place – the only things tried so far – have produced mainly meetings, hot air and minutes but little on the ground.

The big remaining question for me is that if the Localities Bill does not sanction a bigger co-ordinating role for Local Authorities – including one which enables a steering of health spending (if not full Governance), then how we get beyond the risible efforts so far is beyond me.

Although I didn’t get near the beach or enjoy more than a moment’s sunshine, I caught the train back feeling that Bournemouth had been good to me that day.

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