The Local Government slot: winning with localism

It’s very possible to get a bit glum at the moment isn’t it? All the talk is about cuts and the health service reforms with our opponents blithely ignoring the facts that they were a principal cause of the deficits and that they would have had to deal with the growing problems of the NHS.

So when I am down a bit I think of the many good things that have been done by this government and work out how I can take full advantage of them both politically and for my community.

Chief amongst these is the continued drive for localism. I first became a councillor in 1975 when councils were almost a sovereign body. Within weeks of my election the Labour Party in the form of Tony Crosland and announced that, “the party is over for local government” and there was me without even a biscuit at this pretend but cancelled party!

Over the past 2 years there has been a massive movement back towards local decision-making. Ring fenced budgets have been largely abolished; the business rate will be returned to us next year; the Police Reform Act has made a number of improvements in governance and community control (yes I do thinking that elected police commissioners are bonkers); the Health Bill for all its faults will break the power of Whitehall and let local people set local priorities to deal with local problems; the Localism Act sees a massive transfer of power to councils and through councils to communities.

These are things that I have dreamed about for all those long years. My ability to be a good ‘community politician’ has always been limited by the rules of the quangos, the inspectors, the agencies and the departments. The good news is that I can now really be a community leader; the bad news is that if I am not a good community leader I have far fewer places to turn and far fewer people to blame.

That is why our Tory and Labour opponents really do not like localism. For them the dream is of nice leather benches in Town Hall or Parliament where they can take decisions for the masses. If ours is not a dream of empowered and enlightened communities then we really are in the wrong Party.

So what has the party been doing about all these opportunities? Going out and spreading the good news through our “Winning with Localism Operation”. Along with the other 2 parties we received money from the Leadership Centre for Local Government to train and inform community activists and councillors about what is in the 2 Acts and a Bill mentioned above. With a coordinator in every English region and me working centrally we have so far attended more than 90 meetings, conferences and training sessions and spoken to more than 4,000 activists and councillors.

We have been talking about the real opportunities for community and political campaigning afforded by the Localism Act in particular. On 1st April Erica and I will be there with a letter with 21 names on it demanding that a neighbourhood plan be produced for our area. We have already created a local partnership which will look not only at that but at a service delivery plan for our community and a communications plan so that we can all work together more effectively.

We’ll be drawing up a community assets register; we will be challenging our council to do things differently using its powers of General Competence; we will be challenging the council to look at more appropriate standards activity given the closure of the Standards Boards; we will e looking at our licensing system to see how much can be shaped by local communities an d not national pub chains.

The opportunities created by this Government are great. My concern is that 2 things will stop us achieving them. The first is my fear that officers simply are not up to it. For years they have stalked their silos knowing arcane facts about the NPF and PPG3 – whoops it isn’t this nonsense that is now of paramount importance but what he people say. “Oh you really cannot do that councillor” have said the timid bunnies of Chief Executives, Chief Legal Officers and Chief Finance Officers. “OH YES WE CAN” we can reply as we challenge them to use these new powers.

The second is closer to home. Are we councillors really up for change? Are we big and bold enough to grasp these opportunities and to challenge partners and our councils to do better? Too many of us also like the familiar paths and limitations which keep us within narrow confines.

But that’s not Lib Dem councillors. As we have gone round the country we have been delighted at the response and the way in which colleagues are feeling their way into new ways. The operation ceases at the end of March as all the coordinators and I are rightly involved with elections. But we will start again from July when we will be looking at what can be achieved.

In the meantime look on the LGA Lib Dem website and download our practical guide to taking advantage of localism.

* Cllr Richard Kemp CBE is the Leader of the Liverpool Liberal Democrats.

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