Two issues above all will dominate the Lib Dem Conference when we meet next week in my home city of Liverpool – cuts and localism. All those debates and discussions will take place at what is a very different type of conference for us. For 92 years we have sat in opposition imploring governments to take action on this that and the other. This time we will have ministers telling us what they have done and what they will do and our demands on them and the Government will need to be well worked out so that assist not embarrass them. We will also be surrounded by more journalists and lobbyists than we have ever seen before so the beer should be flowing copiously.
Problems with cuts speak for themselves. We are apprehensive about what those will be; we are concerned that there is a difference between Lib Dems and Tories about whether cuts should be permanent; and many of us doubt the speed and extent of the cuts that are necessary. But in general terms, even though they do not admit it, there is a degree of consensus between the 3 parties that things must change. We must also remember that not all cuts are bad. The LGA has produced its own cuts list and offer to government through ‘Place Based Budgeting’ that would cut through large elements of bureaucracy and quangocracy. In that context we are on the same case as the Government.
My wife Erica and I will be launching new publication at conference on behalf of Local Government Leadership which looks at Big Society and compares it with the 40 year old methodology of community politics. Tory and Labour colleagues will launch similar publications at their conferences. Our belief is that the two have much in common not only with each other but also with the Labour programmes of neighbourhood development. All three parties now strive for the ‘holy grail’ of involvement and participation. We are perhaps more cynical than the Tory ‘wunderkinds’ who have invented Big Society for Cameron. We have been doing it for years and know that there is already a massive amount of community activity working under the surface of society and that there are probably few more people who will want to spend their evening slaving away for the community.
That is why we argue that we need to refocus our public sector delivery mechanisms around the community to allow them to engage when and in the fashion that they want to. Upper Tier and unitary authorities operate at 5 levels:
1. Conurbation working with all the other councils needed for strategic planning of services and infrastructure
2. Council wide strategies and delivery of services
3. Area based working bridging the gap between the big strategies and communities
4. Ward based activity letting the councillors be the ‘Cabinet Member’ for their Ward
5. Neighbourhoods where people get together in their street or their school to do thing for and with each other.
Realistically 95%+ of all engagement with the community is likely to be in these last two categories. Put simply if we want to get more out of people we have to change the way we do things. We need to:
- listen to people better; communicate with them better and we need to do it jointly as the public sector not organisation by organisation.
- allow staff and ward councillors more authority to change service delivery to meet real local need and not needs perceived in the Town Hall.
- join up our services around the needs of the people and communities and not the preservation of the delivering organisations.
So we have a series of fundamental challenges to ourselves, government, other Parties and the third sector. In essence we need to take LSPs and place based budgeting down to neighbourhood level so that we can squeeze every drop of efficiency out of services.
But it won’t all be serious stuff. I’m looking forward to a couple of knock about fringe meetings that I am doing with Brendan Barber from the TUC and Grant Shapps the Tory housing minister.
I am also taking Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne and Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury out and about in Liverpool to see some very worthwhile projects that we hope they will take national.
So it will be tiring and fun. I’ll talk too much, drink too much and listen too little. So going into government hasn’t changed everything then!
Cllr Richard Kemp is the Vice Chair of the LGA and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in local government.
The New Community Politics publication will be launched at 8p.m. on 21st September at suite 3, Jury’s Inn. A PDF version will be available on the Local Leadership website after the launch.