I’m really looking forward to next week when the biennial conference of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum comes to Cardiff.
There are delegates from all but one commonwealth countries and not only mayors, councillors and staff of councils but 20+ local government Ministers will also be in attendance. The UK delegation will be one of the smallest although it will be high value! The leading UK Minister present will be Lord Howell of the FCO supported by Baroness Hanham from DCLG. The devolved parliaments will be taking a lead. Obviously Wales is the most important given the location with both the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly and the First Minister attending as will the Local Government Minister from North Ireland. Baroness Eaton, Dave Wilcox and I will attend from the LGA.
So what makes 700+ people give up a week (including travelling time) to come to Cardiff? Well three things really:
Firstly and by far the most important is to share experiences with each other about how they are dealing with joint problems. Urban problems are similar everywhere. The pressure on land; the pressure on water and sewage; transport problems; housing problems. You name it – we all feel it. Though fortunately the scale of the problems that we face, even now, is nothing like the problems of sub Saharan Africa or the teeming shanty towns of Accra or Lagos.
Secondly, to build up contacts to enable good practice and knowledge to be transferred not only inside countries but between countries. If the experiences are common won’t most of the solutions?
Lastly, to lobby and develop policies to international bodies such as the Commonwealth itself (decisions of the Forum are always presented to CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting), the African Union and even the UN (there will be a number of senior diplomats from the UN in attendance).
There will, however, be an element of this conference which makes it quite different from other international events that I attend. The common tongue is English – well that’s not really very different. The real difference is that we all govern ourselves in very much the same way. The institutions that most commonwealth countries use to govern themselves are the same as ours. For good or ill we bequeathed our methods to others. This means that the roots of democracy are strong in commonwealth countries and indeed in United Cities and Local Government Africa the pan Africa local government body.
What amazes me is how little the UK uses this massive army of friends and contacts. The French, Spanish and Portugese governments regularly hold conferences of Mayors/Leaders of major cities that speak their language and share their institutional forms. They recognise that a back bench councillor can become a Mayor and then 10 years later a President or Prime minister. Big Cities are routinely part of the diplomatic effort used by other countries and indeed practice ‘diplomatic’ and foreign relations activities in a way not understood in this Country.
Our Government should be much more aware of the potential of local government/local government links and be able and willing to use them.
Finally well done Cllr Rodney Berman and the controlling Lib Dem group on Cardiff Council for inviting the conference to Cardiff. Any small amount of money that they put into it will be more than repaid by the use of hotels and in the longer term the advantages of trade and joint working that will come from such a big hearted gesture.
I hope that some of the local government journalists who cover such things might well feel it worthwhile to venture to Cardiff for a few days. Your eyes will be opened!