This morning I attended a round table discussion with Communities & Local Government Ministers Grant Shapps and Greg Clark. At the meeting were a cross-party mix of councillors and former councillors most of whom had experience of holding an executive portfolio. I believe I was the only Green there, I guess with a month under my belt as Cabinet member for Finance & Central Services I just about qualified!
Grant Shapps asked us what barriers there were to achieving our ambitions in local government. He wanted to brainstorm ideas that his department could help us with.
My input focussed on giving councils more money, using open data to improve partnership working with other public sector agencies and improving support for councillors through childcare and allowance schemes.
Whilst there were quite a few suggestions I strongly disagreed with, for example Tory councillors wanting to reduce pay and conditions for council staff, there was consensus on a few issues. Strongest agreement was on the highly variable quality of councillors with more needing to be done to encourage a diverse, quality set of candidates to serve. Several argued for higher allowances, but Grant Shapps made it clear the government wouldn’t countenance this. He felt councillors should be considered volunteers, more like non-executive directors than chief executives, and that he personally felt even MPs shouldn’t be paid. Which would hark back to the undesirable days of only wealthy aristocrats and merchants playing politics. But at least we know where he stands.
There was also general agreement that lack of money was a problem for councils, though no agreement on why this was or how it should be solved. I also sense some common desire to be rid of council tax and find alternative funding models. But whilst nothing was explicitly ruled out I got the sense from ministers that this was not on the cards. (And no he wouldn’t give Brighton & Hove any more funds, I did ask!)
Shapps recalled my YouTube tribunal case, having tweeted his support when things were getting heated. We agreed the standards regime was sometimes preventing councillors from performing their roles. That regime is soon to go, thankfully.
We spent some time discussing the growing role there could be for local councils in providing leadership, what this meant in terms of planning and the changes to the business rates system of funding. There were also concerns voiced that new bodies like local Police commissioners risk creating bodies of local influence in parallel to councils.
Ministers were clear that there would be no sudden shock changes to council funding when they push ahead with reforming local authority funding through business rates. Grant Shapps was vocal that year one of the new funding regime would be based on existing formula grants so minimal changes to our budgets should be expected. Which is in one sense reassuring but then begs the question of what the point of the reform is?!
All in all a mixed bag of views, but a common sense that local government has huge potential and so should be trusted and empowered by Westminster to do more for local communities.