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ANALYSIS - COLOURS TO THE MAST

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As the race to become the next chairman of the Local Government Association gathers pace, LGC offers the three cand...
As the race to become the next chairman of the Local Government Association gathers pace, LGC offers the three candidates the chance to set out why they should win

Gordon Keymer

Leader, Tandridge DC

The election of the Local Government Association chairman presents an excellent opportunity for leading Conservatives to give their views on the future of the association.

As the LGA itself has pointed out, the UK has the lowest number of elected members per 100,000 electors when compared with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Denmark. The fundamental thrust of my chairmanship would be to help to rebuild a thriving local government in England.

However, there is little point in the LGA trying to rebuild local democracy when its current members feel alienated and remote from the association.

There has been talk about the new LGA chairman getting around more. I do not just talk about it - I have been doing it! I must be the councillor who has spoken at the most Conservative regional meetings as Conservative LGA group leader. I have used these as an opportunity to learn councillors' concerns and criticisms. Now I want to develop cross-party versions of these regional meetings.

Regional meetings play a vital part in giving our councillors information and a chance to meet their colleagues without the need to travel to London. But, on their own, these meetings are not enough to make members feel involved with the LGA.

To get to the bottom of councils' alienation, you need to go back to the early LGA general meetings which were marked by lively and enthusiastic debates that sometimes verged on the wild. This is no longer the case.

What has changed? As I recall, the number of group leaders from all parties attending these meetings was much higher. Certainly the early years were marked by the big players in local government from across England and Wales participating. There was a vibrancy and enthusiasm that seems to have been lost.

One of the main reasons for this has been the LGA's desire to concentrate and specialise. As all good group leaders know, the more you involve your members on a long-term basis the more they will feel involved.

So my approach as chairman would be to re-establish the LGA's early vibrancy through maximising the involvement of members and by making them all feel equally valued.

In discussions with government I would keep two key thoughts in my mind - that the government needs us as much as we need them; and that I am amazed at what so many councils achieve in very difficult circumstances.

The LGA needs to co-operate more closely with its interest groups such as the County Councils Network and the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities. If we present a united front to government on issues such as resource allocation, it can only work to our advantage.

I am proud of what I achieved as the LGA Conservative group leader and as chairman of the Conservative Councillors' Association. Since then, as a leading member of the EU's Committee of the Regions, I have helped introduce a major reform programme that is successfully making institutions such as the European Economic & Social Committee and the European Court of Justice take greater notice of local government. At the same time, I have been leading a high-profile district council and running my own business. Being a chartered accountant has its uses!

Sir Simon Milton

Leader, Westminster City Council

This is a pivotal moment for local government. With Gordon Brown collecting the keys to Number 10 within weeks, we must press our case for greater devolution. Not for its own sake, but because it will deliver better results for people and places and will give people more say in the decisions that affect them.

We need a realistic financial settlement from the comprehensive spending review 2007. We need to reduce the size of the quango state. We need to devolve greater authority for skills, transport and economic development to councils. And we need to make local area agreements a real devolution tool rather than a talking shop for officers.

The vast majority of councillors currently feel completely disconnected from their local area agreement. That won't change unless we can demonstrate LAAs are 'good for me and good for my area' because they place local councillors in the driving seat in achieving real change for their communities.

I believe to win this case, the Local Government Association must raise its own game. You cannot win an argument just by shouting louder. So if elected chairman, I would have three priorities for the LGA.

First, we must have a relentless focus on council performance in terms of service quality and value for money. Nobody should be able to claim that councils aren't up to the job. I would look to create a performance board at the LGA with a commissioning role that would lead to a significant reshaping of the currently confusing array of support bodies.

Next, we must take responsibility for generating local solutions to problems rather than waiting for Whitehall guidance. Collectively, as a sector and across the political parties, we have some of the best brains in public service. I want to make better use of them as one-size-fits-all Whitehall solutions rarely work.

And finally, we need to promote and celebrate the importance of local democracy and not just local services. We need to re-connect local democratic institutions with the people they serve. That means listening to the public on issues like weekly rubbish collections.

But there is also an important job to do internally. We know from the recent independent commission chaired by Lord Best that too many members feel the LGA is not

relevant to them, partly because it is too focused on London and Parliament. So within the LGA we need to involve a wider number of councils and the chairman must expect to be out of London one day a week, meeting groups of council leaders in their own areas.

I am a passionate believer in the importance of local democracy, which is why I have made my political career in local government. But for too many years we have willingly connived with central government in a parent-child relationship. That has to change.

The LGA chairman speaks for a large and vital part of our nation's constitution. They should have the same status as director general of the CBI or general secretary of the TUC. The LGA must remain a cross-party body but the recent local election results will inevitably be reflected in its outlook. We should not go out of our way to seek confrontation with government but nor should we shirk it if necessary.

The LGA has come a long way under Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart's chairmanship.

The next three years will be critical.

Ken Thornber

Leader, Hampshire CC

There is no doubt in its 10 formative years the Local Government Association has established itself as a formidable and influential lobbyist of central government on the national stage.

These external relationships have flourished thanks to the concerted efforts of previous chairmen and chief executives.

This focus, while successful, has led some of the association's 400 members to levy the charge of a 'London-centric' bias that appears to deliver few direct benefits to them and to be more externally than internally focused.

The challenge for the next chairman will be to work more closely with the member authorities, recognising the important role of the regional associations and the cumulative power that can result from these informed alliances. It would be my vision to further raise the profile of the LGA and local government through involving all our member authorities in a much more consultative way.

Local government is above all in 'the people business'. I believe the next decade will be dominated by issues around climate change, waste management, community cohesion and safety, but it will be the debate around adequate central government funding - in particular, social care funding - that will determine the ability of local government to meet local needs.

Were I to be elected as the next chairman of the LGA, I would make it my task to get first hand knowledge of the skills and best practice that local authorities offer.

Together we would identify areas of strength and expertise, building up a network of experts that others could draw from. This would be of real benefit to all members.

Putting authorities in direct contact with each other would also ensure the expertise and capacity of some of the larger members benefited those who were less well resourced.

In this way a chief executive or leader could look to the LGA to quickly access expert advice or a sounding board for their queries.

This must be the internal focus of the LGA. Externally, we must reach the point where it becomes an instinctive response for ministers and civil servants to seek LGA reaction on any subject that involves local government.

We have earned the trust of central government through ourrecord of improved services, achievement of Gershon savings, and innovations such as local area agreements, yet such trust has not resulted in tangible reward.

My commitment to member authorities would be to:

>>Achieve real devolution of powers to local government

>>Achieve adequate funding, particularly for social care, waste infrastructure and capital investment. Failing this, to ensure that the power to raise funding rests locally and to abolish capping

>>Ensure freedom from the stultifying effects of the targets regime

>>Ensure freedom to reflect local priorities.

In seeking to serve its membership and draw strength from it, the LGA will become a powerful national advocate of the right of local government to determine and meet local needs.

I would seek a compact of equals with central government.

This is the hallmark of a truly democratic

nation. This is my mission.

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