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COMMENT - STRIKE THREAT PUTS LGA ON THE ROPES

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With the threat of a firefighters' strike still looming, the Local Government Association needs to take a long hard...
With the threat of a firefighters' strike still looming, the Local Government Association needs to take a long hard look at its role in the recent fiasco.

The affair has reflected poorly on the LGA, with the performance of both councillors and officers giving cause for concern.

For politicians to go into a crucial meeting with a trade union with no clear negotiating position is unfathomable, and reflects a serious failing on the part of the councillors and officers involved.

Among the councillors, the removal of Christina Jebb (Lib Dem) as chair of the employers' side raises difficult questions about the nature of cross-party working within the LGA.

As long as the LGA remains under no majority control, its credibility as a unified voice for local government depends on its ability to contain political infighting, particularly over issues as sensitive and high profile as the fire negotiations.

All the indications are that a deal was tantalisingly close to being reached. Any suggestion that this agreement was scuppered by LGA squabbling is hugely damaging not only for the organisation but for local government as a whole.

This is especially pertinent given local government's less than stellar track record on fire negotiations in recent times.

The Employers' Organisation, under Charles Nolda, was damaged by its perceived mishandling of last year's talks; local government cannot risk carrying the can for a set of unpopular fire strikes for the second time.

Local government has taken some body blows in the last two months. These include the government's decision to kick the future of local government finance into the long grass and the five-year education plan's attack on councils' role in schools.

With the government working towards its 10-year vision on the future of local government, the onus on councils to show themselves capable of greater responsibility is heavier than ever.

So where does the LGA go now? It is essential that Ms Jebb's successor, fellow Lib Dem Liz Barron, enjoys the full support of all of the association's political groups.

It is up to new LGA chair Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart (Con) to show leadership on this matter and bring councillors and officers into line to present a united position in its negotiations.

The goal of a modernised fire service is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of disorganisation and internal squabbling.

This is one trial local government simply cannot afford to botch.

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