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Hazel Blears interview: stepping into the future

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With the foundations now in place, Hazel Blears tells LGC that 2008 will see local government given a greater role in delivering national priorities.

Hazel Blears talks as she dances rapidly and without pause. Parliament’s most famous tap dancer reels off lists of achievements and initiatives with Riverdance rapidity.

It is just six months since Ms Blears was appointed secretary of state for communities and local government in prime minister Gordon Brown’s first cabinet. The ink of her signature on the new central/local concordat is only a few hours old when LGC meets her to discuss what 2008 has in store for local government.

But before we start, she is keen to recall the flurry of changes and initiatives that have come at “breakneck” speed since she started her new job.

The new performance framework, the reduction of national indicators from 1,200 to less than 200, the first three-year funding settlement, the sub-national review, a round of divisive reorganisation proposals she has certainly been kept busy.

Ms Blears’ theory is that the work done in the past year and on the performance framework in particular means 2008 can be the year when local government proves it is ready for new powers.

By convincing the whole of Whitehall that through local area agreements councils can deliver national priorities, the ground work will be laid for a much more ambitious agenda.

“I think it has been incredibly fast paced,” she says. “But actually it has made me feel a lot more secure about the next 12 months, because unless you have the foundations in place you can have all the great ideas you like but have nowhere to anchor them.

“It means in the next 12 months we can actually be more ambitious in our thinking because this cross-government framework means I can, I hope, convince my colleagues right across the cabinet that having a bigger role for local government and local partners is going to help them deliver on their big national priorities.”

But above all, the onus will be on the 13 city regions and clusters of councils working with the government on multi-area agreements (MAAs) to determine what new legislation will be brought forward.

Ms Blears is clear that by reaching the limit of what can be attained on job creation and economic development under existing legislation, these will pave the way for new powers.

“I want them to come up with very ambitious plans and then I want them to tell us what the three things are that are stopping them doing even more,” she explains. “I want them to explore every bit of power they have now under current legislation and then if there is one thing where they say ‘If you changed that then we could do something really good’ then I’ll need to come back to those and see what we can do.”

Last year’s sub-national review of economic development and regeneration (SNR) offered the prospect of MAA partnerships eventually being put on a permanent, statutory footing. If this is to happen, Ms Blears says she wants to see groups of authorities come forward with new governance proposals in 2008, just as those in Greater Manchester have done. There the 10 authorities of varying political leaderships have agreed a governance protocol that in essence says not every development has to be of direct benefit to an authority.

“The recognition is there that something might happen beyond your borders that might be of benefit to you,” Ms Blears says. “There might be a road scheme that you don’t actually get, but without that road scheme you don’t get your economic development, the travel-to-work area, the opportunity for jobs. In a way it is a bit like you are pooling your sovereignty as authorities to get something better out of it.”

If the idea of pooled sovereignty sounds like something to cause metropolitan authority leaders to shift awkwardly in their seats. And Ms Blears’ enthusiasm for the issue of elected mayors to be up for discussion again in 2008 will not ease their discomfort. So could an elected mayor of a city region be a long-term answer to that governance issue?

“I personally like the idea of having someone who is visible and accountable,” she says. “It might be that out of the SNR people might get to the point where they want to see a single big player. Certainly in London if you look at what Ken Livingstone is doing he is definitely making a difference.”

Returning to the present, Ms Blears discusses the central/local concordat . In the absence of a written constitution, councils’ legitimacy comes from statute which naturally limits what they can do. Ms Blears claims the signing of the concordat represents “an historic step” in agreeing what the rights and responsibilities of central and local government are.

Again, though, she comes back to the importance of assuaging the doubts of her cabinet colleagues in order to place local government centre stage. “There is still among my colleagues not quite scepticism, but they will need to be absolutely reassured that the system can deliver,” she says.

However, Ms Blears insists there is “corporate buy-in” across government and says she wants to play the role of the “corporate centre” alongside chief secretary to the Treasury Andy Burnham to help everyone get what they want out of the new way of working.

The negotiations leading up to the signing of the concordat were “really positive”, she claims. But, as usual, the issue of finance was the big sticking point. In the end, the final draft said it would adhere to the principles of the European charter of local self-government, which says local authorities should have access to a source of revenue. The Local Government Association hailed it as an important step towards reform of the local authority finance system.

Inevitably, Ms Blears takes a different view. “On the finance side there probably is more distance between us if I’m being fair,” she says. “Sir Simon [Milton, LGA chairman] and the LGA will always push for more financial independence, and I have to be very clear that as national government we have a responsibility to the public to ensure that taxation remains at an acceptable and realistic level. That’s both national taxes and local taxes, and we’re never going to come away from that.”

Sir Simon used his speech at that day’s concordat signing to call for local people to have a greater say in the running of local public services and for councils to be able to fire the chiefs of poorly performing local NHS bodies and police forces.

Asked for her opinion on the proposals, Ms Blears suddenly loses her enthusiasm and for the first time her tone becomes measured, almost threatening.

“Well, I think the LGA needs to be very careful about simply having a knee-jerk reaction on these issues,” she says calmly. “To simply announce you want to hire and fire the people who run the health service or the police force is premature to say the least. I don’t think that’s the way they’ll get progress to be frank.”

The vehemence of her response is surprising. Senior officials at the LGA privately believe the idea has support at the highest levels of government. And Ms Blears herself has previously championed the idea of giving local people a greater say over the running of police and health services notably when she was running for the deputy leadership of the Labour party.

Asked what mechanisms she proposes that could give local people that power, she falters slightly. “Well I think we need to do more work on this,” she admits.

Ms Blears is on happier ground when talking about the community engagement and participatory agenda. While local government minister John Healey and housing minister Yvette Cooper have taken the lead on some of the more technical and financial issues for which the Department for Communities & Local Government has responsibility, Ms Blears has sought to define herself by championing initiatives such as participatory budgeting and community asset transfer.

The former is clearly an area where she wants to see real progress in 2008. So far there are around 30 areas running participatory budgeting schemes which give residents a say in how councils spend their budgets. Ms Blears has said she wants all authorities to be operating such schemes within five years. But there are hints that this may be an area where the pace of change is less than breakneck and that she is getting frustrated.

“I want to see a big expansion in participatory budgeting,” she says. “Five years is a long time, as I keep telling my officials, far too long. If we can get up to 100 areas by the end of 2008 then I’d be absolutely delighted. Maybe that’s something I should set as my own New Year’s resolution!”

What is clear is that no council will get very far with Ms Blears unless it is going to great lengths to secure the engagement of local people, not just in local democratic processes but in the very running of public services.

She points to the forthcoming launch of a range of charters “obviously nothing like John Major’s charters” that will ensure that if councils are providing good services local people will play their part, for example by maintaining local parks or running
after-school clubs. Increasingly, user satisfaction will also play a greater role in determining councils’ performance.

All of this adds up to an attempt by Ms Blears’ to re-engage people with politics in a sceptical modern world where there is often little faith in authority.

“I’ve never believed that people should know their place,” she says. “I welcome scepticism. What I don’t like is cynicism. Sometimes scepticism tips over into cynicism and we need to fight that.”

Hazel Blears will be speaking at LGC’s Place-shaping through community engagement conference and workshop on 18-19 March at the Royal Horticultural Halls, London.

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