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Musical chairs for the LGA Tories

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

When the music (Land of Hope and Glory?) stops there will be new faces at the top of Conservative local government, and those concerned will carry clout as the party controls 71% of districts and all but three county councils.

The fallout from Surrey CC leader David Hodge’s machinations over his social care budget led to his departure in March as leader of the Local Government Association Conservative group, a loss borne with fortitude by leaders who felt he should have prioritised fighting the whole sector’s corner above his own council’s difficulties.

Squared up for that vacancy are Hillingdon LBC deputy leader David Simmonds and Kent CC leader Paul Carter.

With the LGA’s chairman Gary Porter (Con) due to reach the end of his term of office next summer and it being almost inconceivable that Labour could win sufficent swing in next year’s elections to become the association’s number one political grouping, the Tory group leader will surely be the frontrunner to be the next voice of local government.

Were Cllr Carter to win, it would create a vacancy for his existing post of chair of the County Councils Network.

To add to the complications, four Tory counties – Essex, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Surrey – have given notice to leave the LGA, arguing it is too dominated by districts and so fails to represent them.

Cllr Carter would be seen as someone who would strive to keep the counties on board, while Cllr Simmonds – being from London – could be a compromise candidate. Buckinghamshire CC leader Martin Tett (Con) today ruled himself out of the contest, although nominations do not close until Tuesday, potentially allowing other candidates to enter. Warwickshire CC leader Izzi Seccombe, Suffolk CC leader Colin Noble and Gloucestershire CC leader Mark Hawthorne are among those who may also believe they have the stature to win.

Meanwhile, Neil Clarke’s departure as District Councils Network chair has sparked a contest there – in practice among the dominant Tories – between South Norfolk Council’s leader John Fuller and Stratford-on-Avon DC’s Chris Saint.

These would be important elections at any time, but more so when a number of counties have suggested the world would be a better place were they to swallow up their districts and become county unitaries.

This argument is normally framed in terms of securing increased efficiencies, but endangered districts have unsurprisingly failed to be persuaded – though with some exceptions such as those that have supported the proposed Oxfordshire county unitary.

Given the Tories hold most county and district seats it is no wonder that disputes over reorganisation have seen robust exchanges between nominal political allies.

Whoever wins the LGA, DCN and maybe CCN posts will have to undertake an awkward balancing act of representing their followers’ interests without providing the spectacle of Tories fighting in public.

The Conservative general election manifesto is not a great deal of help here. It says: “We will support those authorities that wish to combine to serve their communities better.” Combine could mean combined authorities, or two or more councils merging into a larger one.

That lack of clarity is quite likely intentional, since any future Tory communities secretary will be bound to upset some important group in their party if they act on reorganisation. Better to save such strife until long beyond the election.

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