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'A year ago we welcomed Stephen Byers as the new secretary of state to our conference in Harrogate. He has had a to...
'A year ago we welcomed Stephen Byers as the new secretary of state to our conference in Harrogate. He has had a torrid year since then but where local government was concerned he impressed many across the political spectrum with his willingness to talk and to listen and his commitment to local government. He was determined to tackle many of the problems which the LGA had identified as inhibiting the relations between central and local government and the capacity of local councils to lead andc hampion their communities. In particular we wanted to see a reduction in the expensive and time consumings ystem of plans inspections and regulation, greater financial freedom, thef reedom to trade and the reduction of ring fencing.

The ensuing Local Government White Paper and draft Local Government Bill together with other announcedm easures on deregulation and a reduction in performance indicators mark significant progress in many, but not all, of these areas.

The obsession with measurement and targetry remains palpable. Across government there are more targets than the Pentagon established during the Cold War. But one target is conspicuously missing; the White Paper failed to establish targets for the reduction in ring fencing which has trebled in the last 5 years. My guess is that the comprehensive spending review will not deliver the purge of ring-fenced funding we all want to see. The LGA has had to oppose the inclusion of a reserve power to ring fence in the Education Bill and ill thought out plans to import from Sweden a system of fines for Social Services Authorities which allegedly fail to expedite hospital discharges. It is evident that too many ministers and civil servants remain wedded to the notion of national prescription backed up by detailed guidance and regulation and an army of inspectors.

We will be debating later the comprehensive performance assessment process which, if it goes wrong, could exacerbate these trends. There are certainly major questions about the pace of the whole process and about thec onsistency of approach but in fairness the Audit Commission does appear to be listening to criticisms and the test will be whether the outcome of the process is merely another set of league tables which are about as meaningful as thet ables we used to see during the summer months of Australian Football, orw hether they are genuinely a tool to facilitate improvement and identify areas where support, or in the last resort, intervention, can be mobilised. If publication of the assessment coincides with the Authority's response by way of an improvement plan, if the generalised freedoms and flexibilities can be advanced with at least much speed as the assessment process, and if the additional freedoms and flexibilities to higher performing authorities can be identified and made available promptly, the game may prove to be worth the candle.

We await the deputy prime minister's speech tomorrow, and next week's comprehensive spending review announcement, with keen anticipation. We have already campaigned for additional resources and with some success, although not enough, in the realm of social care. We also look forward to the review of the crucial issue of the balance between central and localg overnment and local funding for local services. I am glad that there are some in the Treasury who appear to be sympathetic to our standpoint.

It is crucially important that the spending review announcement reflects our bid for additional resource for the local government improvement programme and capacity building. If additional resources are not made available to support councils in improving their performance the whole system will rapidly lose credibility and a major opportunity to improve services could be lost.

Here I must pay tribute to the invaluable work Mel Usher has done in leading the IDeA over the last three years and in putting in place one of the most ambitious improvement programmes in the public sector. His decision to leave the organisation, on health grounds, will be a great loss to the agency and to local government as a whole.

As the LGA review, Loosening the Grip, argues the real challenge facing the LGA is to secure across Whitehall acceptance of the importance of local diversity and responsiveness, the need for more effective joint working, the liberation of local initiative and the enhancement of democratic accountability.

Over the last three years the association has put an enormous amount of effort into developing ways in which a new partnership between central and local government can deliver better outcomes for local people; local PSAs, with stretching targets in return for locally relevant freedoms and flexibilities; the six commitments, with their focus of delivering better services in areas such as care for the elderly and the local environment which can really make a difference to people's lives; and now shared priorities, a deal between central and local government in which both spheres focus their effort and resources on a small number of policy areas in which improved delivery is most important.

In this weekend's issue of First the prime minister described the shared priorities as historic. His interest in them is welcome. But they will only be truly historic if they are accompanied by the same degree of imagination and enthusiasm in Whitehall, all of Whitehall, as we have shown in Local Government House. Government must use the potential offered by local PSAs and the shared priorities to break free from the command and control systemw hich is at best capable of producing limited results in the short term butc annot secure delivery across the board of either national or local aspirations towards the delivery of high class services, community leadership, and civic engagement.'

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