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The LGA needs decisive political leadership with Whitehall clout if it is to break through the glass ceiling, says ...
The LGA needs decisive political leadership with Whitehall clout if it is to break through the glass ceiling, says Richard Vize

The Local Government Association's determination to break through the 'glass ceiling' hemming in its influence in government is being hampered by their use of a political rubber hammer.

After six years the association has built up a strong base of support in the Treasury and ODPM, which it is using to win new freedoms for local government. Successes include developing local strategic partnerships, establishing local public service agreements as another route to more freedoms, lobbying over the design and implementation of comprehensive performance assessments and supporting the 22 excellent councils in pursuit of new approaches to local governance.

But, as chief executive Sir Brian Briscoe wrote (LGC, 9 May): 'Other parts of Whitehall ignore us, see us as an irritant or consult us because they have to.'

This is what he describes as the glass ceiling. The Department for Education & Skills and the Department of Health have little regard for the role of councils in providing solutions to complex policy issues, while Andrew Adonis, head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, loathes local government's role in education. Perhaps he believes all education services are as bad as the one that used to be run by minister for children Margaret Hodge.

The LGA has a fairly good record for recognising where it can improve and taking action. Not long after its 1997 launch it overhauled its gargantuan committee system, while recent changes to the staff structure mean it can respond quickly to political developments. It is now more attuned to an environment where cross-cutting issues such as crime and health inequalities do not fit neatly into the old silos that dominated LGA structure and thinking.

It managed to mount a largely successful counter-attack against the government's dishonest position on education funding by bringing together lobbying, public relations, technical and political expertise, rather than simply relying on detailed technical knowledge to win the day. But there is a widespread belief - not just in the more reactionary parts of the education lobby - that the way the LGA has brought together the education and social services briefs has undermined its ability to deliver in these crucial areas. It needs more senior officer clout to support director of education and social policy, John Ransford, in dealing with Whitehall departments which have little time for local government.

But the LGA's biggest problem is the ruling Labour group. This is emphatically not a party political point - LGC has never shirked away from criticising any party - but a comment on the way the people who should be providing leadership have lost momentum and direction. The lack of ambition, meaningful political debate and fresh blood become painfully apparent when one considers Sir Jeremy Beecham has effectively been the country's leading councillorsince around 1991, yet only Dame Sally Powell, a councillor at Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, looks like a possible successor. The Conservative group, in contrast, has vigorous debates over its role in the LGA and a hotly contested leadership election between two big hitters, while a third - Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart - is waiting in the wings to lead the LGA.

The Labour group lacks an influx of new talent, while leading politicians give the impression they have run out of steam. Many talented Labour councillors, including several leaders, steer clear of taking prominent positions in the LGA. Part of the reason is simply workload, but it is also because they feel shut out from positions of power and influence. Despite improved communications with councillors over the past couple of years, the LGA is remarkably distant from the bulk of its membership, perhaps finding it more comfortable to work with Whitehall than with a rank and file which, in parts, lacks the breadth of vision to engage in the fast-moving policy debates constantly reformulating prime minister Tony Blair's approach to public services.

Those who want to get involved often complain they are not helped to do so, and some women still see it - with justification - as too much of a male preserve. The increasingly prominent role of deputy leader Dame Sally shows some willingness to embrace fresh thinking, but there is a long, long way to go. The stagnation among the ruling group can be judged by the fact that one of them, when asked how the LGA would be revitalised, replied: 'Sandy will be taking over soon.'

The LGA's politicians virtually never lead policy debates or take the initiative. Despite being awash with policy officers, the organisation is constantly outshone by think-tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research at a time when the new localism debate offers numerous opportunities.

Education is an area of significant weakness. Education chair Graham Lane, despite his hard work and dedication, simply does not carry clout in Whitehall. I know it, LGA politicians and officers know it, civil servants and ministers know it, yet Sir Jeremy does nothing about it, because he does not like taking tough, highly personal decisions such as moving someone out of a senior post. So the undermining of council education services continues, while the LGA too often fails to punch its weight or provide leadership in the education debate.

For too long, the politicians have been sitting back, looking like passengers rather than drivers, taking briefings from officers rather than taking the initiative. The LGA is well placed to capitalise on its successes and extend its influence in government, but it will not succeed without dynamic political leadership. Don't wait for Sir Sandy - start now.

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