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MILIBAND PLEDGES 'RIGOROUS REFORM'

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Minister's first speech acclaims 'local solutions' and civic pride...
Minister's first speech acclaims 'local solutions' and civic pride

By Mark Smulian

Local government faces a spell of 'rigorous and sustained reform' but will be the vehicle for community leadership and an essential partner of central government.

That was the message from communities and local government minister David Miliband in his first statement on how he wants to use his power.

He said civic pride was 'key to the success of Britain' and stressed that local area agreements would be vital to draw together priorities suitable for each area 'through negotiation through equals'.

'Local solutions need to be organised locally, and local government is there to make it happen,' he said. Councils could be the 'leader and shaper of local priorities'.

Mr Miliband spoke informally to leaders and chief executives of the eight-strong Core Cities Group, and later issued his remarks as a speech.

He held out the prospect of a substantial cut in inspections and targets so long as councils could convince the government they delivered services and led communities competently.

Notably absent was any reference to structural reform of local government.

Mr Miliband said civic action rooted in civic pride was essential to the government's 'ambitions for communities based on respect and empowerment'. But he admitted civic pride could not be imposed.

Partnership between Whitehall and town hall meant 'central government must avoid the blame game, local government must avoid the grievance culture'.

Targets and inspections 'help to raise sights and force a strategic view', Mr Miliband said.

But he admitted a visit last week to South Tyneside MBC, which covers his South Shields constituency, convinced him it was 'easy to understand why people say we have ended up with too much of a good thing'.

Mr Miliband said he would seek change where local government could show him 'the drive for accountability is getting in the way of positive outcomes rather than reinforcing them'.

South Tyneside chief executive Irene Lucas said she had shown Mr Miliband that many targets overlap, causing wasteful duplication.

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Reaction

Nottingham City Council chief executive Gordon Mitchell said the minister's language was 'refreshing, and rather different from the top-down language we have heard for the last couple of decades'.

He said it was significant the minister stressed that social and policy entrepreneurs were as important as business entrepreneurs to cities.

'It was a more rounded view of who plays a role in making a city work,' he said.

Bristol City Council assistant chief executive Terry Wagstaff said: 'He engaged comprehensively, talking about how we have to improve performance and services, and said he wanted councils to have a stronger voice.'

Nottingham leader Jon Collins (Lab) said he had shown 'a keenness to listen and understand'.

Comment - centre must convince the grass roots

As LGC predicted on 12 May, communities and local government minister David Miliband hascommitted himself to radical reform of local government to strengthen its role as a vehicle for social and economic change.

The mood music from his appearance at the Core Cities conference was promising, although even to begin to deliver the rhetoric of local government as an equal partner with central government would require a monumental cultural change among civil servants and ministers. This is hard to imagine - too few have the vision.

Last Wednesday the Local Government Association team left its meeting with ministers at the central/local partnership with a warm tingle in their loins. They are sure Mr Miliband is sincere in his support for local government renewal based on local, partnership-based solutions to achieving national social and economic objectives. They are optimistic about having a productive discussion on, for example, finding the right balance of inspection, regulation and freedom.

But Mr Miliband's radicalism and the LGA's optimism do not reflect the views of many councillors, notably in Mr Miliband's party. Both last week's meetings with ministers were the opening gambits in a complex game to flesh out what amounts to a fresh start for local government, but one which bears little relation to the vision of local power held by many councillors.

Talks at the centre will be crucial, but both the government and the LGA have to convince the mass of local government the ambitious path they are about to take is the right one. The LGA needs to get out in the country now to ensure councils feel involved in the debate if they are going to make this work.

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