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David Sparks: End central government's abuse of power

David Sparks
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The LGA’s chair elect outlines his priorities for the association

It will be with a great sense of responsibility that I take on the chairmanship of the LGA next month. Following four years of councils taking on the biggest cuts in living memory, we have just under a year to go until the general election. What happens in the following 12 months will be crucial to the future of local government, to the services we provide and to the ambitions we have for improving people’s lives.

I believe the LGA has a responsibility to every council to lead the debate, set the agenda and ensure that a clear and compelling case for devolution makes its way on to the pages of every major party’s manifesto. Last year’s Rewiring Public Services began a debate about how to tackle the funding gap. We now need to set out clear actions the next government must take in the form of a convincing offer that is too good to be refused.

Across the country there is a dire need for more new homes. There is a huge challenge to meet in ensuring there are enough places at good schools. Unemployment among young people remains stubbornly high. We in local government know that the answers to these key challenges can be found in a radical devolution of responsibilities and power to local areas.

By the end of this year, both Wales and Scotland – whatever the outcome of the referendum north of the border – will be on the road to receiving greater freedom from Whitehall. The devolution question for the rest of the UK must be answered. English local areas cannot be left behind with their hands tied.

The Council of Europe recently concluded that the ability of local authorities in England to discharge their responsibilities was often highly restricted by central government.

For too long governments on all sides of the political divide have been guilty of an abuse of power

I would go a step further. For too long now governments on all sides of the political divide have been guilty of an abuse of power. National politicians become gripped by the meddlesome urge to interfere in the local matters people elect local politicians to deal with. Westminster should have no business dictating to councils how often they can write to their residents, how to run waste collection services or how we raise and spend money to meet the needs of the people we serve.

As chair of the LGA I will be a staunch advocate for councils and the case for devolution. I will also be a determined champion for local government employees.

This army of unsung heroes have performed brilliantly through incredibly tough times. Faced with the biggest cuts in a generation, they have worked so hard at protecting vital services that people’s satisfaction with their councils has been steadily increasing. We as a sector need to recognise that.

Attacks from central government in the pages of the tabloid press take their toll on morale. We need to work harder to tell the public about the fantastic job the local government workforce is doing. We need to instigate a renaissance of careers in local government being valued and respected vocations that people are proud to do and the public truly appreciate.

One theme underpins all of this. The current model of governing the country is broken, expensive and no longer fit for the 21st century.

The success of my chairmanship of the LGA will be judged on the strength of the case we make to the public, this government, and whoever makes up the next one, that a radical devolution of power and responsibility to local areas is the only sensible answer to the big questions facing Britain today.

David Sparks (Lab), chair elect, LGA

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