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End of an era: Lord Porter’s greatest hits

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A commentary on the outgoing LGA chair’s memorable moments

Lord Porter’s four years as chair of the Local Government Association have provided LGC and others with plenty of colourful headlines, involving ‘hissy fits’, kicks ‘up the backside’ and of course the infamous naughty step.

Most recently he has accused the Treasury of “bloody-mindedness” and dismissed the chief secretary to the Treasury’s views on planning policy as ”absolute twaddle”.

His straight talking and colloquial turn of phrase have made him a refreshing voice when he appears alongside the typically ‘well spoken’, often public school educated political commentariat on Newsnight and the like.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking this down-to-earth persona made for an unsophisticated operator.

Lord Porter and his team have increasingly given the impression of being adept at knowing when to push behind the scenes and when to stick their heads above the parapet when advocating for the sector with government. He recently told LGC how he had stopped ministers “from doing stupid things”. However, it should be noted that not all of the sotto voce comments LGC receives about the LGA are entirely complimentary about its lobbying efforts and tactics for influencing ministers.

LGA chief executive Mark Lloyd told LGC he had “loved” working with Lord Porter. “Whether Gary has been shouting from the rooftops or quietly getting on with sorting things behind the scenes with government, his determination to get the very best for councils cannot be underestimated,” he says.

As Lord Porter revealed in an LGC interview to mark the end of his time at the top of the LGA, the decision to speak out is not taken lightly.

“Every time I have to do something that annoys the government, and sometimes I have to do that, we look for the place where I can redeem myself quite quickly. That has to happen because if I spent all of the time on the naughty step, we’d achieve nothing… Nobody would listen to us.”

In the interview Lord Porter also had some choice words for civil servants, suggesting some were acting as a block on much needed reforms to the system of building regulations in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire two years ago.

As the recent controversy over cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill’s role in the dismissal of Gavin Williamson as defence secretary shows, politicians criticising civil servants is not usually a good look, it’s the former that ultimately take the decisions after all.

And, whilst standing by his criticism in relation to Grenfell, Lord Porter admitted to LGC criticising civil servants was sometimes a tactic that allowed him to avoid confrontation with ministers.

Grenfell has been something of a defining issue of the former builder’s chairmanship. The failings it exposed in relation to building regulations have implications far beyond Kensington & Chelsea RBC. Mirroring councils across the country, the LGA has not confined itself to issues of direct relevance to local government but has been fighting hard to ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents of all tenures.

Housing safety would surely be getting much more airtime had Brexit and the psycho-dramas of the national Tory party not been dominating the news agenda.

It is not just ministers and Whitehall that have been on the receiving end of Lord Porter’s invectives; he has not been afraid to tell the sector a few home truths when necessary. Back in 2016 he told the sector to “stop parking its tanks on the government’s lawn” if it wanted to convince Whitehall departments to devolve more powers, while he once put former District Councils’ Network chair Neil Clarke (Con) on the “naughty step” for his intransigence over the split of business rates in two-tier areas.

He has also taken one for the team on occasion though. In November 2015 Lord Porter effectively apologised to government for what he described as an LGA “hissy fit” in the wake of the recently published spending review.

Nearly five years on, with more councils close to the edge as the flat cash settlement has failed to keep up with demand, the LGA’s initial reaction looks entirely appropriate. But Lord Porter ate humble pie, taking personal responsibility for the response, in recognition that then communities secretary Greg Clark had achieved some wins for the sector, such as a four-year settlement, and that he needed to continue to work with Mr Clark.

Keeping ministers on side has been central to Lord Porter’s approach ever since. While some might argue this has let the government off the hook for the failure to provide adequate funding for councils, against the headwind of Brexit and the backdrop of a public largely uniformed and apathetic about the sector’s plight it’s hard to imagine a more confrontational approach would have been successful in winning extra funding. 

Lord Porter’s unique style and ability to call b****** without losing friends will no doubt be missed by the sector. In this era of populists and populism, a reaction against the perception much of the political class are careerists cut from the same cloth, we could do with a few more politicians like him.

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor

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