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Merrick Cockell: the key answers

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Sir Merrick Cockell (Con), leader Kensington & Chelsea RBC and member, LGA workforce programme board, on why he is seeking the LGA chairmanship

1. Give three examples of how the LGA will be different in three years time if you are elected chairman.

The LGA will be seen across government and by others as the national voice of local government and local public services, making an authoritative case for local democracy and leading by example.

All local government will see value in being LGA members. They will be part of a professional, cost-effective organisation led by elected members that concentrates efforts where it can have impact such as policy development, advocacy or helping councils and councillors to improve services and their skills as elected representatives.

The LGA will also be a political organisation and value the energy and ambition that is part of politics. Whilst seeking common-ground, the LGA will be able to consider and debate sensibly crucial matters for local government that have no simple solutions or appear unlikely to find unanimity.

2. Would you be prepared to publicly criticise government policy? Under what circumstances would you do so?

This government is freeing us from being the servant of the state to being the servant of local people. The coalition government has a legitimate mandate but so too do councillors and councils over local public services and local leadership, currently being enhanced by general competence powers and decentralisation.

If the LGA, representing its members, is at odds with government then I will say so, as I will when we are in agreement. Sometimes that will be in private and sometimes in public. We should not be afraid of reasoned, honest differences. The LGA and local government need to be confident and strong as we help revolutionise public services and repair our economy.

3. How efficient are councils? Will it be possible for them to adapt/transform to deliver comparable outcomes for communities and citizens under current spending constraints?

My experience of in-depth comparison of services as part of the tri-borough project with Hammersmith & Fulham LBC and Westminster City Council is that even those acknowledged to be well-run still have substantial capacity to drive out further waste and inefficiencies. In many areas we are finding one of the three spending less, with lower unit costs but getting better outcomes.

Every council has different local circumstances but strong political leaderships, willing and able to question and challenge, stand a better chance of protecting vital services whilst spending less public money. We have to focus on public value outcomes for those we serve rather than who or how a particular service is provided.

 4. Should the LGA act to improve the reputation and public perceptions of councils? If so, how?

The LGA, alongside member councils, has a role in substantially improving the reputation of local government and local public services. We have lost the high-ground of being widely recognised as the most efficient part of government.

We need a long-term strategy to improve the sector’s reputation that is not distracted by handling everyday matters or the daily news agenda. We also need senior members, particularly from the leading Conservative group, willing and able to maximise media opportunities on behalf of local government. This cannot be done without recognising that neither local government nor national government is perfect but that we take accountability and responsibility seriously and look to ourselves rather than others to find solutions to problems.

5. One of your first tasks as chairman will be to appoint a chief executive. What type of figurehead do you think the association needs, and what is an appropriate salary?

The LGA should not be appointing a ‘figurehead’ chief executive. That role should be filled by an elected politician: the next chairman. The new LGA leadership will appoint the chief executive but should involve their political groups in identifying the skills and experience required.

The ideal candidate should have a wide range of skills including being a good manager, understanding budgets, how government operates, strategic communications and possess a good Whitehall network. Having experience of a membership organisation would help.  Direct experience of local government would be an asset but to my mind, having served as a major council chief executive is not essential.

The LGA should be able to attract these skills and more, for a salary of under £170,000.

6. Under your chairmanship, would the LGA remain impartial in issues that are likely to create winners and losers, or are there times when the association would have to take a view, for example on questions of how resources are distributed around the sector?

This approach may have been appropriate in different times but a refreshed, mature LGA must participate actively in policy proposals that impact on their members. We must not recoil from debating crucial matters like resource distribution or the detailed future of business rate on the basis that there may be winners and losers.

However, I do not underestimate the challenge and I am a realist. It is unlikely, impossible probably, that the LGA could reach a single, cross-party, cross-tier, cross-region view on such highly contentious matters. But we should use the vast expertise of our member councils to identify where there may be common ground, irreconcilable differences or better options. If this is not done then we will have no chance of influencing or changing legislation. Involving our members and reaching conclusions – even if they are to agree to disagree – must be possible if we have the will and commitment to represent and help lead local government. A failure to engage, at the very least, would call into question the future relevance and purpose of the LGA.

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