John Ransford, the departing chief executive of the Local Government Association, has warned it must consider abandoning its long-held position of impartiality or risk becoming irrelevant.
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Speaking at the association’s executive last month, Mr Ransford claimed the principle that it didn’t take a position on issues which pitted certain groups of councils against others would “need to be addressed”.
“It has been a constitutional principle that the LGA doesn’t get involved in distributional issues,” Mr Ransford said. “This needs to be addressed. If we are going to take a pro-active role with government then we need to be able to do that.”
Speaking to LGC last week, Mr Ransford stressed his comments represented his personal views but said failing to consider the issue would leave the LGA “weaker than it may otherwise be”.
My personal view is that I don’t think we can afford to take this purist view and still make the case for local government in the coming years
Upon the LGA’s formation in 1995, a convention was adopted that the association would lobby to increase the quantum of resources available to councils but to leave questions of distribution to special interest groups such as the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (Sigoma) or the County Councils Network. However, with local government entering a period of shrinking resources, Mr Ransford said the LGA’s new political leadership should reconsider this position.
“If we just say to the government that distribution is an issue we can’t comment on then that will be to our detriment,” he said. “My personal view is that I don’t think we can afford to take this purist view and still make the case for local government in the coming years.”
His comments came during a debate about government proposals to allow local government to keep business rate revenues – a policy with the potential to cause some councils to benefit significantly in financial terms at the expense of others.
And, the prospect of the LGA taking sides on such an issue prompted warnings from members of the executive.
“If the LGA did take a distributional view, some members may not want to pay for the privilege of having their budgets cut,” said Stephen Houghton (Lab), leader of Barnsley MBC and chairman of Sigoma.
Mr Ransford’s comments prompted differing responses from the two main candidates for the chairmanship of the LGA.
Leicestershire CC leader and LGA improvement board chair David Parsons (Con) said the LGA should focus on “principles rather than issues which could have a distributional impact”.
“Any significant change, such as localising business rates, has the potential to create winners and losers,” he said. “The LGA must work constructively with government to achieve the best deal for its members with the core principles of any new system being fair and transparent.”
However, Kensington & Chelsea RBC leader and former London Councils chairman Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) said must grapple with such thorny issues.
“A refreshed, mature LGA must participate actively in policy proposals that impact on their members,” he said. “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.”
Ransford warns end of LGA impartiality may be needed