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The Local Government Association's role within the Central Local Partnership is shouting loudly to influence govern...
The Local Government Association's role within the Central Local Partnership is shouting loudly to influence government policy and is getting results.

What fun it must be to be able to heckle from the sidelines. Making the Central Local Partnership work is not easy, and Dennis Reed's contribution (LGC, 7 July) sadly sheds no new light on how we could do it better.

There are inevitably tensions between central and local government. But to suggest the CLP arrangements impose a strait-jacket on the Local Government Association is simply laughable.

It is important to remember that the LGA's primary objective is not to grab the headlines, it is to influence government policy. That means working with the government. It means operating behind the scenes and accepting the constraints of confidentiality that joint working often involves. But it does not stop the association from promoting the case for effective local democracy loudly and clearly, or being publicly critical when necessary.

For example, in recent months the association has run a robust campaign against front line first - the move within government to ring-fence funding for public services. If promoting the case for more financial discretion for councils from the comment pages of The Guardian and the Today programme is what the LGA does from a strait-jacket, perhaps all lobbying organisations should get one.

As anyone who enjoyed the delights of the consultative committee on local government finance will know, the CLP meetings are infinitely better than what went before. Many will recall that the CCLGF deliberations were so crucial to the workings of government that the secretary of state's private office received brownie points for discovering reasons for him to leave the meetings as quickly as possible. The record was 12 minutes.

These days deputy prime minister John Prescott is an assiduous chair of CLP meetings, which are regularly attended by at least a third of the Cabinet. Every government department with an interest in local government is always represented - and by a minister. What other forum with government can make a similar claim?

Through the LGA and CLP arrangements, local government has unprecedented involvement in policy-making in Whitehall and Westminster. There really are too many examples to list, but at the time of writing there is probably nothing more important going on within government than the final stages of the comprehensive spending review. LGA members, officers and advisers are involved in the process to an extent that would have been unimaginable even 12 months ago.

Involvement is one thing. What about outcomes for councils?

Look at the inclusion of best value in the first Local Government Bill. The inclusion of the power of well-being in the second Bill. The serious discussions taking place over the idea of local public service agreements. The development of new ideas for managing councils' capital spending. These are all examples of areas in which the LGA has influenced government thinking.

But it would be stupid to pretend the partnership has created a fairy tale land in which all is sweetness and light between central and local government. It has not.

The LGA's annual review, Supporting the front line, sums up its perception of the position, arguing there is 'a critical tension' within government 'between a commitment to devolution on the one hand, and a belief in centrally driven targets and objectives on the other. This tension is the target of the LGA's lobbying objectives'.

The review adds: 'The challenge facing the LGA is to convince ministers they can and should trust local councils to tackle the needs of local communities in partnership with others. Central to the association's strategy are its key messages about local government's commitment to improvement, innovation, a citizen focus to public service and community accountability.'

The CLP provides the forum in which the LGA can mount that argument. But the LGA is not complacent about the current arrangements. Indeed at its meeting on Wednesday the CLP considered an important paper produced by the LGA - Central Local Partnership: building on the first three years.

The paper addressed both the policy debate between central and local government and the operation of the partnership meetings themselves.

Identifying the absence of a dialogue with government about its overall approach to councils as a key issue for the association, the paper states: 'There are conflicting messages about government's vision of the future of local government. The association would like a dialogue with government in which ministers were open about their expectations of and concerns about local government.'

Recognising the onus for making the partnership work better lies with both government and the association, the paper highlights where the arrangements are working well - such as the sub-groups involving the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

But the LGA paper argues that the main partnership meetings should in future be used to have a strategic debate on the key issues that matter to members and ministers. More detailed, department-specific issues should be dealt with in sub-groups and bilateral meetings.

On Wednesday ministers joined LGA members in reaffirming their support for an open, trusting and effective partnership between central and local government in the interests of local democracy and local communities.

In September the LGA will publish its manifesto for local democracy. The association will be pressing for it to be used as an opportunity for the CLP to take stock of the state of central local relations.

Three years on, the CLP arrangements are sufficiently robust for us to address the tensions between the two tiers of government - and to do so in a spirit of partnership with the interests of local people and local communities uppermost in our minds.

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