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Sparks set to build bridges after contest

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David Sparks, the man who fronted councils’ response to this winter’s snow chaos, has been chosen to replace Sir Jeremy Beecham as the voice of Labour in local government.

David Sparks, the man who fronted councils’ response to this winter’s snow chaos, has been chosen to replace Sir Jeremy Beecham as Labour’s voice in local government.

Cllr Sparks, leader of the Labour group on Dudley MBC and chair of the Local Government Association’s regeneration and transport board, beat off the challenges of Salford City Council leader John Merry and Wakefield MDC leader Peter Box to be crowned leader elect of the LGA’s Labour group on Saturday.

However, Cllr Sparks only narrowly beat Cllr Box, a fact that has caused some local government party sources to claim there are fundamental divides between Labour groups around the country.

In the first round of voting, Cllr Sparks received 953 weighted votes to Cllr Box’s 942, with Cllr Merry securing 492. When second preference votes were distributed, Cllr Sparks’ weighted votes went up to 1,157 to Cllr Box’s 1,074. Second preferences were not expressed by a third of the weighted vote.

Cllr Sparks insisted the contest had been fought in the right spirit and that the candidates remained friends.

However, he acknowledged his most significant challenge would be to rebuild relations between the LGA Labour group and “the reality of local government outside of [LGA headquarters] Local Government House”.

He added: “That means linking the LGA to the regions, sub-regions or whatever partnerships local authorities have developed over recent years in response to government legislation.”

‘Nihilist’

One senior source involved in Cllr Merry’s campaign expressed his surprise at Cllr Box’s strong showing, describing him as the “nihilist candidate”.

“It shows how completely fed up with the LGA an awful lot of groups are,” he said. “It shows that Labour groups are seriously divided.

“No-one got a plurality of votes, so on the one hand we have a leader without a programme and in opposition is Peter Box who is a wrecker - he wanted to sack the whole of the Labour group’s leadership team on day one.”

Cllr Box rejected this description of himself and insisted he had “no plans” to run for the position next year. “I’m sure David will do a great job. We need to unite behind him and that’s what I shall be doing,” he said.

“What I was advocating was for the LGA Labour Group to look at how we can involve more councils and how the regions can have a greater voice. I believe the structure of the Labour group needs to be looked at to make it more federal so that all regions are represented.”

One of the starkest divides would appear to be between Labour groups from London boroughs and metropolitan authorities.

Uneasy

As well as fundamental differences over the way government grants are delivered, some London borough leaders are also thought to be uneasy at how Labour local government’s positions are sometimes formulated by politicians not in controlling groups of councils.

Cllr Sparks said he was determined to bridge the gap between London and the rest of the country. “I’m particularly sensitive to the position of London councils,” he said.

“I remember being involved with the Greater London Council in the early days of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities [one of the LGA’s predecessor bodies] and it struck me that the LGA never kept the best of the links in the old AMA between the Mets and London boroughs. There was a sense of common identity that doesn’t exist any more.

“I’m determined that the Labour group will be reorganised so we relate much more to the individual political identities that exist at regional, sub-regional and local levels.”

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