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Local government secretary Stephen Byers' speech to the Local Government Association conference in Harrogate pushed...
Local government secretary Stephen Byers' speech to the Local Government Association conference in Harrogate pushed all the right buttons.
He evoked councils' 200 years of glorious history, stressed the value of local democracy and promised to cut red tape.
He appeared to understand and take an interest in the detail of municipal activity in a way his predecessor, John Prescott, did not - a true cabinet minister for local government.
The speech was something of a contrast with former local government minister Hilary Armstrong. Her sincerity and commitment was never in doubt, but sometimes she sounded hectoring. Mr Byers' speech was - relatively - snappy and upbeat.
The LGA's leading members and its staff were ecstatic to hear the secretary of state 'warmly welcome' its six pledges. Mr Byers conceded the need for councils to have autonomy: 'The achievement of both national aims and local priorities demands that at the front line people should not be hidebound by central regulation, controls and diktats from on high.
'They should have freedom and flexibility to pursue innovative, imaginative solutions to the problems they are facing.' He described the ideal 'practical partnership', focused on outcomes, which he believed could achieve this. The LGA's six pledges were an example of such a partnership, he said.
Mr Byers' big gesture was to identify six areas where bureaucracy could be cut back. This is something LGA chair Sir Jeremy Beecham raised in his first meeting with Mr Byers the weekend after the election, and it seems to have sunk in. Whether or not the list will become reality is another matter. Mr Byers promised to:
-Reduce the number of funding regimes
-Reduce the number of plans for council activity required of local government by central government
-Refine the best value process
-Remove red tape and bureaucracy - 60 proposals have already been identified
-Reduce the number of regimes where a minister's approval is required before action can be taken
-The development of a risk-based approach to inspection.
Many are hoping key decision-making will be simplified under the fourth promise on the list. He made soothing noises about privatisation, insisting: 'This government does not subscribe to the 'public sector bad, private sector good' approach.'
However, he then insisted his vow to push through the government's plans for the London Underground with extra safety
measures meant 'there will be no privatisation'.
But according to Transport for London chair Bob Kiley and London mayor Ken Livingstone it was the precise opposite. Mr Kiley called his rebuttal a 'dog-faced untruth . . . this is privatisation'. These wildly divergent interpretations bode ill for future dialogue on the public/private issue.
There was modest good news on local government finance. He reiterated the commitment to a local prudential regime on capital borrowing. He mentioned discretionary fees and charges, and business improvement districts. There would be a 'very hard look' at council tax increases, but no capping in this financial year.
However, capping remains. Although Mr Byers later said a white paper would look at the relationship between the amount of money raised locally and centrally, there was no mention of this in his speech. Without this, rows over regional differences in funding will continue to simmer.
The crux of Mr Byers' speech probably came in a few phrases at the end, which conveyed both Labour's desire to improve services, and its anxiety they should be seen to improve.
He confirmed the arrival of a wide-ranging local government white paper in the autumn, based on the finance green paper, to 'give us an up-to-date route map of how to achieve our shared vision of local government'.
This vision includes 'strong, confident leadership built upon a sound understanding of what local people want, a democratic mandate to deliver and clear lines of accountability'.
It 'encompasses service delivery, meeting and exceeding the standards people now expect, delivering essentials such as education, social services, fire services and local transport, improving the liveability of communities'.
He added: 'All of us need to deepen and develop that fundamental cultural change where people are put first.' Mr Byers reminded the audience of the government's power and readiness to intervene where councils fail to live up to this.
This was a reminder too that Mr Byers is part of a centralising government, and the rigours of a ministerial career can send the staunchest localist reaching for central government levers.
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