Tory leaders warn PM of ‘fractious’ relationship

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
23 January, 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Conservative council leaders have written to the prime minster warning that a “retrograde tendency towards greater centralism” and “constant criticisms” by ministers have left local activists “angry” and possibly unwilling to help the party win the next general election.

More than 30 county and unitary leaders have warned David Cameron of an “unhelpfully fractious relationship” between the local and central arms of the party and called for a “new start” to ensure the party does not lose in 2015.

The letter, marked “private and confidential” but seen by LGC, lists a range of issues which have angered Conservative councillors including the bypassing of councils in favour of local enterprise partnerships, constraints on council tax powers as well as proposals that “volunteer” councillors should not receive a pension.

“It is not only the substance of such policy but also the nature and tone of constant criticisms of their work by Conservative ministers which is most worrying,” the letter said.

“We are open to genuine feedback where it can be evidenced that we have fallen short in some way. Our issue is with ill informed and anecdote based general criticism and sometimes highly inaccurate personal attacks.”

The letter makes prominent mention of local government minister Brandon Lewis and Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps’ comments that councillors were volunteers, questioning their eligibility for pensions and larger allowances, but also contains a list of policies and statements from ministers covering areas such as education, business and media.

Local government was blamed for a number of problems, from poor education standards to a lack of house building, with “little or no evidence”, the letter said. In one example, the letter said local government had been blamed for the slow roll out of high speed broadband at a time when councils were “immensely frustrated by some six months of delay in [the Department for Culture, Media & Sport] in obtaining EU state aid clearance”. However, this aspect of the delay was “never mentioned”, the letter said.

So many policies appear at stark variance to our party’s commitment to localism
The creation of the Education Funding Agency, plans to bypass local planning authorities and restrictions on council tax increases above 2% were all given as examples of where the government’s policies appeared to be in “stark variance to our party’s commitment to localism”.

County and unitary leaders also complained they were being bypassed in the government’s growth agenda as the government focused on local enterprise partnerships, City Deals and planning, the latter power held by districts in two-tier areas.

“Many councils feel increasingly bypassed when responsibilities and funding is proposed to be diverted to still inexperienced and poorly resourced Local Enterprise Partnerships for roles that councils currently perform well,” the letter said.

It is unfortunate to read of LGA leaders referred to in the press in pejorative terms by a cabinet member
The Conservative signatories to the letter said they had written to the prime minister because their concerns “are not solely with one department”, but they also appeared to allude to communities secretary Eric Pickles’ occasionally dismissive treatment of local government concerns.

“We have been raising these concerns for some time via our senior Conservative Party representatives on the LGA. It is therefore unfortunate to read of them referred to in the press in pejorative terms by a cabinet member.”

In a recent interview with House magazine Mr Pickles said the LGA was “the voice of the officer class with the odd politician thrown in as a hostage handcuffed to the radiator and they occasionally speak”.

The Conservative party has recently made some changes in a bid to improve the representation of Conservative councillor views in its structures with the appointment of former local government minister Bob Neill in a new post of party vice chairman with special responsibility for local government.

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