Porter about to bow out of LGA? But his one liners will live on it seems

Local Government Chronicle online
Friday 06 May 2016
LGC briefing: Local elections analysed
Commentary on the local election results

Political earthquake of the day: Breaking: Porter predicts Tories have lost control of LGA

Under chaos theory a hurricane can ensue in China as a result of something as minor and apparently unrelated as a butterfly flapping its wings over New Mexico.

On a similar principle, something as insignificant as a set of local elections in which virtually no seats changed control is on the cusp of causing a political earthquake in Westminster.

The political earthquake takes the form of a change in power at the Local Government Association but the butterfly may be composed of slightly more than a set of only moderately compelling electoral contests. As will be explained below, political skulduggery lurked behind its local democracy wings.

To understand this chaos we need to cast our minds back a year when the results of the local elections left the LGA on a political knife-edge. The Conservative group came out slightly above Labour after all of the calculations were undertaken to determine which party was in the ascendancy.

Within the past 24 hours it seemed likely the Tories would retain LGA control. Few people believed Jeremy Corbyn’s prediction that he would gain seats and the first results last night showed the Conservatives doing better than Labour. All seemed set for another year of Gary Porter leading the LGA.

Cllr Porter – a rare politician, noticeable for his plain speaking – has won plaudits for his honesty and, should his term of office come to an end, he may well leave us with as many memorable quotes as his predecessors managed since the LGA came into being. This is no disrespect to the LGA’s former chairs, more a compliment to Cllr Porter’s outspokenness. His putting the District Councils Network “on the naughty step” for arguing its members should retain their current portion of business rates will live long in the memory.

Cllr Porter’s demise has not been caused by the electorate turning against the Tories – the parties have at the time of writing lost an almost identical (but fairly negligible) number of seats – but the arithmetic turning against them.

The earthquake has been the result of Sheffield City Council unexpectedly deciding to re-join the LGA, just before the deadline to do so last night. With the LGA’s power balance determined by the number of councillors each party holds and the population they serve, the readmission of a city with a population in excess of half a million people could be crucial.

Sheffield had previously been one of a small number of councils, including Barnet, Wandsworth and Bromley LBCs, which decided against LGA membership. Its decision to re-join the association shortly before a final deadline of 10pm seemed to catch most off guard.

The complex calculations that determine who wins LGA control have yet to be determined but Cllr Porter thought Sheffield would be the deciding factor. He told LGC’s David Paine: “I will be surprised if the LGA is still Conservative controlled by the time the final count is done.”

He may also consider it unfortunate that the remaining councils which are not LGA members are Conservative strongholds. None of the three Tory-dominated London boroughs had the political cunning – or the financial commitment – to opt to pay to join the LGA at the last minute. Even if they decide to join today, their membership will not be considered in the calculations until after next year’s election.

In the past 24 hours, announcements that have been timed to coincide with the polls have proved more significant than the polls themselves.

Of the 124 councils with elections, just four have so far changed political control.

But we have seen a new frontrunner emerge in the race to be Greater Manchester’s elected mayor in the form of Andy Burnham. The shadow home secretary let it be known that he was considering swapping national politics for local politics at 10pm, as the polls were closing.

While his move is being analysed by the national media for indicating frontbench despair with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, it also signifies a sea change: suddenly local politics offer prominent politicians an alternative career path to Westminster.

Meanwhile, this afternoon, it emerged that the government is to U-turn on its plan to force all schools to become academies. Many councils feared the move would result in them being unable to meet their duty to ensure all children had a school place.

This is one set of elections in which the burying of bad news (Mr Burnham’s possible departure from the frontbench is clearly bad for Mr Corbyn and the announcement had to be timed to minimise the damage) and political opportunism has triumphed over the ballot box.

Should Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes emerge as the new Labour LGA chair he will be hoping that Barnet, Bromley or Wandsworth do not attempt the same trick as Sheffield in a year’s time.

The ‘spending power’ that’s no power at all

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The DCLG’s spending claims exemplify the culture
that has eroded public trust – 21 January, 2015 | By Tony Travers

The stand-off between central and local government over the scale of budget reductions in 2015-16 is further evidence of Department for Communities & Local Government ministers’ extraordinary world view.

Faced with cuts in cash spending every year, the department has resorted to epic creativity in its attempt to show council spending rising. How is it possible to show local authority spending going up when it is going down?

First, the government makes many of its comparisons on the basis not of the ‘spending power’ definition used for annual funding settlements but of ‘net revenue expenditure’, which helpfully includes a number of items such as ‘mandatory housing benefits’ where councils are merely acting as agents for Whitehall transfer payments. Housing benefit payments, all of which are sanctioned by central government regulations, have risen by a remarkable £3.7bn since 2009-10.

Second, ministers use a definition of spending which excludes some local/central service transfers but includes others. Schools’ funding is carefully removed from comparisons because the move of institutions into academy status reduces annual council spending.

On the other hand public health, which was passed to local government in 2013, is added in because it creates a helpful £2.5bn step-up in expenditure.

Treasury-sanctioned housing benefit cost increases and public health have, together, added £6.2bn to ‘council spending’ since 2009-10. And, bingo, this juicy sum just outweighs the cuts councils have had to make to the budgets they directly control.

Latterly, it has been decided to add part of the better care fund (worth £3.8bn) into council spending power for 2015-16, even though the money is also counted as NHS expenditure. This spectacular distortion is the root of the ‘1.8% vs 6% cuts’ debate which surrounded the recent local government spending settlement.

Using this method of boosting council spending, it would be possible notionally to add all health resources into council spending without reducing the NHS budget line by a penny.

Reason is dying. But it would be naïve of national politicians to imagine the creativity and double-counting explored above will disguise the true impacts of what has happened. Treating the electorate in this way is one of the destructive roots of the decline in trust in Westminster politics.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

DCLG is local government’s version of Bird Flu

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NAO report proves it’s time to axe the DCLG
19 November, 2014 | By Nick Golding

The National Audit Office’s report into the financial sustainability of local authorities is a suitably damning epitaph for the Department for Communities & Local Government’s stewardship of council finances this parliament.

It is packed full of nuggets which leave one questioning the competence of the DCLG to oversee a funding system which helps determine whether the vulnerable young and old receive adequate care, the economies of towns and cities grow and hundreds of thousands of local government workers receive fair reward for difficult jobs.

The DCLG “does not have an accurate measure of the cumulative financial challenge facing local authorities,” Sue Higgins, the NAO’s executive leader of local services, says.

It “does not have an accurate measure of the cumulative financial challenge facing local authorities” and is “unsighted” on the extent to which councils might financially fail.

The time has come to abolish the DCLG and invest the savings in efficient local services
The list of charges levied at the DCLG would be astonishing had the last four-and-a-half years not happened. As it is, councils are all too used to hearing Eric Pickles blustering on about flags or complaining about “spy cars” and avoiding proper debate about the central funding decisions which meant they were being forced into a position where they had to deny older people care or close flagship facilities.

Now we get confirmation that the department has not even had the curiosity to analyse the impact of a radical set of policies.

While the NAO says councils will see a 25% real-terms cut to their total income between 2010 and 2016, the DCLG has not even been able to produce a figure for spending pressure to be meaningfully calculated over the course of the parliament. Metropolitan authorities in particular are quaking under the burden of the cuts they are being forced to make and the DCLG’s response consists of little more than burying its head in the sand.

This is not to say that it is wrong to seek to balance the books. The deficit will hamper future generations and has to be tackled. It is right that the public sector should become more efficient and councils’ performance at retaining frontline services and rooting out unnecessary expenditure has been truly commendable.

However, we have long seen the DCLG’s political leadership fail to engage in a meaningful debate about where the burden of cuts is targeted. There has been no attempt to stand up for local services or to query whether certain parts of the country, namely the north, are being disproportionately affected.

If the department which is supposed to be local government’s gateway to the rest of Whitehall cannot successfully undertake its responsibilities then it should be axed.

We all too regularly see interaction with the Treasury or Department for Business, Innovation & Skills prove more fruitful for councils than that with the DCLG and it was no surprise when Greater Manchester’s mayoral deal was hatched with the Treasury, not Eric Pickles’ department. The time has come to abolish the DCLG and invest the savings in efficient local services.

At least it gives us old duffers something to do

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Time to rethink attitudes to councillors
19 June, 2014 | By Nick Golding

The case for localism is undermined if council chambers fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they represent. It is therefore worrying that the LGA councillor census shows councillors are becoming ever older while women and minority ethnic groups are still hugely under-represented.

Life as a councillor simply doesn’t have the appeal it once had. Local government has been starved of power and, above all, status. The holders of the role have been abused as snout-in-trough allowance chompers. And they have been demeaned by ministers, who put them on a par with volunteer scout leaders (who don’t control multi-million pound budgets or have responsibility for the welfare of vulnerable people).

Little wonder then that people are shunning local candidacy. Why try to make a difference when – shorn of money due to local budgets being cut more than central ones – your role amounts to little more than a figurehead for the decline of local public services? You hardly feel like Joseph Chamberlain.

Why work hard in your job all day and then return to work in the evening, especially when you’re not being paid? You’re now losing your ability to claim a local government pension; your travel expenses have been cut back. Councillors take little or no financial award from long hours, many of them antisocial, with onerous responsibilities. Ironically, they’re often criticised for personal claiming allowances by people with far better paid roles.

For these reasons, it is often only the retired who have the time and the financial platform to devote to local politics. The LGA National Census of Local Authority Councillors 2013 shows their average age exceeds 60 for the first time. The benefits experience brings to a council chamber should not be denigrated but to have a local body politic on average more than 20 years older than the general population means youth is under-represented. Councillors, remember, are responsible for children’s services, youth provision and sexual health facilities – a decent proportion of them need recent first-hand experience of these.

There are huge barriers for mothers contemplating becoming councillors. Few can afford not to work so that leaves them attempting to balance work, motherhood and local politics. Understandably, it’s the politics that often gives. One may speculate how more generous allowances could redress this balance and, for instance, pay dividends in better use of children’s services expenditure, which would no longer largely be determined by relatively elderly men.

It’s time to launch a fightback. Either councillors get proper allowances that reflect the long hours or local democracy remains the preserve of an aged elite. There is much that can be done by councils themselves – moving meetings to evenings to ensure those with jobs can attend, for instance. Many are bringing back the committee system in the hope of revitalising debates and potentially giving more councillors important roles. However, there is an onus on the whole of society to rethink its attitude to those performing civic duty – respect, not abuse, should be the norm.

I think most councillors would seek a simple acknowledgement for making the effort , not even respect, that’s probably too much to expect today’s, ‘I have my rights’ society.
If somebody was to ask me about becoming a councillor nowadays, I’m not sure what I would tell them were the benefits of doing so and I don’t mean to the councillor. Government funding cuts and more and more centralisation of power, hidden behind the facade of Localism, means that getting elected is more likely to become a exercise in frustration and disappointment, than a fulfilling experience in serving the community.

Embarrassed? They should be bloody furious!

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Members ’embarrassed’ by minister’s Europe approach
13 June, 2014 | By David Paine

Ministers have been criticised for dismissing a critical European peer review of local democracy in the UK.

After two fact-finding visits last year, the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities expressed concern about the financial resources of English local authorities, as well as their limited tax-raising powers and their dependence on government grants.

Its review also highlighted concerns about the limitations placed on local authorities in managing local affairs, due to interventions from central government.

Local government minister Baroness Stowell (Con) forcefully rejected the review’s recommendations in a speech made to the congress in March.

“Our greatest disagreement with the report is the underlying theme that local government, particularly in England, has insufficient funding, with a suggestion that there should be more local revenues,” she said.

“That is saying, and let’s not be shy about this, there should be more local taxes.”

At a meeting of the LGA’s executive board yesterday, outgoing chair Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) expressed regret at the response and added he thought ministers should have “accepted there are some areas that need improvement and they are of a mind to move in that direction”.

He added: “I was bitterly disappointed by that approach.”

John Warmisham (Lab), lead member for children’s services at Salford City Council and head of the UK delegation to the congress, said: “Just to say outright ‘no’ was for me, as a UK delegate and a councillor, embarrassing.”

He added: “I find it appalling to be honest.”

Referring to Baroness Stowell’s speech, Sue Murphy (Lab), Manchester City Council’s deputy leader, said: “It was one of the worst ministerial performances I have seen in my entire career in politics. Really, I thought it was insulting.”

The executive was told that the UK was, in general, in compliance with the obligations taken under the Charter of Local Self-Government, to which the UK government is a signatory, and that compared with the last evaluation in 1998 the situation had improved, especially in relation to lifting audit and inspection burdens on councils.

However, Andreas Kiefer, secretary general of the congress, told councillors at the LGA executive meeting: “We consider the UK a model of democracy so to find the reluctance to give local democracy the status that it has in other countries was surprising.”

Perhaps planning is now too important to be left to councillors?

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Fenland urged to end planning ‘perception of undue influence’
22 May, 2014 | By Mark Smulian

A district is to overhaul its planning service after being told it needs to end perceptions of bias by councillors.

Fenland DC’s new leader John Clark (Con) said the service would be revamped following a peer review report’s recommendations.

The district is a rapidly growing area with 11,000 new homes due by 2034, but has struggled to handle planning applications.

This included a controversy in 2012 when then leader Alan Melton (Con) sacked the entire planning committee after it rejected officers’ advice and gave both Tesco and Sainsbury’s planning permission for stores on adjacent sites.

All committee members have since had to undertake training from the government’s Planning Advisory Service.

The peer review, which was undertaken by the Planning Advisory Service and the LGA was published last week.

It said: “We were told by a number of [stakeholders] that there existed a perception of undue influence over application decision making.

“A phrase that captures the concerns of some is that on at least some occasions some councillors acted as the planning agent’s spokesman.”

No evidence of corruption was offered but “even the perception of inappropriate influence undermines the objectivity and integrity of the planning decision making process”.

Separation of the “political versus operational is important to councillors, managers, staff and users and stakeholders of the planning service”, they noted. The report said the high number of successful appeals against Fenland was “an indicator of some weak decision making at planning committee”.

Reviewers were startled to find that monthly planning committee meetings took up to seven hours to deal with an average of 12 applications, including “a tea break while the public look on”. They recommended smaller applications should be handled by officers.

Cllr Clark said: “We know there are areas we need to improve. We are pleased that they have recognised some of the good work we have done and are now looking to put their recommendations into practice as speedily as possible.”

Treat councillors with respect – or face the electoral repercussions

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Nick Golding
Their footwork ensures leaderships’ messages are passed on to a wider audience on doorsteps across the nation
1 May, 2014 | By Nick Golding

Councillors have not been generously treated by this government. Their role – which should be seen as the linchpin of local democracy – has been likened to that of a scout leader and their pensions have been taken away. More importantly than that, their local authorities must shoulder a disproportionate burden of public sector cuts and have lost even more freedom to exercise their democratic mandate in areas including planning and the setting of council tax levels.

It is unsurprising that councillors feel neglected and their morale is low. LGC’s survey on councillors’ opinions of their party leaderships, which received responses from more than 1,000 members, gives some of the best evidence so far of the strength of this discontent. In the run-up to the local elections, when it is desirable to talk up party unity and bury discontent, councillors have pointedly withheld praise from their leaderships.

This discontent is by no means confined to the governing parties. Labour councillors’ verdict on their national leadership – which recently endorsed the retention of council tax referendums – is hardly anything to write home about. The three main parties are all now tarnished by perceptions of centralisation. All three groups of members give their leaderships an approval rating of less than 40% and none of them rate relationships between their party’s central and local arms as anything higher than six out of 10.

The survey also reveals how Conservative councillors feel promises of localism made by their party when in opposition have come to nothing. “Central Office are overbearing and impose their view as they obviously know better in their ivory tower (not!). Councillors’ views in the sticks are insignificant,” said one particularly aggrieved Tory member. The party scores worst when it comes to central-local relationships. Only the Liberal Democrats – scoring so badly in the opinion polls – do worse than the Tories when it comes to ratings of party leaderships and enthusiasm to campaign in next year’s general election.

LGC inevitably received fewer responses from the smaller parties and their survey results need to be treated with caution but it is noticeable that their councillors appear far more contented. Green and Ukip members are hugely enthusiastic about their national leaderships and central-local relationships are good. It seems that less cloyingly centralised structures boost councillor contentment – although, as Ukip has frequently discovered, a lack of party discipline can undermine the national message.

It is vital that the main party leaderships are mindful of another key role of councillors – in general election campaigns. Their legwork ensures leaderships’ messages are passed on to a wider audience on doorsteps across the nation. Without them, campaigns are hampered, the electorate remains in the dark.

With the general election only a year away, party leaders have little time remaining to rally the troops. Now is the time to motivate the foot soldiers who can take their messages afar. However, a sense of disappointment pervades many of them. Only devolution of power and a new culture of respect for councillors are likely to overcome the disappointment of many.