This sun was blazing, the sand was golden and the sea was blue in beautiful Bournemouth for this year’s LGA conference. But there was a clear divide between busy, lanyarded, suited and booted conference delegates and happy holiday makers. There was a mood of urgency and a clear sense that local government is on the cusp of either the chaos of a financial abyss or the bright promise of a better settlement and a clear mandate for local government to get on with the job.
We caught up with our members at our reception with CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, hosted at a pub, of course. It was also an opportunity to talk about the vital economic and social contribution that pubs make locally. You can hear more about that in this week’s podcast.
Talking to leaders at our event, we heard the familiar tug between militant optimism and incredulous despair at the degree of uncertainty they have been left to operate within. Across party lines, geographies and types of council, these are the people who are keeping the lights on (quite literally), while national politics goes round in circles.
This tension between stasis and momentum was reflected at national policy level as well. The secretary of state was candid about the fact that it was difficult for him “to be expansive on new approaches or set out fresh policy with concrete certainty”. But he was also clear that the next PM would “need to look afresh at the entire ecosystem underpinning local government.”
New leader, new localism
Meanwhile incoming LGA Chair James Jamieson argued in his debut speech that we needed a New Localism Settlement and a devolution Bill in the next Parliament. His message to the new PM was clear – give local government a stable funding mechanism then back off and leave us to get on with delivery.
That’s exactly the message we set out in a recent episode of our LGIU Fortnightly podcast and of course LGIU has been campaigning for years to reform local government finance – we were one of the first to come out and say that the system was fundamentally unsustainable – and for an accelerated devolution process across the whole country.
While we have never been alone in those calls but it has sometimes felt like swimming against the tide, but with a growing consensus across local government institutions and some signs of agreement from the centre, maybe that tide is finally turning.
Women in local government
We were very privileged to host a roundtable of women local government leaders with the Fawcett Society. After the May 2019 local elections, the number of women councillors has barely changed, despite a huge number of council seats changing hands. Of brand new leaders, 26 are women, but fewer than a fifth of English councils are run by women. (Our podcast this week features interviews with two of them.)
We talked about the challenges of recruiting women to run for council and creating an environment that isn’t overtly hostile to women. Leaders acknowledged that politics can be a rough and tumble sport and that can be enjoyable and acceptable and even productive. One of our participants, a former football referee, pointed out that there’s a difference between fair tackles and spitting and eye gouging. Many of the women in the room had been subjected to or witnessed ‘unsportsmanlike’ and sometimes highly sexualised personal attacks from political opponents. Current approaches to standards in public life mean that politicians are likely to be uncensured so long as an apology is tendered even if they are repeat offenders. Add in growing hostility from the public, a fractious national political climate and the easy ability to menace candidates and elected members online and many people may say the personal price is too high no matter how great the call to serve.
Skills for leadership are also important, and that means recognising skills that people already have as well as skills that can and should be developed. There was also recognition that approaches by men and women can be different and that the best results for local people are derived from a combination of leadership and representation styles.
The LGiU has previously worked with Fawcett to support the Women in Local Government Commission which highlights many of the obstacles women face in selection, election and promotion. The LGA has recently produced The Twenty-first Century Councils toolkit which aims to help councils create the environment to help not just women but all who have caring responsibility to make a political contribution and take on leadership roles.