Making a difference

You love being LGA chairman. Why?

Every day’s different. We don’t know what’s coming down the line. Someone, somewhere will need our help.

It’s knowing that we make a difference. I get to see things when they start and I’m lucky enough to still be hanging around by the time we’ve finished it, to see how much better it looks than it could have.

It’s also knowing the stuff that’s going on under the radar, looking at issues that are turning up in councils that never actually see the light of day because the LGA has been involved in doing something about staving off that problem.

What was your plan when you started?

I wanted to rebuild a decent, working relationship with the Government – one where we could be honest with them and firm when necessary, but still be trusted, so that, if we were moaning properly, they would give us the cash if we needed it. I think I’ve got away with doing that mostly. They’re still talking to us.

What’s changed in your four years as chairman?

We’ve got a hell of a lot less cash than we had four years ago – but councils have managed to keep everything going. Services haven’t fallen away. I still think our reputation with the public has been undersold on the basis that we’re delivering a lot more for a hell of a lot less now. If people could really understand the extent of that, our reputation would be even higher than it is.

What events have shaped your chairmanship?

Half of my chairmanship has been Grenfell – and that’s brought out the worst of what we do and the best. It’s been life-changing, really.

The weirdest one, though, is that – for three out of my four years – the biggest subject that’s consumed the country, Brexit, is something on which the LGA can’t express an opinion. Despite that, we’ve got more external recognition than we’ve ever had and dominated quite a bit of the news agenda.

The decision to stay neutral was the right one. It’s allowed us to move through this agenda without being tarnished by it from either side.

What is your proudest achievement?

There have been loads, but our big one is winning the scrapping of the housing revenue account cap. I realised when I was a junior member on the LGA’s housing board that the biggest stumbling block for council house building was that cap. So when the Prime Minister made the announcement at last year’s party conference, there was a little tear in my eye.

It’s not because I love housing – which I do – but every other service that we touch will be better because of that freedom. Decent housing means social care is less of a burden, crime and disorder is less of a problem, education is less of a burden. It means kids growing up in safe, secure and affordable homes, where their parents are not spending all their money on paying the rent; and people take more pride in an area if they’ve got a bit of money left over each week to spend on some nice things, rather than just chucking it all at a landlord.

There’s a chance to make the world better out of that – and that’s good. We did that. No LGA, no reform.

What is your biggest regret?

The icing on the cake would have been to get the reforms to Right to Buy we’ve been after, alongside the win on the housing borrowing cap. We don’t want to scrap Right to Buy, but to regulate it better at a local level, and retain all the cash it generates.

Devolution is probably the biggest disappointment. I wasn’t able to cut through to get the freedoms that we needed to make that work properly. I’m gutted with the sector, as well as the Government. We walked away from having directly elected mayors – we should have found a way of getting past that, if that was the price. It would have been a price worth paying if the devo deal was the right one.

What does the future hold for local government?

Once Brexit is sorted out, it depends who’s in government really. I worry about devolution getting back on the agenda, but the price for it being even higher than it was under the mayoral model. Regardless of who wins the next election, there’s strong potential for structural reform. I worry that it will be a ‘done to’, not a ‘done with’; it will be a top-down, ‘sorry, you’re all doing this; you’ll all become unitaries at 400,000 populations, and that’s it’.

Has it been difficult to work on a cross-party basis?

As Conservative group leader, all I had to do was worry about the blue team. I think some of the bigger Labour leaders were dubious about me taking over as chairman. But, on a day-to-day basis, there isn’t a massive difference between what the different political groups want.

There are nuances about how they want to achieve stuff, but the vast majority of people we work with, and for, just want to get the thing done in the best way possible. It’s pretty easy to walk through on a cross-party line as soon as you stop looking at people with coloured rosettes on, and view them as people who care.

What advice would you give your successor?

Work hard at relationships – that’s the most important thing. Staff and members in the LGA. Across party lines. Treat them all the same, so everybody knows you’re relatively fair with it.

It’s important the LGA is based near Westminster, in the middle of what’s going on. We get a better inside track on some things than we used to, and the working relationship with more parliamentarians and civil servants is stronger now.

But, remember, we’re not only in London. Other people have different experiences on a day-by-day basis, and some of the stuff we get engrossed in is invisible to people in the  shires.

Don’t forget you’re a leader of a place as well as chairman of the LGA. Don’t lose sight of what’s going on in the place.

How important has your experience as a district council leader been?

That’s everything you start from. My experience on the ground is this: if only the Government would do this other thing, my life would be much easier. How do I make that happen? They’re not going to listen to me as a district leader, but they’ll listen to us as the LGA.

What are you going to do next?

Technically, it’s called a mixed portfolio. Odds and sods, basically. I have no massive career plan. If projects come up that I think look interesting, I’ll do that. I got into politics to be in local government, not national government. I’ve no appetite for being any more involved in Westminster than I already am. I will definitely still be around the sector.

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