The unknown unknowns

Councillor James Jamieson OBE is standing down as Chairman of the LGA after four years. He talks to first about keeping focused on local goals amid global crises

Q  What were your priorities when you started in 2019? 

A I took this role on because, as a council leader, I felt that adult social care, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), planning and money were big issues, and that devolution was a way of achieving change – albeit not an objective in itself.

These are still my priorities, to which I would add the environment in its broadest sense. Events meant we got a little sidetracked.

Q What’s changed since then? 

A As US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, there were the ‘known unknowns’, such as Brexit, and there were the ‘unknown unknowns’ – the COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, four prime ministers and six secretaries of state in four years…

The pandemic delayed things, but local government wasn’t completely sideswiped. We did carry on. 

People’s bins got emptied, we delivered everything we were supposed to deliver, on top of which we cared for the vulnerable and supported businesses. 

That is a testament to the strength of local government and the LGA.

Almost 200,000 Ukrainians have come here under the fantastic Homes for Ukraine scheme. They have been supported by their sponsors, found homes, and most of that was incremental.

It’s a real illustration of how local and central government can work together. I can’t praise former Refugees Minister Lord Richard Harrington enough for making things happen. 

He was appointed to a joint role between the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and personified working across silos – it’s a model for cross-government working we would like to see more of.

“Devolution means not having 501 targets. It means government being very clear on a very limited number of targets

I would not want something like Ukraine or the pandemic to ever happen again, but they have demonstrated just how good local government is when we pull together.

Q Has progress been made on your priorities? 

A Three things are very much on the agenda – planning, SEND and adult social care.

Have we fixed everything? No, but in all three areas there is a real recognition and desire to move forward. It’s just not happened as quickly as we would like and it’s more pressing now because of the financial perspective. 

The one that disappoints me most is devolution. Government talks a lot about it and we have seen devo deals, but Whitehall hasn’t embraced it because so many things are still about the desire for Whitehall to have levers.

It’s great that we get more money, and we have bidding for grants, but there is an awful lot of ‘here is a pot to bid for, here is the new Office for Local Government, here is the new CQC inspection regime’ – so while they are giving with one hand, they are taking back with the other.

There seems to be political recognition of the benefits, but not a cultural recognition that devolution means letting go. That means not having 501 targets. It means government being very clear on a very limited number of targets. 

Government genuinely needs to devolve to place – for example, on zero-carbon transport.

In Hackney, east London, you don’t need to do much on public transport. Yes, you need to green it, but everyone can catch a bus or train. However, getting a charging infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs) is problematic because most people live in flats and terraced houses.

In my area, in Central Bedfordshire, buses are as rare as police officers, so you can’t rely on public transport, but most (not all) people have a drive, so charging EVs from home is an issue, but not a massive one.

You need to think very differently in those two areas. Government, though, will have one pot of money for EV charging and one for public transport, and won’t let us put them together to use more for one in one area than the other.

There are a lot of things that require this place-based approach. So, it’s about the classics – single-pot, long-term, flexible funding. Or maybe it’s about providing local tax-raising powers, linked to going green. 

It would be much more interesting if we weren’t dependent on government funding. Every time you go to the Treasury with your hand out, you are losing local freedoms and the ability to make local decisions. 

Being able to raise local revenue – whether that’s a sales or tourism tax, income tax, stamp duty, whatever – provides a fiscal incentive, but also freedom and choice, and holds councils to account.

Q Looking ahead, what are the key issues for local government? 

A The one that’s worrying me a lot is the housing shortage.

Being able to afford to live in a reasonable home, locally to where you want to live – whether that’s rented, owned or other tenure – many people are having real difficulties with that.

There have been some good reforms, such as allowing councils to retain 100 per cent of the proceeds from Right to Buy sales and to borrow at Public Works Loan Board rates for housing: there has been a clear move to support council housing, which is positive. 

Q The LGA is a cross-party organisation. Has it been difficult to work on that basis?

A Sometimes! One of the things that I and my predecessor, Lord Gary Porter, really pushed was to focus on the areas that the LGA’s political groups agree on and put to one side the areas we don’t, because we will get nowhere if we cannot put a proper united front on whatever subject it is. 

Around 90-95 per cent of what we do in local government has nothing to do with politics, and that’s our strength. 

The public does not think that emptying your bin is a political statement, nor looking after an elderly relative, supporting a vulnerable child or trying to get a better recreation ground. 

These are things on which everyone can agree.

I would advise any party that there’s a real opportunity to work with the LGA and councils to thrash out policy in some tough areas. For example, because every council is impacted by adult social care or SEND or housing, we, as councils, have an incentive to find solutions. That can provide the political impetus and cover to get some difficult decisions through Westminster.

Q You were re-elected in May – what keeps you in local government? 

A You can make a big, big difference, locally. 

I’m proud that, working with colleagues, we got a new leisure centre built and drove through a housing strategy that means Central Bedfordshire is now building 100-plus council homes a year for the elderly. 

There’s a lot of personal, nice, ‘small’ stuff, helping one person – for example, getting some dropped kerbs so a resident can get into town on their mobility scooter.

That, and the bigger projects – how do I make the council more efficient, how do I fix more potholes, how do I make my place better – still get me excited. 

Q What advice would you give your successor? 

A First, local government united can do great things. Disunited, it will fail.

Second, recognise that the LGA is populated with very talented, good people, and really use them and engage with them. It’s a fantastic organisation.

The key role of the LGA chairman is to promote and unite, bring people together, make things happen, find a sense of unity, provide a sense of direction, and move forward on the things that matter.

Remember, the vast majority of people want you to succeed – even opposition leaders – because it’s about the sector succeeding. 

Q What are your plansfor the future? 

A I want to finish some local projects, very ward-specific. 

I would like to do something useful for local government – whether in housing, the green agenda, or the health-social care interface. 

I also want to give a big thank you to the many different people – across party and government – who have given me so much help and support. We’ve done lots of good work. 


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