Stephen Greenhalgh: Help me write a bold Conservative blueprint for local government
Stephen Greenhalgh is Conservative leader of Hammersmith and Fulham and a key member of the team that Boris Johnson has appointed to audit City Hall. He won ConservativeHome.com's 2007/08 'Local Hero Award'. In this article Stephen introduces the aims of the new Conservative Council Innovation Unit and its aim to write 'the bible' of best practice for Conservatives in local government.
This May we have witnessed the death of both New Labour and old Labour in power. Last week Eric Pickles masterminded Labour's first by-election defeat since the 1978 by-election in Ilford North, a Labour seat, when a young Tessa Jowell lost to Vivian Bendall who is currently my Association Chairman. A couple of weeks ago my Labour predecessor as Council Leader described the loss of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London "as the worst blow to Labour since the 1992 general election defeat".
However, many of our critics point to a lack of vision or programme for government. As we already dominate local government, our challenge is to define and articulate our Conservative vision. It is an opportunity for our party to demonstrate our priorities and goals for the communities we seek to represent.
We need to find the right language, establish Conservative values and develop a new Conservative lexicon to replace the New Labour mantras that dominate public sector thinking today. Frankly New Labour's sole political legacy has been to rewrite the language of local government. For instance this month's pamphlet published by the SOLACE Foundation which is the professional network for local authority chief executives and senior managers is entitled "How equality shapes place: diversity and localism". Their rhetoric has been about "equality and diversity", "fairness" and "social justice" and the reality has been greater levels of inequality and a decrease in social mobility.
A Conservative vision needs to focus on “quality services that meet local need and offer value for money". We need to deliver high quality local services at the lowest possible cost to the council taxpayer. In London my council is the only council that is cutting council tax year on year at the same time as increasing our residents' satisfaction with council services and achieving the Audit Commission's top rating of four stars. Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster and Wandsworth set the lowest levels of council tax in London and we all deliver four star council services locally. We must also put "excellence" and the pursuit of excellence at the heart of our vision. We need to recognise and reward excellent council officers, teachers, and public sector professionals who strive for the excellence that has been lost in much of the public sector. Finally the challenge we all face is to tackle the huge levels of dependency and entrenched poverty that the welfare state has caused. We need to create a language of aspiration based around "opportunity" where councils give a hand up rather than the hand out. In the 1980s Wandsworth became the Brighter Borough and established themselves as a beacon to other Conservative councils. In this decade we want Hammersmith & Fulham to become the Borough of Opportunity by offering state schools of choice, creating a housing ladder of opportunity with home ownership at its core and regenerating the most deprived parts of our borough.
However, it's not just enough to provide value for money and good quality public services. Conservatives also need to respect individuals' rights, liberties, and privacy. Contrast this with the Labour Government - and obedient town hall officers - who have no respect for personal freedoms and personal space.
I am delighted that Eric Pickles has asked me to head up the Conservative Council Innovation Unit to formulate a bold Conservative blueprint for local government. In the next few weeks and months we will be working with the best Conservative minds in our councils up and down the country and drawing on expertise from groups such as the TaxPayers' Alliance to develop a 'bible' of best practice for our Councils. We are fortunate to have the support of the respected think-tank Localis in this initiative, and we will produce a series of reports along the way. We hope to report to David Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet in September, and that if agreed, our proposals might form the basis for Conservative groups throughout the country and we will be able to report to David Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet in September. Time is short.