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Sir Merrick Cockell's inaugural speech as LGA Chairman

Cockell Conference – it is with a deep sense of responsibility, humility and, of course, pleasure that I accept your nomination to serve as Chairman of the Local Government Association.

Thank you for the support you have given me and for the trust you have placed in me.

I succeed some distinguished predecessors. I will speak about Margaret shortly but before her, Lord Beecham and Lord Bruce-Lockhart. And then my friend and neighbour Sir Simon Milton who died so young but having achieved so much, only a few months ago. I know our thoughts are with Robert and their families in their great loss.

As your Chairman, it is my job to stand up for, fight for and advocate for all of local government. In accepting your nomination today, I place myself at the service of the entire sector – councils and councillors of all political traditions, authorities of all types and from all parts of the country.

So, at this beginning let me make a personal pledge to you.

I have been a councillor now for 25 years in a complicated part of inner London where rich and poor both live, where councillors are generally trusted, even respected but sometimes reviled. I have been a councillor in good times and in more demanding times.

Just like many of you.

As a Leader, I understand the demands of managing people and of reconciling tensions. I know the importance of not taking democracy for granted.

Just like many of you.

I know too that a challenging 24 hour news cycle and our “keyboard commentators", are not always fair and that decisions taken in one context can sometimes be ridiculed in another time.

Just like many of you.

All these shared experiences should strengthen and unite us at this demanding time.

And in being respectful of public opinion, we also have a responsibility to help shape it, to provide leadership: By our democratic mandate; by our willingness to serve.

And if we do not lead, money will not be well spent; right but unpopular causes will fail; growth will stumble and our sense of ambition will falter.

So my pledge to you is that I want to be part of a renaissance of confidence in local government. And I want the LGA to be central to this renaissance and I will help lead it as your Champion for a Better Civic Society.

Let me suggest how this can be done…..

We meet at a pivotal moment for local government and for this organisation.

The last twelve months have been very difficult and, at times, very damaging.

But, we know that the need for strong and accountable local leadership could not be greater than in times like these. Times that demand we have a stronger and more effective Local Government Association to lead and support us.

You will have seen in the media today a good example of where the LGA can be effective and influence government. I am pleased that ministers understand that the Local Government Pension Scheme is unique due to its £140 billion worth of assets and investments, which make it much more like a private pension scheme.

Of course we must ensure that the scheme is affordable and sustainable. We have argued against a sizable increase in employee contributions, as we believe it will lead to scheme members opting out. This would endanger a scheme which is helping millions of people save for retirement and reducing reliance on state means-tested benefits.

We will work with the Government and workforce representatives to reach the right balance between supporting a reasonable retirement for scheme members and providing value for money for tax-payers.

Conference, today I want to set out how I intend to lead our work to realise the ambitions I believe we share:

- Ambitions for councils to be truly at the heart of leading local communities and commissioning better public services.

- Ambitions for councils to be recognised as the key means for enabling people to take more control over their lives and localities.

- And, ambitions for councils to be more trusted as a force for practical good by our fellow citizens.

Realising those ambitions will depend on all of us.

But, critically, it will also depend upon the effectiveness of our Local Government Association.

Effective in taking our argument, strongly and self confidently, to government, to other partners, to the media and to the wider public.

Effective in connecting the daily work that councils do with the needs and hopes of families and residents up and down the country.

Effective in supporting member authorities to focus relentlessly on strong performance, eliminating cost, working strongly with our local communities and winning a reputation for delivering value for local and national taxpayers.

I want the Local Government Group to be effective in all of those spheres.

And I want it to play a key part in shifting the public policy debate decisively in favour of more coherent and democratic localism.

So, I also want to say a little about how this organisation – our organisation needs to change to become better fitted for those purposes.

But before I do those things, I want to acknowledge a vital contribution, on which I build.

Margaret, this is not the first time I have succeeded you. I followed you as Chairman of the Conservative Councillors’ Association and we worked very closely in the lead-up to the last General Election. We are enormously grateful for the service you have given, your unfailing championing of local democracy and your leadership of the LGA. You have much to be proud of.

And Margaret, we know that, in you, local government has a fierce advocate in the Lords and, as a new Vice President we look to you for continuing advice and leadership.

Thank you for all you have done.

And can I also thank David Shakespeare, Richard Kemp and Keith Ross for their distinguished contribution to the LGA as Group Leaders.

Going forward, I recognise how critical it is to work closely and collaboratively with each of the political groups.

And so I look forward to working with Gary, David, Richard’s successor and Marianne to advance our ambitions for local government.

Let me turn first to our ambition of councils being at the heart of local leadership and local public services.

Since we left Bournemouth 12 months ago, your lives have been dominated by the decisions you have had to take about the future of local services in a climate of severe financial restraint.

Like me, you will have seen an erosion of our public reputation and the corrosive impact that can have upon the trust that people place in us as councillors and councils.

So, what is to be done?

Firstly, let us remind ourselves about some things.

We have not suddenly stopped being the most efficient part of the public sector. That recognition was based on strong evidence, was hard-earned and recognised by the Prime Minister.

The challenge is now much steeper, but who else in public service could have – indeed has – managed the scale of the change that local government has done in the past nine months?

And councils across the country, including my own, are innovating and collaborating to find ways of driving out cost and protecting the front line services on which local people rely.

Councils are helping people both to cope with the insecurities that come with economic and social change, but also to equip them to exploit new opportunities.

And through all of this, councils are working to keep the fabric of local communities strong and cohesive.

That is local leadership in action – and it is right that we remind ourselves about the contribution our councils make.

But we also have to remind others about some things also.

We have to remind some ministers that if we casually allow each other’s reputation to be trashed, then the public will not just lose faith in local government any more than it loses faith in central government – it will lose faith in all of us.

More positively, I also want to remind government about the potential of councils being able to bring together local public services with potential to be better and more integrated for those who use them, and
better value for the taxpayer.

Now, I applaud the government for its decentralising impulses and for removing much of the wasteful apparatus of central control and regional co-ordination. This Coalition Government is freeing us from being the servant of the State to being the servant of local people. But I know that so much more could be achieved – so much more could be saved.

In the short term, in a range of areas, we need to continue to press hard.

From ensuring that the NHS Future Forum message on stronger Health and Well Being Boards is acted upon, through to pushing the government to deliver on the pledge of real community budgets, with real pooled funding. Our work in those areas – as well as in several others – is important and must sustain.

But there is a longer game also. There is still more to be played for in the way that public services are reformed over the next few years.

And let us always say; there is more to local government than just the provision of services.

We are major enablers of growth. By our influence over land use, over education, training and local infrastructure we can help local economies prosper. Indeed, many of you are already providing inspired leadership in developing Local Enterprise Partnerships, working hand-in-glove with the private sector.

But the biggest kick-start to our economies would be for Government to localise the business rate and allow communities to benefit directy from economic activity and development.

Let me make an offer to the government today. If you are committed to delivering value, to involving users and local people in shaping services, to rewarding people for outcomes achieved and for improving the public experience, and to encouraging enterprise, initiative and job growth in every part of our country, then you will not find a better partner than local government.

We say this not because we want more powers for councillors. We say it because we want better services and better opportunities for those we serve. And a better, stronger, wealthier nation.

Let me turn now to the second ambition I set out about councils being at the heart of extending power and influence to local people to take more control over their lives and localities.

I am pleased that the government is encouraging us and our citizens to take this further. It needs to go further.

We don’t fight to win more power and influence from government nationally, only then to hoard it within a local bureaucracy. If we are truly devolutionary, then we want to share that power and influence beyond us also.

If we want to win trust and respect from our fellow citizens for the important role we play, we won’t do it by frustrating their desire to become involved.

We will do it by developing a mature, mutual understanding of the respective and unique contributions of both councils and local communities in improving our places.

But, equally, it needs to be remembered that often the single most important, practical source of advice to local groups and people who want to take more responsibility and control, is their council.

It is my experience and my conviction that councils are the enablers of localism – not the impediment to it. And, by definition, you can’t have localism defined and determined at a national level. So, the message to government at national and local level is that localism means letting go.

But, we should not apologise for upholding values that are enduring and important.

Councillors make difficult decisions which are about reconciling competing interests in often confined spaces and circumstances. We balance the immediate will of those we serve now, with the longer term interests of a place and the people who will come there in the future and have no voice but ours.

Equally, we jealously guard the fact that what we do is governed by local democracy and proper accountability. They are vital guarantors of fairness and freedom for all of our citizens, not just the most vocal.

Localism should not stop at the Town or County Hall. But neither should a robust commitment to local coherence, accountability and democracy.

So, how do we bring this together? I am asking the Group Leaders to join me in issuing an invitation to the Prime Minister. As he receives the stock-take report on Localism that he has commissioned from his CLG Minister, Greg Clark, we are proposing that we meet to agree a set of principles and priorities for how those local democratic values are reflected in the extension of localism.

In particular, I want that process to identify how potentially one of the most important of all resources to support both localism and growth is most effectively integrated with the government’s ambitions.

I refer, of course, to more than 20,000 men and women, elected from among their fellow citizens, to represent and serve them and their local place. Crucially, I want to see new generations of councillors drawn from all parts of society; able to stand for election and serve their communities. I want to see more people in the prime of their lives whatever their financial circumstances, whether with young children or from minority communities able to chose a life of public service.

We can make the Big Society so much bigger still if we utilise properly the talents, energy and commitment of current and future elected councillors.

The last of the ambitions I want to speak about is winning the trust and the support of the public for what we do.

We know that nothing has a greater impact on our public reputation than perceptions about the extent to which we deliver value for money, the degree to which we are seen as flexible and responsive and the level of overall competence that the public ascribes to us.

One of the most important priorities of my period as Chairman will be to address this challenge.

In part, it’s about us being better at telling the good story that we have.

Over the last six months I have been travelling the country making my own contribution to train operating company profits. For the most part I have met Leaders in their own County, City and Town Halls. What I
have seen is civic leaders having a difficult, demanding time making tough decisions about how to cut spending but secure essential local public services, wherever possible. I have seen you balancing local needs against what the country can afford. And I have seen you prepared to question and change old ways
of operating and revolutionising the way local public services are provided.

You are less concerned by who actually provides them – private sector, mutuals, third sector or councils themselves – than by driving out waste, getting better outcomes for less money and making services more
accountable to those who use them and those who represent them. I see a passion about local government and public service. I see care and compassion for those least able to help themselves. I hear little complaint about how difficult the job is.

Of course, I have only been seeing Conservatives but I am expecting to find the same commitment and drive from other Parties when I meet LGA member councils in future visits across the country.

I am determined that we make a stronger connection between those experiences and people’s perceptions about their councils.

And we all know that unless people are convinced about our core competence and our value for money, they won’t recognise the legitimacy of our wider leadership and public service role.

But we also have to be honest and prepared to call it as it is.

Some services deliver unacceptable levels of performance and value. Some of our communication with the public can be cringe-worthy.

I believe that our public reputation will, in time, be strengthened if the LGA acknowledges that is the case and is seen to be spending more time helping things improve than in defence-mode.

So, we first need to offer help. The LGA’s Productivity Programme made a positive start. I believe it now needs more urgency and political energy, with real milestones agreed for what we, collectively, should achieve over the next five years.

Secondly, we need to be neither complacent, nor accepting about councils that fail to act upon the help that they get.

The stakes for all of us are now too high to allow that to happen.

I commend the work that the Group already does in this area – sometimes below our individual and collective radar for understandable reasons – but I believe that we all need to feel the certainty of not just mutual support, but also the certainty of robust mutual challenge, if we are to convince not just government, but the wider public that we are serious.

Before I finish, let me say a few words about changes to the Local Government Group to help make it fit to lead our work in realising those ambitions.

I am very conscious that the leadership that I am able to offer, and that of the Group Leaders, is only relevant if it is rooted in a deep sense of engagement with our member authorities across the country.

It is our practice, our people, our innovation that the Local Government Group has to sell on behalf of the sector.

Bluntly, the LGA will always have far more to learn from its member authorities than you will from the LGA. But if the LGA does its job properly, then every individual authority should have far more to gain from being in membership than it does standing outside.

During the election we have recently had, David Parsons articulated a powerful case for a closer, more visible connection with all of our member councils. I agree with David.

We can make better and smarter use of technology to help us communicate with each other. None of you need another trip to London or even Leeds or Lincoln leaving you wondering what, if anything was achieved.

We have talked already about the LGA being more proactive and self-confident. I think it also has to be bolder if it is to remain relevant.

Businesses have their CBI, unions their TUC and councillors and councils need their representative LGA to be strong and confident now, more than ever.

The fact that a controversial policy issue is likely to divide political parties or authorities in different parts of the country is not a reason for ignoring it.

It is a reason for engaging with it in different and creative ways so that all councils can get benefit from the LGA’s intervention, even if that is not about establishing a single, shared position.

Over the next year, the Local Government Resource Review is a good example of an issue that may divide member authorities in different ways. It is vital that we find ways of providing the right analysis, the right tools and the right forums for discussion that will enable all councils to develop their responses – individually and collectively.

Conference, in closing, let me say this. In May of this year, as I was sitting watching the local election results come in, just as you will have done, I felt that familiar excitement as the political process unfolded once again.

I suspect that like many of you, whatever I have gone on to do in terms of leadership positions, I still retain a huge pride in being elected by local people and in what has been achieved with them.

And, of course, serving a ward and borough acts as a constant reminder about why I became involved in this type of public service in the first place.

Like many of you, whether elected councillors or senior officers, I believed I could make a positive difference to people’s lives and I believed in the power and potential of local democracy to strengthen local communities.

I also believed that I had ideas and energy and passion and yes, political principles that I was desperate to put into action.

I still believe in those things.

It is impossible to stand in this city of Birmingham in particular and fail to think about how, through history, local leadership has not only innovated but proved itself to be a force for enormous good in our society.

It is impossible to watch the work of our hugely talented staff, from the front line all the way to, yes, the chief executive and fail to be inspired by what their public service helps achieve.

It is impossible to visit towns, districts, cities and counties across the country and fail to reflect upon the contribution that elected councillors make to those places being safer, healthier, more tolerant, more prosperous and more civilised places to live.

Yes, we gather here at a time of acute pressure for the reasons we have discussed today – and will do over the next few days I’m sure. The path of the next years is not going to be easy or straightforward.

But we will face up to those challenges knowing that not to do so would be failing our sense of ourselves as public representatives and servants. We would be letting down the very communities and citizens
that inspired us to do this in the first place.

And, the local government I know – represented by the men and women in this hall – does not easily let people down, nor does it walk away from a big challenge.

So Conference, as your Champion for a Better Civic Society, I ask for your support and your involvement as we take forward our ambition:

- to embed our role in local leadership and public services;

- to be the catalyst for greater involvement among our fellow citizens; and,

- to win genuine public trust and support for what we do.

And through a revived, focused and purposeful Local Government Association, I am certain that we can all be part of a renaissance of confidence for the vital work we do.


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