Paradise in waiting, by Joseph McHugh

12 Jul 07
Sir Simon Milton, the new chair of the Local Government Association, believes that there are local solutions to a range of issues, from health to housing, and he is determined to fight for more devolution, as he explains to Joseph McHugh

13 July 2007

Sir Simon Milton, the new chair of the Local Government Association, believes that there are local solutions to a range of issues, from health to housing, and he is determined to fight for more devolution, as he explains to Joseph McHugh

He is less than 24 hours into the job but Sir Simon Milton, the newly elected chair of the Local Government Association, is already full of plans for his three-year term of office.

The 45-year-old leader of Westminster City Council articulates a list of policy priorities – strengthening communities; revitalising democracy; providing

affordable housing; improving local health services – that bears an uncanny resemblance to the one rolled out by new Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

His shrewd reading of the political runes is no doubt designed to position the LGA firmly at the centre of the big policy debates in the Brown era, and Milton clearly intends to play a full part.

'We in local government have to become much more proactive in coming up with solutions to society's problems,' he tells Public Finance in one of his first interviews as LGA chair. 'There is no monopoly on wisdom, and when it comes to making policies that will work on the ground, very often local government has far more capacity to get it right.'

Milton won the election for the LGA's top job convincingly, defeating his two rivals on the first ballot, and speaks with the confidence of a man who feels he has political capital to spend. Under his leadership, it seems, the representative body for English local authorities will be a bolder, braver beast.

'Sandy [Bruce-Lockhart] has built the launch pad and now it's my job to achieve lift-off,' he says. 'If we're not bolder then, frankly, why will anyone listen to us?'

His conviction betrays his experience at the sharp end of local politics: in his case almost 20 years, despite his relative youth.

Milton cut his political teeth during Dame Shirley Porter's reign at Westminster, but these days he is an emblem of the modern Tory party. Last month he and fellow Westminster councillor Robert Davis celebrated their civil partnership at London's Ritz hotel.

Milton's willingness to surprise was on display again at last week's LGA conference in Birmingham. He used his acceptance speech to make an audacious demand for councils to be given a substantial role in commissioning and running health services and has set up a commission to examine how that can be done.

'Health is probably one of the least responsive of the public services as far as the public is concerned. It's also one of the most bureaucratic and difficult to do business with. We're going to pose questions about whether we would see faster and better outcomes if we thought more in terms of a local health service than a national health service,' he explains.

'But that's not because everything has to be done by councils. I think there are genuine merits in giving us a greater role.'

Chief among these are greater democratic accountability and the sharper focus on user needs that can bring.

Housing – 'an area the LGA has been weak on in the past' – is another policy priority for the government where Milton is keen to ride the wave of current interest. But he sees it as a more complex question than just building more social housing. He argues there is a wider shortage of affordable housing affecting middle-class professionals, too, that needs to be tackled.

Milton's position is a carefully calibrated one: he is offering ministers in Whitehall a partnership to tackle some of the thorniest social problems they face, while pointing out they need to give councils the freedoms to find local solutions to these problems.

'There's an opportunity here for us to help define localism. For some, it means greater autonomy and powers, including financial autonomy, for councils. For others, it's about community empowerment and greater choice for the citizen. I think it can be both.'

But he is also realistic about the obstacles local government faces in trying to wrest greater powers from the centre. 'The issue is whether ministers are willing to deal with some short-term pain. They have to learn to say “it's not our job to deal with bad councils, it's your job, the public, to vote for someone else”.'

Whether Brown, the arch-centraliser, will prove amenable to that line of argument remains to be seen, but Milton is ready to take him on.

'What does Gordon Brown mean when he talks about constitutional reform and greater devolution?' he asks. 'When Gordon Brown lists his priorities, we're not on the list. So I think we've got a fight on our hands.'

Nowhere is that more true than in relation to local government finance. Within hours of Sir Michael Lyons bringing forward what Milton describes as 'fairly meek proposals' on funding reform, they were killed off by then local government minister Phil Woolas. John Healey, his successor, did not deviate from that position during his visit to the LGA conference last week.

But for local government leaders, a willingness to act on town hall finance remains the litmus test of the government's intent on devolution. 'The truth is, you can't have genuine devolution without a measure of financial autonomy, otherwise what you've got is just centralism with a smile,' Milton warns.

Interestingly, he sees the tight funding settlement likely to be handed down in this autumn's Comprehensive Spending Review as something of an opportunity in this respect.

'CSR is going to be very difficult and if the 3% savings target is just going to be deducted from revenue support grant, then I think that's going to be a really high-risk strategy,' he says. 'But, as a result, it may almost break the system, so there needs to be something more fundamental.'

Again, he is pragmatic. 'We have to look at what we can rescue from Lyons'. But at the very least, Milton is hopeful that Lyons' proposal for a supplementary business rate could be embraced by a Treasury keen to find new streams of income.

He is clear that, while efforts at improving efficiency should continue, on their own they are not enough to ease the pressure on adult social care and waste services. Something has to give – and it needs to start with ministers loosening their grip on the purse strings.

Against this background, Milton sees Local Area Agreements playing an important role. 'I think LAAs are a really powerful conceptual framework for devolution, for joining up services locally and for having a single conversation with government.

'But, ultimately, for LAAs to be effective, greater budget pooling needs to happen.'

Milton thinks that message is starting to sink in across Whitehall. The agreement to reduce the number of performance indicators is leading to spending departments being more discriminating about the targets they impose on councils.

'There is now quite hot competition in Whitehall to get their priorities within the 200 indicators,' says Milton. 'The discipline is proving to be very effective and important because other departments are realising that, in future, that's the route for getting their Public Service Agreement targets delivered.'

In the end, though, Milton and his local government colleagues are waiting to see if the Brown government is willing to translate the rhetoric of devolution into reality. If it does not, he warns there will be a price to pay. 'Ultimately it will damage the government if they don't do this, because they won't get the public service improvements that they want.'


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