LGA Conference - Blair softens his stance on councils

9 Jul 98

Prime minister Tony Blair this week took a more conciliatory tone towards local government when he urged councils to help Labour deliver its modernising agenda but his message failed to win over the doubters.

10 July 1998

Speaking via a video link to the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth on Wednesday morning, the prime minister told delegates that councils can be given new powers if they first help the government put reforms in place.

Using more carrot than stick, Mr Blair said there would be rewards for those councils that could deliver Labour's planned programme.

He outlined 'three basic principles' that Number Ten would adopt when it comes to initiating change in local government. These covered partnership, reform and the changes councils would like to see put in place.

He said Labour 'believed in local government' and recognised good practice was already being implemented. 'The best of local government is excellent but we should spread the best, we should make sure throughout local government that we are providing value for money, efficient local services upon which local people depend.'

The prime minister's message was similar to the one he delivered at Labour's local government conference in Scarborough earlier this year. However, it differed in one crucial aspect. This time, there were no threats from Number Ten, just a promise that local government could also prosper if it helped out Labour.

'If we can get that partnership in place, if that modernisation and reform agenda is there and is accepted, then we can discuss with you the powers and discretion you need to make that agenda really happen,' the prime minister said.

Such words, and those delivered before the LGA's second annual conference this week, have led to claims that Labour is pursuing a centralist agenda. Last Friday a report published by the European Policy Forum claimed Labour was in 'many respects' the most centralised government as 'any we have known'.

LGA chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham said Mr Blair had spoken 'challenging and encouraging words' but added that local government should be seen for what it is rather than what it can do for Westminster. He said: 'I have to say that local government is not just about delivering the national agenda of the government of the day.'

Sir Jeremy called on local government to reform itself by following the five principles outlined by the LGA in its white paper published earlier this week (see story below). On Tuesday

a new body – 'a national improvement agency' was set up by the LGA to monitor council performance.

The new agency will be independent and politically neutral and involve the business, academic and voluntary sectors. Sir Jeremy said this would demonstrate local government was 'serious' about reforming.

He even raised the prospect of council taxpayers and residents being compensated under the best value scheme. As the policy became more widespread, the LGA chairman said, councils should not rule out having to compensate those residents who have been provided with a poor quality service.

'Let's not overlook the need to provide redress where things go wrong,' said Sir Jeremy. Such a scheme is carried out at Newcastle – his own council.



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