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Local Government’s united front

Source: PSE: Oct/Nov 19

The new chairman of the Local Government Association, Cllr James Jamieson, discusses devolution, the latest Spending Round and being a national mouthpiece for local government with PSE’s Jamie Bennett-Ness.

James Jamieson, first elected to Central Bedfordshire Council in 2009, has risen through the ranks of local government over the last decade. In 2011 he became the leader of the council, and in July 2018 he was elected as the leader of the LGA Conservative Group. Now, with Lord Porter stepping down in July, it is his turn to pick up the mantle of chairman of the LGA. PSE asked him what his priorities were in his new role. 

“It all comes back to why I became a councillor. I wanted to do more for my community, and if you look at the key issues in Central Bedfordshire, it’s adult social care, children’s services, housing and planning and coping and with an ageing population. Those are also the priorities for me personally, and talking to most leaders around the country those are the broad areas most councils list as their top priorities.” 

“I took this role because a lot of those issues require national support to address. Obviously we could do with more money, and increasingly we are working towards a climate change agenda. But where we as councils and the LGA work best, is when we come up with a consensus and then go to central government and present a strong, evidence-based case. We have to make sure our voice is heard nationally, yes, but as the LGA we have to collaborate across parties and across peers, and then explain to Westminster why a solution will help our communities. A great example of this is the work we have done around public health. There was a desire within the NHS to bring this back within the health service, but we made a strong, evidenced-based argument that since public health has moved into local government, outcomes have improved significantly despite shrinking budgets.” 


“My biggest passion is communities, the question of how do we get resilient, self-sustaining communities that work, that are great places to work, live and have leisure. I see this role as looking at how we can make the public sector work more effectively, and it all comes down to how we create communities.” 

For James, collaboration is key. “The answer is working across the public sector, and other non-public sector stakeholders. If we cannot provide a united front when we’re talking to government, we are not going to being listened to. That is why we need to focus on the things we all agree on. I’d say 80 to 90% of what local government provides is not political; successfully emptying someone’s bin is not a political statement, nor is caring for a vulnerable old lady. In most areas of local government, we are all in political agreement, so there is a huge area where we can establish common ground. Lord Porter always made the point that the colour of your team doesn’t matter, we’re better when we’re united, and I’d echo that.” 


The Spending Round 

“When it came to the recent Spending Round, we put in a lot of effort to point out the pressures local authorities are under and the importance of the services we deliver. I have to say, it was good Spending Round because we moved into positive territory. Have we got everything we want or need? Of course not, but it was a definite change of direction from a reduction in funding to a year-on-year increase. One of the most pleasing things about it was the announcement that government would be launching a major review into the support for children with special educational needs. Sometimes the solution is not just more money, sometimes you need a new framework that allows us to do things better. From integration with the health system to better inclusivity in schools, there is a whole series of areas where we can improve how we deliver SEND services.” 

“When it comes to the current situation within Whitehall, and with Brexit, the LGA takes a neutral perspective, and at a local level I took the view that Central Bedfordshire Council should too. But what I will say, is that in recent weeks the desire to move forward has definitely gone up a notch. One of the nice things about change is it gives you the ability to influence and improve the landscape. There are also clear downsides to this level of uncertainty and instability, and it would have really nice to have had a three, four, or five-year funding settlement. But at the same time, there is more of a willingness to listen to local government at the moment because there is a desire to affect change.” 


“If you look at the purpose of government, it always comes down to a person, and a place. You are providing a service to a person, and you’re trying to create a great place. So, the closer you get to that person and that place, the more effective and the more joined-up your services become. This is why we need devolution. Trying to direct all of these services across the UK from Whitehall is a difficult and overly complex task, but with genuine, place-based centric devolution, you have local knowledge and you can deliver far more effectively. Here at the LGA, we would like to see as much devolution as possible. Looking across government, we have seen devolution in certain parts of the country, even certain countries within the UK – why can’t this level be replicated elsewhere? If we are going to deliver a better level of services, we need to be locally-focused. The pace of change needs to improve.” 

Looking forward 

“What I’d like to see is more recognition of local governments ability to deliver excellence at a local level. There is always too much focus on the failings of local authorities, but there are 350 odd councils in England and they can’t all be perfect. Local government delivers far more than any other part of government, and for the vast majority we do a great job. I believe the more responsibility and opportunity local government is given, the larger the net gain for the public sector.” 

“Will there be another Northamptonshire, I think that very much depends on the choices central government makes. But we’ve had a positive Spending Round, and if continue to move to a more devolved system then that means more opportunity and less pressure for local authorities. You have to accept that if we don’t get those things then it is not without risk, but I am very optimistic. There is a genuine opportunity with the level of change happening right now, to have a big influence and really deliver for our residents.”


Tw: @JGJamieson


Top Image: © Chris Sharp


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