THE LOCAL Government Association is an all-party group representing local government across the country.
Its annual meeting provides an important opportunity to meet other leaders and to debate/discuss new ideas, and challenge Government, if required.
Following a day of back-to-back meetings I left for Birmingham immediately after Cabinet at 7pm on Monday night. However, as with all the best laid plans, things didn’t quite work out….
As part of our cost-saving drive we’d decided to travel by carshare – a great plan if had the car been big enough to take all of us (myself and councillors Akhtar, Sykes, Beeley and Hulme, plus associated luggage). In the end Cllr Akhtar and myself were left to travel by train, arriving at 10pm.
The first day of conference is a chance to find your way around and arrange meetings for the remaining two days.
The morning saw a round of political group meetings which are closed and not for reporting here, but I did want to let you know that I have been elected as ‘North West Member at Large’ for the Local Government Labour Group representing councillors across the region.
I’m mindful that my focus is rightly on Oldham but I’m also keen to speak to people outside our Borough about new ideas for local government. When people talk about Oldham in the future I want them to be as positive about the Borough as I am – not stuck in the past.
I met with Cllr Steve Reed, Leader of Lambeth Council, to talk through our proposal to become a Cooperative Council.
Lambeth are the first true ‘Cooperative Council’ and have made great strides in modernising to make their council more relevant to the community it serves.
Interestingly a number of our suggestions about developing councillors as local leaders, devolving services and the creation of a community dividend scheme seemed of real interest. From here we are now working towards creating a Cooperative Council Network to share ideas, learn from others and make sure that this ‘brand’ is protected by introducing a criteria for entry in to this scheme.
I next met with Caroline Flint MP, the Shadow Minister for Local Government, to discuss our policy programme for Oldham. We outlined our vision for a Cooperative Borough, discussed the potential to work with neighbouring Rochdale and other Greater Manchester councils to meet the budget challenge (£54million in Oldham alone) but also protect frontline services.
We also took the opportunity to talk to Cllr Richard Williams from Southampton, who is National Chair of the Association of Public Service Excellence (ASPE), about his work on renewable energy.
Oldham is leading on this in Greater Manchester and I’m keen to ensure that the business and cost benefits to renewable energy are promoted. Not only could we save serious money from our £14 million energy bill, but we can also help residents out of fuel poverty: if we get it right.
Back into the main hall next to hear the Prime Minister, David Cameron, address the conference.
His speech focused on the current pension reform proposals and strike action. Mr Cameron was firm in his view that local government needed to reform and – although this isn’t the right forum for a political comment – my observation would be that to avoid conflict everyone must feel as though they can have their voice heard and concerns addressed. It isn’t in the interests of our workforce or taxpayers to be pitted against each other when more often than not they are one and the same. In Oldham around 80 per cent of our workforce are local residents and contribute significantly to the local economy.
I had a brief catch up with Councillor James Alexander. At the age of 29 he is officially the youngest Council Leader in the country at York. Having had this title attributed to me for a short time I must say it is something of a relief to know that I can now say “Actually, I am not the youngest” and instead be judged on what I do. Talking with James was good and I expect York will be in for some interesting times under his leadership.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, gave his address to conference, which I found to be as I had expected. He is without doubt a skilled public speaker and gave the audience a good show with some interesting announcements, such as the proposal to select two pilot projects to lead on public sector spending – maybe one for Oldham?
I also used the time in Birmingham to meet with our partners Mouchel – joint-owners of the Unity Partnership here in Oldham. I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about how we can use Unity to attract new jobs into the Borough. With so many councils considering outsourcing I do often think we should be out there bringing in work and not simply standing by and watching on.
During the meeting I talked through our plans for Oldham to become a Cooperative Borough and explained how I thought Unity was central to this scheme working. If we are able to get agreement for Unity to sign up to our ethical framework, pay a living wage and buy into our idea to create a Dividend Fund to benefit Oldham, we would set the benchmark for other partners too.
The final day of conference was a ‘day to far’ for me(!) We had a full afternoon and evening booked in with leading members from Rochdale Council to discuss next steps for our joint working programme.
It was also an important opportunity to meet with Trade Union representatives from both Boroughs to explain the progress to date. For joint working to deliver we need to work with them in order to get the best possible outcome for all concerned.
Thanks for listening.