I have already written in The MJ about the theme of delay which emerged so I won’t repeat the points I made in that article. Instead I will draw attention to some of the other highlights.
Led by the DCN chairman, Councillor John Fuller (South Norfolk DC), there was a buoyant, positive tone that was not fixated on structural change as the (supposed) solution to local government’s challenges. Perhaps other representative bodies might take note? There was a positive welcome to the DCN’s new strap line of “Better Lives – Stronger Economies” which neatly encapsulates what district councils are seeking to achieve.
However the biggest round of applause in the room was for the statement that shire counties don’t have to have “metro mayors” if they wish to seek devolution. Despite the Secretary of State’s comment that the devolution framework promised in last year’s election manifesto would be appearing soon, the latest I have heard suggests that it won’t emerge before June – which is only 20% through the life of this Parliament.
I was impressed by the new local government Minister, Rishi Sunak MP. He came across as clever and someone already on top of his brief, although he didn’t offer us any new insights into what the Government would decide. To be fair, he had been in post for only a month. The Minister is even younger than my Leader, who is young in local government terms having celebrated his 40th birthday earlier this year!
We also heard from Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, shadow Minister for Planning, who gave us a perspective from the Opposition and told us that Labour will be launching a planning commission in June. Her comments were that planning was too complicated and takes too long and that people feel it’s being “done to them”. It was good to hear that there is Labour support for local retention of business rates but “it should not be the primary means of funding” and redistribution was essential.
There was a useful session from Grant Thornton on the transformation toolkit which they have been commissioned to produce for the DCN and which will be published in May. This will look at a wide range of collaborative measures that district councils have implemented from shared services and the localism agenda through to more radical steps such as mergers. It will provide a valuable and practical guide to further changes that councils can consider that best meet local circumstances and it certainly does not prescribe a single solution (other representative bodies take note).
The Penna/DCN survey of chief executives was introduced by Julie Towers and – perhaps not surprisingly? – revealed more positive views from district chief executives than their counterparts in unitary and county councils. The funding pressures of social care, not to mention the CQC and Ofsted regimes, are taking their toll. Our president, Jo Miller, was also on hand and received warm applause for her tweets the previous day in response to the rather ill-informed coverage of local government’s financial situation on the Jeremy Vine show. Her participation in an edition of the show will, I am sure, illuminate Radio 2 listeners on the realities facing councils, and be delivered in Jo’s inimitable style.
If you haven’t already seen it, Jo’s tweeted analysis is worth a read https://twitter.com/i/moments/961646217510912001
Finally one of the best received sessions of the conference was when Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell, a former Secretary of state for Health, and Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, spoke powerfully about the important role that district councils play in health and well-being. This has been a key work stream of the DCN over the last couple of years, led by Charlie Lant (Wealden DC) – the film of what his council is doing is surely a shoo-in for next year’s Oscars! It would be good to see the hard work that Charlie and others have been doing to promote district councils’ contribution in this area better reflected in Government policy and local partnerships.