The New World – Group Leader Update – 10 October 2016
Whilst typhoons and hurricanes raged at opposite ends of the earth, and amongst some of our party politics, Theresa May made her first Conservative Party Conference speech as Prime Minister last week, aiming to steer the country towards calmer waters.
The Prime Minister gave what some might term a "magpie speech", with something bright for everyone: raising fairness, justice, and equality for all; increasing grammar schools; and chasing down big tax avoiders. She also named a deadline for Article 50 to be triggered, which means we will remain in the EU until 2019.
The clean, green and safe environment, however, seemed forgotten.
Theresa May talked about an important role for Government, but it is still unclear whether this extends to local government.
What is clear is that almost all of us have signed four year deals which signify the toughest funding gap yet. We have taken a 50 percent cut in government funding before, but this time we are starting from an already reduced budget, at the same time as we continue to face increasing needs from our residents.
It was a good speech, but some of the call for change was difficult to reconcile with the fact that Theresa May has been part of the government promoting what she now seeks to change. Tighter immigration controls not hitherto seen. There is a clear commitment to justice for all, yet it is undermined when a minister proposes listing the whereabouts of foreign workers. Also, what is the current policy on the so-called "immigrants go home" poster campaign? Is the party's new rhetoric somewhat belied by its actions to date or has the leopard really changed its spots?
In other news last week, our minister for Local Government, Sajid Javid MP, overruled local planning officers and the public in giving permission for fracking at a site in Lancashire. He also dismissed people wanting to preserve their local quality of life as "nimbys", setting a dangerous precedent for the future of "localism".
Housing was the other big issue making the news and I'm sure councils will welcome the ability to increase planning fees to cover costs, even if developers can continue to avoid paying more as they can still require reductions in contributions to infrastructure on the basis it makes the development "unviable". About a third of council areas are deemed to be increasing their population faster than their housing. Sajid sees this as an opportunity for more homes to be built and owned, but people may need to borrow more to pay for them. The LGA has maintained that everyone should have a home they can afford, with a mixture of private and public tenure and ownership. I have also advocated, via the LGA, that housing policy not only delivers the housing and infrastructure needed locally but promotes strong communities and people's quality of life. It will therefore be interesting to see how the new funding for loans and infrastructure, planning proposals and housing policy is to be used to increase house purchase and building over the coming years.
From the many announcements last week, reform of local government seems to be continuing, though not to our existing authorities as our group members were seeking. Discussions on devolution continue, although the government have made it clear that they still require a single accountable elected mayor, even in vast rural areas. For some areas this will not be a barrier, while in some new combined authority areas, it is deemed too costly and unworkable, being too far removed from residents and from their elected councillors. Further change is also occurring in Wales with the controversial Wales Bill goes through the House of Lords this week.
Whatever government actions are in place, it is clear that we, in the Independent Group have a vital role to play in holding this government to account, locally and nationally. Collectively, we have greater diversity and wisdom than any single party. With integrity and determination, our members focus on the facts of the matter and always seek the best solutions for our residents. That is needed now as much as ever.
20 December 2016