Defining a Conservative Council
One of the outstanding themes to come out of the discussion was that good management is at the heart of what defines a Conservative council. ‘Value for money’, ‘improved services’, ‘renewing the legacy’ and ‘financial discipline’ were all phrases which neatly summarised the general consensus that a prerequisite of a Conservative Council was its ability to manage successfully.
An improved service delivery was fundamental to the good management style of a Conservative Council. Both crime and education were given the highest priority. A number of Conservative Councils were at the forefront of the local police agenda, introducing PCSOs at an early stage and encouraging Neighbourhood policing at all times. On education, a number of Councils highlighted the importance of vocational training and skills.
And beyond policing and education, engagement with local areas was a consistent theme. Conservative Councils are, on the whole, responsive to residents, and actively communicate to aim to provide a strong ‘community leadership’.
However, there were a number of themes which also began to emerge as to what is distinct about a Conservative approach to local government. For example, low taxes are seen as integral to the Conservative agenda. It was noted at this point that there may be a presumption in some areas of society – low taxes mean a reduction in services. This fallacy needed to be addressed. Delivering services more efficiently without the need for unnecessary staff and/or bureaucracy was a good example of this.
It was also suggested that in a Conservative Council there are no ‘no-go areas’, whereas other parties tend to be more reticent about dealing with certain groups of people. A Conservative Council aims to create a ‘borough of opportunity’, and to help people to help themselves. This approach was summed up neatly by one contributor as:
‘Order. opportunity and low taxes’
Another important distinctive feature of a Conservative Council is its ability to respond in different ways to different situations. There was some debate at this point as to what the drivers are for how a Conservative Council arrives at the best approach for their individual areas. Is there a national framework (or ‘one-nation’ brand) for arriving at local solutions or is it best that Conservative Councils find their own unique and individual approaches based on the distinctive characteristics of their local area? It was broadly agreed that the two are not necessarily different, and that what was most important is that there is a clear vision and list of priorities for the future of local government at a national and local level.
One area that was only mentioned in passing concerned the ‘green’ agenda. It is clearly of vital importance that Conservative Councils embrace this topic, as it has been neglected in the Government’s recent papers on local government, especially given the Conservatives national agenda.
A Cultural Change
It was suggested that a large part of the Conservative debate on local government has become entrenched into the New Labour lexicon of language. As part of forming a new Conservative vision for local government, we should firstly liberate Conservative thinking and language from the current Government’s grasp.
This could be exemplified no better than in the use of the word ‘community’. It is now at the heart of the New Labour agenda, yet there was some unease that it has now become a meaningless buzz-word, banded around by senior Ministers who want to justify their over-centralised devolution programme. Yet it is also a word used across all parties to mean something quite different from the Government’s use of it. A useful Conservative response its use was stated as follows:
“There is such a thing as Community, it is just not the same as the Council”
A new relationship between central and local government
A number of overarching policy areas were discussed which rested fundamentally on the relationship between central and local government. More specifically, Councils should have more power to raise revenue at the local level, regulation and performance frameworks should be dramatically reduced or removed, and local government’s approach to policy should be ‘supply’ led rather than the over-centralised ‘demand’ led approach that we currently have. There should be a radical new funding relationship between local areas and the centre. The relationship we should be aiming for was best summarised by the statement:
“We should not be afraid to push new policy ideas through local government”
The key priorities from the roundtable can be summarised as follows:
1. Liberate Conservative thinking and language. Re-define the meaning of certain local-government buzz-words.
2. Define a new funding relationship between local areas and centre
3. Reduce top down regulation and performance culture
4. Clear vision on an agreed list of future priorities
5. Tackling Conservative fallacies. Does reduction tax necessarily imply a reduction of services?
6. Focus on a localist green agenda
7. Conservative Councils should be catalysts for new ideas