A new chair, a new start with ministers

Author: James Illman, Local Government Chronicle   |  

Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) has this week called for a fresh start in relations between the sector and ministers, as the new Local Government Association chairman set out his plans to guide the group through a “pivotal” period.

In his first in-depth interview since his appointment, Sir Merrick told LGC a positive relationship with ministers would be crucial as he sets about helping a “bruised” local government sector regain its confidence.

The Kensington & Chelsea RBC leader says: “There’s an opportunity, not just in my election but in that there will be a new team leading the LGA, for us to take a deep breath.

“I’m not really interested in raking over the last period. I’ve got positive things to say and I believe we can have positive relationships with this government,” he adds.

“We won’t always agree. Ministers are entitled to their views and we are entitled to ours [but] I hope we will be able to do this in a sensible and mature fashion.”

Outlining his vision for the organisation, Sir Merrick says a restructuring is not on the cards but that he is coming in with an “open mind” and that he remains confident his proposed changes will help the LGA win back councils considering axing their subscription.

Among changes he is considering is a new multi-tiered membership structure that could replace the current one-size-fits-all model, and ways the group could change to become more accommodating to councils outside London and the south-east.

There’s an opportunity, not just in my election, but in that there will be a new team leading the LGA, for us to take a deep breath
Sir Merrick’s comments follow his emphatic victory in last week’s poll. He defeated fellow aspirant David Parsons (Con) by 2,342 weighted votes to 1,619. Some 85% of eligible members voted (a “quite astounding” showing, Sir Merrick says), about 25% more than in the last chairman election.

But despite a hard-fought campaign in which he freely admits to having started out as the outsider, Sir Merrick appears acutely aware that the hard work has only just begun.

A bulging in-tray awaits. It includes selecting the group’s new chief executive and various other senior posts and bedding down a substantial restructure that has cut the staff headcount by almost half.

He will also be spearheading the LGA’s lobby efforts on a raft of policy areas, such as the local government resource review and the Localism Bill, which could shape the sector’s role for decades.

To add to the challenge, he becomes only the second Conservative LGA chairman to be in the position of defending the sector’s corner against ministers of his own political party.

The only other Tory chair to do so was the outgoing Baroness Eaton, who he said had got it right in terms of the robust line she took in defending the sector against attacks from Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps.

“It’s not been an easy time. Inevitably, it’s different when you are dealing with a party that isn’t your own. It’s a tough call and I think Margaret has done an admirable job,” says Sir Merrick.

Sir Merrick declines to be drawn into an early tussle with ministers over some of the more aggressive briefings against the sector by ministers in the Department for Communities & Local Government, but he admits that the sector certainly knows where it stands. “Messages that government wanted to deliver have been heard loud and clear. If government wanted to have an impact on chief executives’ pay, then they have,” he says.

The hunt for his own new chief began in earnest yesterday with a meeting in Birmingham with John Smith, the consultant charged with filling the vacancy.

Sir Merrick says he hopes to appoint someone as soon as possible, with a candidate in place before the end of the year, although this is not set in stone.

Another key task will be forming a good working relationship with the other political group leaders at the LGA. No doubt his experience at the cross-party London Councils will have prepared him well for this task.

When LGC informs Sir Merrick that his appointment had been given the backing of LGA Liberal Democrat leader Richard Kemp, a man known to cause the odd headache for Tory ministers, he laughs. “Thank God he didn’t say that earlier,” he says.

Sir Merrick may need to maintain a sense of humour in the tough months ahead, but the consensus among senior local government figures is that the LGA has selected a man with the credentials and temperament to rise to the challenge.

Click here to read the original article