Last month, I was looking forward to the Liberal Democrat Annual Party conference: a time to hear what’s been happening, to look ahead and to talk with colleagues from across the country.
But it rained in Brighton (and the wind howled) just like home ! One lunchtime, I was talking to the Council’s Emergency Planning Officer in Halifax, on my mobile phone finding out how the Upper Valley was coping with the weather, with my back to the wind and rain on the seafront, and got absolutely saturated ! (but I was assured that sandbags had been issued, drains were being cleared again, and river levels closely watched by the Environment Agency).
Conference always opens with a “rally”: the topics this time were Jobs Education Environment Tax which set the theme for the week.
As you may have seen on TV, the tone of the conference was very positive – the focus was on getting the country’s finances sorted out and growing the economy. The slogan of the conference was “fairer tax in tougher times” with an emphasis on the importance of starting by taxing the better-off, and reducing taxes on people struggling on lower wages. The plan is to lift people on minimum wage out of paying any income tax.
Party conference is also a good opportunity for us to remind ourselves of our liberal value base – about caring for people, supporting communities, and being business-like. So there were fascinating debates about housing (and the recent government proposal to relax planning laws), “secret courts”, underprovision of mental health services, regional public sector pay as well as green and environmental issues, aviation policy (against the third runaway at Heathrow airport).
Whilst there are platform speeches during the week by key Ministers, it culminates with the closing speech by the Party Leader (and Deputy Prime Minister), Nick Clegg. The response to him was, again, positive and enthusiastic, and it felt sincere.
We were reminded that, although it has been hard for us all, we’re half-way through the coalition government’s term of office and the important task now is to look ahead. Here in Calderdale, we’re still running the Council with Labour colleagues. We’ve survived the first two years of Council funding cuts but we’ve still got a sizeable budget and we’re now planning on how best to use this for services for local people.
This time we don’t want to simply “salami slice” services but take a more strategic view of the needs of local people and the role of the Council. Watch this space!
Get round the table
I was invited to participate in two round table discussions at Party conference: an opportunity to talk with key people on a particular topic, without the crowd who attend “fringe” meetings !
The first was with Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and other Council Group Leaders, talking about what the government can do to help growth in the local economy – business and jobs. I wait to see what comes out of this.
The other was with the Post Office. Their role is changing to be the “front office for government” and, after recent closures, their future is much more assured. As a Council we’re looking at our “local and neighbourhood” services, including Customer First, our reception offices. An important component is this is working much more closely with other public and community services – including Police, Health and so on.
The Post Offices may well have something to offer – they are used to processing money and they want to be more closely involved in acting as the local “One Stop Shop” for government departments.
As more of these services go on-line, requiring us to make applications over the web and by email, we suggested to them that they could have computer terminals for people who don’t have easy access to them in their own homes. Again, watch this space !
So I came back from Brighton straight into taking part in a Local Government seminar on community budgets: looking at how Councils can work much more closely with local communities, using both Council funding, other sources of public funding (from Police, Health etc) and involving local people much more closely in the design and delivery of local services (and, crucially, decisions about how the money’s actually spent). Really joining the dots up. Does it work ? And would it work here? These are questions that I came away asking myself and something that I’ll add to our review of local services.