Tuesday 31 October 2006
Our National Chair Cllr John Kerr-Brown and myself participated in a conference at the European Commission in Brussels today on how European legislation on services is impacting on local public enterprises. We made some useful contacts with other organisations interested in local services such as the European Centre for Public Enterprises (CEEP) and the Network of European Elected Representatives for Local Services (NEELS). Unfortunately we didn't see much of Brussels as we arrived late the night before got a bit lost in the streets surrounding the Commission and left straight after the event.
With over 200 delegates there we were surprised to find ourselves as the only U.K. representatives apart from a Cllr from Lincolnshire. In fact it was noticeable that there was contributions from speakers from Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Sweden and yet none from the U.K. I felt obliged to ask a question just to show a presence. The basis of the discussion was around whether we need a European Framework around local services of a general interest in order to exempt them from exposure to competition created by the uncertainty surrounding the new European Services Directives.
It was the full headphones job with translators sitting behind glass screens filtering the speeches to delegates. Probably the hardest job they had of the day wasn't dealing with the legal jargon, but trying to figure out what country I was from in order to begin translating.
Friday 27 October 2006
Our Policy, Performance and Scrutiny Committee was held today in my old hometown of Motherwell. This was to allow several members of our committee and myself to participate in an event organised jointly by North Lanarkshire Council and APSE on the impact proportional representation (PR) will have on the functioning of Scottish local government, when it kicks in at next years local elections in May.
It is anticipated that this will change the political landscape in Scotland from one where many local authorities have been run under the outright control of a political party (normally Labour) to a situation where almost all will have no overall control. It's a strange time with many long standing friends, from all parties, leaving local government and I can't help but feel that it will take a long time to bed down post May.
PR has been in place in local government in Northern Ireland for many years and Councillors and Officers from Lisburn and Derry had come across to the event to share their experiences. Despite the system being in place for over 30 years there was still some horror stories about 20,000 spoiled ballot papers and it sounds incredibly complex for the electorate who are normally used to just making their cross.
Cllr Richard Williams, from Southampton, also spoke of his experience of working in the most marginal council in the United Kingdom, it has 16 Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem Councillors on a 48 member authority. The mind boggles about operating in this environment and I am told that the whips don't allow you to go to the toilet once the meeting starts in case your opposite numbers call for a vote when you leave the room.
I always enjoy speaking at events in the Civic Centre as it is only half a mile from where I was brought up and where my parents still live. I guess the local authority is also in my blood as my grandfathers brother used to be the Provost in the 1950's.
Wednesday 25 October 2006
Went to parliament today to lobby David Curry MP, the former Conservative Local Government Minister, on housing issues. The delegation was a joint one between the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH) and ourselves. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on me that we were lobbying a former Conservative Government Minister on the issue of Council Housing and that the ARCH representatives were from Wandsworth. It just shows how much things can change in under 10 years.
David has a first class intellect and being a journalist to trade was very precise with his line of questioning, he obviously had a good grounding in the policy and financial ramifications of the issue and very quickly got to the crux of the matter. In Wandsworths case why should they be financially penalised because they have managed their stock well and have almost completed the decent homes standard without having to transfer or go to an ALMO. £18m is clawed back from their HRA account by the Treasury and then redistributed to authorities who have pursued options the Government wanted. The current system is unfair and must be changed, I suspect that the pressure on Government with regard to this is unbearable and they must act soon rather than continue to defend a position that even they must have realised some time ago is just plain unfair, unworkable and undemocratic.
David has agreed to a number of follow up items with us and he is someone who would add some serious experience to Dave's new boys and girls in any future Conservative administartion.
Friday 20 October 2006
At a Lyon's Inquiry event in London today on Efficiencies by virtue of better Asset Management. The day didn't start well 5.30am start doesn't agree with me anyway but when the train was stuck for 1 hour and 20 minutes outside Lichfield due to a points failure it left me late for the event. Stormed into the meeting 3/4 of the way into Sue Reids presentation and to compound my embarassment Sue waved to me, said hello and thirty odd participants turned round to view the latecomer.
The usual lobbyists were there from the CBI trying to suggest local government should be a commissioner of services and not a deliverer. Fortunately Michael Lyon's seen through it and rebutted them by stating that where services were being delivered well then he could see no reason to outsource them and that if they were being really poorly delivered then alternatives should be considered. I don't think this is a position that many in local government would argue with, however I am getting a bit fed up with the dinosaurs from the CBI who continue to try to use every discussion about reform to push an outdated privatisation agenda. This is not a universal position amongst the private sector where the more clever operators are talking about real partnerships.
Adam Wilkinson from Rotherham gave a brilliant presentation on how they have developed an asset management plan that manages their property portfolio, links it to residents needs and aids their long term self supported finance strategy. It also joins up with all public sector agencies within the local area. I had asked Sue a question about this approach earlier and was pleased to see that Rotherham were actually progressing with it, so I asked Adam a supportive question.
It seems to me that Local Government can go one of two ways it can be a minimalistic administrator or it can be a real community leader, champion and place shaper by co-ordinating all public sector activity within its geographic boundaries and delivering an integrated holistic set of services the public want and need, not in isolation but in partnership with the private sector where they can add value.
I hope I am right in thinking Lyon's caught on to this also, I had a quick chat with him after the event and passed on some documentation. He is an impressive charachter and his summing up suggested that he listens to everyone, doesn't miss much and will deliver very much his own vision rather than have anyone force one upon him.
Wednesday 18 October 2006
On a time management course today so will need to be brief. All the senior staff were present and it was great fun watching all the 'busy' people trying to suggest how they were that well organised that the systems we were being taught would need to fit in with how they operated, rather them changing their own methods.
Of course the 'busy' people are the ones that are the most disorganised and that is why they are 'busy' all the time.
I learned loads from it and will use a load of the tips and techniques ................... if only I can find the time.
Friday 13 October 2006
APSE held a fringe meeting today on Transforming Public Services at the SNP annual conference in Perth. This is got to be one of the best fringes the Association has ever done, there was over 70 delegates in attendance who were all interested in the topic rather than the lunch and the speakers were excellent.
Cllr Ron Scrimgour from Angus Council who sits on the APSE National Council chaired the event as well as having organised it. He is first class and will be a massive loss to local government and APSE when he stands down at the May elections. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand.
Jim Mather MSP, the economic spokesperson, opened the speeches and linked the reform of public services to the wider macro economic development of Scotland, but for me John Swinney MSP, the finance spokesperson and former leader stole the show. The conference delegates obviously still have the upmost respect for him and I found myself agreeing with a number of his assertions about public sector reform. I passed on a sound bite to him in my contribution 'collaboration not reorganisation' and pointed out that our response to the Executive's consultation contained a number of the points he had made.
I found myself wondering why he was not the leader anymore and came to the conclusion that he was probably to genuine a person for that level of politics. The debate raged on until Ron had to close it in time for delegates to return to the main hall.
Wednesday 11 October 2006
Spoke on the issue of Shared Services at the APSE Wales seminar on the outcomes from the Beecham Review. The event went really well with over 100 delegates in attendance and a good level of debate taking place.
Two concepts from Beecham's review that I wholeheartedly agree with are firstly, that the way to reform public services is via collaboration not competition and secondly, the idea that the public are 'citizens' who recognise that public services are not only for themselves but are also for others users, as oppossed to the idea being pursued in England of the public being individual 'consumers' who should vote with their feet if they are unhappy with their own personal consumption. I guess this difference identified by Beecham says something about the choice facing all of us about what type of society we want to live in.
I opened up by saying that I really wanted to be speaking at an event in England this week owing to the humbling of the English football team by the mighty Macedonia at the weekend and the fact that FIFA have just crowned Scotland official world champs after beating France, this seemed to win friends amongst the audience.
The serious message I wanted to get across was that local government has the opportunity to rise to the public sector reform agenda at present and implement its own solutions, if it doesn't then darker forces will ultimately force solutions upon us. An interesting point that emerged during the debate was around the issue of engaging staff in the process of reform when ultimately some of the ideas generated may impact on their employment. My solution is that reform doesn't always have to lead to detriment for staff but can generate enhanced investment in frontline services, training opportunities, job enrichment and career advancement opportunities. If local government doesn't communicate effectively with its staff and show them potential incentives through their involvement in improvement programmes then it will meet resistance to change. I went on to suggest that local authorities should apportion percentages of efficiency savings generated to workforce development programmes.
Wednesday 04 October 2006
Had a visit today from the Director of CLES Neil McEnroy and one of the new policy offiers there Nicola Carroll who is a good friend. We spent a useful few hours talking about how we can collaborate together as organisations and agreed a list of around five issues that could be further developed jointly.
I am impressed with Neil who has no airs or graces about him and says what he means, unlike half of the people who you meet on the London circuit who are false, pretencious and patronising. Perhaps its because Neils a fellow Scot, but I definetly get the feeling that we will do further work together as organisations.