NALC speech at the SLCC National Conference 2021

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Keynote speech by Cllr Sue Baxter, chair of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), to the Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC) National Conference 2021 in Hinckley on 13 October 2021.

Well, good afternoon conference, it’s great to join you in person this year.

But obviously still in 2D for those of you taking part remotely!

And thank you so much, Jane, for such a kind and warm introduction.

I want to start by saying several more thank you’s.

Because it’s been such a tough time over the last 18 months, a time in which I think all of us have grown to appreciate so many things even more.

And I hope, show our appreciation more.

To be kinder.

For me, saying thank you is a big part of that most human of virtues.

So firstly another thanks to you Jane, not just for expertly compering the conference... so far... no pressure of course!

But also for getting actively involved in your county association and also in NALC through our Larger Councils Committee.

You and other clerk colleagues on our committees bring to our work an important practitioner perspective... as well as professional knowledge... sharing good practice and learning from each other.

I was recently grateful that you shared your experience of local government reorganisation and the creation of the Weymouth Town Council with my colleagues in Cumbria. They are rightly pushing to level up local democracy by creating more councils, just as the Dorset county association did.

Learning from you and other colleagues who have been through the process….will, I am sure, stand them in good stead to benefit from local government reform and build effective links with the new unitary councils.

Thanks also to Linda Larter MBE, your fantastic outgoing madam president.

Sadly a prior meeting commitment last night meant I couldn’t join your outgoing president’s dinner, but it was great to briefly join your celebrations afterwards.

Though judging by some of the... how should I describe them... sore heads in the room this morning, many colleagues were very ably and professionally ‘serving at the pleasure of the president’.

Work hard, play hard is, I think, a long-standing motto of this annual event. Fitting then that bringing people together is one of this year’s themes.

However, throughout your time as president touring the branches….mostly virtually given the circumstances….I know you’ve been championing the profession, as well as important issues like civility and respect.

And at the same time continuing to work together with your councillors, despite changing political hues, to provide leadership and ensure the town council continues to be a beacon of ambition and innovation.

Congratulations to Phil Peacock from Huntingdon Town Council on being passed the football and presidential seal... or is it a chain and a wig?! Certainly, some high heels to fill... honestly, no pun intended... but good luck, and we at NALC look forward to working with you, too.

A few more brief thank you’s.

To Steve Trice, your new-ish chairman, for stepping up and giving up so much of his time to help lead the society [SLCC], working together with your board, Rob Smith, and the rest of the team. I’m pleased we’ve put the civility and respect agenda at the heart of our respective organisation’s priorities.

Again good luck, and I... and I’m sure my successor from December... want to work closely with you all and ensure we stand together to confront the challenges the sector faces.

There are also several partner organisations here, which we at NALC are also proud to work with. In particular, our longstanding partners Blachere Illumination and CCLA. Relationships endure... through good times and tough times... and I’m grateful for your unstinting support and commitment to the sector.

Now I save my final thank you... to all of you.

Every single one of you.

To every single clerk, council officer and member of staff, be you in this room or taking part remotely.

And to all of those not here with us over these few days.

I really can’t thank you enough for everything you do to make a difference in your communities.

But I especially can’t thank you enough for everything you have done over the last challenging 18 months.

Clerks, council staff, councillors, volunteers and partner organisations.

You were at the forefront of the response to the crisis, never more needed, keeping our communities running.

Councils, county associations, SLCC branches, SLCC and NALC.

All stood together to support each other and our communities.

Because put simply... we all want the same thing.

Whether we’re councillors, clerks, county associations, SLCC or NALC.

We are all passionate about making a difference.

All are passionate about making life better for our communities.

And we are all passionate about making a change.

We are the voice for our communities... we are truly local and deliver the things our communities need, want and deserve.

Although I tend to describe this as having no end game... no finishing line... just an eternal mission.

A mission to continue to make a difference... to adapt to change and to continue to make life better for our communities.

That is why it’s been such a great privilege to be the chair of NALC over the last five years... and to lead our organisation in this mission.

And as I come to the end of my term of office and I spend time, as I’m sure you do, reflecting on recent years, one phrase keeps springing to mind more than any other: together we stand.

Quite apt then that the title of this conference is taken from a quote by the inspirational Helen Keller: together we can do so much.

Because I believe the shared sentiment in both of these will undoubtedly be the key to our continued success moving forward, helping us get through the challenges, we are sure to face, as well as unlocking new opportunities.

I’d like to share with you a few reflections on the last few years, some challenges ahead, and what I think needs to happen to put councils at the heart of future communities.

Now, unlike Linda, who joins a long and distinguished line of former female presidents... five years ago, when I was elected as chair of NALC by my peers, I became the first female chair of NALC in its history since being formed in 1947.

I was, of course, immensely proud to become NALC’s chair... although not particularly proud to be the first-ever female chair.

I’m absolutely sure that I won’t be the last. And we will be failing in our quest for more diversity in the sector if not. 

So if you have great female councillors on your councils, including your chairs or mayors... ask them to stand. Talent spot as Lord Blunkett encouraged us this morning.

For me, there’s a golden thread running all the way from my roots being active in my local community... through to my involvement with my county association and also to NALC and beyond, which allows me to draw on all these experiences.

I first stood for election as an independent parish councillor in Worcestershire because I believed that I could use my career experience and love of my local area to make a change within my community.

I then stood for the county association and NALC because I wanted to try and make a bigger change across the county and at the national level.

I still get those goosebumps moments when something happens, which reminds me of my community roots and why I believe what we do as the first tier of local government is so brilliant.

I’m sure you have them too. 

About those seemingly little things that happen that mean a lot to local people. 

Just recently, for example, we opened our new community allotments, and I saw the effort put in by our councillors... volunteers... our fantastic clerk... and the support from our local businesses.

To see the smiles on our resident's faces and the appreciation of everyone who will enjoy the new facility — that was one of those moments.

Likewise, through my work with our excellent county officer to improve and transform how we support and represent local councils across Worcestershire. The positive feedback we get from councils and our partners says it all.

As an advocate at the national level of what you all do, I’ve always endeavoured to be as engaging with the sector as possible... as visible as possible... and as honest as possible.

I hope you’ve seen that through NALC’s regular communications, including our weekly bulletin and my own open letters.

Playing an instrumental role in the sector’s lobbying is a key part of being NALC chair. I am really proud that by working together, we’ve been able to deliver several notable successes in recent years.

Such as the multi-year deal on council tax referendum principles. It is absolutely right that local councils as local leaders should be engaging with their communities over investing their money in tackling local priorities. It is also absolutely right that local councils should have the freedom to increase the precept to deliver on local priorities.

As you all know, it was the Localism Act which brought in the power for the Secretary of State to set council tax referendum principles, and I’m pleased that together we persuaded successive ministers they should not be extended to our sector. And we will continue to make this case.

The Localism Act also abolished the Audit Commission... and by working together with the SLCC, we set up the sector-led body, SAAA, to procure audits. Again saving councils lots of money. 

Or take GDPR, where our lobbying on the Data Protection Act removed the proposed costly requirement for local councils to have a data protection officer, which has since saved councils millions of pounds a year.

Then there’s our longstanding campaign to end the ‘toilet tax’. Another goosebump moment for me was receiving emails from clerks across the sector after the then chancellor announced this measure in his Budget in 2018.

“Never in a million years did I think this would ever happen”, said one long-serving clerk. Despite taking some time to get the legislation through... no thanks to Brexit and two general elections... get there. We did. Again saving councils millions of pounds.

But important, we now use this as a springboard to make a case for exempting other community and cultural assets in the future... and I’m grateful the SLCC is keen to support this.

I think it goes without saying to this audience that an effective standards regime underpins an effective, well-functioning democracy. 

We successfully influenced the Committee on Standards in Public Life during their inquiry on local government ethical standards, particularly on the need to strengthen the regime, including through the introduction of sanctions, a measure we have consistently argued for.

A step forward that this and other measures we proposed were included in the committee’s recommendations.

But... like you... and I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue... I remain deeply disappointed that the Government has not yet responded to the committee’s report.

This is despite our collective and continuous lobbying of ministers and officials on this issue. And again, we are continuing to press this vital issue as part of our work on civility and respect.

I’m also immensely proud to have encouraged our councils to be ambitious, go beyond their more traditional role, and help tackle some of the big challenges facing our communities. 

Such as improving health and well being, tackling the climate and ecological emergency, supporting young people and using neighbourhood planning and master plans to shape development and housing.

Seeing our report with the Alzheimer’s Society on building dementia-friendly communities presented to the prime minister in the garden of Downing Street was another of those goosebump moments.

Recognising and celebrating councils work has been something I’ve been keen we do more of, and I’m thrilled we’ve continued to hold our Star Council Awards — congratulations again to all of this year’s winners. Especially Adam Keppell-Green from Knutsford Town Council, who was last week crowned clerk of the year.

And lastly, hosting a Royal Visit to our own annual conference in Milton Keynes just two years ago was another obvious highlight.

It really was a pleasure to show the Princess Royal around our event through the day, introduce her to some of you who are here today, shine a spotlight on the fantastic work of our sector, and hear her pay tribute to you all.

The other big part of my role is the organisation's leadership, and I am really lucky in that my predecessors, in particular, Cllr Ken Browse, the previous chair, had built solid foundations and a great team at all levels.

I also can’t thank them enough too because this allowed me to instigate a review of our strategic direction, which included our previous big conversation on the future of the sector. This resulted in a new focus on member services... with a new team, enhanced services and new partnerships at its very heart. 

Also, over the last five years, I have worked really hard to strengthen the relationship with and between our county associations, who, alongside SLCC branches, play such a vital role in supporting you all.

As you would expect over the last 18 months, Zoom has certainly helped us overcome our geographical challenges and bring us closer together, with much more frequent and regular meetings between NALC and county association staff.

So to conclude, I want to turn to the future and some of the issues and challenges that I believe our sector will be facing.

For our sector to continue to thrive... we must stand together... because I fear, divided we will fall.

Firstly, lobbying. And I don’t just mean by me, or the next me, in Westminster and Parliament. I mean all of us, all of the time, with your MPs in particular.

Clerks, councillors, councils are all fundamental to our lobbying efforts, and your engagement with our MPs is vital.

Ministers listen to their fellow MPs... about the good, the bad and the ugly. Tell them about the good work you are doing... invite them to your events... see how you can help them... but make sure they know about the issues you face and will take them up on your behalf.

We need to stand together and lobby together to try and get the change we want to see. Now some things are outside of our control, that’s the nature of government and the world we live in, but we need to try and influence that as much as we can.

So I think the second challenge is planning and local government reform.

Our councils as place-makers have an obvious part to play as the democratic voice of local people. 

But we also have a responsibility for current and future generations to build sustainable communities. That’s why we’ve been arguing that communities must continue to be at the heart of the planning system and central to the plan-making process, particularly through neighbourhood planning.

I’m in no doubt that neighbourhood planning is one of the reasons our sector continues to be relevant, with over a thousand plans in place and a million votes cast at referenda. Far and away the most successful of the measures brought in by the Localism Act.

But we must keep working together to ensure neighbourhood plans are strengthened and better protected. And I think the government gets that.

And on local government reform, for me, this includes levelling up and devolution.

I don’t think restructuring will go away, nor will changes to accountability regimes such as audits.

But I ask this... what do we want from reform, and are we ourselves actually prepared to change to get what we want? Is reform for everyone else, but not us?

Over the last week, the levelling up agenda is starting to take more shape, and the government have been trying to articulate what this means.

Here’s how the new levelling up minister Neil O’Brien describes it...

Empowering local leaders and empowering communities…

Growing the private sector and boosting living standards, particularly where they’re lower…

Spreading opportunity and improving public services, particularly where they are lacking...

And restoring local pride.

Again, I’m in doubt that our sector has a huge part to play in levelling up and rebuilding our communities.

With proper support and working together with the sector, I think the government has an opportunity to help local councils to do more.

To provide the local leadership needed to level up communities and ensure a social and economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

And what do I mean by this?

Levelling up local democracy by creating local councils across England...

Fair and secure funding. Including direct funding, as was mentioned a few times earlier today...

Strengthening local leadership and accountability...

Investing in increasing capacity and capability, including sharing good practice, which Lord Blunkett extolled so passionately this morning...

To really help us unlock our potential, we will need support, which is my third issue.

We need investment and support to build our capacity and capability, not just investment from the government, but investment from other sources, from ourselves.

We must invest in ourselves, training and development, for example.

We already have many self-improvement initiatives already in existence... as a baseline from which to build, we lack investment, including from the government.

We must invest in our partners, building relationships and links at all levels. Especially with our MPs... and I really can’t emphasise this enough.

And we must invest in our communities... be confident with our use of the precept and make the best of our sense of neighbourliness... keeping people and place at our heart.

But again, we must stand together to secure the investment our sector needs.

Now fourthly... I think underpinning all of this... is good governance.

Civility and respect should be at the heart of public life, and good governance is fundamental to ensuring an effective and well-functioning democracy at all levels.

In June last year, NALC and other stakeholders, including the SLCC, published a joint statement committing to promote civility and respect in public life.

A project working group has been established to drive this forward, and both NALC and SLCC have committed investment for this project of £100,000 over the next two years.

And we’re working hard to secure further investment too.

I know you’ll be hearing a lot more about our partnership... and what we are doing together... from Steve, Rob and other colleagues tomorrow.

I mentioned earlier that while we successfully influenced the Committee on Standards in Public life report and their recommendations, I am hugely frustrated with the lack of response from the government... and this must stay at the top of our agenda.

But I ask that we take this forward in the same civil and respectful way we want to become the norm in the sector.

My concluding challenge, and one, I set for my successor and Steve... is to develop a shared vision for the sector.

It is a vision that recognises England’s 10,000 local (parish and town) councils and their 100,000 councillors as the first tier of local government and an existing and sustainable model of community power, local leadership, and public service delivery.

And a vision accompanied by a new workforce strategy.

A plan that can bring together all those important threads such as pay and terms and conditions, recruitment and retention of clerks and council staff, training and development to ensure we are building the community leaders of the future with the capability our communities need, and much much more.

I believe that it is absolutely vital that we all stand together to meet all of these challenges, for I fear that if not, divided we will fall.

Let’s be ambitious.

Let’s get new people involved.

Let’s invest in ourselves.

And let’s be confident about the future.

Because together... we stand... and united... we will thrive.

Thank you.

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