NALC chairs speech to the Future Communities 2021 online conference
Cllr Sue Baxter, chair of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) gave a keynote speech at today's (2 December 2021) Future Communities 2021 online conference.
Just over twenty years ago, parish and town councils were going to be abolished.
Or so the story goes.
A government minister of the day reportedly made this suggestion.
Which was neither serious nor government policy.
And as we know, it never happened.
In fact, quite the opposite was true.
As precise twenty-one years ago yesterday, the headline in the Local Government Chronicle read… ”Rural White Paper – towns and parishes scoop major policy role”.
Published in late November in 2000, the government's rural white paper intended to be a blueprint for the rejuvenation of the countryside.
But just as important was the recognition of the important role parish and town councils – our most local councils - play in communities and the provision of local services.
So why do I mention this touchstone in our sector’s shared history?
Because the implied irrelevance of local councils, and what you and I do to make things better for our communities, served as a clarion call – a call to wake up, and a call to stand up.
Thankfully, the sector did stand up…pulling together, working together…to make the case that our first tier of local government was instead to be valued, supported and strengthened.
I think you will agree our sector looks very different now to the one at the start of the millennium.
That’s why having had the privilege to be the chair of NALC for the last five years, I am grateful to my predecessors, and everyone else who has played their part over the years, in championing local councils and parish power.
But I’m particularly grateful for everything you have done over the last challenging eighteen 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, NALC and the Society of Local Council Clerks.
All stood together to support each other and our communities.
Because put simply… we all want the same thing.
We are all passionate about making a difference.
About making life better for our communities.
And about making a change.
We are the voice for our communities, we are truly local and we deliver the things that our communities need, want and deserve.
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 5 years….and to lead our organisation in this mission.
And as I come to the end of my term of office and reflect on recent years, one phrase springs to mind more than any other… together we stand.
I’ve never been more certain that standing together and working together will continue to be the key to our future success, helping us get through the challenges we are sure to face, as well as unlocking new opportunities.
As I said in my opening remarks earlier today, today’s conference is my last as NALC chair.
So I’d like to share with you a few reflections on the last few years, set out some of the challenges ahead, and offer some thoughts on what I think needs to happen to put local councils at the heart of future communities.
When I was elected as chair of NALC by my peers five years ago, 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 certain that I won’t be the last – and we will be failing in our quest for more diversity in the sector if not.
But I need your help.
If you have great female councillors on your councils, including your chairs or mayors... ask them to stand. Ask them to get involved in your county association and also in NALC. If you know someone who would make a great councillor, ask them to stand. Talent spot.
This is the first of my pleas to you today.
For me, there’s a golden thread running all the way through my roots being active in my local community, to my involvement with my county association and then to NALC and beyond – one 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 a national level.
I still get those goosebumps moments when something happens that reminds me of my community roots and reminds me why what we do as the first tier of local government is so brilliant.
I’m sure you have them too.
Those seemingly little things that happen make a big difference to local people.
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.
A key part of being NALC chair has been playing an instrumental role in the sector’s lobbying.
I am really proud that by working together we’ve been able to deliver a number of 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.
But 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 of course, we will continue to make this case.
The Localism Act also abolished the Audit Commission, but by working together with the SLCC we set up the sector-led body, SAAA, to procure audits.
Saving local councils money in having to do it themselves.
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.
Again saving local councils money.
Then there’s our longstanding campaign to end the ‘toilet tax’.
Once again saving local councils money.
We must now use this as a springboard to make the case for exempting other community and cultural assets in the future.
I hope it goes without saying that an effective standards regime underpins an effective, well-functioning democracy.
We were successful in influencing 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 NALC has consistently argued for.
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 and go beyond their more traditional role and help tackle some of the big challenges facing our communities.
Such as improving health and well being and tackling the climate and ecological emergency.
Or using neighbourhood planning and master plans to shape development and housing.
And the important part we can play in supporting young people and I was thrilled to launch our webpage and case studies on the NALC website earlier this week, so do check that out.
Then there was seeing our report with the Alzheimer’s Society on building dementia-friendly communities being presented to the Prime Minister in the garden of Downing Street – that was another of those goosebump moments.
Take your work in town and village halls, to Whitehall.
I’ve also been particularly keen to recognise and celebrate your fantastic work including through our Star Councils Awards and I’d like to congratulate again all of this year’s winners.
And lastly, hosting a Royal Visit to our own annual conference in Milton Keynes just two years ago was another obvious highlight as NALC’s chair.
It really was a pleasure to show Princess Royal around our event through the day, to introduce her to some of you who are here today, to shine a spotlight on the fantastic work of our sector and hear her pay a tribute to you all.
The other big part of my role is the leadership of the organisation and as I said earlier, I am lucky that my predecessors had built solid foundations and a great team at all levels.
This provided a strong basis for a review of our strategic direction which included our previous big conversation on the future of the sector. Leading to a new focus on member services, with a new team, enhanced services and new partnerships at its very heart.
Also over the last 5 years, I have worked really hard to strengthen the relationship with and between our county associations, who alongside the SLCC play such a vital role in supporting you all.
As you would expect over the last 18 months, online meetings have 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... or I fear that divided we will fall.
Firstly, on lobbying.
And I don’t just mean by the chair of NALC in Westminster and in parliament.
I mean all of us, all of the time, and with MPs in particular.
You are all fundamental to our lobbying efforts and your engagement with our MPs is vital.
Government ministers listen to their fellow MPs.
About the good, the bad and the ugly.
So tell them about the fantastic 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 make sure they take them up on your behalf.
Because we need to stand together and lobby together to try and get the change we want to see.
While some things are outside of our control, that’s the nature of government and the world we live in, we do need to try and influence as much as we can.
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 and in particular 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.
By far 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 am encouraged as I think the government gets that.
Turning to 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 prepared to change to get what we want?
Is reform for everyone else, but not us?
The last couple of months has finally seen the levelling up agenda starting to take more shape and the government articulating what this means.
Here’s how the new levelling up minister Neil O’Brien MP 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.
I am absolutely in no doubt that local councils have a huge part to play in levelling up and rebuilding our communities.
By working together with the sector, the government has a fantastic opportunity to help local councils to do more.
To help local councils provide the local leadership needed to level up communities and ensure a social and economic recovery from the pandemic.
And what do I mean by this?
Levelling up local democracy by creating local councils across England.
Fair and secure funding, including direct access to grant funding.
Strengthening local leadership and accountability.
Investing in increasing capacity and capability, including sharing good practice.
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, particularly 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... yet which lack investment including from the government.
We must invest in our partners, building relationships and links at all levels.
Not just with our MPs... which I really can’t emphasise enough.
But also with our principal councils, many of whom recognise our value and want to work closer together.
Yet many do not, as I experienced recently, and who question our legitimacy and our capability – and I urge you to recognise and rise to this challenge.
And we must invest in our communities... be confident with our use of the precept and make the best of our sense of neighbourliness... eeping people and place at our heart.
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 mentioned earlier that while we were successful in influencing 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.
I’m equally frustrated at the government’s lack of action on remote meetings, especially given the continuing impact of Covid, now heightened by the new variant.
Throw in the severe weather in many parts of the country and it’s hard to see why the government are so apparently so resistant to enable this flexibility.
My concluding challenge, and once I set for all of us, is about delivering our shared vision for the sector.
Where local councils across the whole country will be at the centre of community effort, the natural focus of a range of public activity and service delivery.
Where local councils are giving a democratic voice to communities in the deliberations of other agencies and working in partnership with them.
And were vibrant, dynamic and effective local councils will help communities to help themselves build strength and resilience and improve the quality of life of residents.
I believe it is vital we all stand together to meet all of these challenges, for I fear that if not, divided we will fall.
Again risking flippant calls for our abolition.
While I’m at the end of my journey as NALC’s chair, I want to extend my sincere congratulations to Cllr Keith Stevens, who begins his next week when he takes over.
I’m thrilled to have been appointed as a vice president and able to continue to serve you all and support Cllr Stevens in any way that I can.
I know he will do a fantastic job and I ask you all to support him just as you have supported me.
So let’s all be ambitious.
Let’s all get new people involved.
Let’s all invest in ourselves.
And let’s all be confident about the future.
Because together... we stand... and united... we will thrive.