Having been invited to take part in one of the fringe events, I’ve made my first ever visit to one of the party conferences, the Conservative Conference in Birmingham. As a veteran of many informative and stimulating CIPFA and SOLACE conferences over the years, perhaps I was expecting too much. Of course I knew it would be different, but what I didn’t realise was that those soundbites to rally the faithful and put down the other parties that you see on the TV news programmes aren’t simply isolated and well-edited flag-waving moments from thought-provoking speeches. In the main, they are the speeches.
I should say up front that the comments I make here are not aimed at the Conservatives per se. I just happened to be at their conference, and they just happen to be in Government. I can’t imagine that it is any different with other parties.
By and large, it’s a circus, albeit a very expensive one, from the various pressure groups and protesters outside the venue – the Eric Pickles masks worn by one group were particularly memorable – to some eminent ministers on stage seemingly believing that turning their speech into a music hall act would have greater impact. I sat through four ministerial addresses and sundry ‘fillers’ on my first day, and what struck me was how little real content there is in the conference itself. The more interesting stuff is in the fringe events.
So what did I learn for those of us who live and breathe local government?
Almost as soon as I arrived, one very prominent Cabinet Minister walked past me, with no fewer than six ‘officials’ in tow. Probably a mix of Department officials and Special Advisers, but what struck me was how ‘identical’ they all looked. I may be doing them a great disservice, but local authorities are diverse, in many senses of the word, and it did set me wondering how teams of identikit advisers really can have the depth of understanding to develop policies for such a broad landscape. Policies developed in Westminster need to work in Hull or Blackpool or Hartlepool as well.
I then sat in on George Osborne’s speech. David Cameron and the rest of the Cabinet were there in very visible support and led a standing ovation, just in case no one else was planning to. After that, it was the trio of Francis Maude, Eric Pickles and Iain Duncan-Smith in a session about turning round our communities. Unless they were blending in with the rest of the delegates, the rest of the Cabinet seemed to have gone off to do more important things. Again, I may be being grossly unfair, but to me, that summed up where we sit in the hierarchy of Government priorities.
Eric Pickles’ speech was most interesting for what it didn’t say, rather than what it did. I have listened to the Secretary of State several times since the election, and you could always guarantee that the subject of bins, and the frequency with which they should be emptied, would be prominent. This time, there was not a single mention. I wonder why…… Clamping down on senior pay, however, still makes it in there. Other things which Eric did focus on were using ‘Right to Buy’ receipts to build more social housing, suggesting that receipts were not as high as they might be because (Labour) Councils are not promoting the scheme to tenants, improving procurement, focusing on fraud and a new right for authorities to hand out instant fines for those who ignore planning rules. Oh, and choosing which flags we fly from our public buildings.
If you like politics and want some entertainment, then you’ll love a day at a party Conference. If you want incisive debate about the real issues we face in local government then get to the SOLACE summit in Coventry next week and CIPFA next summer.