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Branson, Pickles

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I am writing this on a stationary train at Manchester Piccadilly. We are already 15 minutes late leaving and this comes on top of the 55 minutes late arriving this morning.

On the way up a man sitting near me had to pay £150 because he had not noticed that his senior rail card had expired. The Virgin philosophy - and they are not alone in this - seems to be 'if we make a mistake, tough; if you do, get out your wallet’. If I see the grinning face of Britain's leading entrepreneur on a poster any time soon I will have to restrain myself from an anti-social act.

I have just delivered a speech to the LGA Annual Conference. It seemed to go down well and it was very gratifying to be able talk about all the work the RSA is now doing with councils stretching from Newcastle to Wiltshire.

In part I was responding to the Association's new policy statement entitled Rewiring Public Services.  I was happy to welcome the statement, not only because its recommendations for greater devolution, new local freedoms, and more joined up central Government are sensible, but also because of the process through which ideas were developed and agreed.

Over several months LGA leaders and staff worked through the four major political groups (Conservative, LibDem, Labour and Independent) to structure conversation, debate and the emergence of consensus. All the groups have now signed up to Rewiring Public Services; a level of collaboration which feels inconceivable in Westminster.

Indeed the feeling of steely collective determination is palpable at the conference. I was sitting in the green room when Conservative LGA chair Sir Merrick Cockell joined me for a short break from chairing the conference. Almost immediately he had to return to the hall as two resolutions - one condemning the manner of Government welfare reform and the other calling for greater devolution of power - had passed this cross party gathering without any dissenting voices.

Spending time with good council leaders and listening to the way they are fighting to protect their communities despite deep cuts, inept and contradictory, and sometimes apparently malicious, interventions from the centre, it is not hard to understand why opinion polls show the public holds local government in much higher regard than central government.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles is here tomorrow. The minister has developed a reputation for humorously shrugging off  criticism, even expressing pride that his department has done consistently badly in spending reviews, like that published last week.

Perhaps tomorrow will see another ritual in which he laughs in the face of hostility, but my sense is that things have moved to another level. Unless Mr Pickles engages seriously with the mood of councillors and with the ideas in Rewiring Public Services he may be in for an experience that even he will find uncomfortable.

 

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