The Conservative leadership election is over and we have a winner.
Sadly, the endless round of hustings between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt is set to continue for some time yet, but the contest to select the new Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association – the LGA’s very own leadership race – is over and Central Bedfordshire Council leader James Jamieson will take up the reins.
In the blazing sunshine of Porter Terrace – the rooftop of the LGA’s Smith Square headquarters which looks down over Westminster – Cllr Jamieson tells The MJ he stood for the role because there are big issues facing councils and he thinks he can help address them.
He outlines the four key issues – plus another for good measure. They are adult social care; children’s services; housing, planning and regeneration; and funding. Increasingly he sees sustainability, climate change and the environment rapidly rising up the agenda. A motion tabled at the LGA conference called on 10 Downing Street to declare a climate change emergency.
While they are all things that can be tackled at a local level, it needs central government involvement and – crucially – funding to address them properly.
‘If you look at all of those issues, at the heart of them is better communities. It is about better places,’ he says. ‘Who can deliver better places and better communities? That’s local councils.
‘You do that from local decision making, you do not do it from Whitehall.’
‘The fundamental issue is about local decision-making, and that requires devolution. It is enabling local councils to make the right decisions for their authorities. The right decision in one place is not necessarily the right decision in another place. It is local.’
His predecessor, Lord Porter, admitted he had failed to get the central and local government to agree on the need for a directly elected mayor (see The MJ, 27 June, p15). For Cllr Jamieson, it is about local choice.
‘I like local decision making. That inevitably will require some compromises, but I think local people should decide what they want, not somebody in central government.
‘They shouldn’t have to have a mayor. They should have a system that works.’
Nor does he believe it should stand in the way of devolution. There are things that can be devolved now without the need for structural change.
Cllr Jamieson came into local politics when Central Bedfordshire Council came into being, so has always worked in a unitary setting.
‘I got irritated. It was those little local things that you said “why?” You keep coming across discontinuities and say “there must be a better way”.
Since he has been on the inside, he has seen much more of the ‘why’.
‘Let’s be frank, outsiders generally have a slightly negative view of public sector workers. When you get in there you learn that most people in local government genuinely want to do a good job…. But you start to realise the constraints, and one of the constraints is democracy.
‘You want to do things quicker but you have to consult, but it is right that we consult.’
Cllr Jamieson has a background spanning several sectors. He started his career in engineering before he moved into marketing, then investment banking and finally consultancy, all of which helped when he became a politician.
‘Engineers like to know why and they like to solve problems. The banking stuff gives you a really good grasp of finance and money, and how to allocate resource.’ He likes to problem solve.
For the main issues facing local government, not much has changed – although the more polished demeanour of Cllr Jamieson couldn’t be further from the rough and ready approach of his predecessor, Lord Porter.
The new chairman says: ‘Gary has done a fantastic job. He has been immensely helpful to me when I was Conservative group leader.
‘He is desperately hard-working. He spends a huge amount of time networking. He is very respected by those he meets and works with.
‘Those are things that I will need to work on, but I’m not Gary. There will be differences, but it is evolutionary rather than revolutionary,’ he says, before adding: ‘That’s a horrible phrase!’ Perhaps not every word is quite as planned and polished as it appears.
As we head for a new Prime Minister, and a planned Autumn departure of the European Union, what will that mean for local government?
‘We can’t be certain what [kind of] Brexit will happen, but what it will mean is repatriation of powers from Brussels back to the UK and we will have to make sure those powers come back to local councils. This is genuinely about devolution.’
‘We don’t need another layer of bureaucracy between us and the coalface.’
His offer is that local government can reduce the burden on civil servants and central government, deliver more and save money. ‘Bring it on – give it to us. Not just the responsibility, we want the resources and the responsibility.
‘We have a track record of delivering for our communities, so trust us. But more importantly, trust the electorate because if we get it wrong, the electorate will hold us accountable.’
‘Give us the opportunity to deliver…. Just let us do it.’