The apparent departure of Paul Coen from the top job at the Local Government Association following what sounds like a major falling out with the new leadership of the Association is a good opportunity to ask what should be the future direction of the LGA.
The LGA was formed to create a single body representing local government by the merger of the previous sectoral bodies (the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils) in the mid-1990s. The idea was that a unified voice would strengthen the hand of local councils in their dealings with central government.
I have to say (and this will probably mean that I will be stripped of my honorary position as Vice President of the LGA) that the reality has not lived up to this hope. One necessary consequence of the merger was that the sharpness of the positions taken by the new Association became blurred as any statements or comments had to strive for consensus between the different parties on the Association and the different local authority interests. The result was blandness.
Not so predictable, however, was the loss of expertise. The predecessor Associations had formidable teams of specialists working on different local government policy areas, such as social care, education, housing, finance etc.. These teams were able to provide high level advice to individual local authorities but more particularly their expertise meant that they could respond effectively to civil servants in the different central government departments. They often knew far more about the policy issues than the relevant civil servants concerned and the effect was that the local government cause was pursued quietly and efficiently behind the scenes. Over the last decade, these teams have been dismantled and local government has suffered as a result.
I am sure that this loss of expertise was not at the heart of the dispute between Paul Coen and the leadership of the LGA, but I hope that what has happened will now provide an opportunity to look at the direction and purpose of the Association.