Speech to the LGA Virtual Conference 2021

Wednesday 7 July at 2.50pm on Microsoft Teams (rehearsal at 1.20pm)


Chair: Cllr Joe Harris, Leader of Cotswold District Council & Leader of the LGA Lib Dem Group

13:50:    Chair’s welcome & introduction (2-3 min)
13:52:    Speech (20 min)
14:12:    Q&A facilitated by chair (30-40 min)
14:50:    Close of session

Speech contents

  • Intro/thanks    
  • COVID and community    
  • Lib Dems and localism    
  • Planning reforms    
  • Neighbourhood plans / homebuilding    
  • Climate action    
  • Social care    
  • Conclusion

Intro/thanks

Good afternoon, and thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today.

Thank you Joe for that introduction. And congratulations on your election as Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the LGA.

For those who don’t know Joe Harris yet, he has a wealth of experience in local government. He was first elected a councillor at age eighteen, served as Mayor of Cirencester and then leader of the opposition on Cotswold District Council, and now he leads the council since the Liberal Democrats won a majority in twenty-nineteen.

And all that before he even turns thirty!

So well done Joe, and I look forward to working with you on the whole range of issues facing local authorities and local communities.

And I’d also like to pay tribute to Councillor Howard Sykes, who led our LGA Group for the past four years, having joined the executive back in 2009.

Howard, I have valued your wisdom and your advice enormously. And our party has benefited greatly from your dedication and hard work – and I know we will continue to do so in the years to come. Thank you.

And I want to say another big ‘thank you’: to all of you. To everyone in the local government family for everything you are doing as councillors, cabinet members, council officers and staff – especially during this awful pandemic.

COVID and community

The past eighteen months have demonstrated more clearly than ever the importance of local government and local communities.

It’s been the most challenging eighteen months most of us can remember.

When so many families have suffered the tragic loss of a loved one.

When so many local businesses have been forced to close their doors, and our bustling high streets have fallen silent.

An incredibly hard time, in so many ways.

But also a time that has shone a spotlight on the strength and spirit of local communities in every part of the country.

When neighbours have gone out of their way to show kindness and generosity to each other. From picking up groceries for someone having to self-isolate; to streets organising foodbank collections, so no one in their local area goes without.

Not to mention the inspiring demonstration of our shared values, when we stood on our doorsteps, week after week, applauding the heroic efforts of our NHS staff.

It is often said that as a country we have lost our sense of community. But if the last year has shown us anything, it is that, when the chips are down, nothing is further from the truth.

We have looked out for each other. We have taken care of the most vulnerable.

So as we begin to look forward – as our wonderful NHS staff and volunteers inject hope into our lives as they work tirelessly to deliver vaccines – we must put that spirit of community at the heart of the recovery.

We must remember that if we are to build a fairer, greener, more caring country as we emerge from this pandemic, it will not be built in Whitehall, but in town halls and city halls across the UK.

It will be built by local communities and by local government.

Lib Dems and localism

That is something that Liberal Democrats believe to our core. Local government has always been the beating heart of our party.

It’s absolutely central to our whole philosophy that it is local communities – coming together to make decisions about their local area – that can make the biggest difference to people’s lives.

We have always championed the importance of community values and community politics. 

We believe decisions that affect our local communities should be taken by our local communities.

Driven and shaped by the views of local people. 

And that’s exactly the message that the voters of Chesham and Amersham sent powerfully to Boris Johnson three weeks ago.

In the Chilterns, in a seat the Conservatives won by twenty-two thousand votes just four years ago, people cast their ballots to elect their great new MP, my Liberal Democrat colleague Sarah Green.

The message from the doorsteps of Buckinghamshire couldn’t have been clearer.

It’s the same message I’ve been hearing from many traditionally Conservative-leaning voters across the country.

They are fed up of being taken for granted by Johnson and his Government – and of their views and interests being ignored.

From planning to potholes, from businesses to the environment, there is a strong tide of dissatisfaction with this Government on a whole range of issues across the Blue Wall.

Conservative MPs might kid themselves that this unhappiness is confined to Chesham and Amersham, but we know better.

Liberal Democrats won that by-election by listening carefully to people’s concerns: about their families, their communities and our precious natural environment.

Now Boris Johnson must do the same – and he should start by ditching his ill-thought-through and undemocratic planning reforms.

Planning reforms

Because those reforms – cooked up for the Prime Minister by Dominic Cummings when they were still on speaking terms – are nothing short of a developers’ charter. 

They would stop local communities from protecting cherished green spaces and do nothing for first-time buyers who are desperate for a home of their own.

The reforms would take power away from communities and individuals and hand it to wealthy property developers – including, incidentally, the ones who donated eleven million pounds to the Conservative Party last year.

Yes, the donor-developers might love these reforms, but the doorsteps across the Blue Wall seats certainly do not.

Boris Johnson tries to justify his planning reforms by claiming they are the only way to build the extra homes we need. That is simply not true.

We absolutely do need to get more homes built. It should be a fundamental part of our social contract that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can afford a decent place to live.

But that’s not the reality for too many people in our country today. Home ownership is getting further and further out of reach for many families.

I’ve spoken to countless people – in the Chilterns and elsewhere – desperate for affordable housing so that grown-up children still living with their parents can buy their own place near their families, in the community they were brought up in. 

But the truth is, Johnson’s proposals will do nothing to help those families.

From removing the requirement on developers to include affordable homes in their plans, to taking away people’s current right to object to specific development proposals, his planning reforms would allow developers to build big, expensive houses for the wealthy and maximise their profits, rather than build the homes people and communities actually need.

They won’t create affordable homes for the young people looking to strike out on their own, or the new families trying to put their first foot on the housing ladder.

As Theresa May said, they will lead to “the wrong homes being built in the wrong places.”

These proposals are all about serving developers’ greed, not people’s needs.

Shutting out communities, neglecting the environment and giving developers free reign isn’t the solution to the nation’s housing crisis.

Neighbourhood plans / housebuilding

There is a better way.

Decisions on what homes to build where shouldn’t be left to developers, or made by Ministers in Whitehall.

They should be made by local authorities working with their communities and making sure that local voices are heard.

Liberal Democrats want a community-led approach to planning, not a developer-led one. And that’s an approach that has already been shown to work.

When we were in government, Liberal Democrats Ministers introduced Neighbourhood Plans: where local people come together to help shape their communities.

Nearly nine-hundred Neighbourhood Plans have been agreed in England already – and I know many of you here today have worked hard to develop them.

I appreciate that it’s often far from easy. But the results show it’s very much worth the effort.

Look at what Liberal Democrat councils have achieved with the benefit of Neighbourhood Plans.

In South Lakeland, we have set a target of building a thousand new affordable homes for rent, and are now more than halfway to achieving it.

In Eastleigh, our council stepped in when private developers pulled out to develop new homes on council land. These homes will be built to high sustainability standards. Thirty-five percent will be for affordable rent. And they will come with significant amounts of new green space.

A report last year by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government concluded that “Neighbourhood Plans increased housing supply, improved the designs of houses, helped enhance consideration of housing for specific societal groups, improved local engagements with local planning authorities, and contributed to place-making beyond land use planning.”

Simply put: Neighborhood Plans work. This community-led approach – pioneered by the Liberal Democrats – helps build the homes and communities that people want and need.

Homes that people can actually afford, that preserve the open green spaces that are so important for mental and physical health, and that – crucially – have the support of their communities.

But developers don’t like Neighbourhood Plans. Which probably explains why this Conservative Government’s planning reforms would massively restrict their potential. So once again, local people’s voices would be ignored.

Don’t let Boris Johnson con you into thinking it’s a choice between his plan and no plan. Between the wrong homes in the wrong places and no homes at all.

There is a better way. A way to genuinely tackle the housing crisis while safeguarding our natural environment and putting power where it belongs: in the hands of individuals and their local communities.

So I hope that, no matter your political party, you’ll join us in resisting these wrongheaded planning reforms and championing a community-led approach.

Climate action

It’s clear, then, that community action and local government have a critical role when it comes to building the homes we need and creating a fairer country.

And I believe you have a critical role to play when it comes to building a greener country too.

If we act now, together, we have an enormous climate opportunity.

To create hundreds of thousands of secure, well-paying, new jobs as we recover from the COVIDpandemic.

To cut the cost of living and end fuel poverty with cheaper energy bills.

To make it easier for people to get around, with cheap, convenient and accessible public transport.

To clean our air and end the tragedy of lives cut short by toxic fumes.

To help everyone enjoy the beauty of nature and the therapy of green spaces.

I am proud that, in councils across the UK, Liberal Democrats are already leading the way.

Three Rivers District Council has delivered the highest recycling rate in England.

Bedford Borough Council has declared a climate emergency and set about tackling it – switching to one-hundred percent clean renewable energy, phasing out single-use plastics and moving to electric vehicles as it replaces its fleet.

In Bath and North East Somerset, we have introduced a Clean Air Zone that will drive down air pollution and protect public health.

In York we’ve launched the largest zero-emission Park and Ride fleet in the country, started building six-hundred net-zero homes, and embarked on a mission to plant fifty-thousand new trees by the end of twenty-twenty-three.

That record of real climate action by Liberal Democrats in local government stands in stark contrast to the record of Conservative Ministers in Westminster.

They have banned onshore wind and scrapped our zero-carbon homes law. And just this year, they've slashed grants for electric vehicles and mismanaged then scrapped a programme to insulate homes.

And don’t be fooled by by the bluster we’re likely to hear from Johnson in the weeks to come. Judging by what I’ve heard – and what we know about this Prime Minister and his Government – they won’t come close to the scale of ambition we need.

It’s clear we cannot rely on Boris Johnson’s Government to take the action we need to tackle the climate emergency and seize the climate opportunity.

So we need to give new funding and new power to local councils to do it instead.

When I spoke to you last year, I called on the Government to give local authorities forty-five billion pounds of green recovery funding over the next three years, to invest in:

  • Home insulation and community energy projects.
  • Electric charging points.
  • Bus and cycle routes.
  • Light rail and tram lines.
  • Tree planting and nature restoration.

Sadly, Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to have been listening.

His “Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution” in November only talked about twelve billion pounds altogether, and mentioned local authorities just once.

So let me try again.

Prime Minister, give councils the powers and resources they need to cut emissions and create green jobs in communities across the country.

To clean our air and protect our children’s lungs. To build warm homes that are cheap to heat. To deliver green spaces for everyone to enjoy, and public transport everyone can use.

We know we cannot delay any longer. We need real climate action, now.

Social care

Before I finish, there’s one final issue that must be addressed.

Another crucial area where the Government has promised action for so long, but has repeatedly failed to deliver.

And that’s social care.

COVID has reminded us all of something Liberal Democrats have long understood: that caring for people’s health doesn’t stop at the hospital exit, or the GP surgery door.

We have all rightly praised our wonderful NHS, clapped for the heroes who staff it, and stayed home to protect it.

But the reality is, we can only properly protect and improve the NHS if we fix our social care system too.

But sadly, the pandemic has also shown how – for this Government – care is too often an afterthought.

Just look at Ministers’ abject failure to protect people in care homes: from the lack of tests and PPE to the lies about a “protective ring”, while people died in horrifying numbers.

In the Queen’s Speech in May, we thought surely the Government would finally announce its plans to reform social care.

Plans that – let’s not forget – Boris Johnson told us he had already prepared when he first entered Downing Street almost two years ago.

Instead, we got just nine words: “Proposals on social care reform will be brought forward.”

No indication of when. This vital issue, kicked into the long grass once again.

And in the last few weeks, we have heard how this is turning into yet another power struggle between Conservative Ministers, with no sign of it ending any time soon.

What makes this all so infuriating is that the delay and infighting has a real human cost.

More than a million and a half people are missing out on the care they need, and thousands more face exorbitant costs.

People are stranded in hospital, unable to leave because the follow-up care they need to go home simply isn’t there.

All this puts extra strain on the NHS, which is already struggling for cash.

It demands ever more of family and friends, who have to step in to fill the gap and look after their loved ones, unpaid.

And – as you know all too well – it leaves local authority finances in a disastrous state.

So we need far more urgency and action than this Government has shown.

Another sticking plaster won’t do – we need a proper, long-term solution.

And that means it has to be cross-party. Because it will have to maintain the support of future governments, whatever their political make-up.

Now, Boris Johnson promised that he would hold cross-party talks on this – it was even in the Conservative manifesto at the last General Election.

But I’ve almost lost count of the number of times I and my colleagues have urged the Prime Minister to start those talks, and we’re still waiting.

Of course, we know what the Chancellor will say if we ever do sit down for those talks. He will say we can’t afford it.

But Carers UK has estimated that unpaid carers save the Government more than a hundred and ninety billion pounds a year.

A hundred and ninety billion.

But many unpaid carers are on their knees, and without more support from social care many won’t be able to continue.

So when the Chancellor says we can’t afford to fix social care, he couldn’t be more wrong. We can’t afford not to.

Conclusion

I know that the past eighteen months have been incredibly tough.

For most of your local authorities – just like for so many businesses and so many families – it’s been a challenge just to survive.

And now, as we begin the hard work of recovery, the thought of taking on these other enormous challenges – social care, climate change, the housing crisis – might seem like too much to bear.

But when I look back at these past eighteen months, I see more than just hardship and fear.

I see the way communities have come together to help those in need.

I see the great work you as local authorities have done to support local people.

I see the amazing resilience and resolve of our NHS and care staff, our teachers and police officers, and all the other key workers on the frontlines of this pandemic.

I see the way the British people have risen to the challenge of Covid, and I am filled with hope.

So I know that we can recover from this pandemic, and rise to those other challenges as we do so.

And build the fairer, greener, more caring country we all want to see.

Thank you.