Profile: Phil Swann, Local Government Association - Fitting into the LGA’s new plan/Phil Swann aims to turn around the public and the politicians’ image of the LGA

This month, Phil Swann gets to grips with what must be one of the hardest PR briefs around. As the new communications and public affairs head of the Local Government Association, the representative body for almost all local authorities in England and Wales, he is charged with improving the image of local councils in the public and the political eye.

This month, Phil Swann gets to grips with what must be one of the

hardest PR briefs around. As the new communications and public affairs

head of the Local Government Association, the representative body for

almost all local authorities in England and Wales, he is charged with

improving the image of local councils in the public and the political

eye.



He is lucid and focused about the path ahead, refusing to be bowed by

any potential problems on the horizon. ’The LGA’s message is about more

empowered, responsive local authorities. We need to clarify that

message, sell it to the Government and the media and get local

authorities to feel ownership of that message’, he says.



This sounds good in theory, but Swann is the first to admit to ’seeing

things too simplistically’. Indeed, several local government experts

testify to the divisions within an organisation which represents the

north and the south of England, Wales, several huge metropolises and a

multitude of tiny hamlets and four political groups.



Jake Arnold-Forster, editor of the Local Government Chronicle confirms:

’Tensions (among councils) are there throughout the year and it does

make it very difficult for the LGA. What they need is to focus on five

or six issues which they know will unite local government.’



This almost echoes Swann’s plans to establish ’a core set of lobbying

objectives that all local authorities can sign up to’. These are yet to

be identified by Swann, but granting councils more control of their

finances is one obvious unifying target which the LGA is likely to push

for in the coming white paper on local government.



Lobbying is an area Swann can justifiably claim as his own, despite

having ostensibly spent his life in planning. As the LGA’s head of

environment and development, he led its initiative to ensure council

powers were not encroached upon by the Regional Development Agency Bill

earlier this year.



He is widely given credit for the Government’s abandonment of proposals

to allow the new regional agencies to overrule councils on planning. His

predecessor, Carol Grant, gushes: ’In terms of lobbying, he’s been one

of the stars at the LGA.’



Internal divisions aside, Swann’s task is complicated by political and

public distrust of local councils, inherited from decades of

mismanagement and loony-left imagery. ’We have to convince ministers to

take a risk initially and trust local government,’ Swann says.



The question of public distrust is potentially easier to solve, through

presenting a friendly face to the media - itself mostly unused to

contact with local government. ’The LGA doesn’t have access to national

media, especially in the tabloids. They need to find media-friendly

council leaders and there’s no evidence of that yet,’ says

Arnold-Forster.



Swann himself is unlikely to be able to remedy this personally: his

years in local government planning mean he does not bring to the job a

fat media and political contact book. But, as one of the four directors

of the LGA, he stresses the strategic aspect of his new post and the

importance of his communications team: ’They’re great people and I don’t

pretend to be super press officer or parliamentary officer.’



Some insiders also worry that Swann may lack the flair and imagination

of a professional PR man. His manner certainly has more about it of the

methodical bureaucrat - ’firstly’ and ’secondly’ recurring in every

other sentence - than the creative professional.



Ultimately, Swann’s personal attributes will contribute less to his PR

success than external factors like the final shape of the white paper,

over which he has limited control. ’One of the litmus tests of when

local government’s made it will be when senior local authority people

like Jeremy Beecham (chairman of the LGA) get on Question Time or Any

Questions,’ he says.



HIGHLIGHTS

1978

Planner, Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council

1980

Editor, Planning

1993

Under-secretary for planning and transport, Association of Metropolitan

Authorities

1997

Head of environment and planning, LGA

1998

Director of communications and public affairs, LGA



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