Local heroes find their champion: Local authorities are rediscovering their voice in in the guise of the Local Government Association. Juliette Garside talks to chief executive Brian Briscoe about his drive to improve relations with central Government

As chief executive of the Local Government Association (LGA), the body which represents local authorities in England and Wales, Brian Briscoe takes communications seriously. Given the background to the LGA’s birth last year, this is not surprising.

As chief executive of the Local Government Association (LGA), the

body which represents local authorities in England and Wales, Brian

Briscoe takes communications seriously. Given the background to the

LGA’s birth last year, this is not surprising.



The LGA was created in April 1997 from the merger of the three former

local government associations: the Association of Metropolitan

Authorities, the Association of District Councils and the Association of

County Councils.



Briscoe had to bring together over 200 staff from the three

organisations, and dispel fears that any one association would dominate

the LGA.



Convincing the associations that merger was necessary was no guarantee

that individual councils would support the move. So from his appointment

in January 1996, Briscoe toured the country, speaking at conferences and

meeting with local authority leaders, in an effort to persuade councils

to join the LGA and pay their membership fees. Only six of the 414

councils in England and Wales have not yet joined. The LGA also

represents police, fire and transport authorities. To date, only two

fire authorities have yet to join.



No wonder, then, that the first permanent member of staff appointed by

Briscoe was his director of communications and public affairs, Carol

Grant.



Grant, an independent management consultant and former communications

director at housing charity Shelter, joined the LGA in September

1996.



A year and a half later, having launched the association and set up its

25-strong communications division, she is returning to freelance

consultancy.



As a lobbying organisation, most of the LGA’s PR priorities are

synonymous with its overall objectives. For its first year, these were

to gain recognition and develop a dialogue with LGA members, central

government and the media.



Presenting a strong, single voice to central government and the media is

vital to local government and is the LGA’s raison d’etre. During 18

years of Conservative government councils suffered an erosion of their

powers, including full responsibility for education and the right to

determine their own spending limits. This was partly because the

government was able to exploit the existence of three local government

associations to divide and rule.



Support for a single body became overwhelming after the centrally

imposed local government review pitted county councils against district

councils.



The review meant abolishing many county councils to move from two-tier

local government - where large counties operated alongside smaller

district councils - to a single tier. For the last five years much of

local government’s energy has been focused on the review, weakening its

ability to lobby central government on other issues.



According to Briscoe, there is no question that the LGA is more

effective in lobbying government and gaining coverage for local

government issues than its predecessors. And there has been a

significant change in the attitude of the Government to local government

since 1 May.



Briscoe and the LGA’s chair and leading spokesman, Sir Jeremy Beecham,

met the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment,

Transport and the Regions, John Prescott, three days after the

election.



High level meetings, known as central/local partnership meetings, now

take place every six months. At the last such event, 16 ministers

attended, nine of whom are in the Cabinet.



Under the Conservatives, councillors had one formal meeting a year with

one cabinet minister, the Secretary of State for Environment. The

meeting would focus on that government’s annual grant to councils, with

little time for the wider issues affecting local communities. The

central/local partnership meetings have covered issues as diverse as

community safety, education and health. As a result there are now over

50 areas of joint working and policy development between local and

central Government.



’Central Government is seeking a more effective partnership with local

government, it recognises that it can’t achieve the things it wants

without local government’s help,’ says Briscoe.



The LGA has so far lobbied without hiring political consultants,

although it has had informal advice from a raft of lobbyists, including

Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn and Westminster Strategy.



Because it has to find common ground between so many diverse and

previously divided interests, the LGA needs to stick to a few simple

messages. ’Local government has an huge agenda. One of the main

difficulties is deciding whether to communicate the LGA’s message, local

government’s message, or local messages,’ says Briscoe.



There has been criticism from local government observers that the LGA

has put a lot of effort into the Government’s agenda, namely education

and crime, and not enough into pushing its own. Next year, the LGA is

likely to concentrate on three issues. The first will be developing a

replacement for the system known as compulsory competitive tendering,

which forces many councils to pay private businesses to run their

services.



The second issue will probably be a demand from councils to regain the

right to set their own spending limits. The third will be measures to

increase the number of people who vote in local elections. At present,

only 40 to 50 per cent of the population turns out for council

elections.



Deciding the lobbying issues has led to ferocious internal debates, but

when it comes to presenting local government’s case to central

Government, claims Briscoe, ’There’s no question of conflict

externally.’ He believes a single voice for local government has

increased the LGA’s media profile.



The previous associations did not use media monitoring agencies, but

material gathered by the LGA’s monitors, Parker Bishop and Cxt, shows

that the organisation is in the national press on average every working

day. However this is small in comparison with slick commercial PR

operators like BA, for example, which features in an average of 1,000

press and broadcast items a month.



Observers say the association has made its presence felt among

specialist correspondents whose responsibility includes local

government, but that it has yet to gain the ear of the real opinion

formers, the editors and leader writers.



Briscoe says: ’Opinion formers need to be persuaded that the LGA is an

important player and that knowing about the LGA is important. The

tabloids don’t run many local government stories that are informed by

the LGA.’



To this end, the association has commissioned MORI to survey MPs,

journalists and other national opinion formers about their perceptions

of the LGA, so that it can target its messages more effectively.



’Local government needs a profile with the national press which is

different from the current profile, where most stories are about failure

or scandal, and most innovations and achievements go unreported,’ he

says.



Beecham is currently one of the few local government figures with

anything approaching a national profile, and Briscoe believes councils

need more popular advocates.



’We would like to see local government figures regarded by the national

media as significant personalities in their own right, and support them

effectively as and when we are able to achieve that breakthrough.’



But to do this, the LGA believes many councils have to improve their

attitude to PR professionals and the media. According to the most recent

estimates by the Audit Commission, which date from 1993 and 1994, over

160 councils had no dedicated PR officer. However attitudes are

gradually changing and the number of councils with press officers has

almost certainly increased.



’Local government has the attitude that all media interest is

negative.



It’s important that we change that attitude, we need strong and

confident communications professionals in every council. Their role

should include upgrading the skills of other communicators for the

council.’



Briscoe takes communications seriously, placing it at the heart of his

organisation, and he believes councils should do too. ’To think that by

itself the LGA is going to transform the fortunes of local government,

with its two million employees, is fanciful. It’s not enough for

councils to put all their money into providing the best services. The

public should perceive it is getting the services it deserves.’ l



CASE STUDY: TACKLING THE RETIREMENT ISSUE



The Local Government Association press team faced its first big damage

limitation exercise in November when the local government watchdog, the

Audit Commission, published a paper on the high number of council

workers people retiring early.



The commission estimated that in the six years to April 1996, early

retirement cost councils in England and Wales pounds 5.7 billion. It

found that three quarters of people retired before the age of 65. Two in

five of those retiring early did so because of ill-health, which costs

councils more than normal early retirement.



The LGA decided to prepare its 400 members for press enquiries. A copy

of the LGA’s press release in response to the report, the report’s

publication date and a summary of its likely contents were faxed to all

councils on 11 November, three days before publication. This was

possible because the LGA had compiled, in preparation for its own

launch, a list of people responsible for PR in every member council,

with all contact details.



The LGA and the commission were determined to avoid a repeat of the row

which erupted in 1995 when the commission published a critical report on

salaries in local government. The local government associations were so

offended by the report and the way the commission handled its

publication that relations were decidedly frosty between them for a few

months. The LGA worked closely with the Audit Commission and its press

office - which is run by Citigate Westminster - and LGA chairman, Sir

Jeremy Beecham, appeared on the BBC’s Breakfast Time and Today

programmes to put the LGA’s case.



’We felt we did a good damage limitation exercise and we got our point

across which was that local authorities are tackling the problem,’ said

director of communications and public affairs, Carol Grant.



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