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
Briscoe had to bring together over 200 staff from the three
organisations, and dispel fears that any one association would dominate
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, an independent management consultant and former communications
director at housing charity Shelter, joined the LGA in September
A year and a half later, having launched the association and set up its
25-strong communications division, she is returning to freelance
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.