'The merger offers an opportunity for national revival'

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Daniel Rosenthal recalls the stormy relationship between town hall and Whitehall. The relationship between the umbrella bodies representing the metropolitan and county authorities and Whitehall mandarins was often a difficult one.

Four senior Westminster figures, who cut their teeth in local government gave their views on the AMA and the ACC to The TES.

David Blunkett, Labour education and employment spokesman, was chair of the AMA's social services committee from 1980 to 1984. As leader of Sheffield City Council, he was the AMA's deputy chair from 1984 to 1987.

"During the first term of the Thatcher government there was a great recognition that local authorities were a real power in the nation. Ministers like Patrick Jenkin, Norman Fowler and Michael Heseltine all had a decent respect for us and were prepared to do business. But Thatcher held local government in total contempt. She set out to reduce its powers and it has never really recovered from what she did.

"I think the associations have responded very well to the introduction of LMS (local management of schools) and the incorporation of further education colleges. They have taken a very realistic approach to the new role of LEAs.

"The voice of local government has been much quieter in recent years, but I think the merger offers an opportunity for a revival in terms of the constitutional role of councils at national level."

Robin Squire, schools minister, was leader of the London Borough of Sutton from 1976 to 1979.

"My predecessor as leader of Sutton was Tag Taylor, who chaired the AMA and was one of the most outstanding figures in local government of the past 30 years. Although my position at Sutton made me a vice-president of the AMA, I was happy to let Tag represent the borough. I never had to brief him and, for good or ill, it was Tag, not me, who was Sutton's voice at the AMA.

"I think the AMA has served its members well. A notable exception came in the early 1980s when the Labour Association of London Authorities split from the London Boroughs Association. That was a mistake and I was delighted that similar splits did not occur in other parts of the country. The forthcoming merger between the two associations definitely makes sense. It's high time that they spoke with one voice."

Dame Angela Rumbold, vice-chairman of the Conservative party and former education minister, chaired the AMA education committee from 1979 to 1980, when she was also deputy leader of Kingston-upon-Thames Council.

"Local government opened the door into mainstream politics for me and I absolutely loved my time with the AMA. There was a more even distribution of Tory and Labour-controlled councils in those days. We always tried to work out a cross-party consensus to take to the government on all education policies. The political system in the 1980s was nothing like as centralised as it is now and I think the AMA won as many fights as it lost with both Tory and Labour governments. Merging the two associations was talked about back then, but I've always thought it wouldn't be a very good idea because I think there is a constructive tension between them."

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, served on the ACC's executive and education committees from 1987 to 1989, while he was chair of Avon County Council's education committee.

"The ACC was a very useful vehicle for the provision of information and the sharing of ideas, and as a means of lobbying the Government in a more effective way than any one authority could achieve on its own.The real benefit of the ACC to Avon was more to do with behind-the-scenes discussions than the formal meetings and responses to new government policies. The other great advantage was the paperwork produced by the ACC: it was, and still is, of a very high standard, offering an invaluable summary of key education issues. The merger may provide a better overall structure for local government representation, but that in no way means that the ACC did not do a good job."

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