At breakfast -desperate to sit by an open window, I found myself at a table with two Labour councillors. 'What time is he on?' one asked. 'not till 10.30' said the other. They were talking not of David Cameron nor of the Labour cabinet member both speaking today but of Vince Cable.
At ten o'clock I made my way to the tearoom and struck up a conversation in the queue with an officer from the South of England. He had formerly worked in the NW and he was interested how we were getting on in the recession. He was explaining some complex scheme he was involved in when he glanced at his watch and asked me 'what time is he on?' 10.30. The room rapidly emptied as those of all parties and none made their way to hear Vince.
Richard Kemp was master of ceremonies. It was a good rousing introduction by Richard. He recalled being in the House of Commons and hearing Vince mocked and heckled and called Dr Doom for suggesting that we were on the brink of a banking collapse. As Richard knows it is always best to put the Tories firmly in their place. In truth had the Tories been in power they would have done nothing different in advance of the collapse -except move to lighter regulation. They know it.
Vince was billed to talk on localism and he did for bit and then he moved on to the economy and when questions came they to were on the economy.
The problem with localism is that everyone is in favour of it and almost everyone means something different by it. Vince was clear, for him it meant meant giving power to locally elected people. He held up the confident municipal activities of Chamberlain in Birmingham and even the Independence that local government had when he was a councillor to make and carry out major projects without the let or hindrance of central government. He acknowledged that as long as 75% of local government money came from Whitehall that control would continue and suggested that business rates should immediately be returned to local government.
As we all know Vince has a very particular style of delivery. He is appealing to your reason. The command and control mechanisms inflicted on local government were demeaning and had to go. Why should we be competing like school children for 'stars' awarded by a highly paid quango. The best people to judge local government are local people at the ballot box-altho he was quick to point out that the English needed to follow the Scots in reforming their electoral system for local government.
He wants the CAA and all its works to go. He reckoned that the compliance costs of all these targets and checks was £800m and that was better spent on services. But surly, one questioned asked, there is need for central government to objectively measure how local government is performing? It is a sign of the lack of confidence that many have that such a question was earnestly asked. Why does central government have to set up an expensive quango to look at local government? We are responsible. We have a mandate and are answerable not to a quango but to the electorate.
Vince was now warming to to his topic. The standards board should go, it was a kangaroo court. The building schools for the future was nonsense born of their centralise command and control model. It require significant recourse commitment even to get to stage one.
Local government should be free to borrow against its own assets to make important investments. He was scornful of the governments approach to funding social housing asserting that they would still be consulting when the General Election came.
Later in questions he pointed out other steps that could be taken immediately to restore local government. In particular he was critical of the quango the PCT and whilst he welcomed joint working he said that if the boundaries are coterminous they should be integrated under democratic control. Other unelected quango eg the LSC who had taken over when VIth forms and F.E. were effectively nationalised should be returned to local democratic control.
We then moved on to the economy. He was unimpressed by those who predicted with certainty a quick recovery. Yes there were some signs-but it would have been amazing if there was not given the scale of the government. He said that to that the economy was not just recovering from flu, it was more like a heart attack. Not since Macmillan has the government received so little revenue. The % of GDP that the government is borrowing is enormous. There is no certainty that there will not be a major loss of confidence in the financial markets if the government cannot demonstrate a clear way to pay down the debt.
He challenged others to spell out their plans and said that the Lib Dems were taking on the challenge and listed some reduction including Trident (better late than never), public sector pensions, and tax credit system -which is fiendishly complex, unclaimed by large numbers especially pensions and goes a long way up the income scale. Clear there are some other 'big ticket' defence items which may have been relevant in cold war times. In addition he refused to endorse Cameron's pledge that the health service was a sacred cow that can't be touched. Vince drew on his own recent experience in hospital to suggest that there was scope for improved performance.
The first question was from Jack Colbert. He wanted to know if Vince thought some areas would be hit harder by the recession.
Vince admitted that he had misread this issue (note to Gordon Brown-it is ok to admit you may have been wrong)to begin with he felt that as the crisis had been 'made in' the City and that a lot of the early job losses had been there in the financial sector this recession may have been centred there. It was now evident that this recession was going to impact hardest on the poorer areas of the country. Among other economic data he pointed to the recent figures on negative equity in the housing sector which had hit the urban conurbation of the north harder than the SE.
All in all an excellent contribution form Cable. He scorned high on content. Cameron certainly scored higher on the 'theatre' of his presentation-but on the way out of his speech I overheard a couple of Tories chundering about the 'need for more substance' but I will return to that when I post about Cameron's speech.