Lord Gary Porter of Spalding, chairman of the Local Government Association, is getting ready to step down after his four-year term. Heather Jameson talks to him about his legacy – and the highs and lows of his time at the top
Lord Gary Porter of Spalding, chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA), is stepping down from his post – and he is not too pleased.
Under Conservative Group rules, he must stand down as he has completed the maximum four-year term, but he is on the record saying it is the best job he has ever had and he will have to be hauled out of the building, clinging on by his fingertips.
Despite this, he is in exceptionally good spirits when he meets The MJ in Smith Square and he starts with a plea to exclude any expletives from the interview.
As it turns out, there are none – well, very few.
Gary has had some obvious successes in his time as chairman and even jokes he has never done anything wrong. Just ‘less right’.
Lifting the borrowing cap on the Housing Revenue Account was his ‘favourite nice thing that happened’ during his chairmanship of the LGA. ‘But the thing that’s going to live with me more than anything else is Grenfell. Good and bad.’
At least 72 people died, but it has provoked changes that will improve the lives of people in social housing. He is insistent that it is ‘at least’ 72 people – the death toll of the tragedy is uncertain due to illegal sub-letting.
It is an issue that frustrates him. Social housing is ‘built with good intentions’ but the system is abused. ‘The point when somebody chooses to use that public asset for personal gain, that’s where it all goes wrong.’
He describes himself as the ‘biggest fan of right to buy in the country’ but says it needs to be reformed, to ring-fence housing receipts for building more creates a ‘virtuous circle’ – although he doesn’t believe in ring-fencing for any other issue.
With a background as a builder, he has always had a passion for the housing agenda, but despite the years of work that led up to it, he refuses to take credit for lifting the borrowing cap – or indeed any of the other achievements made on his watch.
‘I didn’t do any of the work. My job is firing the bullets that other people do a really good job of manufacturing,’ he says. And he acknowledges the raft of LGA staff who have followed in his wake, calming the civil servants he has offended and rebuilding relationships.
It is a lesson for the next chairman – that they are just the top of a large pyramid of people and organisations. ‘If they come in and think they are going to do big policy stuff, they won’t. If they think they are going to change the world, they won’t because the world won’t let them.’
It is the irony of politics. After all the energy involved in achieving power, you still don’t get control. ‘You have to be a really good trader to survive in politics …because you have no power. You have to be able to use other people’s goodwill to get stuff done,’ the chairman says.
So would Gary want to be a President? ‘I would be a benign dictator, in an ideal world,’ he jokes.
Nevertheless, he is sad to go. ‘I am going to be gutted. Clearly I won’t be crying. But there is a lot of sand down in Bournemouth, and if any of that gets in my eyes, they might be watering.’
When it comes to where he went wrong, he suggests we run an online poll, but finally he admits his biggest failure was devolution. ‘We were winning that argument really well and if anything we have lost it and the world has gone backwards from the agenda.’
‘I couldn’t get the Government to let go without the need for an accountable person – a directly elected mayor. I failed to get the Government to do what we wanted them to do. But then I failed to get the sector to say, well, directly accountable person is a price worth paying.’
Even in his home patch of Lincolnshire, where it would have landed £80m in the first year alone and unlimited freedom, he couldn’t swing it. But it may not be too late. ‘Whoever runs the country, they are going to have to run it differently,’ Gary suggests. His first job on leaving the LGA will be helping to set up a think-tank around decentralisation so he may get another go at convincing colleagues.
When it comes to his legacy, he says: ‘I would be disappointed if most of the county leaders said: “He was a complete disaster”. I would hope most of them would think: “He was a bit of a pain in the arse but at least things weren’t as bad as they could have been”.
‘I’ve loved it. It is going to be hard to leave.’