Having first assumed his role as communities secretary and local government last year as the aftershocks of the Brexit vote reverberated, Sajid Javid’s reappointment last week came at no less a turbulent time at Westminster.
Without a working majority of its own, the new Conservative administration will be more in hoc to the demands of small sectional interests; the DUP, the Scottish Conservatives and backbench MP caucuses. This can only frustrate the formulation of a coherent national agenda; the Queen’s speech is already delayed, rumoured to be much watered down – and next year’s is cancelled entirely. Meanwhile the Brexit clock is ticking.
As we come to terms with uncertainty and inertia being the new normal in SW1, what should Mr Javid’s priorities for local government be? Here are three strategic priorities that could help begin to craft some much-needed coherence despite the chaos at Westminster.
1. Befriend local government
Local government, often cited as the most efficient part of the public sector, holds the key to many of the big structural challenges facing our country. While there is legislative inertia, the sector can play a more active role in delivering real impact on things that matter to people. The depth of the housing crisis requires a sustained response; a core plank of that should be a new council-led building programme. After the “dementia tax” debacle during the election campaign there is a risk that social care reform is quietly shelved in preference of a sticking plaster, but local government can be part of the solution.
Instead there is a risk the sector faces further protracted funding uncertainty with business rates localisation and the definition of “fairness” hanging in the balance. These need clarity in the short term, but a deeper recognition of the role of local government is required in the longer term.
2. Become a broker in Whitehall and an advocate of the sector
As the political climate seems to be moving towards one which questions austerity, and the impacts of constrained resources are increasingly felt locally, communities need a strong voice in Whitehall.
The truth is that the situation of local government finances will not be resolved until the impact of reductions or changes to funding is understood within the overall public spending envelope, rather than just the Department for Communities & Local Government silo. Viewed as a DCLG budget line alone, the consequences of reductions to local authority funding on increased demand for other public services such as health and police can be overlooked.
Understood in the round, the consequences of cost-shunting between departmental responsibilities are clearer, and the case for sustainable local capacity with place-based resourcing becomes more self-evident. Forging close relations and interdepartmental collaboration with the secretaries of state of the big spending departments, and of course the chancellor, will be necessary if the impact of dwindling local resources on the overall health of the national balance sheet is to be understood.
Meanwhile as Brexit negotiations start, and different sector and industry groups seek assurances, local government needs an advocate at Whitehall who can strongly represent their concerns, and more broadly the differential geographical impact of various versions of Brexit on the soft to hard spectrum.
3. Open out the devolution agenda as a route to future national success
While devolution in Northern Ireland and the particular demands of Scotland rise up the political agenda, there is a real opportunity to renew English devolution, which has been waning recently, new mayors aside. The Conservative manifesto promised a phase of consolidation with a common framework, but it needs to step out of its technocratic straitjacket. Devolution has become at times a mere receptacle of what’s in Whitehall’s “too difficult box”. A visionary approach would identify its potential to achieve new strategic outcomes essential for post-Brexit national success: kick-starting productivity in local economies, getting more people into better jobs, and spearheading public service reform into the next decade.
Underpinning all of this, the new team at the DCLG has an opportunity to reset relations and engage substantively with local government as a whole. There is a real innovation happening in the sector, the impact of which can be deepened by a government that proactively works with it to deliver tangible results, even while Westminster’s focus is elsewhere.