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Sajid Javid can rebuild his relationship with local government but it will take more than words
Adam Lent, Director, New Local Government Network, 14 July, 2017

Last night he was shouting obscenities up at the bedroom window. Now, after a cold night on the doorstep, he’s saying he loves us and is begging for forgiveness through the letterbox. Many in local government will be impressed that Sajid Javid had the courage and humility to apologise for his LGA speech but as every repentant spouse knows it takes more than sweet words to get yourself welcomed back into the family home.

A good start is always honesty. One aspect of the LGA speech that slightly got lost in the furore over its tone and message was its failure to mention business rates. It has now been three weeks since the Queen’s Speech when it became clear there would be no Local Government Finance Bill and hence no shift to 100% retention of rates. This has seriously disconcerted the sector, most of which had welcomed the reform in principle and had been planning for its implementation. And yet there has been no official statement from DCLG about what happens now. This is particularly odd given that, as far as anyone can tell, the plans to abolish the Rate Support Grant remain in place leaving councils potentially with an enormous hole in their finances.

Of course, a thoughtful gift also helps to reignite that romantic spark. Here the Secretary of State is spoilt for choice: the sector is feeling somewhat neglected to say the least. A serious, speedy and courageous consultation on social care would be nice. Or maybe some clarity and ambition for councils’ role in the Government’s much-vaunted industrial strategy. If he wanted to really spoil us, a new commitment to a meaningful devolution process would go down a storm.

But the best gift of all would be some serious action on austerity. The pressure for the Chancellor to loosen the thumb-screws is growing every day. By the time of the Autumn Budget he may well be ready to relent. The Secretary of State would be lauded if any shift in fiscal policy takes into account the unsustainable financial pressure now placed on local public services. The sector has faced deeper cuts than any other part of Government and while it is always tempting for a politician to put the NHS or the police at the front of the queue such largesse is utterly self-defeating if children’s services, adult social care and housing are simultaneously allowed to deteriorate.

Ultimately, however, the whole basis of the relationship needs to be examined if a rosier future awaits. Sajid Javid’s speech did not happen in a vacuum. For many years now local government has been portrayed as a problem rather than a solution by ministers. Too often councils seem to be a convenient whipping-boy for the latest social or political crisis. Even devolution took a guilty-until-proven innocent approach requiring councils to display that they were fit to receive responsibilities so ably fulfilled by Whitehall.

Now is the time to recognise that councils actually have a great deal to offer given the huge challenges faced by the Government. Austerity, for all its flaws, has been accompanied by a remarkable openness to innovation and change in local government. There is now a strong appetite for deep reinvention. Councils, with proper support, could lead a wider public sector revolution in productivity, impact and citizen engagement.

Maybe even more fundamentally there is also a powerful momentum in local government to drive economic growth through local investment, infrastructure and skills strategies. Something that was in part driven by the promise of business rates retention (a good enough reason to rethink the dropping of the proposal) but also by the recognition that growth is the best way to reduce public service demand. Given the very challenging economic context created by Brexit, the Government would do well to do everything it can to encourage, support and harness that enthusiasm to drive growth at the local level.

Finally there is the simple fact that, as the Auditor General’s extraordinary intervention revealed, the Government’s capacity is being sucked up dealing with the vast complexities of Brexit. Other challenges have not gone away however. Crime still needs to be fought, educational standards raised, poverty eradicated, houses built, vulnerable people cared for, citizens engaged, transport improved, infrastructure updated and so on and so on. Local government is better placed than any other body to hold the ring on these crucial matters while central government is otherwise engaged. Make an ally of councils and Whitehall’s clear capacity crisis could well be lightened with adequate funding and devolution of powers.

Some are saying that after the LGA speech, the Secretary of State’s standing with local government is unrecoverable. This is untrue. Some relationships are far too important to give up on. Indeed, they can even flourish after the roughest of patches. Recognise and then act on the fact that local and central government share the same ambitions and are far better together than apart and there is no reason why Sajid Javid cannot win back the heart of those he says he loves.