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Let's embrace councils' Whitehall demotion

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While Theresa May’s supposedly government-rejuvenating reshuffle did not result in the death of many ministerial careers, it’s time to say RIP to the old Department for Communities & Local Government and Department of Health. 

Their replacements’ titles reflect changing ministerial priorities, so we are told. Thus the words “and social care” are crowbarred in at the end of the DH’s name and the DCLG has received a distinctly retro restyling as the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government.

If new Whitehall department names equated to ministerial commitment, local government would be the most doted upon sector. Since Major it has also been overseen by the Department for the Environment; Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions; Department for Transport, Local Government & the Regions; Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and Department for Communities & Local Government. Unfortunately, it takes more than a new title to show a commitment. Money, prime ministerial attention and good governance are prerequisites.

If ministers think names are important then local government should be worried, it having dropped to third place in its ministry’s pecking order

The move of housing minister Alok Sharma to work and pensions suggested the latter factor is in short supply. Mr Sharma had been in post for a mere six months, was generally well regarded and had spent most of his time in listening mode, in particular through hearing concerns of social housing tenants post-Grenfell.

It is easy to be cynical about politicians if their listening results in no action, as will surely be the case by moving Mr Sharma so soon. With regards to the other two factors, cash and the attention of a PM overseeing Brexit are currently pretty much non-existent.

More broadly, timidity is to blame for many government shortcomings. On housing it ploughs on with right-to-buy like some Thatcher-endorsed badge of honour, while refusing to remove the barriers to councils building housing. Inevitably the supply of affordable housing is drying up and the young are priced out.

Dare it be said real action to facilitate genuinely affordable housing could be more influential in changing the voting habits of under-40s than name changes or the appointment of Brandon Lewis to Conservative Central Office? On social care, the only instance of boldness this decade was concocted on the back of a fag packet for the Tory election manifesto.

If ministers do think names are that important then local government should presumably be worried, it having dropped to third place in its ministry’s pecking order. MHCLG immediately started referring to Sajid Javid as “housing secretary”.

But let us embrace this demotion. Councils are generally well-governed, efficient and committed to improving local communities – and their ambitions are often thwarted by Whitehall.

They have the ability to be far better guarantors of their own interests than any minister. Sajid Javid can go down as a genuinely reforming secretary of state by setting councils free: let him concentrate on housing while councils do the governing (at least after council finance has been made sustainable).

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