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Stephen Byers has received a stay of execution for now, much to the relief of many in local government. ...
Stephen Byers has received a stay of execution for now, much to the relief of many in local government.

But the comings and goings of the last couple of weeks have shown just how fragile local government's position is within the existing departmental arrangements.

Mr Byers is a politician with ability, Cabinet clout and a real interest in local government. He was originally much fêted and there is no doubt the central/local relationship is looking relatively healthy - even if a few months down the line the shine is wearing off. But then he is pushed off course by something completely unrelated to local government.

The travails of the secretary of state have been making the headlines on a daily basis over the last two weeks. The story revolves around civil service infighting, and the relationship between ministers, civil servants and special advisers. At the heart of the matter is the row over New Labour spin.

But even before the Moore/Sixsmith debacle blew up Mr Byers was lambasted in the press almost daily over this or that transport issue, from rail strikes to part privatisation of the Tube. This is a cruel diversion for councils as these issues could not be more remote from their objectives.

Mr Byers is good for local government. He has pushed on important issues such as a review of the balance of funding and deregulation. While he may not have achieved them yet, having an influential figure in government even trying has done untold good for the central/local relationship.

His future is secure for now, but even if he stays in the long term this is not necessarily the answer. If his political credibility is severely damaged he will not be able to achieve much for local government. This would be the worst of all possible worlds.

The best way to stop local government being obscured by more headline grabbing issues is to split the DTLR.

Last week the New Local Government Network called for

a Department for Devolution

(LGC, 22 February) and now the idea is emerging elsewhere, with Local Government Association Liberal Democrat group leader Chris Clark also suggesting it is logical.

There is no question the local government role in public service delivery is sufficiently pivotal and complex to warrant a department of its own.

It is vital the new life that has been seen over the last year in the central/local relationship survives - whatever happens to Mr Byers.

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