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And here's what you could have won... Greg Clark

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Commentary on the business secretary’s visit to the Local Government Association

“And here’s what you could have won,” was how most 1980s game show hosts ended their programme whenever the star prize went unclaimed.

It was a sentiment that at least one attendee of today’s Local Government Association councillors’ forum recalled, but it was not the forfeiting of the speedboat or the dream holiday to Mauritius that was being mourned on this occasion.

The star speaker at the meeting was one-time communities secretary Greg Clark, now business secretary. The minister was addressing the meeting on the subject of the government’s industrial strategy – and it was clear his enthusiasm for local government remained strong.

Mr Clark was a reminder of a brief window in history when the overall trend towards centralisation of England’s political structures was bucked. While the 2015-16 era wasn’t entirely a bed of roses (austerity continued to have a crippling effect on services), for once it did appear during this period that the stars were aligning in favour of local government being given a greater leadership role, especially on economic growth.

Under the triumvirate of chancellor George Osborne, Treasury minister Lord O’Neill and Mr Clark, there was suddenly hope that centralisation would be reversed. Councils were going to use their democratic mandate to work with business and investors to revamp infrastructure, upskill their local workforces and build the housing that would transform their local economy.

Then came the EU referendum, the departure of David Cameron, the premiership of Theresa May and minority government. The momentum has dissipated. The Cabinet’s current custodian of local government – and devolution – is Sajid Javid, a man whose two biggest speeches since being appointed have consisted of barely mentioning devolution (the Conservative party conference 2016) and lambasting local government because they are all suffering from a “looming crisis of trust” (LGA conference 2017).

Perhaps this is a downbeat assessment, especially little more than two months after the first metro mayors were elected in six areas. Of the new mayors Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham (Lab) and the West Midlands’ Andy Street (Con) have clearly made huge progress. However, both men have used recent LGC interviews to discuss the barriers to their success.

Mr Burnham warned Whitehall was reluctant to honour its promise to devolve skills policy by the previously agreed deadline. Mr Street discussed how the loss of the Local Government Finance Bill meant he had lost the ability to raise a levy to pay for infrastructure projects. This means he will have to “rework” his plans, he said. Mr Street also said the fact that the Department for Communities & Local Government was “so consumed” by the Grenfell Tower fire response meant he had been unable to discuss with its ministers how he could move forward.

This is not to say either man had an overall negative message (with both having some complimentary words about Mr Javid’s commitment to devolution). But they have both reached a point where the optimism of their manifestos is beginning to clash with the realpolitik of a distracted and weak government. LGC this week reported how government inertia was threatening devolution deals.

Progress in the other four areas with city regions has been patchier. Liverpool City Region in particular has been hampered by local political clashes.

And in the areas where progress faltered, preventing mayoral elections this year, it is by no means clear that elections will be held this year. Sheffield City Region this week deferred a decision on taking devolution forwards; West Yorkshire and the North East similarly bear witness to few outward signs of previous impasses having been overcome.

And further non-urban England progress also appears uncertain. The Conservative manifesto said only those areas with a “great” city would pursue the combined authority model for devolution championed by Mr Clark. We still do not know if Southampton or Nottingham, to use two examples, fall into this category. A County Councils Network report this week called for an “enhanced role” for counties in delivering housing, infrastructure and planning.

In devolution, like so many other areas of public life, we live in an era where the barriers to progress are more obvious than the path to progress.

And Mr Clark was a throwback to an era of more certainty. A bit like Barack Obama.

“The industrial strategy with me steering it is determined to have the importance of councils and local leadership absolutely at the heart of it,” Mr Clark told councillors today.

It was LGA Labour group leader Nick Forbes, who chaired today’s councillors forum, noting wryly that it was a “great pleasure to welcome a positive speech from a secretary of state”. He was not alone among the people LGC spoke to who noted the difference in Mr Clark’s tone to that of his successor at the DCLG.

Mr Forbes was chairing the session, deputising for LGA chair Lord Porter (Con) who had undergone dental surgery. In the current climate, many local government figures will feel the path to devolution has about as much appeal as an afternoon in the dentist’s chair.

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