A commentary on the Local Government Assocation Conference 2017 that gets under way tomorrow
Today’s Grenfell Tower update: Javid leaves door open for commissioners at K&C
Today’s opinion: ‘Housing management has suffered from a loss of skills’
The Local Government Association annual conference began last year with the country still reeling from the EU referendum result.
David Cameron had compounded a pervading sense of upheaval and uncertainty by announcing he would step down as prime minister in the autumn, leaving a political vacuum at a time when leadership was needed to provide stability, strategy and reassurance.
Now 12 months on, uncertainty and unknowns continue to abound following another surprise result at the polls, with a fragile Conservative government still struggling to assert the authority and attract the public confidence that is needed in challenging and unpredictable times.
But it will be the terrible tragedy that unfolded last month at Grenfell Tower that is likely to cast the biggest shadow and focus minds at this year’s conference in Birmingham.
This gives the appearance of communities secretary Sajid Javid tomorrow afternoon added significance, with delegates likely to be looking for some answers to the multitude of questions the Grenfell tragedy and its fallout have raised.
With fire safety tests on tower block cladding continuing across the country, Mr Javid will be expected to address concerns raised by local government about the adequacy of the tests and the funding available to support residents during a time of upheaval.
It will also be hoped that Mr Javid will commit to providing some much needed clarity on standards for insulation and cladding systems in the future.
Concerns have been raised over perceived inappropriate interference by the communities secretary in the departure of Kensington & Chelsea chief executive Nicholas Holgate.
And after Mr Javid this weekend did not rule out sending commissioners to run Kensington & Chelsea, the issue of central government intervention is also likely to be a talking point.
The panel appearing at a workshop on intervention later on Tuesday, which includes Doncaster MBC chief executive Jo Miller and Birmingham City Council interim chief executive Stella Manzie, promises to provide some powerful insights.
With Birmingham in mind, the conference is also an opportunity for the council, dogged as it is by concerns about finances and performance, to showcase a city whose diversity, scale, history and location should be a formidable strength.
In the current political climate, the final plenary session featuring shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne on Thursday is also likely to draw significant attention.
Mr Gwynne is a well-regarded figure whose stock has risen significantly after running Labour’s election campaign – and he is seemingly not afraid to call it how he sees it when appearing on television with Conservative heavyweights auch as foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
His appointment could be seen as an encouraging insight into the standing of local government in Labour ranks.
And with the Conservative government’s position on policy areas such as local government finance, public sector pay and social care uncertain, Mr Gwynne will be confident he can make political inroads with the electorate.
The conference performances of both men will inevitably be compared and provide an opportunity for them to lay down a firm marker for future attempts to win local government hearts and minds.