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How Javid – unloved by both councils and the PM – won promotion

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Commentary on Sajid Javid’s promotion to the Home Office.

Many in local government will be wondering what Sajid Javid has done to earn a promotion to one of the great offices of state.

His time as housing and communities secretary has not has not exactly borne the hallmarks of a minister/sector love-in. This is not to say the overriding determinant of a minister’s success is the levels of love they experience from their sector but there hasn’t been much fair challenge or even grudging respect in councils’ dealings with Mr Javid.

One significant figure recently privately unfavourably compared the “completely uninterested” Mr Javid to his “totally engaged” – but nevertheless unloved – predecessor Eric Pickles. And a council chief executive laughed when LGC asked them on the phone today to identify Mr Javid’s greatest triumph.

The perception has existed from the start that Mr Javid never took to a role widely considered a demotion from his former role as business secretary. However, the communities secretary job had much going for it when he inherited it, with devolution going at full swing following the heady days of George Osborne’s chancellorship.

LGC said when he was appointed: “The truth is, the communities job is what Mr Javid makes of it. If he genuinely believes we are on the cusp of a devolved future and that local government’s leadership can drive local growth, he can contribute to, and potentially lead, one of the biggest sea changes British governance has ever seen.”

However, it didn’t take him long to give the impression that he did not see local government as holding this role. He led a trade mission to North America without taking a single council figure along with him. Before too long Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) admitted he did not have the same relationship with Mr Javid as he did with his predecessor Greg Clark.

It felt like things were drifting. More prospective devolution deals were falling by the wayside than were proceeding. The momentum devolution had acquired had been obliterated by Brexit and the political turmoil the referendum brought with it.

LGC therefore made an appeal to Mr Javid for action before the 2016 Conservative party conference: “So what must Mr Javid do next week in Birmingham? Reassurance is key. Councils deserve to know whether the previous rules of the game are being retained. Yes or no to mayors? Devolution deals will fall by the wayside unless clarity is offered.”

Alas no such clarity was forthcoming:

“Buried in the basement of Mr Javid’s 1,674-word, housing-focused speech were two sentences in which he said he was ‘proud to be continuing with our ambitious devolution agenda’ and appeared to reinforce government support for directly elected mayors,” reported LGC. There was no more than that.

Unsurprisingly there was much speculation that Mr Javid – never close to Theresa May – would be turfed out of the Cabinet when the prime minister surely cemented her authority by trouncing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in last year’s election.

“The impression is that Mr Javid’s heart has not been in his role,” we wrote. “He has rarely been enthusiastic about engaging with local government, failing to attend the multitude of events at which a new minister might be expected to demonstrate their interest in their new brief.”

Alas Ms May’s campaign was as shocking as her unloved communities secretary’s sector engagement. Politically weakened, she had no authority to remove an ambitious minister who would inevitably cause trouble on the backbenches.

Then things got worse.

The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire shook Mr Javid from his languid performance. Mr Javid was rightly tough on Kensington & Chelsea RBC – but rather than supplying councils elsewhere with the resources required to remove flammable cladding – he directed his energies to attacking local government.

Speaking at the sector’s showpiece event, the Local Government Association annual conference, Mr Javid, seemingly oblivious to his own department’s shortcomings on clarifying building regulations, said: “Local government is facing a looming crisis of trust.” He then proceeded to place local government’s level of democracy on a par with that of institutions in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Not only was no money forthcoming for building safety improvements but he said not a word on the dropping of the full localisation of business rates, formerly the central plank of his government’s council finance strategy.

As LGA Labour group leader Nick Forbes memorably put it, Mr Javid’s speech, “went down like a bucket of cold sick”.

In the aftermath of this speech Mr Javid’s popularity in the sector hit rock bottom. LGC’s confidence survey of senior officers showed -81% confidence both that Mr Javid and his team were championing local government in Whitehall and were fair and reasoned critics of local government.

The fightback began.

Mr Javid had been clear from pretty much the beginning that his key priority was housing. He wasn’t always in line with local government. His February 2017 housing white paper proposed extending the right-to-buy to council housing companies, potentially making them unviable. As LGC put it: “Buried in the depths of the eagerly anticipated (and much delayed) housing white paper lay a bombshell that threatened the very essence of what the government is trying to get the country to do: build more homes.”

However, after the LGA debacle Mr Javid gained a new energy in making the case to solving the housing crisis. He was often combative with councils but equally combative with developers.

Sensationally we had a Thatcherite minister calling for £50bn of government borrowing to get Britain building. Ambitious stuff.

And last month he lambasted “Nimby councils that don’t really want to build the homes their local community needs”. New rules would prevent them from fudging their numbers while, he warned: “We are going to be breathing down your neck to make sure you are actually delivering on those numbers.”

However, writing in LGC, the LSE’s professor Tony Travers said political courage was required to “succeed where his predecessors failed” as “most of the vested interests against housing development are Conservative-supporting”.

Mr Javid has indeed taken on his own side. He attacked “baby boomers” for “living in a different world” for believing that it was spending “too much on nights out and smashed avocados” which meant millennials could not afford homes. These are, let us remember, the product of Margaret Thatcher’s home-owning dream.

And this unexpected boldness finally also crept into broader local government policy with an approval for reorganisation in Dorset being followed by indications Buckinghamshire and financially stricken Northamptonshire would be restructured.

LGC did the unthinkable and asked whether the communities secretary had “regained his mojo”.

“Mr Javid is now looking like a properly functioning communities secretary, one who actually sees the potential of the job, and could actually be enjoying it,” we wrote.

“Dare it be said that Ms May’s cabinet is hardly a government of all the talents. There is no clear frontrunner to succeed her. Maybe Mr Javid has spotted a gap: as a self-made man, of Asian heritage, from a relatively modest background, who is making an eloquent case for how to solve Britain’s biggest non-Brexit problem, he does have a certain appeal that eludes Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.”

Clearly Ms May is a reader.

Well, maybe not. It is a sign of the prime minister’s weakness that she has had to promote a man with whom she has often disagreed. However, the fact that he was prepared to criticise the government performance on the Windrush generation that made him seem like a breath of fresh air. He told the Sunday Telegraph: “I thought that could be my mum … my dad … my uncle … it could be me.” Here at last – and local government will scoff at this – there was an open, passionate minister with a heart.

Mr Javid has never been a champion of councils and only belatedly began to realise that he could make an impact as housing and communities secretary. However, in our modern political culture in which short-term gain trumps long-term plan, promoting a competent media performer makes sense.

After often underperforming in one of the cabinet’s more benign and lower profile roles, Mr Javid now faces perhaps the Cabinet’s most challenging hot seat.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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