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How Sajid Javid has regained his mojo

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Commentary on the communities secretary’s return to form

LGC has frequently been critical of Sajid Javid. The communities secretary has regularly seemed blind to the sector’s plight, unwilling to take decisions and keen to put political point scoring above transforming the sector. Devolution has slowed to a crawl and hopes of finance reform have diminished during his tenure.

When Theresa May became prime minister he was demoted from business secretary to communities secretary. As a long-standing Eurosceptic who unenthusiastically but pragmatically campaigned for Remain in the European referendum campaign, his stock had fallen.

Before the general election Mr Javid was widely expected to be reshuffled out of his post, potentially leaving the government, not least as he and Theresa May are hardly bosom buddies. The perception was that local government only continued to be saddled with him because the PM, shorn of her majority, was too weak to have him outside the tent.

Then came Mr Javid’s Local Government Association annual conference speech debacle at which he appeared to blame the whole of local government for Grenfell Tower. This was despite the fact most councils across the country have broken new ground in terms of working together at times of crisis (virtually all were bemused and aghast that Kensington & Chelsea RBC initially sought to deal with Grenfell in-house). And it was also despite the fact that it was the Department for Communities & Local Government that had stalled on new fire safety regulations for high-rise buildings.

The insult to local government was compounded by the fact that his speech was carried live on television; in his private meeting with Conservative councillors immediately before he had been constructive and polite.

The speech was memorably described as being like a bucket of cold sick by LGA Labour group leader Nick Forbes. One pitied poor LGA chair Lord Porter who had talked up how his pal Saj had local government’s best interests at heart only to have him do the proverbial on his biggest parade of the year.

Mr Javid’s relationship with local government had reached a nadir. (An even worse nadir than that time he went on a Midlands Engine trade mission to North America without inviting any councils along or that time he barely mentioned devolution in his Tory conference speech).

The comeback started when he apologised for his LGA speech, showing a more contrite tone and admitting he had “no monopoly on wisdom”.

Mr Javid has moved on and, dare we say it, has seemed somewhat more energised in recent times.

He has gone from giving the impression that he’d rather be anywhere than heading the DCLG to at least seeing the department’s value. The government’s non-Brexit priority is housing and he is its lead on housing.

In fairness, Mr Javid has been demanding a housing revolution for some time. But he has lately been bolder and braver in going beyond the motherhood and apple pie platitudes all too regularly put out on the subject by ministers.

Thus he lambasted those who fail to see the scale of the housing challenge and believe “affordability is only a problem for Millennials [who] spend too much on nights out and smashed avocados”.

“The people who tell me this – usually baby boomers who have long-since paid off their own mortgage – they are living in a different world,” said Mr Javid in a speech. “They’re not facing up to the reality of modern daily life and have no understanding of the modern market.”

London’s first-time buyers needed a deposit of £90,000 – “a lot of avocados”, he noted.

Funny, true – and pointedly directed at the Conservative Party’s most core group of senior, owner-occupier, a bit nimby voters.

It earned him the ultimate badge of honour: a 29-word critical Daily Mail headline: “You Baby Boomers are so selfish, says Cabinet Minister: Sajid Javid blames housing shortage on mortgage-free elderly who are ‘not facing up to the reality’ of the housing crisis.

However, ConservativeHome.com’s local government commentator Harry Phipps was impressed: “Javid is right to be championing this cause with such passion… he can focus on a subject which reminds us that Brexit is not the only challenge the government faces,” he wrote. 

The communities secretary also set out a bold pitch for the government to borrow more to build housing, or at least the infrastructure that will result in new housing. He demanded £50bn of borrowing, the Sun claimed.

While Philip Hammond’s Budget fell far short of this ambition, let’s note the significance of perhaps one of the Cabinet’s biggest Thatcherites demanding vast government borrowing to spur housebuilding. Radical stuff.

On a different level, maybe he’s had a new speechwriter but Mr Javid has been, by the standards of this government, fairly compelling to watch lately. It wasn’t just the avocado jibe.

Noting at this week’s County Councils Network conference that after-dinner speaker Gyles Brandreth was a Tory MP from 1992-97, Mr Javid provoked laughter by describing this period as a “very different time, when a minority government was beset with sleaze allegations and facing divisions over Europe”.

More importantly for local government, Mr Javid has now started, at last, to take some decisions.

He got off the fence and said he was “minded to support” restructuring in Dorset and threatened 15 councils without local plans with intervention.

Devolution has got going again – notably benefiting one Nick Forbes, as in the Newcastle City Council leader who holds copyright on the “bucket of cold sick” comment. His council will be a beneficiary of the North of Tyne devo deal. However, it is unclear to what extent Mr Javid has been personally involved, him leaving the glory of signing the deal to Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry. And there is the £1.7bn for transport, announced in this week’s Budget. OK, these may have far more of Philip Hammond’s fingerprints on them than Mr Javid’s but they are welcome and albeit overdue examples of devolution occurring on his DCLG watch.

Times are tough for councils and it is far from clear that Mr Javid always fights for their interests at the cabinet table, has much inspiration in terms of devising a new local government finance system or that he has the clout to win in his quest for game-changing housing investment. And his department sparks frequent complaints about officials being overworked and unfocused or processes inadequate. Typical of this was Buckinghamshire CC’s Conservative leader Martin Tett’s complaint this week in relation to restructuring: “I’ve not discovered anyone in DCLG who can tell us what the criteria are or what the process is… They make it up as they go along. During meetings new rules emerge.”

However, 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. He appeared to be having a whale of a time with Bob Geldof last night at last night’s Irish Post Awards. It almost seems that Mr Javid has regained his mojo.

This is not to say that he will always champion councils: Mr Javid was, alongside Jeremy Hunt, signatory to the hated letter warning councils faced funding cuts unless they made progress on delayed transfers of care. And his department has kicked off again about council publications. However, Mr Javid is looking like an enthusiastic politician again.

The communities secretary is clearly an ambitious man who wants to be chancellor some day, quite probably prime minister. He didn’t give up his £3m a year job with Deutsche Bank for nothing.

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.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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