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James Brokenshire: a breath of fresh air

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

LGC’s live coverage as the results come in overnight: Local elections 2018

Devo doubt: Cities express doubt over four-county ‘combined authority’

Today’s talking point: Jacqui McKinlay: Financial scrutiny must not be an afterthought

The name’s Brokenshire, James Brokenshire. And just like 007, the sector’s new secretary of state put on the full charm offensive during his first chat with LGC.

It might sound strange but the fact Mr Brokenshire even bothered to pick up the phone to speak to the sector’s press felt like a landmark occasion. For his predecessor Sajid Javid did not manage to muster a single word to LGC in the 21 months he oversaw local government, let the alone the first 48 hours, despite repeated requests to have a chat/interview/hurried word or whatever we could get. Alas, we got nothing and most would say the sector got little more. In return Mr Javid got little back – LGC’s confidence survey of senior officers last year showed -81% confidence both that the secretary of state and his team were championing local government in Whitehall and were fair and reasoned critics of local government. Ouch.

But the secretary of state’s first assured performance came even before LGC asked him about his priorities, and quizzed him on the financial sustainability of the sector, social care, and reorganisation. Four hours into the job he was at the parliamentary despatch box answering MPs’ questions on housing, cladding, and local government finance.

On the issue of restructuring, LGC’s editor Nick Golding joked earlier in the week that nominative determinism had seemingly decreed Mr Brokenshire “as the perfect person to perform” such a task. It seems that could well be on the cards as Mr Brokenshire told LGC “there is a clear space and scope for unitary authorities”. He went on to say: “There are different challenges between the different tiers of authorities under the current construct and where a unitary structure may make sense.

“There are further proposals that are coming through, I know, but I want to listen at this stage. I want to hear from the sector on the benefits that are being experienced.

“But obviously I am looking closely at the sustainability of local government moving forward and where devolution and unitary authorities can seek to make a difference then I do want to advance that agenda.”

As a former Northern Ireland secretary Mr Brokenshire will be more than prepared for the difficult discussions and negotiations that come with reorganisation proposals. But the fact he has even given this steer at such an early stage in to his new job is surely significant.

One of the criticisms levelled at his predecessor was Mr Javid’s focus on housing. Indeed, one senior source within the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government told LGC last week that Mr Javid “doesn’t care” about local government and he would only ever be talking about housing in Marsham Street.

While Mr Brokenshire told LGC that tackling the housing crisis is “very much at the forefront of my agenda”, he spoke of “partnering with local government” more broadly and acknowledged “there are challenges on finance and social care” too. Again, this is significant especially as local government hurtles towards the proverbial cliff-edge and the spending review.

David Simmonds, Conservative group leader at the Local Government Association, said the trust Theresa May clearly has in Mr Brokenshire (he was a crime and immigration minister in the Home Office while she was in charge) meant he would “absolutely” have a better chance at influencing the prime minister’s thinking on crucial matters. That is something Mr Javid, who Ms May reportedly wanted to sack after the last election did not have much sway over – as shown by the way he bid for, and did not get very far with, his ambitious bid for an extra £50bn for housing.

Cllr Simmonds said Mr Brokenshire would be “good news” for councils. It is early days (literally) into Mr Brokenshire’s tenure but first impressions do go a long way. Let’s hope it lasts.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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