Commentary on the communities secretary’s memorable appearance at the LGA conference
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Lord Porter was so enraged that he phoned up the communities secretary to complain, literally before the minister had left the Local Government Association conference stage, LGC has been told.
The cause of the Conservative LGA chairman’s fury is the Cabinet’s supposed champion of local government, Sajid Javid, using his showpiece conference gig to launch a ferocious tirade against councils and their alleged culpability for the Grenfell Tower disaster.
LGC has not met a local government officer or councillor who has underplayed the tragedy or not asked searching questions about how the initial chaos that followed the blaze could have been avoided. Indeed, the shadow of Grenfell looms large over the entire sector and, in particular, local government’s biggest event. Many local government figures have sought commissioners to be sent in to Kensington & Chelsea RBC far before Mr Javid finally decided today that an “independent recovery taskforce” should take over housing and other functions at the authority.
However, Mr Javid used his early afternoon performance yesterday, which was carried live on the BBC, ITV News and Sky, to heap all the blame for the tragedy on councils. There was no mention of any possibility that the government, the fractured nature of housing accountability or under-resourcing had any impact.
LGC has been told by a prominent Conservative councillor that they had not expected Mr Javid to launch such a blistering attack as he had a far mellower message several hours earlier in a private address to Tory members.
The councillor told us: “Javid was very positive about the state rallying together earlier on. The turnaround in his message was extraordinary. I thought ‘what has he had for lunch?’
“There was no way I was clapping that speech. I was flabbergasted. He was clearly playing to the TV cameras.”
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Mr Javid started with a warning that his speech – at the LGA’s 20th birthday bash – would not concentrate on councils’ successes and would instead “reflect on what has gone wrong in local government – and what we need to do to, together, to fix it”. From this high point, it went downhill.
“Speaking to survivors, people in the local community, and people in tower blocks around the country, one thing is abundantly clear. Local government is facing a looming crisis of trust,” Mr Javid said.
He then, bizarrely, brought up a 10-year-old David Cameron quote, made in relation to the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “that you can’t drop a fully formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet”, and said that message should be heeded by councils. The insinuation was that every town, county and city hall was somehow on a par with the fragile institutions of democracy in Kabul or Baghdad.
“If the events of the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that we have to raise our game. The ties that bind local government to local communities have not snapped. But if we don’t act now, such a time may one day be upon us.”
“We must rebuild, refresh and reinforce the trust that local people have in local democracy. But that won’t happen by hiding away,” he said.
In comments that are applicable to Kensington & Chelsea (which last week sought to hold a cabinet meeting in private) but were clearly addressed at the whole sector, Mr Javid said democracy could not be rebuilt “from behind castle walls”.
Mr Javid, who has a reputation for attending relatively few council events and low visibility in the sector, said elected representatives had to be seen “working in the harsh light of the public eye, not in comforting shadows behind closed doors”.
He added: “Local government must show that it is for the people – not just of the people.”
The lecture went on for 3,000 words. After lambasting councils for the quality of their consultations, Mr Javid’s announcement of a “consultation on a new way for councils to assess their local housing requirements” brought a certain amount of eye-rolling from delegates familiar with the usual nature of central government consultation.
Following his speech, which largely consisted of lambasting councils for failing to face up to tough questions, Mr Javid stayed for only three questions. Just a fortnight after it emerged 100% business rate retention was being dropped as a policy, shattering the central tenet of council finance reform and leaving councils facing a cliff edge as revenue support grant is phased out, the secretary of state failed to mention the issue. He also sidestepped a question about sending in commissioners to Kensington & Chelsea.
There was no hint of questioning as to why the Department for Communities & Local Government had delayed a review of building regulations in relation to high-rise building fire safety, heeding the lessons of the 2009 Lakanal Tower blaze in Southwark. And there was no openness about confusion about building regulations which means flammable cladding has been used in at least 181 high-rise buildings in 51 council areas. Either many, many councils have failed on fire safety, or central government has given out the wrong or misconstrued messages.
Twenty-four hours on from Mr Javid’s Speech of the Century, palpable fury remains at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre. Terms like “went down like a bucket of cold sick” (as LGA Labour group leader Nick Forbes put it), “buck-passing” and “patronising bastard” are repeatedly used. Conservative councillors are no less enraged than their Labour counterparts.
Mr Javid’s spoke only hours before the LGA withdrew its support for better care fund guidance which would mean more cash intended to improve the integration of health and social care will be spent the way the NHS is seeking.
A major rift has opened up in central/local relations. As recently as last week, Lord Porter – who initially admitted he did not have the same bond with Mr Javid as he did with his predecessor Greg Clark – had been singing the communities secretary’s praises. He even told LGC he phoned up “Saj” on a Sunday afternoon, much to his wife’s disgust. Lady Porter’s Sundays are now set to be uninterrupted.
Local government has never warmed to Mr Javid. It is hard to see how relations can ever recover with him at the helm. With the new parliamentary arithmetic thwarting Theresa May’s reported desire to sack Mr Javid, she has been forced to keep him inside the tent. Until the next general election it could be the case that central/local relations are as strained as they were as during the Eric Pickles era.