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If one theme dominated last week’s LGC Summit, it was council chief executives’ perception of the invisibility of the most important policy makers since Theresa May came to power.
In the Cameron administration, local government policy-making was dominated by a twin axis. This was between the Treasury of George Osborne, a chancellor who championed local areas driving forward local growth (even if his austerity deprived the same areas of the resources required to do much else), and the Department for Communities & Local Government of Greg Clark, generally perceived as being a fan of councils.
But we have heard precious little about local government from any minister following July’s truly far-reaching reshuffle. Chancellor Philip Hammond has understandably gone to ground as he prepares for his autumn statement, due on 23 November. His Treasury colleague Lord O’Neill, a surviving supporter of the Northern Powerhouse, is rumoured to be dismayed by the government’s new direction.
We still do not know whether Ms May will be a prime minister who drives devolution. Ms May did this week write her second regional newspaper article in which she endorsed the Northern Powerhouse. In her Manchester Evening News piece yesterday, the prime minister pledged that she was “absolutely committed” to devolution and insisted she would ensure “the whole machinery of government gets behind” the Northern Powerhouse.
Many in local government would urge the PM to shake up the machinery of government to do this now. Discontent is high with the Department for Work & Pensions, in particular, for its cost shunting in relation to the work and health programme, which is hardly in the spirit of devolving power. And, putting it charitably, NHS England’s sustainability and transformation programme has hardly been an exemplar of the spirit of devolution either. With the Conservative party conference little more than a week away, the party’s councillors will be hoping to get a clear steer from their new leader about how she intends to shift the machinery of government so fundamentally.
So what of Sajid Javid? Again, little has been heard of Mr Javid since he became communities secretary (although he did feel compelled to pay tribute to Sir Howard Bernstein upon the announcement of his impending retirement from Manchester City Council last week). In a rare step into the limelight he is currently leading a trade mission to North America to raise the profile of the Midlands Engine.
LGC is grateful to the Department for Communities & Local Government for passing on the list of people accompanying Mr Javid – but we were somewhat perturbed to discover that there is not a single person from local government on the trip. If councils are feeling neglected by the new communities secretary their insecurities will hardly have been alleviated by the minister who is supposed to champion their interests neglecting to believe that their place-making role deems them worthy of places on a trade mission.
The roll call of names on the mission could be significant. The leaders, chief executives and regeneration leads of Birmingham or Coventry city councils, to name but two councils, are absent. But there is a spot for the directors of Holdsworth Chocolates and Bradburys Cheese Ltd. While LGC would never seek to underplay the importance of the business sector – and, indeed, we are a particular fan of the chocolate and cheese industries – some might consider it surprising such a trade mission was led by the communities secretary. The cabinet already has a secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy in the shape of Mr Clark and a secretary of state for international trade in the shape of Liam Fox.
Mr Javid, with his background in banking, might be expected to push the DCLG in a business-friendly direction. But unless he – and the rest of the cabinet – highlights councils’ role, the sector may feel that we have ended up with three business secretaries but no champion of local government in the cabinet.
One chief executive bemoaned to LGC that just about the only DCLG correspondence to cross his desk since June was a letter urging councils to do more to fence off old quarries. ’Is this a return to the era of nit-picking at a time when bold governance is essential?’ the chief asked LGC.
It is, of course, early days for the May administration. LGC has today revealed the latest on how three councils hope to break free from the rest of the North East Combined Authority in order to revive their devolution deal. It is exactly the sort of issue in which Mr Javid can prove he has the flexibility and belief in local government to help the sector and the areas it covers to flourish.