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LGC Briefing: Five questions that should be answered at the Tory conference

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LGC’s look ahead to the Conservative party conference.

After watching the slightly surreal sideshow of the ongoing shenanigans within the Labour party at its conference in Liverpool this week, all eyes this weekend turn to Birmingham where the Conservatives will take centre stage.

On Sunday prime minister Theresa May is expected to outline her vision for “making a success” of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

Local government had been promised a seat at the table during those negotiations when David Cameron was in charge. While there hasn’t been any suggestion that offer has since been withdrawn, to date there has been little further detail either. 

The small matter of Brexit aside, local government representatives at conference will be seeking clarity on a number of other policies, including:

  • Finance

Former chancellor George Osborne’s fiscal targets have been taken to the shredder and thrown in the bin. But what is Mr Hammond’s vision for the country’s (and the public sector’s) finances?

While no one in their right mind anticipates an end to austerity, questions remain about whether there could be some light relief in the form of infrastructure investment, or if it will get worse and how long it will go on for.

He has a chance to address those issues during his speech to conference on Monday. Or will he just make everyone wait until the autumn statement on 23 November?

  • Devolution to counties and elected mayors

First there was Ms May’s promise of giving people “more control over their lives” when she became prime minister.

Then there was deathly silence.

That was followed by a couple of low-key commitments to the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine written in regional newspapers.

Then commercial secretary to the Treasury Lord O’Neill resigned placing huge question marks over Ms May’s commitment to the devolution agenda.

Areas previously struggling to keep up with a government desperate to do deals have since been left lurking outside Downing Street with resident cats Larry and Palmerston hoping Ms May, chancellor Philip Hammond, and communities secretary Sajid Javid will at least pop their heads out of the window to acknowledge they are there.

The Department for Communities & Local Government made the right noises in relation to a potential breakaway devolution deal for three councils in the North East but there has been no further clarity on whether areas, including those outside of city regions, will need to adopt elected mayors in return for an agreement with government.

  • The extended right-to-buy and social housing

Former housing minister Brandon Lewis said in July it was “too premature” to define what constitutes a higher value home, and therefore how many properties councils will be expected to sell off to fund the extension of the right-to-buy to housing association tenants.

The policy was part of the Conservative manifesto ahead of the 2015 election and became law earlier this year. However, there have been considerable changes at the top of government since then so will the new administration really follow through with this potentially damaging policy, or conveniently kick it into the long grass?

Meanwhile, Mr Lewis’ successor Gavin Barwell used his first appearance before MPs in July to say that there was a “powerful case for further investment in affordable housing”. Although he did not specifically mention social homes for rent at the time, reports suggest he is open to the idea.

  • Homelessness

Calls are growing in Westminster for the government to place a statutory duty on councils to prevent homelessness.

The Homelessness Reduction Bill, a private member’s bill tabled by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, has been tabled while LGC reported in April that local government minister Marcus Jones had said the government was “looking very carefully” at introducing its own legislation.

In June Mr Jones, the only surviving member of the DCLG team following the cabinet reshuffle, said more analysis was needed before the government would legislate.

Mr Barwell said this month that there was a “responsibility on government in terms of resourcing this important work” should legislation be introduced.

  • And finally…

Local government will be keen to know if the elusive Mr Javid has regained his voice.

A trip to North America to promote the Midlands Engine aside, during which he ‘accidentally’ left local government representatives behind at the check-in desks, the sector has hardly heard a word from Mr Javid since he took over from his affable predecessor Greg Clark at the DCLG.

New to the sector it has perhaps only been fair to let Mr Javid learn the ropes over the summer, but the time has now come for him (and his team) to provide local government with his vision and some clarity on the issues above.

Visit LGCplus.com from Sunday and follow @DavidAPaine and @sjcalkin on Twitter for live updates from the conference

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