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Sketch: The lesser spotted Sajid shows himself (briefly)

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A sketch of the communities secretary’s appearance before MPs.

On Sunday Sir David Attenborough returned to our screens showcasing some of the world’s rare creatures in Planet Earth II.

Today, local government was treated to a similarly rare sight: communities secretary Sajid Javid and his ministerial team out in public responding to questions on policies relating to the Department for Communities & Local Government.

It was the team’s first collective appearance before the Commons communities and local government select committee. Straight from the off the committee’s chair Clive Betts had Mr Javid on the ropes as he moved swiftly through a set of pertinent questions on the pay-to-stay policy, starter homes, and the implementation of the extended right-to-buy to housing association tenants.

In an awkward initial exchange between the chair and the communities secretary Mr Javid admitted that the DCLG still does not yet have the detail of what will constitute a higher value council home under the extended right-to-buy, to which Mr Betts counter-punched: “Isn’t it a good idea to work out the finances before you announce the policy?”

Ouch.

As Mr Javid struggled at times to directly answer any of the questions in detail, housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell looked earnestly down the bench, eager to climb in to the ring and offer assistance to his boss.

Once he did get a chance Mr Barwell, clearly across his brief, took the opportunity to show off all the swatting up he had done by answering questions calmly, with confidence, and some substance.

The committee’s members backed off and changed topics and Mr Barwell, now supported by DCLG ‘veteran’ Marcus Jones, took centre stage as a double act to answer questions on supported housing and planning issues while Mr Javid sat quietly listening to his ministers, gathering his thoughts and looking somewhat relieved.

By this time a glum-looking Northern Powerhouse minister Andrew Percy – who was to speak only once during the whole 90 minute session – had resorted to nodding his head at any opportunity before returning to the seemingly important task of idly flicking through the paperwork in his red folder looking for something interesting or relevant to read. As he never really settled on a particular page LGC assumes he failed to find either.

The preference to defer (or should that be deflect?) questions to his juniors continued as Mr Javid regularly called upon Mr Jones to assist with answers on adult social care, Syrian refugees, and business rates reforms.

Ironically it was on devolution, a policy Mr Javid has been accused of being too quiet on since his appointment in July, that the communities secretary felt able to speak the most about - perhaps it was because it was fresh in his mind following yesterday’s appearance at the County Councils Network conference.

When asked if the fact devolution deals had either collapsed (see North East) or were in imminent danger (Greater Lincolnshire and Norfolk and Suffolk) were evidence the policy had lost momentum on his watch, Mr Javid, half laughing, said “not at all”, not at all convincingly.

The session as a whole was, when Mr Javid decided to speak, very on message and contained little local government has not heard before – one man sat next to LGC at the meeting said he found the meeting so boring he used the time to write a poem.

LGC reported today how the Local Government Association’s chair Lord Porter (Con) admitted he does not have the same special relationship with Mr Javid as he did with his predecessor Greg Clark, reducing the LGA’s influence over the DCLG.

From what LGC saw today Mr Javid is not much of a talker, or perhaps the communities secretary was just saving his voice for the forthcoming launch of the housing white paper. 

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