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Whitehall turbulence is not going to help councils

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Commentary on Liz Truss’s bid to merge key ministries.

A new year is a time for new ideas – or for dusting down an old chestnut.

LGC will pass no immediate judgement on which of these categories the supposed move to cull Whitehall departments falls into.

While there is certainly a compelling case that 25 Whitehall departments is rather too many, especially (as PoliticsHome points out) when compared to the USA’s 15, more structural reform is hardly going to bring stability into government. Indeed, civil servants have rarely seemed more frustrated by their inability to get things done, so one might speculate that a round of office moves and scrabbling to retain permanent secretary roles is hardly going to help them.

It was The Sun which revealed what it termed as “secret plans for a super-ministry” overnight.

According to the paper, the main cabinet backer of the move is Treasury chief secretary Liz Truss (notorious for the government is “not making cuts to local authorities” claim). Although Theresa May is predictably against taking on the civil service, like a pot of barcode-cancelled brandy butter currently available in most supermarket bargain bins, the prime minister’s shelf life is limited. It is expected that the mergers could take place alongside this year’s spending review, by which time we might well have a new occupant of Number 10 so Ms May’s opposition may be irrelevant.

Various potential Whitehall configurations are now being reported. Apparently, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government could be merged with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Department for Transport into a single ministry “with responsibility for major infrastructure projects”. However, it is alternatively suggested that it could be Culture, Media & Sport, rather than our beloved ministry, which faces the chop.

The Foreign Office could merge with the Department for International Development and possibly also the Department for Exiting the EU and the Department for International Trade. One might argue that the latter two departments were only created independently of the Foreign Office in order to give jobs to leading Brexiteers David Davis and Liam Fox, and to ensure that then foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s powers were constrained. The Conservative civil war has hardly helped facilitate Whitehall stability: the position of “permanent secretary” has never felt so inappropriately named.

LGC feels a certain world weariness about the possible loss of the ministry. Few areas of government have been subject to as much Whitehall change as the department overseeing councils. Depending on whichever policy area has been in the ascendency, it has been together with environment, transport, cohesion and, er, John Prescott at various points since the first Blair landslide.

It was only a year ago that its latest moniker as the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government was unveiled. At the time, then housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid said: “Having a ministry for housing that is so clearly defined gets my colleagues around the cabinet table all focussed on the challenge at hand.” Presumably the corollary is equally true: subsuming housing with other stuff means it stops being the government’s supposed number one priority.

And, if the ministry’s name suggests that local government is already third in its pecking order, then sticking it behind business and transport as well makes it even less visible.

LGC has queried before whether the Department for Communities & Local Government, as it then was, was worth retaining. Certainly, there have been times this decade when its performance was poor and morale low. The bigger picture stuff that has impacted on councils – austerity and devolution – has been the preserve of the Treasury while the Department for Education and Department for Health & Social Care have respectively overseen children’s services and social care.

However, at the ministry James Brokenshire has certainly been one of our better secretary of states since 2010. His short tenure has seen the housing borrowing cap axed and a general sense that we do at last have a minister fighting for local government at the Cabinet table. Now is not the time to want to rock the boat.

Let’s enjoy working with Mr Brokenshire while we can: ministers rarely stay in the same role for long these days. In the longer term, something more profound than a few Whitehall deckchairs being moved is required.

We need local government’s powers and freedoms to be enshrined in statute and councils to have the right to raise the funding they see fit to ensure services are provided to meet local needs. Should that happen then councils would no longer need to fear any Whitehall departmental cull.

Nick Golding, editor

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