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Why it is in Brokenshire's interests to embrace his new role

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

James Brokenshire is the third secretary of state to oversee local government since the Pickles years came to an end just three years ago.

As Tony Travers wrote for LGC last week, the fact the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, as it is now named, has a revolving door points to its lowly status at the cabinet table. It is often used as a first rung on the cabinet ladder with its strong ministerial performers plucked to fill departmental gaps elsewhere (David Miliband and Greg Clark, for instance). At other times the department is used to accommodate those who have to be kept in the cabinet tent but are deemed by the PM of the day unworthy of a higher profile role (Hazel Blears or Sajid Javid).

In James Brokenshire we at last have a secretary of state who is a political soulmate of the prime minister, having won Theresa May’s trust when he worked with her at the Home Office. We also have a minister who is experienced and respected – his recent career only being interrupted by illness – without being clearly demoted from a role deemed higher (Sajid Javid or Ruth Kelly) or intending to use it as a stepping stone to one of the great offices of state.

It is in Mr Brokenshire’s interests to give this new role his full dedication. He may not have a supportive PM forever more (especially with Brexit talks hitting crunch time) and it is only through embracing local government that he can make a major impact. While this does not necessarily indicate impending radicalism, it could at least herald a greater enthusiasm than we have seen in the holder of the role for the past two years.

Mr Brokenshire has a complicated brief and he will not be successful on all fronts. Nevertheless, events as disparate as Grenfell Tower, the financial collapse of Northamptonshire CC, flagship Tory conference speeches on housing, and Ms May’s epic mid-election fail on social care funding reform show the importance of the ministry’s work. There is far more attention on it than there was under Mr Pickles, for instance.

The rate at which many councils – counties in particular – are eating through their reserves shows current funding levels are unsustainable. Also unsustainable is the long-term electoral prospects of the Conservative party unless it can provide the younger half of the adult population with affordable housing. Mr Brokenshire simply cannot allow current impasses on such issues to go on for much longer. A fairer funding review designed to redistribute money between councils is in full swing and must proceed. If this summer’s social care green paper is to be genuinely ground-breaking, it could provide a unique spur to easing councils’ dependence on the flawed funding system offered by council tax and business rates. Meanwhile, a debate on the sustainability of current council structures is well underway and Mr Brokenshire went further than he needed to in his LGC interview of a fortnight ago to signal his enthusiasm for unitary councils.

Northern Ireland-based political commentator Paul Gosling writes in LGC this week of how Mr Brokenshire’s caution did not result in the breakthrough the province desperately needed. However, there are numerous grounds for believing that the time for ministerial policy conservatism should come to an end in relation to government dealings with councils. But even if Mr Brokenshire feels inclined to tackle many of the sector’s woes he may still find he requires more support than merely that of the prime minister to actually implement any radical new approach. The absence of a parliamentary majority and the government’s Brexit obsession pose fundamental barriers to reform.

By Nick Goldiing, editor, LGC

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