Compared with sector personality Eric Pickles, new ‘minister for decentralisation’ Greg Clark is a relative unknown. But his appointment has sparked an enthusiastic response.
Part of the 2005 parliamentary intake, Mr Clark wasted little time in finding a frontbench slot. He served as shadow charities minister before shadowing the Cabinet Office and ultimately serving as shadow energy and climate change secretary until the general election.
While a minister of state-level job might be seen as a demotion, his decentralising brief should fit him perfectly.
Before entering Parliament, Mr Clark spent four years as the Conservatives’ director of policy. It was in this position that he wrote and edited Total Politics: Labour’s command state, a 100-page analysis of how Britain’s over-centralised structure was failing public services (see below).
While the book doesn’t include too much in the way of specific policy prescriptions (see box, right), its diagnosis is thorough and points squarely at local government’s inability to raise most of its finance as the main reason why councils have become agents of the state.
And in a passage that chimes with some of the more radical hopes for the Total Place programme, it also bemoans the small proportion of public spending carried out by local authorities when compared with countries elsewhere in Europe and in North America.
“It is clear that the scope for local government’s autonomous spending capacity is severely circumscribed relative to most
other developed countries,” it reads. “The international experience suggests that denying local authorities the spending capacity to make a difference in the life of their communities switches people off local politics. Nowhere is that lesson more keenly felt than in the UK.”
Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), leader of Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, wasted no time in welcoming the Pickles-Clark ticket. “This is
fantastic news for local government, it’s a localism dream team,” he told LGC. “Greg Clark is one of the brightest minds in the Conservative party. I’ve known him since university and he genuinely believes in localism.”
If Mr Clark is looking for suggestions on how to proceed, Cllr Greenhalgh will not be backwards in coming forwards.
He already has a meeting set up with Mr Clark and will be extolling the virtues of the Magna Carta for localism that he co-wrote earlier this year with Westminster City Council leader Colin Barrow (Con) and Wandsworth LBC leader Edward Lister (Con).
The pamphlet calls on the government to trial the devolution of care services, beat policing and the administration of benefits and unemployment programmes to the local level in the shape of a number of “sympathetic and well-managed … foundation councils”.
While Cllr Greenhalgh does not believe that financial reform will be a first-term priority for the new administration, he is nevertheless hopeful that councils will play a significant role in its localist plans.
“Localism doesn’t equal local government,” he said. “It isn’t the answer to everything, but it can be the answer to a lot of problems.”
Greg Clark’s book on localism identified drivers that characterise Britain as a ‘command state’. However, on specific policies, it stops short of those the party ultimately adopted. On education, it recommends ‘state scholarships’ - funding poorer children to attend a wider range of schools - but makes no recommendations on allowing parents to set up their own. On policing, it identifies a lack of accountability as a problem but simply promises an extra 40,000 officers. It is only on local government where the book’s call for the sector to be given “a far greater degree of financial autonomy and self-responsibility” that its rhetoric may outstrip party policy.