Hopes have been raised of a new dawn in central-local relations and a nationwide devolution drive after Greg Clark replaced Eric Pickles as communities secretary.
Tunbridge Wells MP Mr Clark has held a string of lower-ranking ministerial posts relating to cities, local government and decentralisation and was a key figure in securing Greater Manchester’s devolution deal. He has been a prominent advocate of decentralisation for over a decade and is a strong supporter of elected mayors.
The appointment comes after the Conservatives’ general election victory was mirrored by sweeping gains in council polls nationwide, with the party winning more than 500 seats and 31 councils. The result saw the Tories regain the chairmanship of the Local Government Association from Labour, with Surrey CC leader and County Councils Network chair David Hodges and former Cheshire West & Chester Council leader Mike Jones the early favourites to be its new chair.
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The local elections also saw Ukip win control of its first council, Thanet DC, and were accompanied by the first council tax referendum to be held, which saw Bedfordshire’s electorate overwhelmingly reject the local police and crime commissioner’s plan to increase his precept charged on bills by 16%.
Despite recent political hostilities, the appointment of Mr Clark was welcomed across the political spectrum. Kent CC leader Paul Carter (Con) described him to LGC as the “number one” candidate for the role and said that in previous roles he “networked and listened” and was “most keen to understand the issues”. In contrast, “Eric had a very different approach,” he said.
Cllr Carter said devolution, empowerment and ensuring the integration of local public services should be Mr Clark’s priorities, calling for county regions to be empowered, as well as their city counterparts.
He also called for the minister to focus on negotiations for the comprehensive spending review, predicted to take place this autumn. “Genuine understanding of and empathy with local government” were required to argue against council spending cuts on the scale of those over the past five years, he said.
“I’m concerned that it may get extrapolated that if you have done it over the past five years you can do it again in the next five years. But economics aren’t like that,” Cllr Carter said. “The elastic would break and things would start to go into meltdown.”
Barnsley MBC leader Sir Stephen Houghton (Lab), chair of the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities, said enforcing unpalatable cuts was “going to be a real test” for Mr Clark because, by 2020, “a lot of councils will be in crisis if the scale of the cuts goes on”.
He did, however, think Mr Clark’s appointment was a “positive step” as he might have “a much greater understanding of the pressure local government is under” than Mr Pickles.
Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers director Graeme McDonald said Mr Clark “starts with a clean slate”, and although he had previously worked in the Department for Communities & Local Government he was not part of Mr Pickles “clique”.
He added of Mr Clark: “He needs to be our representative in the government and across Whitehall. In the discussions with education about children’s social care and the work around health and social care integration he needs to be representing local government’s corner.”
Conservative commitments: the communities secretary’s in-tray
Devolution: Legislate for the introduction of Greater Manchester’s devolution deal
Finance: Agree settlement with Treasury for local government from 2016-17 onwards, following comprehensive spending review
Housing: Prepare a bill extending the right to buy to housing association tenants in advance of the Queen’s Speech on 27 May
Integration: Work with the Department of Health on the next phase of the better care fund