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Clark’s appointment heralds a breakthrough on devolution

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It is a rare thing for a Cabinet reshuffle to result in the best qualified minister being appointed to a job.

Local government can therefore count itself fortunate that Greg Clark, a minister with a long-running and deep passion for devolution, is the new communities secretary. That said, it is about time some luck came the sector’s way.

The past five years have been bleak for councils. They have been the part of the public sector most disproportionately targeted by spending cuts. And their fate has not been helped by the indifference shown by Mr Clark’s predecessor, Eric Pickles.

Mr Pickles has been blind both to the unfairness in the distribution of funding between local authorities and to the scale of the cuts they have had to endure. He has also failed to champion the case for devolution across Whitehall at a time councils have had much to offer.

While Mr Clark’s appointment constitutes a breath of fresh air, councils require far more than tea and sympathy. Their financial position is grim: when so many promises have been made to safeguard other parts of the public sector but spending still needs to be cut, there is little Mr Clark can do to protect funding.

However, he has it within his power to give councils the freedom to secure their own futures. The government’s business rates review could become a catalyst for broader reform; freedom to set council tax levels would offer respite and multi‑year settlements would provide stability.

The government’s mandate to continue with austerity takes the form of a narrow parliamentary majority. In theory at least, just a handful of MPs can scupper its programme and a divisive EU membership referendum could distract ministers from the changes that need to happen. However, it is clear that a commitment to the Northern Powerhouse is now enshrined at the heart of the Conservatives’ offer. Chancellor George Osborne and the new communities secretary believe local empowerment can both revive local economies and bring about more efficient, higher-quality services.

But this potential is not limited to Greater Manchester and the north of England. More must be done to devolve power to help create self-confident and boldly governed towns, counties and cities elsewhere, thus helping to overcome the sense of remoteness from power that has been as apparent in the English regions as it has in Scotland.

Disappointingly, the Conservative manifesto appeared to limit the most significant devolution to city areas adopting elected mayors - a model of governance not appropriate for all areas. While Mr Clark and Mr Osborne should be more flexible, there is also an onus on councils to show that other models can provide the level of leadership and accountability required if they are not prepared to adopt a mayor.

A strong partnership between the chancellor and communities secretary does at least offer new hope for a better future. Councils may win some freedoms under this government but not every authority will have the capability to prosper.




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