The new communities secretary has called for “creativity and radical thinking” on devolution from councils, as he prepares for a “big push” to decentralise power, including to non-urban areas.
In an interview with LGC, just eight days into his new role, Greg Clark also pledged to “sit down with local government leaders” to discuss how further savings could be made and confirmed next week’s Queen’s speech would include bills on creating Greater Manchester’s mayoralty and extending right-to-buy.
Mr Clark’s comments on devolution came the week after chancellor George Osborne used his first speechof the parliament to warn “major powers” would be transferred only to “those cities who choose to have a directly elected metro-wide mayor”. A similar message in the Conservative manifesto prompted criticism from a series of Tory county and district leaders.
However, the new communities secretary told LGC: “I’ve always been clear that backing a greater devolution of power and resources doesn’t end with cities by any means. You’ve got the counties and the towns across the country that also are important motors of growth and can be more so.
“I fully intend to have a big push to decentralise powers, certainly to the cities but to places outside cities as well.”
Mr Clark emphasised that Greater Manchester’s devolution deal was “very much minted in Manchester”, reflecting local ambitions and views. He said that in city and growth deals he had been involved in negotiating as cities minister in the last government, successful work had been done on a “bespoke” basis, reflecting each area’s needs.
“Cornwall is very different from Kent, for example, and different again from Cumbria. You want to have an approach that very much reflects the local characteristics of each place, rather than a very rigid template,” he added.
He continued: “I would encourage all cities, towns, counties and districts across the country to reflect on, to think about and prepare for a discussion of what would be in the interests of their area.
“It’s a very good time for creativity and radical thinking across local government.”
The secretary of state, a former Westminster City councillor, described himself as a “big fan of local government”, adding: “I have been convinced for many years that we need to build up the role of councils and communities more in our national life.”
“It seems to me that when decisions are taken at a level close to communities and by people who know and love their communities, not only are those decisions likely to be more effective but they are likely to enjoy more support than when there’s a sense in which they are done from London to them,” Mr Clark said.
He said he had worked on the Localism Act, growth and city deals and “it’s great to have the chance to take that to the next level”.
Mr Clark, widely regarded as a Conservative moderate, said he had found it “easy” to do business with local politicians in other parties. “We’ve been able to work very cordially and constructively together on this agenda and I very much expect to be able to continue doing so,” he said.
When asked about the likelihood that local government would be disproportionately targeted in the next round of cuts, Mr Clark said he admired how councils had in recent years made savings while at the same time increasing resident satisfaction with services.
“It’s no secret that there are further savings that need to be made – in the election campaign all parties were clear about that,” he said. “As we approach the issue I’ll want to sit down with local government leaders to understand how we can best do this constructively and in a way that offers the best prospects for local government.”
Mr Clark said he had worked to put resources previously tied up in Whitehall “in the hands of local leaders”, adding, “there’s more we can do there”.
He also named housing – including realising people’s aspiration to buy their own home – and working to ensure communities are “healthy and harmonious” as priorities.