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James Maker: What the reshuffle means for counties

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The Prime Minister’s reshuffle earlier this month provided intrigue in Westminster, but what does it mean for counties?

Our members will be pleased that Sajid Javid has remained in post to build on the strong relationship forged since 2016. His positive, upbeat speech on the present and future role of counties at the County Councils Network (CCN) Conference was very well received by members and counties will be eager to continue to shape the promised ‘devolution framework’.

Continuity also prevailed at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy with the ally of local government, Greg Clark, retaining his position. While counties were disappointed local industrial strategies would be led by local enterprise partnerships, CCN will be taking a positive, engaging and pragmatic approach to this and the LEP review.

The departure of Justine Greening will draw less cheer, considering the clear improvement in relations between councils and the Department for Education under her watch. Our members will now focus on continuing this improved collaboration, ensuring growing pressures on children’s services, and specific challenges facing rural social mobility, are firmly on the radar of Damian Hinds.

Most notably, Sajid Javid and his ‘ministry’ received a new title, reinforcing the high priority this government is giving to housing, while social care was similarly added to the department of health.

The latter change, although a recognition of the importance of social care, is likely to be largely cosmetic for now. However, with Jeremy Hunt now taking over the development of the green paper, longer-term change could be on the way to the current separation of finance and policy decisions between departments.

Counties will be eager to ensure the focus remains on delivering a sustainable long-term funding settlement and that councils remain the driving force behind integrated, collaborative reform, resisting overtures of an NHS take over; a direction of travel some may draw from Monday’s announcement.

The heath secretary listened to CCN’s concerns over the potential impact of the Care Act on underfunded and fragile care markets two years ago, following our influential research with LaingBuisson. Politically, delaying implementation wasn’t an easy decision then and our leaders will hope he will listen to the sector’s voice now. There must be a more holistic approach to the green paper, one which brings prevention into focus alongside necessary reform to funding social care.

On housing, the departmental rebrand coupled with the appointment of a new housing minister, will refocus our members’ plans to make housing and infrastructure a key plank of our advocacy this year.

Clearly, more homes of all tenures are needed; new development needs to be in the right places, with the right infrastructure in tandem. It is important to build sustainable communities and simply lots of houses.

To achieve this, CCN member councils clearly believe the planning system still needs reform, including a stronger statement of common ground, strategic planning plan on a larger scale, alongside reforms to developer contributions.

The government’s ‘housing deal’ with Oxfordshire illustrates is the art of the possible from strategic, collaborative planning between districts and counties and CCN will be seeking the Dominic Raab’s views on this approach being adopted elsewhere.

More widely, our members will want to ensure that these rebrands don’t come at the expense of the profile of local government and wider agenda facing councils.

While some again may draw this conclusion from the departmental changes, responsibility for different council services have always been dispersed across Whitehall, while the bread and butter of local government finance is too fundamental to be downgraded below housing.

The publication of the fair funding review and the announcement that councils will be retaining 75% of business rates in 2020 provides some direction on finance to focus minds and ensure the core challenges don’t drop down the priority list.

With all this in mind, our members will no doubt welcome the appointments of Rishi Sunak and Heather Wheeler as parliamentary undersecretaries in MHLCG.

Both are county MPs, and will no doubt be aware of the financial challenges their local authorities are facing. Indeed, Mr Sunak has made interventions in the Commons on fairer schools funding and the financial burden of a rapidly ageing rural population; two issues that clearly resonate with counties.

Over the coming months CCN and its members will look forward to working with Mr Javid, his new team and other ministers across the government to deliver for their local communities.

James Maker, head of policy & communications, County Councils Network

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