The communities secretary has given his most comprehensive statement so far on government plans to introduce a framework to provide “clarity and consistency” to councils seeking devolution.
In an upbeat address to the County Councils Network annual conference on Monday evening, Sajid Javid said a “common set of guidelines” would be brought in to meet the Conservative manifesto commitment to ensure devolution spreads beyond urban areas.
The communities secretary also signalled his willingness to listen to more unitary proposals and insisted the Department for Communities & Local Government has sufficient resources to serve councils adequately despite the impact of the Grenfell Tower disaster on its resources.
While he said he was unable to discuss finance in detail due to tomorrow’s Budget, in a response to a question about the scope to lift the housing revenue account borrowing cap, Mr Javid said, “bear with me and see what happens”. And he also dropped a hint that more could be done to capitalise on the uplift in land value after infrastructure investment occurs.
The devolution framework was a commitment of the 2017 Conservative manifesto which also said the government would do non-mayoral devolution deals with areas outside of England’s ”great cities”. Mr Javid said the framework would set out “rules that everyone plays by, so that everyone involved in the process – local authorities, businesses, residents – knows where they stand and what is expected of them”.
He continued: “Work is still in the early stages – and I’d welcome your support in shaping the final product. But I want a framework that, above all else, provides clarity and consistency about what a successful devolution agreement looks like.
“What standards will need to be met, what outcomes will need to be delivered, what red lines there are for the whole process. Expectations about leadership, scope and levels of local support.”
He added: “With a clear position on how devolution negotiations should proceed, authorities at all levels will be much better placed to develop and put forward proposals that suit the unique needs of their residents and businesses.”
Mr Javid also discussed council restructuring, two weeks after he revealed that he was minded to support plans to reorganise Dorset’s historic boundaries into two unitary authorities.
He was complimentary of both the county and district supported proposals for the future of Buckinghamshire, describing them both as “ambitious, innovative, and ready to come forward with exciting ideas for the future”.
And he said his “door is always open” to councils with structural proposals that “will improve local government, improve public services, and give better value to local taxpayers”.
While he insisted that local support was required, responding to a question from the audience he insisted he was “not afraid to take difficult decisions, difficult in the sense that not everyone will support them”. “That’s what happens in a democracy,” he said.
Mr Javid also admitted that his department had been slow in taking some decisions including in relation to plans for devolution to the Solent area which have “been there for a long time”. He added: “We should have by now got back to them.”
However, he insisted the DCLG, although it had faced “significant cuts” over the past seven years, was still able to serve councils. He said of its post-Grenfell Tower pressures: “We needed more resources and the PM has been very forthcoming with them.”
CCN chair Paul Carter (Con) welcomed the communities secretary’s confirmation that the government will develop of a “devolution framework” and consider non-mayoral county devolution bids.
“We believe this guidance could help unlock the county devolution agenda and we look forward to working with government on the framework, to be announced shortly.”