Sajid Javid needs a big Conservative party conference to ease local government fears that the wheels have rolled off the devolution bandwagon.
While no one would expect the communities secretary to have reached the pinnacle of his vision for the sector little more than two months into the job, there has been a strange listlessness about the government’s approach in recent times, which needs to be remedied.
The North Eastern devolution deal has collapsed, Sheffield City Region’s is in trouble and there is a growing expectation that the four non-metropolitan deals currently out for consultation could be rejected as councillors interpret ministers’ silence on mayors as an opportunity to proceed without them.
Lord O’Neill’s resignation last week removes yet another devolution enthusiast from a role in which they had made a real difference. George Osborne has been removed from the Treasury, Greg Clark has exited the Department for Communities & Local Government and now even Howard Bernstein is leaving Manchester City Council. It feels like the devolutionary ravens have left the Tower of London.
Council chief executives who had been wearied by the pace demanded by the centre in devolution negotiations tell LGC they now have the opposite problem: they have heard next to nothing since the EU referendum. In a system where deals need to be negotiated with Whitehall, the centre must contribute or progress ceases.
So what must Mr Javid do? Councils deserve to know whether the previous rules of the game are being retained
Mr Javid has been largely silent since being appointed to his role. It is hard to interpret his decision to last week lead a DCLG trade mission to North America promoting the Midlands Engine but not to take a single councillor or officer with him as anything other than a slight to the sector. While wise councils appreciate business’s importance, surely (at the very least) they should have been represented as the leaders of place, the unifying and democratically-endorsed glue that holds a place together?
So what must Mr Javid do next week in Birmingham? Reassurance is key. Councils deserve to know whether the previous rules of the game are being retained. Yes or no to mayors? Devolution deals will fall by the wayside unless clarity is offered.
Both the communities secretary and prime minister can go further. They should indicate that part of their response to the feelings of disconnect to emerge in the referendum will be to empower local people and their representatives. LGC this week reveals the devastating impact senior officers in many areas say Brexit is having on local investment and the local council workforce: more assurance on these issues is essential.
We live in a very uncertain world. But Mr Javid and Theresa May do have it in their power to restore a small portion of the certainty.