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'Hot potato' or 'underwater chess': Difficulty of Brokenshire's in-tray examined

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James Brokenshire faces an in-tray brimming over with thorny issues. Here LGC analyses some of the biggest issues pressing for the housing and communities secretary’s attention.

Fair Funding Review

Deadline: 2020-21

Difficulty rating: very hot potato

The government’s consultation on this has closed and Mr Javid said he was “working towards an implementation date” of 2020-21.

He said local government funding should “be decided in a fair, robust and evidence-based way”, qualities seldom associated with today’s system.

Mr Brokenshire’s problem is that any change will create winners who will mutter their thanks and losers who will howl with outrage, while the Treasury will resist extra costs. It may prove politically easier to do nothing.

The Local Government Association complained in March that councils could not plan their forward finances until they knew what would change following the review.

Business rates reform

Deadline 2020-21

Difficulty rating: very slightly less hot potato

The pre-general election goal of 100% business rates retention had to be sacrificed for a figure of 75%. 

The housing, communities and local government select committee last month said the uncertainty had “negatively affected councils’ financial planning”, and that the government should compensate them for any lost revenue.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has said it wants business rates reform to be “fiscally neutral”, a state impossible to achieve without creating some losers, and government’s that lack majorities rarely want to create them.

Devolution

Deadline: open ended

Difficulty rating: hot Yorkshire pudding

Mr Brokenshire faces a decision on the clamour for devolution to the whole of historic Yorkshire and about the near-powerless mayoralty created by Mr Javid in Sheffield City Region.

Those apart, rows about the government’s insistence on elected mayors (at least for urban areas) have stalled some devolution deals, while others fell foul of disputes between tiers of councils.

Devolution has gone quiet, and Mr Brokenshire may be tempted to leave it that way. Unless, of course, he sees a lasting legacy of the great empowerer of, in particular, non-urban England.

Reorganisation

Deadline: open ended

Difficulty rating: playing three-dimensional underwater chess

Mr Brokenshire must implement the reorganisation in Dorset - due to result in new councils by April 2019. He must also carry through the expected ones bequeathed by Mr Javid in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.

Other potential contenders include Somerset, Cumbria and Lancashire.

Although the government has not so far initiated any reorganisation, its positive response to local requests inevitably drags it into political battles. Many council leaders will be nervous.

Counties, many eating into reserves as they face growing demand, may often be keener to restructure than districts, many of which are on a sounder financial footing. 

Social care green paper

Deadline: July

Difficulty rating: a problem shared is a problem doubled

Social care falls under the auspices of the Department of Health & Social Care but paying for it falls on top tier councils, who see a financial abyss with rising demand.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has spoken of “profound, long-standing questions about funding” and complained about “repeated, failed reform programmes”.

Neither means he necessarily has any answers, but Mr Brokenshire may have to contend with the financial consequences of a policy Mr Hunt has set.

Housing

Deadline: 2022

Difficulty rating: playing Monopoly with no money

‘Generation rent’ is a serious political problem for what is supposed to be the party of property ownership and the Conservative manifesto last year pledged a million homes by the end of 2020 and 500,000 more by 2022.

New homes starts totalled 162,180 in the year to December 2017, which was 5% up on December 2016 but still some way short.

The February 2017 housing white paper made some radical proposals both in incentives and penalties for councils to deliver homes and in using new techniques to build them.

Mr Brokenshire will have to implement these knowing the prime minister didn’t add the ‘H’ to ‘MHCLG’ for nothing.

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