In a mirror image of the lambasting of councils Sajid Javid offered in his Local Government Association speech, councils have much criticism of the performance of the government to throw back in the other direction.
Let us leave aside Grenfell Tower for a moment, other than to note Kensington & Chelsea RBC was too slow to ask for outside help and the Department for Communities & Local Government was too slow to review high-rise building regulations after the previous Lakanal House blaze.
Mr Javid spoke of a “looming crisis of trust” facing local government. However, delays and a general sense of confusion over government policies have resulted in a crisis of trust over devolution. Whitehall is rowing back on the devolution of skills to Greater Manchester; Greater London’s health devolution is stuck in central treacle.
In the most bizarre moment of his Birmingham speech, the communities secretary dredged up a David Cameron quote on the aftermath of Middle Eastern wars, that “you can’t drop a fully formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet” to imply local government is undemocratic. It would be more apt for Mr Javid to admit that “you can’t drop fully formed devolution out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet” and to pledge to win over Whitehall hearts and minds to bring about lasting regime change.
Delays and a general sense of confusion over government policies have resulted in a crisis of trust over devolution
The theme of Mr Javid’s speech was leadership deficiency. The biggest irony was that he made no reference to council finance, immediately after his government dropped the bill which would reform council funding, plunging the sector into uncertainty.
His shirking of responsibility is a clear abdication of leadership. Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers president Jo Miller predicts ministers have no option but to turn on the “magic money tap” to prevent councils plunging into an electorate-enraging financial abyss in 2020. In the absence of the national leadership that could offer a more strategic approach, this does indeed seem the best hope.
So let us get all of this off our chests – but then move forward. Even Mr Javid has attempted a degree of reconciliation, admitting his speech went down as well as “cat food lasagne”.
He now needs to demonstrate he is fighting for councils at the Cabinet table, understands the crippling impact of austerity on services and is prepared to go the whole mile to support devolution. The sector should demonstrate it possesses the political guile required both to spot opportunities and do what it can to avoid the policy logjams in this new bleak political environment.