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Analysis: Brexit and austerity will loom over Brokenshire

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While Sajid Javid may never have won over local government, the sector may discover his successor is hampered by exactly the same difficulties that held him back.

It often feels like local government’s problems are intractable: the need to ensure services are sustainable despite reduced central funding; the need to distribute resources more fairly between councils when there will be losers as well as winners; and the need to build more houses when vested interests exist on both the council and developer side.

There is no doubt about it: being housing and communities secretary is not an easy job and this is not a benign environment in which to do it.

But the new housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire is a man with experience of handling briefs seemingly dogged by intractable problems. His previous ministerial job, 18 months as Northern Ireland secretary, involved attempting to keep the Northern Ireland Executive on the road. When the power-sharing administration collapsed, Mr Brokenshire called snap elections – but still these didn’t resolve the political deadlock. Prior to this, his non-cabinet briefs involved crime and immigration: serious meaty issues for any ministers.

While experience suggests Mr Brokenshire is unlikely to quake when faced with making unpopular or tough decisions, it seems probable that there will be delays in the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s schedule. A new secretary of state should take their time to master their brief before taking key decisions. This is even the case when nominative determinism seemingly decreed them as the perfect person to perform one key task.

A decision was expected soon after the local elections on the appointment of commissioners for Northamptonshire. Mr Javid was expected to follow inspector Max Caller’s recommendation to split the county into two unitaries. The realpolitik need to avoid appearing to reward incompetence surely rules out a single county unitary, even if any forthcoming announcement is set back by a few weeks.

Elsewhere, the broader issue of local government reorganisation is one of the few areas of Mr Javid’s brief not to have become bogged down in treacle lately. Dorset’s split into two unitaries surely has sufficient momentum to proceed. However, Mr Javid’s view that Buckinghamshire should become a single unitary has hardly been applauded by every Tory in the county. Local districts will hope his successor may opt for another course. Any sea change in enthusiasm perceived from the government on structure in the shires in recent months may need to be reappraised in light of the ministerial change.

On devolution there could be some grounds for modest optimism. The new housing and communities secretary is just about as much of a Theresa May loyalist as ministers come. If Mr Javid’s heart was never into devolution, one might hope Mr Brokenshire might feel more committed to honouring her manifesto promises of devolution to the mayors of “great cities” and to non-mayoral devolution deals for “rural counties”. If Mr Javid appeared unwilling to devote sufficient attention to the negotiations required get deals in regions including the North East, Lincolnshire and Norfolk and Suffolk for instance over the line, it is hard to believe these would be too daunting to a man who has sat down with the DUP and Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, this is nowhere close to the sort of momentum that existed in the days of George Osborne.

Finance is the ultimate intractable issue facing local government and it is hard to believe a new secretary of state is going to make much difference. While business rates pilots will surely proceed as planned, the political reality of a weak government and a Brexit-clogged legislative programme will still hinder full 100% local rates retention.

The fair funding review was always going to create losers as well as winners and nothing has changed there. One could argue that the fact Theresa May has lost Amber Rudd – a loyalist in one of the great offices of state – makes her administration even weaker and less able to take the sort of long-term decisions required on council finance, both with regards to its distribution and the system itself. Indeed, on council finance issues, chancellor Philip Hammond remains the key figure, above the housing and communities secretary. It is down to him to decide whether improved fiscal news should enable him to ease the purse strings. It is perhaps the social care green paper, due this summer, that will have the greatest bearing on the sector’s finances. This was already being led by health secretary Jeremy Hunt, not by Mr Javid.

It seems probable that Ms May invited Mr Brokenshire back into the government with a brief of prioritising moves to ease the housing crisis. Undeniably this was the area of policy that Sajid Javid was most enthusiastic about. However, Mr Javid continually ran into the limitations imposed by being part of a weak Brexit-preoccupied administration with little money to play with. Mr Javid urged borrowing of £50bn to pay for new housing. He didn’t get it. His department’s renaming to emphasise the superiority of its housing work did little to overcome the fundamental problems of self-interested developers, nimby residents (and councillors of course) and the pricing of the young out of the housing market. Only Oxfordshire got a housing deal in last autumn’s Budget followed by other agreements for the Greater Manchester, West of England and West Midlands mayoral combined authorities. We may hope Mr Brokenshire has levels of patience to get more similar deals over the line that eluded his predecessor.

Like so many areas of policy, the ministry’s work will continue to suffer from being in the twin shadows of Brexit and continuing austerity. There may be some – albeit limited – evidence Mr Brokenshire has some of the skills needed to make a success of his new role. And he has more of the ear of the PM than his predecessor. But any secretary of state would have their work cut out to force through radical change in the conditions he inherits.

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