In politics, you have to always expect the unexpected as it proved again when a mini-reshuffle saw James Brokenshire become our new secretary of state, taking up office at Marsham Street.
I have enjoyed a strong working relationship with Sajid during his time at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. We worked together on a range of key issues from housing, social care to the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. I always told him that working with local government would help him go places and we will still have lots of work to do together, for example on continued efforts to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as he tackles his new brief at the Home Office.
It was great to have a hugely encouraging face-to-face meeting with James on the day of his appointment and to sit down with him and other local government colleagues later in his first week in the job. Those meetings have left me convinced that the strong working relationship that the LGA has with MHCLG will continue with James and his ministerial team on the key issues that need to be resolved to ensure councils are able to continue to provide high quality services to our communities.
Councils have worked hard to improve value for money and the efficiency of services. Despite this, financial sustainability remains a key challenge for our sector, a point that is borne out by the recent National Audit Office report into the financial sustainability of local government.
With councils continuing to face significant funding pressures, the LGA continues to make the case for the government to invest new money into our sector. The forthcoming spending review, the implementation of greater business rates retention and the work on the Fair Funding Review, and its timely implementation, will be vital opportunities to address the challenges.
It is important that the government continues its work to ensure councils retain a higher percentage of the business rates they generate. Business rates are a local tax, raised from local businesses, and should be spent on supporting the delivery of local services. Allowing councils to retain the income generated from business rates without rolling in grants or other services will help to meet the funding gap. Alongside this, a number of improvements are needed to the retention system such as a better way to protect authorities from the impact of appeals and the closure of large non-domestic properties.
The LGA took a neutral stance during the EU referendum. Since the referendum, we have been clear that Brexit provides the opportunity to devolve powers closer to local communities through local government and it is important that James Brokenshire champions that role through the Brexit negotiations. We have worked together with the local government associations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, offering a unique cross-party, UK-wide approach. They share our view that Brexit offers the opportunity to devolve below Westminster, Stormont, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. As we move forward and the exit framework becomes clearer, numerous national decisions will need to come together at the local level.
The LGA is committed to continuing to work with the new secretary of state and his ministry to ensure we build the homes our nations need. Councils approve nine in 10 planning permissions and in 2016-17 approved more than 321,000 new homes, while there were around 183,000 new homes built. Our priority is ensuring that the new national planning policy framework provides the correct system in which councils, central government and developers can meet the housing challenge.
Councils could do even more to get us building, but we need central government to lift the housing borrowing cap, a recommendation supported by the Commons cross-party Treasury committee. Councils also need greater freedoms in how the receipts from right-to-buy can be used to ensure that every house sold is replaced. In addition, I anticipate continuing to work closely with James and his colleagues to deliver the reforms to building control and fire safety that are required to ensure buildings are safe, and to support councils in the work they are doing to protect residents across the range of ownership structures.
We are also looking forward to continuing to work closely with the ministry on our wide range of improvement support offers to councils, which build on what we know from experience – supporting political and senior officer leadership, challenge from one’s peers, practical help to deliver efficiency savings and sharing innovative and good practice.
Lord Porter (Con), chair, Local Government Association