It is understandable why the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government should increase its staffing: the response to the Grenfell Tower fire has increased its workload.
And it is understandable why local government should increase its staffing: it faces rising demand in social care and children’s services and has gained growing responsibility for driving local growth and ensuring cohesive communities, thus increasing its workload.
Except local government has not increased its staffing. Despite this rapid growth in demand and responsibility, councils have cut their workforce numbers by 9% over the past two years as a result of budget reductions imposed by the government (on top of devastating staff cuts in the previous years of this decade). In an almost comparable last two-year period the ministry increased its staffing by 18%.
We operate in an era of double central/local standards. Despite David Cameron’s rhetoric of us all being in it together, councils have been in it up to their necks while parts of the centre have only been in it ankle deep. Certain Whitehall departments have been given an excuse note allowing them to bunk off austerity. Councils, bodies thankfully outside of the direct control of ministers, are sufficiently out of sight, out of mind to be ravaged. Relatively few voters use social care or children’s services, or would spot the impact of a diminished planning system. Cuts to the centralised NHS would be leapt upon by a centralised media, while the tabloids in particular would fervently campaign against cuts to the military, which must be safeguarded at all costs.
The arrival of James Brokenshire to the ministry is an opportunity for the centre to reappraise its relationship with the local, with the aim of ending these double standards. Theresa May’s administration – should it survive – needs to move on from Brexit gridlock to offer answers to the most fundamental problems the country faces, many of which are more immediate than Britain having the right to negotiate its own trade deals. Properly resourced, properly empowered local government could give the prime minister the capacity required to reduce inequality, boost protection for the vulnerable and increase opportunity. However, ministers have been curiously blind to councils’ offer, despite having collectively little in the way of inspiration on tackling these problems themselves.
Mr Brokenshire has an opportunity. While his cabinet colleagues rage about Brexit he can knuckle down to consider the potential impact of local government – for so long neglected – on reshaping a country struggling to find its new direction.
If the capability of ministers so far this decade has been largely judged by their PM and chancellor on their success in driving through public sector cuts, we must now enter a new era in which the overriding emphasis is on the promotion of opportunity and the prevention of misfortune. Further council staff cuts will hinder the attainment of these objectives. And when councils are resourced to work to their full potential, there will be little quibbling about the ministry’s staffing level.