James Brokenshire has spoken warmly of councils as being the “bedrock of our democracy” but said little about their financial plight in his flagship Local Government Association conference speech.
The housing and communities secretary’s favourable words – in particular his praise for how “local authorities worked with their residents and other partners in the aftermath of such loss and suffering” after terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire – were in sharp contrast to the abrasive nature of his predecessor’s tone last year.
Then, Sajid Javid said local government faced a “looming crisis of trust”, comparing councils’ democratic legitimacy to that of fragile institutions in Afghanistan and Iraq, following Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s poor performance in the immediate aftermath of the blaze.
However, this year, Mr Brokenshire said of his father’s career in local government, in which he rose to be chief executive of Greenwich LBC: “The insight into his work underlined to me the power of local government to be an incredible force for good – not as a distant, faceless bureaucracy, but, from the biggest unitary to the smallest parish council, as the heartbeat of the communities it serves.
“As the bedrock of our democracy, on which our people can build better lives.”
He finished his speech by declaring: “I want you to know that I believe in local government and what you do. That I want to see a renewal and renaissance in local government.
”And that I’m here for the same reason as you – to make a difference and deliver for communities who deserve no less.”
His most significant policy announcement was his revelation that: “I am setting up a delivery board with local government that will support the implementation of changes linked to Brexit within the sector.”
This was because, “we all have a duty to ensure that every community can benefit as we build a modern, outward-looking Britain after Brexit”.
Mr Brokenshire also said he would soon publish a prospectus for a further round of business rate pilots in 2019-20.
Apart from that he spoke relatively little about finance.
“I know that money has been extremely tight. And that you’ve gone the extra mile to deliver efficiencies and help reduce our country’s debts. And that significant financial pressures remain,” he said.
However, he insisted: “We have listened and responded.” Examples of this included extra money for social care in the finance settlement and extended business rates retention.
Mr Brokenshire also revealed local government minister Rishi Sunak would tomorrow launch a ‘Digital Declaration’, setting out how central and local government can learn from best practice in this area”.
His other big interest appeared to be in facilitating an “ultra-localist” agenda.
“This is true localism in action and a much-needed renewal of our democracy, giving people, particularly from disengaged groups, a real sense of ownership over the places where they live,” Mr Brokenshire said.
A civil society strategy will be published this summer, “setting out our vision for how government can work positively with groups on the ground”.
LGC understands Mr Brokenshire will this month visit Cornwall Council to discuss how it interacts with its town and parish councils.