Many in local government will be impressed that Sajid Javid had the courage and humility to apologise for his speech to the Local Government Association conference but, as every repentant spouse knows, it takes more than sweet words to get yourself welcomed home.
A good start is always honesty. One aspect of the speech that got lost in the furore over its tone was its failure to mention business rates. It has now been a month since the Queen’s Speech, when it became clear there would be no Local Government Finance Bill and hence no shift to 100% retention. This has seriously disconcerted the sector, most of which had welcomed the reform in principle and had been planning for its implementation. There has been no official statement from the Department for Communities & Local Government about what happens now. This is particularly odd given that, as far as anyone can tell, the plans to abolish revenue support grant remain in place, potentially leaving councils with an enormous hole in their finances.
A thoughtful gift also helps to reignite that romantic spark. Here the communities secretary is spoilt for choice. A serious, speedy and courageous consultation on social care would be nice, or maybe some clarity on councils’ role in the government’s much-vaunted industrial strategy. If he wanted to really spoil us, a new commitment to a meaningful devolution process would go down a storm.
The best gift of all, however, would be serious action on austerity. The pressure for the chancellor to loosen the thumbscrews grows every day. By the time of the autumn budget he may well be ready to relent. The communities secretary would be lauded if any shift in fiscal policy takes into account the unsustainable financial pressure now placed on local public services. The sector has faced deeper cuts than any other part of government and while it is always tempting to put the NHS or the police at the front of the queue, such largesse is utterly self-defeating if children’s services, adult social care and housing are allowed to deteriorate.
Ultimately, however, the whole basis of the relationship needs to be examined. For many years ministers have portrayed local government as a problem rather than a solution. Too often councils seem to be a whipping-boy for the latest social or political crisis. Ministers even took a guilty-until-proven innocent approach to devolution, requiring councils to show they were fit to receive responsibilities.
It’s time to recognise councils have a great deal to offer given the huge challenges the government faces. Local government has met austerity with remarkable openness to innovation and change. There is now a strong appetite for deep reinvention. Councils, with proper support, could lead a wider public sector revolution in productivity, impact and citizen engagement.
There is also a powerful momentum in local government to drive economic growth through local investment, infrastructure and skills strategies. This was in part driven by the promise of business rates retention but also by the recognition that growth is the best way to reduce public service demand. Given the very challenging economic context created by Brexit, the government should do everything it can to encourage, support and harness that enthusiasm.
Finally there is the simple fact that, as the Auditor General’s extraordinary intervention revealed, the government’s capacity is being sucked up by the vast complexities of Brexit. Other challenges have not gone away, however. Crime still needs to be fought, educational standards raised, poverty eradicated, houses built, vulnerable people cared for, citizens engaged, transport improved, infrastructure updated and so on. Local government is better placed than any other body to hold the ring on these crucial matters while central government is otherwise engaged. Make an ally of councils and Whitehall’s capacity crisis could be lightened with adequate funding and devolution of powers.
Some are saying the communities secretary’s standing with local government is unrecoverable. This is untrue. Some relationships are far too important to give up on. Indeed, they can even flourish after the roughest of patches. If we recognise and then act on the fact that local and central government share the same ambitions and are far better together than apart, there is no reason why Mr Javid cannot win back the heart of those he says he loves.
Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network