In contrast to Theresa May’s mantra during the last general election campaign, the only thing that’s strong and stable right now is the instability itself.
During last week’s Brexit-induced cabinet reshuffle local government was spared the departure of most of its key ministers. Nevertheless, when universal credit requires urgent surgery to reduce the needless misery it is causing in communities across the land, it is hard to see whether the arrival of yet another work and pensions secretary – the fifth in three years – is a blessing or a curse.
Housing and local government secretary James Brokenshire’s status as that rarest of things – a Theresa May loyalist – may well mean he is presented with some higher calling in the event of a further Brexiteer cabinet walkout. Meanwhile, local government minister Rishi Sunak’s previously-stated enthusiasm for leaving the customs union post-Brexit could suggest there is an element of doubt about his ministerial longevity. The impact of either of these men’s departure on the fair funding review or case for extra funding for councils in the spending review would not be positive.
In our top-down system, councils are heavily dependent on centrally-conceived plans, reviews and legislation. So their care funding needs have been hindered by the social care green paper now being overseen by its third minister. More positively, environment secretary Michael Gove teetered on the brink of resignation but decided to remain in post and may yet publish his waste strategy. And, for once, the housing minister survived a reshuffle.
But the future of Ms May’s premiership is on the line. Any new prime minister would inevitably embark on a wider reshuffle which would set back much of the ministerial work on which our sector is dependent. There will be no let up in the central chaos, for the time being at least.
There is some irony that a movement which promised to “take back control” has resulted in the complete loss of control within Whitehall and beyond. Most civil servants report their departments are under-resourced as personnel and ministerial attention have shifted to Brexit. It is often hard to take ministers’ proclamations seriously when the likelihood is that they will not be in post sufficiently long to see their work through.
It shouldn’t be like this. Local government should not be beholden to ministerial whim: local democratic self-determination should not be the hostage of a Conservative civil war in Westminster. The trouble is that councils have been so shorn of powers and money that they tend to have to look upwards, for legislation, guidance and resources.
Now is the time for councils to steal the slogan of Brexit: they need to take back control of their local communities. If the centre ceases to govern effectively, now is the time for the local to step in. If ministers are capable of one last thing, it should be to step back and allow councils to actually do some governing. Councils should not waste this once in a generation opportunity to prove their mettle.