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No bucket of cold sick this year - but no bucket of answers to councils' plight

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LGC commentary on James Brokenshire’s speech to the LGA conference

What a difference a year makes!

(Not in every sense of course – council budgets are still locked in their collision course with doom.)

Last year Sajid Javid enraged the Local Government Association conference by comparing our pillars of local democracy with vulnerable new bodies in Afghanistan and Iraq. He appeared to blame the entire sector for the tragedy, apparently oblivious to the fact that so many officers from other councils had been working around the clock in support of the emergency response.

His conference performance was memorably described as a “bucket of cold sick” by LGA Labour group leader Nick Forbes.

Thankfully today when his successor James Brokenshire took to the stage in his debut LGA conference speech there was no bucket cold sick – more a bucket of warm praise and an empty bucket of answers to councils’ financial plight.

Fortunately, Mr Brokenshire is of the view that lambasting a sector – one doing particularly well in a tough climate – doesn’t get you anywhere. (Well, obviously Mr Javid got promoted to one of the great offices of state, but let’s leave that one there.)

Mr Brokenshire reminisced about how his late father’s career, culminating in his becoming chief executive at the then Greenwich LBC followed by a stint at the Audit Commission, made him warm for the sector.

“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.”

A greater contrast to the tone of Mr Javid is hard to imagine.

But it wasn’t just Mr Javid he stood apart from. For most of this decade Conservative holders of the secretary of state role have been more prone to lambasting local government than praising it.

While any psychologist would caution about the reliability of the memory, and it is fair to say that journalists do have a tendency to remember the negative, our overwhelming recollection of the Eric Pickles era is of him bemoaning councils’ printing of their own newspapers and criticising “town hall biscuits”. The Audit Commission was an enemy and subsequently eradicated.

Today Mr Brokenshire appeared to respond in an open-minded manner to a question about whether councils could use digital technology to publish notices and job ads, instead of having them printed in local papers. And he fondly reminisced about the Audit Commission.

Greg Clark, who followed Mr Pickles, had two LGA conference speeches, one two months into the job, and the other in the crazy hiatus of a Tory leadership election that followed the Brexit-induced resignation of David Cameron. He never had to deliver a ‘normal’ LGA conference speech, with which Mr Brokenshire’s effort could be compared. However, Mr Clark’s 14 months in the role coincided with the peak of George Osborne-induced devolution excitement, which provided a clear theme for his speeches. Mr Brokenshire has not been bequeathed so much to offer local government.

The most obvious symmetry with today’s speech would be with that of some of the secretaries of state of the New Labour era, a period remembered for the tight grip the centre had on the local.

Mr Brokenshire certainly didn’t today give the impression that we are on the cusp of a new era of devolution. And indeed, with our paralysed government conceivably falling this week, he would have been unwise to have promised such a thing. There was a lot of talk of how central government would be “working with” councils in a way which could potentially be conceived as having quite centralist overtones.

Thus Rishi Sunak, the local government minister will be “launching the Digital Declaration at this conference, setting out how central and local government can learn from best practice in this area and build the public services of tomorrow”.

And the government will “shortly publish a prospectus for a further round of business rates retention pilots in 2019-20, to help us understand how best to transition to greater retention from 2020-21”.

Meanwhile, the government is today “publishing guidance today on applying for the £400m of funding announced by the prime minister for the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding on social sector buildings”.

Of course, Mr Sunak’s Digital Declaration may spur innovation, the business rates retention pilots may mean councils get to keep some of the money they raise and councils certainly need money to replace dangerous cladding, but it just felt a bit like the local should be seeking permission from the central. Do councils require a prospectus to be set free?

In one other respect Mr Brokenshire’s speech resembled that of a New Labour secretary of state.

Mr Brokenshire expressed enthusiasm for an “ultra-localist” agenda and, in just about his only mention of devolution, praised devolution deals which support the “onward devolution of service delivery, with local communities deciding what outcomes matter most and finding local solutions that suit local circumstances.”

A civil society strategy will be published in the summer, “setting out our vision for how government can work positively with groups on the ground”.

This all came rather close to David Miliband’s double devolution in which councils were urged to devolve to the most local level of government.

The government of course cannot sort out its relationship with Europe. Maybe, just maybe, it can sort out its relationship with parish councils.

And, of course, it cannot sort out council finance.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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