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Why ministers hold the top slots in our LGC100 powerlist

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Commentary on our powerlist showing the influence of individuals on the sector in 2017

The coming year is supposed to be a turning point in which decades of centralism are reversed with a series of powers held in Whitehall passed down to individual local areas.

So it therefore might be suspected that the people most likely to be elected a metro mayor and those directing the empowerment of combined authorities should occupy top spots in the LGC100. (Please remember our powerlist looks ahead to the coming year rather than at the current situation to give its reflection of the relative influence of individuals on local government.)

However, the opposite is true: unusually, it is ministers who our judges chose to hold the three top slots.

Part of the reason for this is that we simply do not know who will win mayoral elections in May or who will hold the most important officer jobs in this new tier of sub-national government; most of the combined authorities do not yet have a permanent chief executive. However, this is only part of the explanation – while nothing is certain, Andy Burnham is highly likely to win Greater Manchester for Labour and the same is true of Steve Rotheram in the Liverpool City Region.

Our judges were resistant to devo euphoria, as has been the case with a growing number of people across councils. The perception is that it is ministers who are calling the shots, not local government: devolution is available only on the government’s terms; should any additional freedom exist on service delivery, it is within a fiscal straitjacket imposed from upon high.

The three local government figures in the top eight places are ones who hold leadership roles that see them represent the sector as a whole in its dealings with ministers. Only at places 9 and 10 do people who make the list purely for their role within a particular region appear.

As recently as 2014, local government supplied the top ranking in the LGC100. That year the Manchester City Council duo of chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein and leader Richard Leese (Lab) jointly held the top slot. Since then Greater Manchester’s devolution has made significant progress on making the difficult journey from vision to reality and it still serves as a template to many. The West Midlands has made huge strides in catching up with its northern rival for the second city accolade; Liverpool and Tees Valley’s devolution is on course. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the West of England are the other areas where mayoral elections will surely take place next year.

On the face of it, we are further along with devolution than ever before. But it has clearly lost momentum in the government since George Osborne was sacked as chancellor and Lord O’Neill quit the Treasury.

2016 has often been a troubling year, one which turns our notions of who holds sway on its head. The replacement of the measured, insightful Barack Obama with Donald Trump, a man who appears to rely on gut prejudice to make decisions, is hard to stomach; the vote for Brexit has uprooted the path towards progress, as envisaged by many liberals.

In a less high-profile parallel, the perception has arisen that there is no foregone conclusion that we are on a path to genuine devolution. Metro mayors may be elected but will they really be influential? If the entire government is going to be preoccupied with Brexit for the next five years, does local government really control its own destiny?

With the rules of the LGC100 disqualifying the prime minister and chancellor for inclusion, Sajid Javid was seen to be the individual exercising the greatest influence on local government. The communities secretary and his housing minister Gavin Barwell, who also made our top three, will launch a housing white paper in the early months of the new year. The hope is that it will empower councils to devise their own local solutions to the government’s goal of easing the housing crisis. It is Mr Javid who, more than anyone else, can make a reality of devolution.

Similarly, local government’s old pal Greg Clark occupies the number two slot. Could it be the case that the business secretary can use his new position to give councils a localising role in implementing the government’s industrial strategy?

The success of the three ministers at the top of LGC’s powerlist will not be judged by them retaining their rankings in next year’s LGC100: it will be proven by them dropping down the list in order to ensure individuals in local government can use freedoms to control their destiny, for instance by growing economies or overseeing housebuilding.

On a separate note, it is hard not to feel disappointed by the lack of women in our list. There is one woman in the top 10; 28 in the top 100. Our judges were told to ‘tell it as it is’, rather than ‘tell it as it should be’.

However, come our 2017 list, Jo Miller will be a year into her stint as president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers; Joanne Roney will have cemented her role as Manchester City Council’s chief executive and Suffolk CC’s chief Deborah Cadman – heavily nominated for inclusion by readers in our list – may well be part of a significant revival of devolution for her area.

Be it the influence of women in local government or the influence of councils in society as a whole, we must remain in hope. LGC confidently predicts our 2017 list will look a whole lot different to this year’s.

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