Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Power play in the corridors of Whitehall

  • 1 Comment

The letter sent by Peter Housden to John Denham on the decision to award unitary status to Exeter and Norwich City Councils rather than their county counterparts was about as close as one gets to a ‘wow’ moment in local government.

For the situation to get to the point where a permanent secretary felt compelled to put pen to paper, let alone for that letter - seen by LGC - to become public, suggests that the potential for negotiation between the two was truly exhausted.

There are two aspects to the fall-out for the conspiracy minded out there.

As Andy Sawford, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit thinktank, points out, in some ways the row represents a significant power play on behalf of Mr Denham. When the original bids were decided in 2007, the preference for the greater efficiency savings offered by county unitaries was seen to come from the Treasury.

For Mr Denham to now feel bold enough to go against the preferences of his department’s accounting officer says much about the clout he wields compared with his predecessors, and the diminishing influence of the Treasury around the Whitehall machine.

When Mr Denham was brought into the Department for Communities & Local Government last summer the talk was of how his focus would be on wringing from the brief every drop of electoral advantage for Labour.

On the question of reorganisation, the Boundary Committee for England was adamant that unitary councils based on Exeter and Norwich’s current boundaries had no merit.

Mr Denham clearly saw merit where the commission and civil servants did not - elections for unitary councils along district boundaries seem a lot more winnable for Labour than those along county boundaries.

However, some also see some self-interest on the part of Mr Housden, who could have one eye on an incoming Conservative administration. The Tories are committed to reversing any decisions on reorganisation unless the deal is done and dusted. By making it clear that the final decision went against basic considerations of value for money and affordability, Mr Housden has left the door ajar for a fresh legal challenge from the counties.

Both Norfolk and Suffolk confirm they intend to push against that door.

But there is plenty in the Tories’ proposals that will not go down well with mandarins. With departments having to scrap it out for diminishing pools of funding, it is possible we might see a bit more correspondence bearing the letterheads of the Sir Humphreys of this world.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Please go back to the old covers - these pale white males on the front recently look a bit dated - 'Spectator' circa 1964 ?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.