Local government ministers come and go. The endless churn of senior figures responsible for local government within Whitehall also extends to its sponsoring department. The Department for Communities & Local Government’ is the fifth, though not the last, official barony to govern councils in England. The focus of all departments shifts as their responsibilities and ministers change.
The Local Government Association Labour group held a session at last weekend’s Labour spring conference where it was possible to find out “how [local government minister] John Healey thinks local government can be more representative of the communities it serves and actively invigorate local democracy”. Mr Healey has been a feature on the local government skyline for some years, having previously been a Treasury minister. It was he, after all, who with fellow Brownite Ed Balls put the term ‘city regions’ to death after David Miliband had pushed it onto the agenda.
Mr Healey was also a leading figure behind the sub-national review. This document was the latest of many efforts by the present government to re-kindle the economies of lagging towns and regions in the north of England. Mr Healey’s 2008-09 local government grant settlement, which decisively shifted resources up the M1, was clearly intended to shore up the public services of deprived northern authorities (LGC, 13 December 2007).
However, ‘regional’ responsibilities are now spread across Whitehall. The Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform has regional economic competitiveness as part of its remit. Angela Eagle, as exchequer secretary to the Treasury, has responsibility for “regional economic policy”. The chief secretary to the Treasury is concerned with the “Treasury interest in devolution”. Harriet Harman, leader of the House of Commons, is in charge of policy to create regional select committees. The Commons’ modernisation select committee is holding an inquiry into ‘regional accountability’.
Yet, according to its website, the DCLG is still responsible for regional policy across England. As is often the case in the Blair/Brown government, it is hard to be sure who is in charge of what. This is a pity, as Mr Healey has shown consistency and leadership in his concerns for city and regional economies. He is also the minister for money.
Local government’s core revenue support grant funding is still vastly greater than all the little pots of cash for regeneration and economic development.
Perhaps the LGA and major council leaders should put pressure on the government to maximise DCLG ministers’ direct responsibility in relation to all matters relating to local government and regions. For all its faults, the ‘communities’ department and its predecessors have always been local government’s friend in Whitehall. The more powerful and effective the DCLG secretary of state and her ministers are, the better for local government.