Having a Prime Minister who understands how local government works is hugely welcome
Updated: Feb 3
Article by Tony Devenish AM first published by Conservative Home.
Even his fiercest detractors could hardly deny that the first few weeks of Boris Johnson’s premiership has sent a much-needed jolt of energy through British politics. It is almost as though a blonde hurricane has swept through Downing Street, with a new-look cabinet, a robust approach to the Brexit negotiations, and radical policies on infrastructure, policing, and education all in a month’s work for our new premier.
Johnson’s fresh leadership style, combined with these new announcements, and the ongoing Brexit psychodrama means that the news agenda has rapidly reached full capacity. There is little room for anything else, especially “unsexy” issues like local government. When was the last time you saw a story about the Government’s approach to our local councils elevated to the top of the news headlines?
The noise of the 24-hour news cycle has so far distracted from the fact that the new Government could quietly become a great reforming administration when it comes to local government – not least because is crammed full of highly capable individuals who are well regarded amongst council leaders.
First, the main man himself. For more than a decade Johnson has been a politician with a global reach, so it is easy to forget that for eight years he ran a regional authority. Listen to Johnson for any length of time and it becomes clear that his time as Mayor of London has had a profound impact on his politics. Having someone as Prime Minister who understands how local government works and appreciates the challenges faced by local authorities should be warmly welcomed by councillors and members of devolved authorities like me and even Johnson’s successor as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
No Prime Minister is an island and each premier will rely heavily on their Downing Street team. In Johnson’s case, Sir Eddie Lister, his Chief of Staff, will provide much of the strategic direction within Number 10. Few people are more respected than Sir Eddie in local government circles, after all, he was Johnson’s right-hand man at City Hall and the successful leader of the legendary Wandsworth Council from 1992 to 2011. Sir Eddie has lived and breathed housing issues having been Chairman of Homes England – the Government’s “housing accelerator” – where he presided over a jump in housing supply (housing supply increased from 124,000 in 2012/13 to 222,000 in 2017/18). There can be little doubt that Sir Eddie will be a friend to local government.
Along with Robert Jenrick – the new Secretary of State for Local Government and the first ever cabinet minister born in the 1980s – we have a first-rate local government team at the very top of the tree. They are well placed to put in place a series of changes which could make our local authorities work better for real people.
Here are just a few modest suggestions for the new Government which could make a big difference:
Getting more homes built will undeniably at the top of the Government’s to-do list – especially in London and the South East.
Finally getting to grips with public sector land banking should be an absolute priority for MHCLG. For too long, swathes of publicly owned land has simply sat vacant while people have been crying out for affordable new homes. The Government needs to scrap the bureaucratic hurdles to dealing with land banking and force public bodies to shift this land to either housing associations or the private sector for development within a time line.
Rumours that the Prime Minister is planning to drastically raise the threshold for paying stamp duty are very encouraging. Along with expanding housing supply, this move would be a game changer for aspiring homeowners – especially in London – who simply cannot afford the costs of buying a home of their own. This, in turn, should incentivise developers to build more affordable homes and keep rents from increasing.
Public sector efficiency
With many public sector leaders on a larger salary than the Prime Minister, our public authorities should be consistently and unfailingly offering excellent value for money. Unfortunately in many cases this simply isn’t happening, but a few changes could have a transformative impact on the efficiency of the public sector. For example, public sector bodies should be encouraged to drop the assumption that eliminating fixed term contracts and shifting all staff onto permanent contacts (which include a gold-plated pension) is always the prudent thing to do.
Increasing efficiency doesn’t have to come off the back of yet another big local government re-structure. Frankly, authorities have had enough of re-organisation mania and it’s time to allow local leaders the space they need to get the best out of their teams. A longer-term funding package would be welcome so that authorities have the ability to plan ahead in a more effective way.
Reforming our social care system has stalled as a result of Brexit, but this doesn’t change the fact that this issue desperately needs addressing. If Westminster doesn’t have the capacity, let local government lead on this issue. There is no reason why first-class local leaders like West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, with their first-hand experience of the social care system, shouldn’t lead on the forthcoming Green Paper. This would also help to win over cross-party support
Conservatives instinctively believe in pushing power downwards and outwards to Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”. This Government now has a golden opportunity to spread this enthusiasm, and get people talking about the importance of local government delivery again.