Gove’s new role leaves the Government’s pro-Union strategy looking more muddled than ever

23 Sep

‘Is there anything Gove can’t do?’. Thus reads the headline of yesterday’s Daily Mail feature on the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities.

The eventual name change is an improvement on ‘Department for the Union and Levelling Up’, which was floated last week, both because it keeps ‘housing’ nice and prominent and it avoids the suggestion of a ‘department for the Union’, which is not a great idea.

Nonetheless, he will retain command of the constitutional brief on top of new responsibilities. This has been formalised into a problematic new title: Minister for Intergovernmental Relations.

Before digging into that, it’s worth noting that the breadth of Gove’s new responsibilities is concerning. Putting meat on the bones of ‘levelling up’, fixing the housing crisis, and defending the Union are all huge challenges that warrant someone’s full-time attention. The new SoS might have earned a reputation as an energetic reforming minister, but there is danger in dissipating that energy across too many briefs.

There is also the more specific problem that the man whom the Prime Minister has entrusted with overseeing the Government’s constitutional strategy is out of step with what has, to date, been the meat of that strategy.

Boris Johnson might have disavowed his comments that devolution has been a ‘disaster’ (correct though they were), but he has driven through controversial legislation, such as the UK Internal Market Act (Ukima) and the Subsidy Control Bill, which rebuilds the British Government’s role in governing the nation, to the predictable fury of the devocrats and their intellectual outriders.

Whitehall sources suggest that Gove was one of the chief internal critics of Ukima. He has also reportedly clashed with other Cabinet ministers when trying to get the Government to seek legislative consent motions (LCMs) from the devolved legislatures for the Subsidy Control Bill. Does the new title mean he has Boris Johnson’s imprimatur to make such demands for his colleagues?

If so, it’s a new avenue for devolution to jam the mechanisms of government. If not, it’s just a recipe for more arguments.

The title also risks abetting those attempting to recast the United Kingdom as a sort of confederation. Even in actual federations, you don’t often see relationships between federal and state governments described as ‘inter-governmental relations’. The whole thrust of ‘Ukima unionism’ was about rebuilding a positive, pro-active role for the British state in every part of the country. Where is that agenda now?

Stephen Greenhalgh: The pandemic has shown faith groups helped those in need. We aim to foster that spirit.

14 Sep

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities.

Over the past year and a half, the response of faith communities to the pandemic has been remarkable and I have been extremely proud of being the Faith Minister during this time.

Up and down the country, faith communities have risen to the challenges created by the pandemic, offering solace to so many people, not only for their spiritual wellbeing, but also by providing a multitude of support services.

Faith groups have been a lynchpin for many, providing pastoral care, support networks for older or vulnerable people, and continuing informal education and enriching cultural activities online.

Faith groups have also been at the forefront of the vaccine roll out, promoting and supporting people to take up the vaccine as well as countering the spread of misinformation – with many vaccines being given in places of worship up and down the country.

I am therefore delighted to share the steps I have taken to ensure we can build on the work witnessed over the past 18 months and strengthen the nature of engagement between national government, local government, and faith groups.

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund has two elements:

  • £1,000,000 (including £25,000 to aid capacity building in the faith community sector) available through a competitive Grant Fund to support Faith groups to deliver innovative partnership projects
  • Development of a Faith Compact which will set out key principles to aid engagement between faith groups, national government, and local government.

Each element aims to bring in the underutilised capacity of the faith sector to work alongside local public services. I am also seeking to reduce the number of initiatives taking place in silo, and make best use of national, local and philanthropic funding.

It is important to acknowledge two reports from parliamentarians / parliamentary groups that have helped to shape this new policy. Danny Kruger’s report for government, ‘Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant‘  and the APPG on Faith and Society’s report, ‘Keeping the Faith – Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic’.

Both reports set out the ability of faith groups to provide innovative solutions to complex problems to make valuable contributions to all parts of society.  I also expect the independent advisor Colin Bloom’s report on the Government’s engagement with faith communities to help me further form this policy – specifically the Faith Compact.

The £1m Faith New Deal Pilot Fund

The pilot fund is a new, competitive grant programme to test and strengthen relationships between public bodies and Faith groups. My intention is for this fund to explore how we build on the way faith groups have partnered with national and local government throughout the pandemic to see how we can forge a ‘new deal’ between government and faith communities to galvanise our energy in the national COVID-19 recovery effort.

The Fund has been designed to provide proof of concept that faith groups can play a significant and effective role in supporting wider communities to solve local problems, levering in additional philanthropic resources and providing match funding from their own resources. The intention for the funded projects is that they support capacity building efforts to develop learning and good practice, documenting the impact of their programmes and their unique role and contribution to civil society.

Faith Compact

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund will also inform the development of a Faith Compact, a set of partnership principles, to strengthen existing collaboration and inform future relationships. The Compact will seek to promote open working at all levels to give faith groups the opportunity to continue to work constructively and effectively as part of civil society. We will work closely with the APPG on Faith and Society, Danny Kruger MP, and Colin Bloom to determine the most effective way to inform this work.

The time is right to announce this new policy in response to recommendations made from our colleagues in parliament and the exceptional work we have witnessed over the last 18 months. The Faith New Deal will continue to build on the tenets of common understanding and collaboration and the fundamental proposition that by working together, we will achieve more through our common endeavours.

The Government must deliver more homes, and they must be in the South

28 May

The Conservative Party may currently be in its electoral pomp, but it has a big structural problem: the long-term and short-term interests of much of its coalition are badly misaligned on one of the biggest issues facing the nation. Housing.

In the long run, more and cheaper housing means more Conservative voters. This is because it allows people to acquire assets and a degree of personal security – i.e. something worth conserving.

It also makes it more affordable to settle down and start a family, which American Steve Sailer has persuasively argued is one of the most significant factors that helps push voters rightwards. He suggested in 2008 that a successful conservative party should “position itself as the party of more weddings and more babies”, whilst casting the opposition, “with some accuracy, as the party of dying alone.”

We may perhaps have already seen this in action. The Economist first published the ‘Barratt Box’ theory of the Red Wall, which posits that the Tories broke through across the North not because of some new cultural link to windswept town centres but because affordable housing has simply allowed the processes which traditionally turn out Tory voters to take their court.

But in the short run, more and cheaper housing scares off existing Conservative voters, sitting on fabulous property wealth in leafy parts of the country and quite prepared to defect to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or indeed the alphabet soup of localists and residents associations) if either looks more likely to ‘Keep X Special’. When I recently looked at the danger of cracks in the ‘Blue Wall’, anger at development was the issue that very often explained local Tory setbacks, including in the Hertfordshire town where I grew up.

This is the context in which the battle over the Government’s planning policy is taking place.

Anyone familiar with the history of Conservative efforts to undo the huge damage wrought by the Attlee Government’s awful planning reforms are likely to be pessimistic. John Myers, of London YIMBY, wrote for us recently about how effectively Tory backbenchers have seen off Robert Jenrick’s various predecessors. Sam Bowman fears that they have already defanged this latest effort by scaring ministers away from ‘street votes’, a proposal to stuff homeowners’ mouths with gold I wrote about previously.

Some of the arguments advanced by the Conservative rearguard have indeed been breathtakingly disengenous. Whilst there was a fair point to be made about the previous algorithm not assigning enough new houses to (Labour-held) urban areas, it is nonsense to suggest that building in the South is a betrayal of ‘levelling up’.

Whatever economic interventions the North needs to succeed, mass housebuilding isn’t it. Homes there are already for the most part very affordable. As I said before, it’s an odd definition of ‘levelling up’ that pushes the Party’s new voters into negative equity to give Theresa Villiers a five-year lease on Chipping Barnet.

In fact, some argue that more affordable housing in the South means less disposable income being consumed by banks and landlords, leaving more to spend on goods and services and thus expanding the market that northern businesses can sell into.

(It is a sign of how divorced from reality the arguments against housebuilding have got that a recent Times report stated that: “the government’s formula assumes that more homes are needed where prices are higher.” It is remarkable that this would need stating.)

But others in the housing policy space are less pessimistic. First, because even without Street Votes (an extremely experimental policy) they think that zoning for growth on its own could be a significant win, especially if policy “draws inspiration from the idea of design codes and pattern books that built Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”, as Jenrick wrote last year.

Moreover, Boris Johnson’s victory in the Red Wall doesn’t just illustrate the dividends of affordable housing – it may also create more political space to deliver it. A large majority, secured outside the Conservatives’ traditional map, gives the Government more wriggle-room both to face down the shire rearguard and indeed to weather the loss of some of those seats for a cycle or two, before the NIMBY backlash is overcome by the influx of grateful new homeowners (being personally handed their keys by the Housing Secretary, ideally).

None of this guarantees success. Ministers could and should do much more to drive building in Sadiq Khan’s London, both to try and salvage the Party’s position in the capital and to prevent spillover doing to more commuter seats what it has already done to Brighton and Canterbury. The Prime Minister may feel the short-term cost of people being angry at him is not worth a long-term benefit the Party – not to mention several generations of younger voters – will probably only enjoy after he has left office.

For all that, however, it does appear that the Government at least grasps the seriousness of the issue and is prepared to try and do something about it. And that’s a good start.

While MPs undermine efforts to develop a proper strategy, Jenrick channels Ridley to get houses built

14 Apr

Last month, amidst the backlash against Robert Jenrick’s decision to call in a proposal for a new coal mine in Cumbria, we wrote about how the Secretary of State for Housing wielded a not-so-secret weapon in the Government’s effort to get houses built.

In effect, he is the final court of appeal for a huge number of planning applications. So even if Conservative MPs continue to stonewall all efforts to deliver a coherent housing strategy, he can brute-force overall numbers up by granting a higher number of appeals.

The latter is no substitute for the former, of course. Unlike a proper planning overhaul, simply granting appeals under the current system doesn’t tackle any of the underlying issues keeping supply inadequate and, crucially, new developments unpopular.

There is thus a political risk to signing off lots of such developments – as shown by the eventual backbench revolt which deposed Nicholas Ridley, the last minister to consciously pursue this appellate approach.

But the political risk of spending another decade not building enough houses is bigger. Which may be why Government sources say that the level of successful planning appeals is not only matching that of Ridley’s 1980s heydey, but actually exceeding it, as ministers take a ‘pro-development’ approach to decisions.

Something for Tory MPs to consider the next time they’re invited to vote on a housing strategy.

Never mind a coal mine – housing is where Jenrick’s planning power really lies. And he can use it to build, build, build.

18 Mar

Robert Jenrick’s decision to ‘call in’ the planning application of a new coal mine in Cumbria has sparked outrage on the Conservative back benches and highlighted the potential for tension between ‘levelling up’ and the green agenda.

But it is also a useful reminder of the extraordinary power wielded by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in our planning system. Not only can Jenrick call in controversial proposals, as he has here, but he is basically the fina court of appeal for planning applications in his department’s jurisdiction.

This gives him a huge amount of personal power when it comes to trying to power through, however imperfectly, the seemingly insuperable barriers successive generations of politicians have thrown up to getting the housing we need built.

How? In the absence of real planning reform, the Secretary of State can adopt a policy of simply granting a higher than normal number of appeals.

Senior Conservatives are aware of this. When asked about the recent setbacks on housing policy, one member of the Government pointed me towards the example of Nicholas Ridley, who as Environment Secretary in the 1980s adopted just such an approach to help drive forward changes to policy on housing and retailing in the teeth of opposition from local authorities, especially in the South of England.

As this piece in The Planner from 2015 points out, his tenure was one of two occasions in modern times when the proportion of successful appeals against planning rejections topped 40 per cent. The other was… 2015, when it approached 50 per cent. It usually sits at around one in three.

Housing policy specialists stress that this is not a good long-term solution. One put it to me thus: “Downside is it makes your government incredibly unpopular in the long run. But if you have the balls it’s a good short term option.” Mark Pennington, in his 1998 thesis, sets out how Ridley’s strategy sparked a concerted backbench campaign:

“However, it is worth recalling that perhaps the defining issue which led to the installation of Chris Patten was Ridley’s proposal to allow the development of new settlements in the home counties and most notably his decision to grant on appeal the proposed development of 4800 houses on a designated SSSI at Foxley Wood – ie. a nimby/urban containment issue. It has been suggested by a number of commentators that the threat of electoral losses reflected in the formation of the 90 strong Conservative back bench pressure group SANE Planning in response to this policy, representing one of the most concerted examples of backbench action on an environmental issue, was a determining factor leading to the appointment of Patten.”

Similar backbench campaigning has already seen the Government forced to abandon its attempt to drive housebuilding in the south via an algorithm. Southern MPs have even tried to co-opt the language of ‘levelling up’ to make a deeply unpersuasive case that what we really need is more housebuilding in the North, where there is no supply problem.

It is not obvious that flooding the local market and potentially pushing its new voters into negative equity would serve the Tory interest – but it might protect southern property prices a while longer.

There is still time for the Government to adopt a more radical approach. We have written before about how they could opt to stuff homeowners’ mouths with gold via Policy Exchange’s new proposal for ‘street votes’, contained in their Strong Suburbs report.

But if Ministers can’t or won’t grasp that nettle, it may be that the last, best hope of hitting the Government’s ambitious housing targets is Jenrick’s pen. If the ‘more homes yes, but not here’ brigade force it to take that path, they may regret it.

Esther McVey: We should honour our manifesto commitment to close the digital divide. Especially during this time of Covid.

3 Dec

Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.

The country has just entered what is essentially a third lockdown. Ninety-nine per cent of the population is now in the highly restrictive Tier Two or Three until early February, along with all the huge damage that will continue to bring to people’s mental health and livelihoods. So it is desperately important that everyone is able to connect online.

Covid has speeded up the digital revolution that would have evolved over a longer period of time. GP appointments, business meetings and education have rapidly moved to online, and millions of us have stayed in touch by using video services for the first time. It is becoming more and more essential for people to be able to get online with a reliable online connection for vital day-to-day services like banking and shopping. Yet many are being left behind.

According to research by the Good Things Foundation, nine million people who struggle to use the internet independently have been locked out of this digital economy and are being left behind. Nearly 200,000 children in the UK have almost no connectivity at home, and had no hope of getting an education whilst schools were shut, and 23 per cent of children from the poorest families do not have access to broadband at home.

This digital poverty is hitting society’s most vulnerable the hardest. Millions of people have become completely disconnected from 2020 society, and if we want to kickstart our economy, and start digging our way out of the enormous economic difficulties we’re in, we need every part of our country and economy able to make the most of these enormous opportunities online, rather than leaving millions of people on the other side of the digital divide without internet access or training.

The Conservative Party pledged during the last general election to bring world class gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025. Despite the widespread availability of the so-called “super fast” broadband, many parts of country are experiencing quite the opposite: unreliable connectivity and slow speeds, especially in rural areas.

Many of my constituents in Tatton and across Cheshire have been told that their properties do not qualify for commercial rollout of broadband. Across my constituency, broadband accessibility varies from street to street, and in Tatton, only six per cent of my constituents’ homes and businesses currently have access to full fibre broadband. This postcode lottery is only reinforcing the digital divide and exacerbating digital poverty.

So it was particularly concerning to me that the Chancellor’s Spending Review quietly ditched the commitment for 100 per cent gigabit capability by 2025 and slashed the financial support for it by three quarters from £5 billion to £1.2 billion. Whilst the new £4 billion “levelling up fund” is welcome, rolling out broadband would itself facilitate social mobility, so this seems a wasted opportunity.

So I am calling on the government to do two things, which I will be raising in the House of Commons today as part of the Blue Collar Conservative campaign on fixing the digital divide.

First, we must honour our manifesto commitments to the millions of people across this country who put their trust in our Party, and commit once again to delivering full fibre by 2025. NHS Test and Trace relies on dependable broadband, as do the 1.62 million people (and rising) unemployed who have to use the Universal Credit benefit system, and my constituents’ quality of life is dependent on this internet access.

Second, if we’re going to lock people down again for the next two months, and ask people to work from home and isolate from family and friends, they must get the tools and the training so that they can stay both socially and economically active. We have suggested investment in a new “digital catch up scheme” which is ready to be implemented immediately and could allow everyone, whatever their background, the opportunity to make the most of their potential whilst life has to be spent online.

We were elected last year to “level up” opportunity throughout the country. Blue Collar Conservatives all over the Britain know that there’s as much genius and talent in the north as anywhere else, and our Party’s task is to ensure everyone has the opportunity to break free and make the most of those talents, and not be held back by their background, and not have to move south to fulfil their ambitions.

The levelling up agenda depends upon nation-wide digital inclusivity. If we give up on this manifesto commitment, fail to invest in our digital infrastructure, and refuse to take the urgent action necessary to level up and fix the digital divide, we will be trying to deliver the levelling up agenda with one hand held behind our back.

The Department for Digital, Housing, Communities and Local Government itself said that digital equality “can help mitigate some of the deep social inequalities derived from low incomes, poor health, limited skills or disabilities”.

These repeated lockdowns in 2020 will leave a lasting legacy. But as painful as the year has been, we have seen an unprecedented mass movement online, which has brought with it many innovations which will shape our lives and the way we work forever.

So it is more important than ever that we turn our attention to the number one infrastructure project as we move forward: digital connectivity and digital inclusivity. We must redouble our efforts to roll out full fibre broadband, whilst at the same time fixing the digital divide. Not doing so would betray the very communities this government was elected to deliver for.

Kieran Neild-Ali: We need tougher auditing of Council spending. But a new Quango is not the answer.

13 Nov

Kieran Neild-Ali is a Grassroots Assistant at the TaxPayers’ Alliance

The coronavirus is putting extraordinary pressure on organisations of all shapes and sizes, and the same goes for councils. The demands on them are undoubtedly tremendous. But when it comes to council spending this year, that won’t be the full story. As always, the truth lies buried in their annual accounts.

Local authority audits play an important role in holding reckless council spending to account. Audited accounts reveal how councils are spending your money; publicising how much councillors claimed in allowances and expenses, disclosing revenue and spending, and giving the public a picture of the overall health of the authority. External auditors recently uncovered a scandal in Croydon where the cash-strapped authority loaned a failed housing developer £200 million in just five years and received no repayments. Local authority audits are vital for transparency and accountability.

When the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government commissioned Sir Tony Redmond to review the transparency and quality of councils’ external audits, we had high hopes for a report that would make both holding councils to account, and taxpayers’ lives, a whole lot easier. Instead, we got the complete opposite.

The flagship recommendation of the Redmond Review is the establishment of a new quango, the Office of Local Audit and Regulation (OLAR), to regulate external audits. Simply, a new regulator is not a measured response to the problems facing local authority audits.

Redmond argued that the local audit framework is so damaged that a new “system leader” is needed to regulate every aspect of the auditing process. The review recommends giving the OLAR ‘tools’ to oversee everything including producing annual reports summarising the state of local audit; managing local audit contracts; monitoring and reviewing local audit performance; and determining the code of local audit practice. Effectively regulating the entire local audit sector.

Despite prescribing the quango with such a large brief, Redmond insists the regulator will be “small and focused”. It simply doesn’t add up. With the review prescribing the OLAR such large oversight over the auditing process, it’s erroneous to suggest the quango will be small and cheap. Ministers should be genuinely concerned that the Redmond Review has basically resurrected the retired Audit Commission in all but name.

The Audit Commission was responsible for the external audit framework and ballooned in size from its inception in 1982. The commission appointed external auditors to local authorities, reported on the auditing process, and undertook performance assessments of English councils. By 2009, the Audit Commission cost the taxpayer £28 million and, like all other quangos, was not accountable to the taxpayers who funded it. It was a product of its time: a big lumbering bureaucratic watchdog heavily reliant on state funding.  What was designed to be a voice for taxpayers became a creature of the central state, and a burden to the nations’ finances. Thankfully, the Coalition Government rightly got rid of it.

The breakup of the Audit Commission allowed the creation of smaller autonomous organisations and saved taxpayers money – all this would be undone by the OLAR. The Public Sector Audit Appointments (PSAA) relies on revenue from audit fees charged to local government bodies, and the Financial Reporting Council is funded by the auditing profession, not the state.

History may be repeating itself with the proposed OLAR. By design, the new regulator will consume the majority of auditing responsibilities, micromanaging the process and sending us back to a super quango like the Audit Commission. It won’t be long until the OLAR begins to appoint auditors, consuming the remits of the organisations who’ve already expressed concerns about it. We cannot go back to a ‘nationalised’ external audit framework, resurrecting yet another expensive arm of the state.

Instead of establishing a quango, we must continue to devolve power from central watchdogs to taxpayers themselves – building on the legacy of the coalition’s abolition of the commission.

The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 gave residents a right to come to their town hall and inspect the accounts for themselves, giving rise to ‘armchair auditors’ who keep an eagle eye on how their representatives are spending their hard earned cash. This is especially true in Lambeth where armchair auditors uncovered egregious examples of wasteful spending by combing through the council’s accounts. Residents discovered over £8 million worth of invoices had been lost by Lambeth’s finance department, and that their town hall renovation was over budget by over £50 million.

But councils cottoned on to armchair auditors and began to redact documents, impeding the public from scrutinising them. This is a shameful abuse of power which goes against the open government action plan – which MHCLG themselves have failed to deliver on. Councils must change, and government departments must lead from the front.

Rather than top-down inspections and audits, or further bureaucratic overreach, more could be done to open up local authorities’ data and spending to the press and public – so that citizens can hold them to account. Before signing off a multimillion-pound quango, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government should first respond to the 2016 Transparency Code consultation and strengthen local government transparency. The recommendations are easily achievable too, like publishing more financial information online to improve the auditing process. It’s beyond belief that a consultation which ended four years ago is now gathering dust and could be completely junked in favour of setting up yet another quango.

Ministers must think carefully about the very real possibility of giving the OLAR an inch and it taking a mile. Unchecked bureaucracies are a menace to the taxpayer. In times of economic hardship, let alone the extreme demands of coronavirus, the government needs to think outside the quango box and implement policies which don’t further burden ratepayers. Local government transparency is as important now as it ever has been.

What Conservative council leaders told us about the virus, Ministers – and lockdowns

2 Nov

Over the last few days, I have been taking soundings from Conservative council leaders about how their local authorities are coping during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of these conversations took place before the announcement of a second national lockdown. I sought to discover the feelings of those council leaders about how central Government has been responding. In order to enable them to respond candidly, I agreed not to name those I spoke to. But the sample did include leaders of county, district and unitary authorities from different parts of the country.

How are the councils coping?

Perhaps surprisingly all those I spoke to were coping well with the financial pressures. Overall they felt the extra funding from the Government had been reasonable. While they were able to keep their council budgets under control and maintain services, some were gloomy about the prospects for high street shops and other small businesses.

Reserves have helped ease temporary pressure on Council budgets:

“I said to the finance officers that we should use some of our reserves. They resisted saying they wanted to save them ‘for a rainy day.’ But I politely pointed out that we are responding to a pandemic. If this isn’t a ‘rainy day’, what is?”

Another council leader said his authority had avoided using reserves but would need to do so if there was a second national lockdown. Revenues from car parks and leisure centres fizzled out during the full lockdown and have only partly returned. There is also the indirect cost of councils from a loss of investment income – which the Government is not compensating for.

A northern county council leader said:

“The big challenge for us has been school transport in rural areas with the social distancing rules. It has really pushed up costs. Funding has been skewed towards deprivation. That means some London boroughs have had more extra money than we have. But our challenges are much greater. That is not to claim that we aren’t managing to meet those challenges. We are.”

In a more positive vein, some pointed to how the crisis had allowed some savings and service improvements. One county council leader from the south of England told me:

“We have saved £400,000 in utility bills from our buildings being empty. We will certainly be looking at reducing our office space in the future – selling buildings or renting out a floor. More home working in future will be popular with our staff. Often they will have work that doesn’t need to be done nine to five. Some with young children might prefer to do it when the children have gone to bed. Why not? I expect sickness levels will go down. There won’t be money for missing work for ‘duvet days.’ That will save costs on agency staff.”

“I think we will do more meetings on zoom even once the crisis is over. But I have spent days when I’ve been staring at a screen for hours on end and that doesn’t improve my decision making or that of my chief executive. Sometimes being able to look out of a window helps you to think. So it’s a balance. Probably there will be hybrid meetings where some councillors and council officers will be in the room and others will join online.

“Some services have improved. For example, registrations of births, deaths and marriages. There used to be a requirement to do these in person. It can now be done over the phone which often people prefer. It would make sense for that change to be permanent.”

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government performance?

The feedback I gathered was broadly favourable.

One unitary authority leader said of the Secretary of State:

“Robert Jenrick is not only coping with the coronavirus pressures but just as important is keeping everything else going. Pressing on with planning reforms. He can walk and chew gum.”

A northern county council leader said:

“The MHCLG Ministers have been good. There is a Whatsapp group for Ministers and council leaders that works well. It gives us a chance to vent our spleen.”

A southern district council leader agrees adding:

“I would give them eight of ten. Some of the expectation management was poor. The ‘whatever it takes…’ stuff. But I do think they listen. That doesn’t mean we can realistically have everything we want. Some of my colleagues muddle that up. They do listen – that doesn’t mean we get all that we ask for.”

One leader of a northern district council felt the moves to prevent landlords evicting tenants was “storing up trouble” which would increase pressure on his housing department:

“If landlords are unable to have the confidence that they can evict if they need to that will drive them out of the market. Tenants who know they won’t be evicted will be more tempted to run up rent arrears – and so more likely to end up thrown out eventually. It’s a time bomb really. We will end up with a lot of evictions combined with a greater shortage of accommodation to place people looking for help.”

How has the Government in general performed?

When it came to a broader verdict on the Government there was stronger criticism. There was criticism over the “mishandling” of free school meals. Also of “high handed centralisation” and “lack of transparency” from the Department of Health over test and trace. Everyone I spoke to indicated they would oppose a second national lockdown (though, as noted above, most of them were contacted before the announcement that it would be taking place). A majority – though not all – were concerned that there were already too many restrictions.

One district council leader in a “tier two” area felt the restrictions were justified but would not back them going further:

“I think the Government has called as best they could. We are trying to back enforcement of the restrictions to give them time to work – although realistically it’s more about persuasion than enforcement. People have to be patient. But a national ‘circuit break’ does not seem to me to be realistic. How would we get out of it? It would be Hotel California.”

But most others felt the restrictions had already gone too far. One commented:

“I would resist being moved to Tier Two. It would destroy our hospitality industry. Who wants to eat out with just their family? Ludicrous. Where is the evidence that moving from Tier One to Tier Two actually saves lives? I haven’t seen any. So the Government would have to come up with something pretty convincing.”

Another council leader adds:

“The 10pm rule on pubs closing doesn’t make any sense. I don’t even attempt to defend it. The Government’s approach should be to only impose extra restrictions if the councils agree. In Essex, they asked for them. So fair enough. My concern is that imposing more and more local lockdowns sort of creeps into a national one.”

The issue of free school meals in the holidays was regarded as a “fiasco”. Again it was felt this could have been averted if greater faith in localism had been shown. The Government could have provided hardship funds for feeding children with discretion on how councils spent it.  Several indignant complaints were made. Though often this was about the political and PR aspect. Few believed that children were genuinely being left to go hungry without getting offers of help. “The community response has meant a lot of food has been left uncollected,” one council leader told me.

Another swipe was taken at the Department of Transport for restrictions on how it’s “active travel fund” can be spent. “A complete nightmare,” I was told. “Very skewed towards urban areas and lots of perverse rules that make it hard to spend the money effectively.”

Perhaps one final comment provides a conclusion:

“I was rather in the middle of the lockdown debate. Certainly, I was sympathetic towards the Government about how difficult the decisions are. I still am to some extent. But if mistakes are made then it is good to learn from them rather than keep pressing on with something that is not working. There is a limit to how long people can be expected to comply with an approach that just causes difficulties without any clear benefits.”

Andrew Carter: Devolving responsibilities to our town halls must also mean devolving money

22 Sep

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, who have published a new report Levelling Up Local Government in England

Last year, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to deliver a system of full English devolution and, as I understand it, the Government is now finalising these plans in a white paper due to be published this autumn.

Reform of England’s complicated local government structures is long overdue. There are currently 349 district, county, unitary, and combined authorities in England, as well as the Greater London Authority, many with overlapping responsibilities and competing interests.

Nottingham, for example, has nine separate councils, all with responsibilities for local planning and economic development in their part of the city. The seven district councils have responsibility for new housing, but then the two county councils are charged with delivering the transport infrastructure that new homes need. This bureaucratic arrangement makes joined-up long-term strategic decision making about Nottingham’s future much more difficult than it needs to be.

Additionally, many smaller district councils have neither the capacity nor the political will to deliver the large-scale housing and infrastructure projects needed to level up their areas, and the financial challenges of maintaining this patchwork system are increasing every year.

But the problems in English local government are about more than just function and finance. There is also a democratic deficit, with little public awareness or understanding of councils’ roles. Back in 2012, just eight per cent of people could name their local council leader, and I doubt this figure has improved much since then.

And a system in which a council leader is also a local ward councillor directly answerable to only to a tiny electorate makes it difficult for them to balance their voters’ priorities with their duty to the wider area. This means that hyper-local issues can crowd out the long-term planning and investment that an area needs.

The current system is the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal reform, but it’s having a damaging effect on the places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up, many of which have been hit harder economically by the Covid-19 pandemic than more affluent areas. We can’t keep tinkering around the edges – only wholescale reform will work now.

First, England’s existing 349 councils should be reduced down to 69 new, larger unitary and combined authorities that mirror as much as possible the economic areas in which people live and work. This would make joined-up strategic decision-making far easier.

When I make this argument, people often stress the importance of ensuring that historic or cultural boundaries are reflected in local government. I have two points to make on this: First, civic identity is not determined by local authority boundaries; it is possible to celebrate civic identity while having council boundaries that reflect the area over which people live and work.  And second, as our proposals show, it is possible to create a new system that aligns political and economic geography whilst respecting existing historic county boundaries.

Second, the leader-and-cabinet model for local government should be scrapped and the 69 new authorities should be headed by a directly-elected political figure. In cities and large towns they should be called a mayor, in rural areas they could have a more appropriate name. But whatever they are called they should be given the mandate, powers, and resources to improve the lives of people living and in working in them.

Responsibility for key areas of the levelling up agenda such as housing delivery, infrastructure, management of public transport, and adult education provision should all be moved out of Whitehall and put in the hands of the new leaders and their authorities.  The relevant government departments – Business, Transport, Education – could then be shrunk to reflect their smaller roles and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government could be transformed into an England Office similar to the Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Offices and, like in the devolved nations, be given responsibility for managing England’s devolution deals.

This simpler system, with a directly elected political leader, will begin to address the lack of public engagement in local politics. Though less than one in ten people nationally can name their council leader, in the Tees Valley, 40 per cent of people know the directly elected Conservative mayor, Ben Houchan, and they can name a policy achievement of his.

But it would be disingenuous to restructure local government and give it extra powers and responsibilities, without also providing it with the funding it needs to make good on these extra responsibilities. Devolving control over how local business rates, council tax, and charges are raised and spent, and giving greater discretion to councils on how they manage their budgets would give them the freedom and incentives they need to drive forward improvements in their areas – and would be a welcome relief after a decade of local government austerity.

Opponents of what I’m proposing will tell you that, despite its flaws, the current system works; and perhaps on a purely functional day-to-day level it does. But we should be asking ourselves what we want from local government in the future, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis.  Should it just be emptying bins and collecting library fines? Or should it be applying its deep understanding of England’s cities, towns, and counties to deliver the levelling up agenda? I would argue it’s the latter, and I hope that ministers writing the devolution white paper, agree with me.