Simon Clarke – first his speech goes, then him

Chris Game

Boris Johnson didn’t start the modern trend of hyper-rapid ministerial turnover, but he did ratchet it up.  His election last July produced a larger ministerial cull than in any other recent transition between ministers of the same party, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government being no exception.

So, were you paying attention?  Can you recall who was the minister specifically responsible for English local government on the first day of Boris Johnson’s Premiership, and how many there have been since?

For a department not traditionally one of the most sought-after steps on the ministerial promotion ladder, 18 months in Marsham Street evidently did Rishi Sunak no lasting career damage. For he it was who was junior Local Government Minister when Johnson arrived and was promoted by him to Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The number of Sunak’s successors is less straightforward, as, following Simon Clarke’s recent resignation, he is replaced by Luke Hall, the man he himself at least formally succeeded in the role barely six months ago. This was interesting, as back in February it had apparently been necessary for an MHCLG “spokesperson” to dismiss as “nonsense” rumours that Hall was being “quietly moved aside” because Secretary of State Robert Jenrick “does not rate him”.

Interesting, but marginal, for this blog, although again featuring MHCLG in a key role, is about Clarke’s resignation and its possible policy ramifications. In the BBC’s rather odd choice of library photo he himself looked positively delighted.  But his letter to the PM cited “purely personal reasons”, so, if distressing circumstances are involved, one must obviously sympathise.

I don’t know Clarke, but from a distance he seemed one of the more committed, interested and listening Local Government ministers (as opposed to Secretaries of State) we’ve had recently.  And, given the limited options, I felt reasonably positive about his taking lead responsibility for the local government part of the Government’s anticipatedly radical ‘Devolution and Recovery’ White Paper, long expected sometime this month, but now at the Conservatives’ virtual annual conference in early October – possibly, or possibly not.

I wasn’t expecting to like what the White Paper had/has in store for the future gargantuan structure of what we could once meaningfully call local government. Clarke, though, almost from the outset, enthused – talking of producing a “genuinely seminal document … helping the process of unlocking devolution everywhere and empowering communities on a scale never seen before.”

The ”everywhere” and “communities” seemed perhaps that bit more meaningful, given Clarke’s having apparently made a point of meeting personally with the National Association of Local Councils, acknowledging the role parish and town councils had played in responding to Covid, and talking of strengthening that role in the future – along, albeit, with the extensive unitarisation.

His departure does, therefore, leave several question marks.  First, the resignation’s sheer hint-less suddenness.  Second, Clarke’s personal – and very recently well publicised – centrality to both the content and presentation of the White Paper.  And third, almost inevitably, the ‘Was he pushed, or at least nudged?’ conspiracy theory – and ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Speech”.

The Local Government Chronicle (LGC) recalled Clarke’s ‘ground-breaking’ July speech to a Northern Powerhouse audience, promising “a roadmap for establishing a series of new mayors within the next ten years – representing the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history.”

The speech duly appeared on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government website … then suddenly disappeared.  A manifestly crass piece of business, whatever the motive, and, of course, guaranteeing immensely greater interest and speculation than it initially attracted.

Happily, therefore, LGC was able to satisfy this ramped-up curiosity by publishing the full speech on its website (see preceding link).  Which means, if any pushing from No.10 were involved in Clarke’s resignation, we can at least speculate about possible prompts.

“A new deal for the North”?  A £5 billion ‘New Deal’, rebuilding public infrastructure, creating thousands of new jobs, helping our regions “build back and bounce forward” – no, that rallying vagueness is almost straight Boris.

“New mayoral devolution”?  “Responsible and effective mayors representing 100% of the north of England.”  Again, Johnson playbook stuff.  He proved Londoners would elect a Conservative mayor, despite most boroughs being Labour-run, as have Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley.

Remember in December how voters in those North and Midlands ‘red wall’ – now ‘blue wall’ – constituencies elected Conservative MPs for the first time?  They should have a similar chance next April to elect a Conservative metro mayor in the new but traditionally very Labour West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

This is the Government’s apparent strategy: abolishing – sorry, combining – large numbers of already big city, borough and district councils into, by any traditional and international standards, huge unitary ‘Combined Authorities’ headed by directly elected and hopefully Conservative mayors, thereby simultaneously saving money and providing more ‘streamlined’, if hardly local, government.

All of which leaves at least as many questions as it answers.  Why the apparent rush, mid-Covid?  This seems best explained by the Winston Churchill/Rahm Emanuel injunction to “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  Councils have been hit massively by Covid, with County Finance Directors especially warning throughout the summer of budget shortfalls and the looming necessity to issue Section 114 (Bankruptcy) Notices.

Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, made it clear from the start that he saw no “long-term future” for two-tier local government and especially for all those pesky ‘lower tier’ Labour councils. Unitary councils with directly elected mayors would be “strongly preferred” by the Government in considering devolution deals – the major issue for debate being the preferred and maximum permitted size of said unitaries.

Minimum size seems likely to be 300,000.  The arguments will be over the maximum: the District Councils Network’s preferred 500,000; the 1 million+ that whole-county unitaries could involve; or something in between?  Clarke’s position seemed flexible, but not that flexible: definitely closer to the former than the latter.

These things are already under vigorous discussion, but, if elections to new authorities are to be held as early as 2022 or even 2023, the legislation needs to be in place by summer 2021. Without even mentioning the Br…. word, and Covid clearly not going away any time soon, could the departure of the key minister signal at least a slowing-down of the timetable?  Which would also postpone the point at which, along with all those Labour district councillors who would lose their seats, there would be plenty of disgruntled Conservatives.

On the other hand, and returning to the ‘Missing Speech Conspiracy’, could it be that Clarke was going just a touch too far for ultra-centralisers Johnson/Cummings and had started seriously to believe in his “greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history”?

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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