The Ups and Downs of Robert Jenrick

Chris Game

When I joined INLOGOV in 1979, to launch its first undergraduate degree, I was, at best, passably fluent in spoken and written ‘academic’. As for ‘professional local government’, though, I’d barely have trusted myself to speak or write a decent-length paragraph.

Forty years on, thanks to the demanding but rewarding incentive for INLOGOV academic staff to become passably bilingual, I have the nerve to open this blog with the extreme generalisation that, in my personal experience and taken collectively, local government officers and councillors are a pretty fair, credit-where-it’s-due crowd.

Unfortunately, when it comes to those ministerially responsible for the sector, the past decade’s bunch just haven’t been that creditworthy.

Eric Pickles (2010-15) would openly attack local government, its personnel, and, as a former council leader himself, just couldn’t stop interfering in local issues – bin collections, council newspapers, spending on biscuits, anything.

Sajid Javid (2016-18) virtually flaunted his boredom with the latter part of what became a Housing and Local Government portfolio, then publicly blamed the whole sector for the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, in seeking apparently to absolve his central government chums.

James Brokenshire (2018-19) had perhaps the best pedigree – son of Peter B, a council chief exec and Audit Commission director – and most instinctive positivity towards local government. Indeed, exactly a year ago he was advocating a revolutionary ‘New Deal’ between central and local government – for about five minutes until it disappeared down the gap between May and Johnson.

However, ask local government people for the best of the bunch, and my guess is that they’ll talk most warmly of Greg Clark (2015-16), who made clear both his interest in and commitment to decentralised government and, had the Treasury permitted, to serious devolution of powers from Whitehall.

There were others, of course, but none, I’d bet you, would seriously have even contemplated: (1) acting unlawfully and (2) overruling his own Government’s advice, in order simultaneously (3) to benefit financially a substantial funder of his own party, (4) to the immediate and substantial financial cost of an individual local council. Until Robert Jenrick.

Jenrick looked initially a typical Johnson-Cummings neophyte appointee: youngest Cabinet member, but at least feigning an interest in his assigned brief and an eagerness to learn.

That his sole ministerial experience was at the Treasury would have concerned some, and he seemed an unduly swift convert to unitaries and elected mayors for all. But, come February and having survived the PM’s two post-election cabinet reshuffles, he was doing OK, both the local finance settlement and his extension of councils’ audit deadlines receiving general approval. His personal Covid opened promisingly too, as an impressively early choice to front a Downing Street press briefing.

There followed a tricky patch with his lockdown travel confusions – doing ‘a Cummings’ (twice), thinking apparently that ‘stay at home’ meant interchangeably at any of his several domiciles.

Come mid-April, though, he was announcing an initially well received doubling of Government Covid funding to councils to £3.2 bn, and that “local government would have the resources they need to meet this challenge”. “Unwavering” backing to do “whatever is necessary”, echoed Local Government Minister, Luke Hall, to fellow MPs.

Except they wouldn’t. For within weeks the Minister changed his mind – or had it changed for him – telling MPs that the second £1.6 bn grant was to compensate councils for income losses as well as an unspecified list of direct Covid-related costs, and that, if they thought what they were doing was guaranteed funding by central government, well, forget it.

Bad – except compared with the next chapter. To summarise: Jenrick has publicly admitted “acting unlawfully” and showing “apparent bias” in overruling the Government’s own Planning Inspectorate’s advice and approving a highly controversial £1 bn redevelopment project, thereby saving, by 24 hours, a billionaire tycoon and major Conservative Party donor an estimated £30-50 million due as a Community Infrastructure Levy to Tower Hamlets Council.

Whereupon the beneficiary – businessman and newspaper/magazine publisher Richard Desmond – donated a further £12,000 to the party, a good day’s business satisfactorily concluded. Well, not quite. Rather than release relevant documentation, Jenrick allowed his own – though not ministerial – planning permission to be quashed.

[As a story that has unfolded quite quickly but in stages, there have been various accounts in the national and trade media. Rather than cite several, covering different sections of the story, I have picked one – not a natural choice, but one of the more recent and comprehensive]

The Conservative Party insists Government policy is not influenced by donations, and the PM insists that Jenrick “did the right thing”. However, he is currently the bookies’ 4/1 favourite to be the next Cabinet exit, overtaking long-time front runner, Priti Patel, and you could have got very much longer odds at any time over the past few months against anyone achieving that.

 

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.

 

The success of Police and Crime Commissioners in drug harm reduction in the West Midlands

Megan Jones

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were introduced in 2012, (2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act), representing one of the most radical changes to governance structures in England and Wales. PCCs are directly elected by the public and their statutory functions require them to (1) hold their own police force to account on behalf of the public, (2) set the policing priorities for the area through a police and crime plan and (3) appoint a Chief Constable.

They replace the former Police Authority committee style structure, which was criticised for their lack of visibility and accountability to the public and communities they were designed to serve. The emergence of PCCs was therefore a result of the failings of the previous governance mechanism and a political shift of focus from national to local governance.

In my research, I look at the impact that PCC governance has on drug policy, using the West Midlands police force area as a case study. Drugs policy, and specifically a harm reduction approach*, is just one area of policing and priorities that was used to explore the statutory role of PCC and more broadly, how the role can be interpreted or used wider than its statutory framework.

In August 2019, the latest drug-related death figures were announced by the ONS. They are now the highest on record, with 4,359 deaths in England and Wales recorded in 2018 (ONS, 2019). In the West Midlands, there is a drug-related death every 3 days (West Midlands PCC 2017a). Over 50% of serious and acquisitive crime is to fund an addiction and the cost to society is over £1.4 billion each year (West Midlands PCC 2017a). This topic often divides opinion and can be politicised. However, these debates rarely prevent the considerable damage caused by drugs to often very vulnerable people and wider society. The official national response is focused on enforcement of the law, criminalising individuals for drug possession.

By interviewing a number of key actors within the drug policy arena and as leaders in policing both within forces and PCC’s offices, I looked at how the PCC structure can enable a change in policy. This was combined with desk-based document study of public available document into the drugs policy approach taken in the West Midlands. Four key themes were explored: the statutory role of the PCC; the individual PCC; governance and public opinion; and the approach taken.

My results showed that the PCC role and this new form of civic leadership benefitted from: convening power and their ability to draw upon key partners from across the public sector, lived experience, and third sector. This is an informal mechanism of governance strengthened by public mandate. PCCs have the ability to prioritise by setting their strategic priorities in the police and crime plan. For example, in the West Midlands, the approach to drug policy has been narrowed to focus on high harm drugs (heroin and crack cocaine), thus ensuring ‘deliverability’. This means that limited resources available are more narrowly focused and can have a greater impact. The statutory role of a PCC allows work at pace and decisions to be made quickly, which means that trial and pilot new approaches and innovations.

Of course, there are limitations. PCCs vary across the country and often do not speak with one voice, particularly on drug policy. There are also huge advantages of a good working relationship between Chief Constable and PCC, demonstrated through the joint approach in the West Midlands.

Figure 1: Drivers to drug policy, derived from the findings

My research allowed me to concluded that three key drivers are optimum for delivery of a PCC-led harm reduction approach: using the levers at their disposal, such as the statutory functions, and informal governance mechanisms, such as convening power, which are able to provide the strategic and political coverage required to deliver at pace.

PCCs are unique in the landscape of UK governance and whilst weaknesses in mechanisms designed to reign in their power could be viewed as worrying, in the drug policy space this has allowed for the development of a new approach in the West Midlands, one that is evidence-based and has the ability to save lives, reduce costs and reduce crime.

The potential of PCCs is arguably still being explored, but their ability to test new approaches and work effectively with partners will be essential in other areas of policy, such as the response to serious violence and the potential for an increasing role across the criminal justice system.

PCCs have a number of levers at their disposal, and are able to use informal and formal governance mechanisms to foster real change at the local level and drive forward evidence-based policy.

Megan Jones is the Head of Policy for the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner and is a former INLOGOV student, studying on the MSc Public Management programme. She tweets at @MegJ4289.

 

Covid-19: Is Government Really “Led By The Science”?

Jason Lowther, Director of the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham (not representing the views of the university)

In the midst of the EU Referendum campaign, Michael Gove famously commented that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. No longer. Fast forward four years, Gove (and every other minister) is sharing press conferences with professors and claiming to be “led by the science”. But with the UK topping the European tables of Covid-19 deaths, what does that actually mean? And is “science” the only type of knowledge we need to make life-saving policy in the Covid crisis?

Making policy is difficult and complex – particularly in a crisis, and especially one caused by a virus that didn’t exist in humans six months ago but has the potential to kill millions. The information we have is incomplete, inaccurate and difficult to interpret. Politicians (and experts) are under huge pressure, recognising that their inevitable mistakes may well cost lives. My research has shown that even in more modestly stressful and novel contexts, policy makers don’t just use experts to answer questions, but also their public claims to be listening to experts are useful politically. Christina Boswell identified the ‘legitimising’ and ‘substantiating’ functions of experts. Listening (or at least appearing to be listening) to experts can give the public confidence that politicians’ decisions are well founded, and lend authority to their policy positions (such as when to re-open golf courses).

Covid-19 is a global issue requiring local responses, so the spatial aspects of using experts and evidence are particularly important. Governments need to learn quickly from experiences in countries at later stages in the epidemic, including countries where historic relations may be difficult. Central governments also have to learn quickly what is practical and working (or not) on the ground in the specific contexts of local areas, avoiding the vain attempt to manage every aspect from Whitehall. My research shows that the careful use of evidence can help here, developing shared understandings which can overcome historic blocks and enable effective collaboration. But in Covid-19 it seems central government too often is opting out of building these shared understandings. Experience in other countries has sometimes been ignored. Vital knowledge from local areas has not been sought or used. Instead of transparently sharing the evidence as decisions are developed, evidence has been hidden or heavily redacted, breaking a basic principle of good science and sacrificing the opportunity to build shared understandings open to critical challenge.

What counts as “evidence” anyway? Different professional and organisational cultures value different kinds of knowledge as important and reliable. In my work with combined authorities, I found that bringing mental health practitioners into policy discussions had opened up a wide range of new sources of knowledge, such as the voices of people with lived experience. And, carefully managed, this wider range of types of knowledge can lead to better decisions. The Government’s network of scientific advisory committees, once we finally were told who was involved, seems to have missed some important voices. The editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, argued that expertise around public health and intensive medical care should have been in the room. I would also argue that having practical knowledge from local councils and emergency planners could help avoid recommendations that prove impossible to implement effectively. As Kieron Flanagan has noted recently, we learned in the inquiry into the BSE crisis that esteemed experts can still make recommendations which are impossible to implement in practice.

Making a successful recovery will require government quickly to learn lessons from (their own and others’) mistakes so far. Expert advice and relevant data should be published, quickly and in full – treating the public and partners as adults. Key experts for this phase (including knowledge of local public health, economic development, schools, city centres and transport) should be brought into the discussions as equal partners – not simply the “hired help” to do a list of tasks ministers have dreamt up in a Whitehall basement. Then we can have plans that are well founded, widely supported, and have the best chance of practical success. Our future, in fact our very lives, depend on it.

This post was originally published in The Municipal Journal.

 

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Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

England’s over-centralisation isn’t just a governance issue now – it’s a public health emergency

Jessica Studdert

The concentration of power at Westminster and Whitehall has long frustrated those of us who engage closely with the structures of governance and compare it to decentralised norms across much of Europe. Now, as with so many facets of the Covid-19 crisis, the pandemic has exposed national vulnerabilities and left us grappling with the consequences. The grip on initiative that rests in SW1 is one such weakness, which is impacting how our system is responding to the virus, in turn perpetuating the public health emergency we find ourselves in.

A degree of national direction is clearly needed in the midst of a serious pandemic. People look to the Government for leadership and reassurance. Those in positions of power certainly feel personal responsibility for leading the response. Measures to implement service strategy nationally, such as through the NHS, or to use national heft for international procurement buying power, are certainly necessary. But time after time during the unfolding crisis, the centralised instinct has clouded decision-making, with terrible results.

The structures for the top-down approach to the pandemic were set early on, when the Government chose not to deploy the existing Civil Contingencies Act which set out clear roles, responsibilities and resources for all local and national public bodies. They instead rushed the Coronavirus Act through Parliament, which gave the Executive a greater level of unchecked power and no defined local role. This has had ongoing consequences for the coordination of an effective response. Leaked findings from an internal Whitehall review found that local emergency planning teams believe their abilities have been compromised by a controlling and uncommunicative approach from the central government machine, which persistently withholds data and intelligence.

The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive. There has been a repeated preference for big, bold flashy schemes over smaller, sustained but potentially more impactful measures. In the early weeks of the crisis much media attention focussed on the new Nightingale hospitals, yet we are now seeing tragically how that time and resource could have been better invested in the more targeted shielding of hundreds of care homes. When faced with the need to quickly implement testing for Covid-19, the Secretary of State for Health reached for a high-profile 100,000 target and set up new large processing sites. This triumph of tactics over strategy directed the systemic response to focus on numbers over priority need and overlooked existing networks of local lab capacity. Even as attempts are made to set up contact tracing at scale to support the easing of lockdown restrictions, the Government seems to have more confidence in a new mobile app than it does existing local public health teams. This is despite the latter’s expertise in tracing the contacts of people who have highly infectious diseases and clear evidence from countries who have successfully managed their lockdown transition.

The formal power exercised at the centre is in direct contrast to the informal role for local authorities, which is having devastating consequences for their very viability. Because councils’ response has no statutory footing in the context of an emergency, they are left exposed to the whims of a few individuals making decisions in Westminster. At the start of the crisis, the Secretary of State for Local Government told local authorities to spend “whatever it takes” to protect their residents. Councils had immediately set about providing relief to shielded groups, protecting wider vulnerable groups and implementing public safety measures, all while ensuring essential services continued as usual. Rather than support these efforts, Government then rescinded this early clear backing, querying councils’ honesty over their cost assessments and leaving many facing a financial black hole.

The double standards central government imposes on its local counterparts is nowhere more apparent than when it comes to local government finance. An emergency on the scale of a global pandemic has required state-led responses on a scale inconceivable only months ago, and with widespread public approval. Central government spending has snowballed to accommodate unprecedented employee furlough schemes, emergency business support measures, not to mention the enormous costs to the NHS. The Chancellor has the leeway to respond to this through a number of different measures – incurring public debt, raising taxes, freezing public sector wages and reducing public spending, a combination of which he is reportedly considering.

Local government has no such room for fiscal manoeuvre. Councils are legally required to balance annual budgets and have only narrow revenue-raising powers through council tax and business rates which are themselves subject to centrally imposed controls. With a shock to their budgets of this scale they are at the mercy of decisions made by a few in Westminster. These have so far resulted in a couple of ad hoc cash injections of £1.6bn each, and a bit extra cobbled together earmarked for social care and rough sleepers – so far massively short of the estimated £10-13 billon shortfall councils collectively face.

It is no way to run a country. It never was, but in the context of the crisis the contradictions of our top-heavy system of governance are laid bare. The rumblings of discontent from Mayors in the north of England at their regions being side-lined, and from councils over plans to fully reopen schools in the absence of clear local test, track and trace infrastructure, suggest the popular tide is beginning to turn against blanket centrally-imposed measures. As local government is increasingly being seen as better placed to protect their residents, particularly in the context of a Government that is increasingly mis-stepping, there may now be an opportunity for a deeper discussion about how our country should be run in the interests of everyone.

Jessica Studdert is deputy director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a Londonbased think-tank. She leads NLGN’s thought leadership and research, and contributes strategic oversight of the organisation. Prior to joining NLGN, Jessica was political adviser to the Labour Group at the LGA. She led policy there, working closely on public service reform and devolution. Previously she worked in policy roles in the voluntary sector for a street homelessness and a childcare charity, and she began her career at the Fabian Society.

Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance.  Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong.  They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.

There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong.  There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care.  All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended  on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.

That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done.  That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else.  We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.

The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants.  That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness.  Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.

We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important.  Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.

Catherine Staite 02

Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.

Can High Speed Two Bridge the North-South Divide? Weighing the Evidence

Rebecca O’Neill

The Government recently announced its preferred route for Phase 2 of HS2 from Crewe to Manchester and the West Midlands to Leeds. This news will be welcomed by many in the North of England who believe that the new high speed rail line will bridge the ‘North-South divide’, referring to the cultural and economic differences between the South of England, in particular the South East, and the North. Currently, the gap between the two geographical areas in terms of life expectancy and economic trends has grown to the extent that they are almost separate countries.

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