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.