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.

Prime Minister, remember when you weren’t hell-bent on infantilising local government?

Chris Game

 

I should just have returned from Limpopo, northernmost South African province and home to a substantial chunk of the famous Kruger National Park.  I, however, would have been there not for the wildlife, or even the wild life, but for the eminently respectable annual conference of IASIA, the International Association of Schools and Institutes of Administration, of which I’ve been a participative, though non-officeholding, member for the past quarter-century.

And now, after opening two sentences with a first-person singular pronoun, I should issue a READER ALERT!  There is, I promise, a serious point underpinning this blog. The first part, though, will contain more of those F-PS pronouns than even my average blog – sorry, but you have been warned.

Coincidentally, my very first IASIA conference, in 1996, was also in South Africa – in Durban, in the newly created province of KwaZulu-Natal, shortly after its first, violence-delayed, post-apartheid municipal elections had finally taken place.  The conference and the whole visit constituted a huge learning experience – and one acquired almost fortuitously.

For, despite INLOGOV being almost a model of the kind of institution IASIA/IIAS seeks to embrace – “involving both public service and academe”, whose interests and activities “target the education and training of public administrators and managers” – it always seemed colleagues in the then Development Administration Group, now the International Development Department, were the more active participants.

Anyway, it certainly gave me insights, opportunities and contacts I would never otherwise have had. That first Durban conference, for example, led fairly directly, if years later, to my involvement in a research project for the South African Municipal Demarcation Board on the relationship between size of municipality and efficiency of service delivery in the ‘new’ South Africa.

More recently, an exceptionally successful and in its way historic Ramallah conference in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy led to a paper (and subsequent blog) on how the new generation of elected Palestinian women mayors might have responded rather more impressively than Kensington & Chelsea’s politicians had managed.

Appreciation expressed, indulgent paragraphs over – thanks for your patience.  One thing I’m not really sorry to have missed with the Limpopo cancellation would have been the almost limitless curiosity of delegates – most following UK politics from several thousand miles’ distance – about the antics of the man who, for many, is our still relatively new Prime Minister. It would have been wearing, but I’d have borne it valiantly, not least because those with decent memories might well recall when I too had had positive things to say about the two-term Mayor of London – an office generally presumed abroad to be more powerful and prestigious than it is here.

Johnson never made it easy. Many delegates, whether or not they knew anything of his chaotic public and personal life, could certainly recall the man celebrating Britain’s first London 2012 Olympic gold medal by limply waving a Union Flag while stuck embarrassingly on a zip-wire.

It could sometimes be a tough gig, therefore, trying to persuade a predominantly overseas academic audience that, as London Mayor, the man had a record of some genuine achievement, if not on the scale of his hugely more experienced predecessor, Ken Livingstone.  But I tried, always starting with the headline statistics of his very election: twice, with over a million votes, to a post no other Conservative politician has come near to winning.

Evaluating his policy accomplishments was tougher, but, thanks to eventually effective delegation, there were, alongside the self-serving vanity projects, several tick-worthy boxes.  London’s homicide rate did fall dramatically between 2008 and 2016, by even more than it did nationally.  More so-called ‘affordable’ homes were built than during Livingstone’s two terms – though, in London especially, that A word is always debatable.

London Underground usage increased significantly, though ticket office closures continued and, by the time his planned night service finally arrived, he had gone. And it was bye-bye to fare-dodger-friendly ‘bendy buses’, hello again to environmentally friendly, double-decker Routemasters, albeit it at huge cost and some passenger discomfort.

Then there were the ‘Boris Bikes’ – nowadays the posher-sounding Santander Cycles – which, while not operating at the promised zero taxpayer cost, now constitute, I believe, Europe’s largest cycle hire scheme.

And, of course, like Paris for Bergman and Bogart in ‘Casablanca’, Boris will always have those undeniably memorable 2012 Olympics – notwithstanding that the idea and groundwork were Livingstone’s, the cost wildly over budget, and the legacy still debatable.

Over the years, then, I’ve felt able to talk – reasonably dispassionately, I hope – with international delegates about these things. But the topic I’ve always most emphasised, particularly in conference papers, has been finance: using London as a kind of headline illustration of how devolved government in the UK generally is centrally over-controlled and under-funded, compared to many of their countries’ systems.

In this I was much helped, unwittingly, by the man himself, who, as Mayor, professed similar concerns. For in 2012/13 he established a London Finance Commission, chaired by LSE Professor and finance expert, Tony Travers, which swiftly produced a neatly entitled report – Raising the Capital – with some seriously radical content.

Impossible here to summarise satisfactorily, the Commission’s conclusions were that London’s growing and changing population placed increasingly acute pressure on local services, while its existing sub-national governments lacked the financial powers to provide effective solutions.

A few illustrative stats: under 7% of tax paid by London residents and businesses was redistributed directly by locally elected bodies; 74% of London’s funding came through central government grants – compared with Berlin’s 25%, Paris’s 17%, and Tokyo’s 8%.

Taxation powers were merely one important part of the required reform.  But the Commission recommended (p.11) that “the full suite of property taxes” – council tax, business rates, stamp duty land tax, capital gains property development tax – be devolved to London government (GLC and/or boroughs), which should have responsibility for setting tax rates, revaluation, banding and discounts.

There was plenty more in the same vein – freedom to impose modest tourism and environmental taxes, planning fees and charges, and so on. My concern here, though, is less the Commission than the CommissionER.

Ever the catchy phrasemaker, Johnson launched his report by referring to tax-enfeebled London as “an economic and political giant but a fiscal infant …”.  However, while it was obviously the London Mayor’s Commission, making London proposals, the Mayor himself seemed more ambitious.

So, come the 2013 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, there he was, leading a cross-party campaign with the London Councils and Core Cities Groups, arguing that England was much too centralised and calling for a comparable suite of fiscal reforms for England’s largest cities. An “historic and significant move …a partial but practical answer to the conundrum of English devolution … good not just for the cities involved, but for the country at large” … etc. etc.

Of course, nothing much changed substantively. London could still be tagged a “fiscal infant”, as could our whole local government system.

What changed was the man and his career: his personal political ambitions, the gift of Brexit, and the Johnson/Cummings project of running apparently the most unaccountable, centralist government of our age, in which the biggest city councils are mere marginisable infants.  A conference paper title for Limpopo 2021 perhaps?

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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.

What if December 12th were repeated in the May mayorals?

Chris Game

I’m not unrealistic.  I didn’t expect the Queen in the few hundred words written for her Queen’s Speech to chatter on that much about local government and councils – and she didn’t.  I did think, though, they might get some attention in the 150-page Background Briefing Notes.  But, no.  In the literally brief note on English Devolution (pp.109-10), ‘councils’ per se aren’t mentioned.  The search did, however, make me realise how crowded it’s going to be out there, as “each part of the country” gets “to decide its own destiny”.

The Government “remains committed” to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, Western Gateway, and, I think, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. The 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships certainly aren’t going anywhere soon.  Indeed, they may well be hoping to get their hands on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural and Investment Funds. And quite possibly too on the PM’s own £3.6 billion Towns Fund, with, for starters, 100 Town Deal Boards, chaired “where appropriate” by someone from the private sector.

Then there are the UK Government agencies that Johnson wants to relocate out of London, with their existing civil servants or any who aren’t “super-talented weirdo” enough to pass the Dominic Cummings test.

The one democratic element of this increasingly crowded world that does receive more than a passing mention in the Briefing Notes are Mayoral Combined Authorities (CAs) and City Region Mayors, with talk of increasing the number of mayors and doing more devo deals. There weren’t many stats in this section, but one did catch my eye: “37 per cent of residents in England, including almost 50 per cent in the North, are now served by city region mayors with powers and money to prioritise local issues.”

With CA mayoral elections coming up in early May, I did a few quick sums. The current party split among the nine elected mayors, including London, is 5-4 to Labour.  The population split, though, is close to 3-1, with Mayor Andy Street’s West Midlands contributing over half the Conservative total.  And Street’s victory over Labour’s Siôn Simon in May 2017 was knife-edge: by 0.7% of the 523,000 votes cast.

I sense you’re ahead of me.  If, in the coming May elections, West Midlands voters were to return a Labour mayor, leaving Conservative mayors governing, say, barely one in eight of that 37% of residents, would a Conservative PM still be as enthusiastic about devolution to mayoral CAs?  We know for near-certain that Theresa May wouldn’t have been, but Johnson, as on most things, is less predictable. 

Anyway, it seemed worth asking: what would happen in the May mayoral elections, which include London this time, if everyone voted just as they did in December’s General Election?  Happily, Centre for Cities’ Simon Jeffrey got there first, so the stats are his, the interpretation mine.

First, though, a quick reminder of the broader context of those 2017 mayoral elections, and what’s happened since.  When Andy Street launched his bid for the West Midlands mayoralty, and even when he was officially selected as Conservative candidate, there looked like being only five of these new CA mayors.

Moreover, all five – Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, Tees Valley, and West Midlands – might easily, given their borough councils’ political make-ups, have produced Labour ‘metro mayors’.  Whereupon, it seems likely that, to say the least, Prime Ministerial enthusiasm for serious devolution to metro mayoral CAs would have waned somewhat.

However, things changed. Sheffield’s election, following a dispute over the inclusion of Derbyshire local authorities, was postponed until 2018, and two far less metropolitan (and more Conservative-inclined) CAs were established – West of England (Bristol) and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – just in time for the 2017 elections. 

With Tees Valley also going Conservative, Prime Minister May saw an initially possible 0-5 redwash turn into a remarkable 4-2 triumph – as reported on this blog. The political merits and possibilities of devolution, particularly to the West Midlands – bearing in mind that Labour overwhelmingly controlled Birmingham Council and formed the largest party group in five of the other six boroughs – suddenly seemed much more obvious.

Since then, though, the pendulum has swung. A reconfigured Sheffield CA and new North of Tyne CA have both elected Labour mayors, evening up the CA party balance at 4-4, but giving a score among the now ‘Big 5’ metros (populations over 1.3 million) of 4-1 to Labour, including Greater London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Jeffrey’s sums show that Mayor Khan would be re-elected easily, likewise Labour’s Steve Rotheram in Liverpool.  In Greater Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham would be re-elected, but with a considerably reduced majority.  And the collapsing ‘red wall’ would have more than doubled Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen’s majority in Tees Valley.

And so to the West Midlands, which also saw plenty of “Red wall turning blue”, “No such thing any more as a Labour safe seat” headlines. It felt as if the Conservative vote had to be ahead, and it was … but by under 3,000 out of 1.18 million, or 0.2%! 

Yes, even replicating the Conservatives’ most decisive electoral win for a generation, it could be that tight.  And, if it were Labour’s eventual candidate who edged it, that would see Labour metro mayors as the elected heads of government in London and all four largest city region CAs, representing nearly a third of the English population. ‘Everything still to play for’ seems an understatement.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The INLOGOV General Election Maxifesto Quiz

Chris Game

There were two prompts for this blog. The first was the politest of enquiries from the recently returned INLOGOV Blog Manager, which was easy enough to deflect. Shortly after doing so, however, while reading through one of the parties’ election manifestos – as you do – I came across ‘dibs’, a word I don’t recall crossing either my lips or barely my consciousness for a good half-century or so.

Back in my distant childhood there was much dibbing – and dybbing. On my father’s allotment I would make holes with my own potato dibber. As cub scouts, we would be enjoined every Friday evening by the ‘Old Wolf’ Akela to ‘Dyb, Dyb, Dyb’ (‘Do Your Best’), responding of course that we would indeed ‘Dob, Dob, Dob’. Back home, if there was any scarce desirable to be shared, like recently de-rationed sweeties, my younger sister Jennifer and I would compete for ‘first dibs’ (1).

In the ensuing decades, though, dibbing disappeared completely from my life. Yes, I recall registering the existence of the very top-end-of-the-market 1stdibs fine art dealership, but my INLOGOV salary discouraged closer interest. I remember being intrigued, therefore, by the context in which it did re-enter my personal/public policy world, and was fascinated again to see it an election manifesto.

So much so that I felt an urge to share the news, and decided to sneak it surreptitiously into an INLOGOV Election Maxifesto Worthy Pledge Quiz – not exactly an established tradition, but for which there is a kind of antecedent.

A Worthy Pledge is best explained by what it isn’t. It’s not one of those a major party either wants to, or fears might, create headlines and win or lose it loads of votes – and which are likely to be known to or guessable by readers of this blog anyway. Worthy Pledges are the add-ons. Not exactly window-dressing, because so relatively few wavering voters will even glance at, let alone open, these windows. They’re mostly imprecise pledges, or often just hopes – so loosely phrased that accountability of anyone, ever, is out of the question.

They are, however, the main reason why the average length of the major parties’ 2019 maxifestos – around 25,000 words (without ancillary ‘costings documents’) – is roughly four times the total length of ALL THREE major parties’ manifestos in 1951 (Thackeray and Toye, 2019). Nearly 83% of voters turned out in that election – the last time a General Election turnout topped 80% – and, while we don’t know how many of them had read those minifestos, it’s surely a fair bet that it’s more than will have thumbed through the 60-100 page compilations this time.

Here, then, listed alphabetically, is the 2019 Local Government Maxifesto Worthy Pledge Quiz.

Which party (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Brexit) pledges to …?

  1. Abolish both student loan interest and the target to push 50% of young people into Higher Education.
  2. Devolve full control of Right-to-Buy to local councils.
  3. Encourage councils to build more beautiful architecture.
  4. End rough sleeping within five years.
  5. Enshrine a legal right to food in law.
  6. Establish a £150m. Community Ownership Fund to help local people take over civic and community assets under threat, including football clubs and post offices.
  7. Establish a Royal Commission to develop a public health approach to substance misuse, focusing on harm reduction rather than criminalisation.
  8. Explore ways to tackle the problem of grade inflation in higher education courses (sorry, that’s more for us in the UoB!).
  9.    Increase central government funding to councils by £10 billion a year.
  10. Introduce a levy on overseas companies buying housing, and give local people ‘first dibs’ on new homes built in their area.
  11. Launch the biggest ever pothole-filling programme.
  12. Legislate to require councils to switch from a Cabinet system to a Committee system.
  13. Provide 35 hours a week of free childcare, from the age of 9 months.
  14. Replace Police and Crime Commissioners with police boards made up of local councillors.
  15. . Stop bank branch closures and ban ATM charges.

Of course, the inherent problem with these kinds of exercises is where to list the answers. It may be that the Blog Manager can come up with something brilliant, but in case he can’t, I’ll witter on for another couple of sentences, then list them at the end – confident that you won’t have cheated and read ahead.

So, how many of you got the ‘first dibs’ pledge? It’s Labour’s, of course – a straight steal from Mayor Sadiq Khan’s attempt to give Londoners the first chance to buy new homes priced up to £350,000 before foreign investors can get their hands on them. A bit like Jennifer, after sweets came off rationing in 1953, except statistically her chances were massively better.

Finally, since you were no doubt wondering, one possible origin of ‘first dibs’ is an ancient children’s game played (by ancient children) with pebbles or sheep’s knucklebones known as ‘dibstones’.

The answers: 1. Brexit Party; 2. LD; 3. Con; 4. Trick question – Con + Lab; 5. LD; 6. Con; 7. Lab; 8. Con; 9. Green; 10. Lab; 11. Con; 12. Green; 13. Green;                    14. LD; 15. Lab.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.