The Poplar Rates Rebellion

Chris Game

When you’re Leader of the Opposition, you welcome almost any headlines.  But “Make ‘fire-and-rehire’ tactics illegal”, following Sir Keir Starmer’s keynote address to last September’s TUC Conference, seemed risky even at the time.  Fire-and-rehire is the practice openly adopted by several companies – including British Airways and British Gas – of handing employees redundancy notices, then re-employing them on worse contracts. “Against British values”, pronounced Sir Keir, and should be outlawed.

As with most Starmer pronouncements, there was no orchestrated follow-up, which here was perhaps fortunate. For the local council most prominently pilloried for exactly the same practice was the overwhelmingly Labour controlled East London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The Council termed it a “workforce investment” exercise; to the workers themselves it was #TowerRobbery.

Embarrassing, you might think, for almost any self-respecting council, but uniquely so for Tower Hamlets. For this month the borough will embark, howsoever Covid permits, on a summer-long centennial commemoration of the famous Poplar Rates Rebellion mounted by the obviously rather different class of Labour councillors of one of its predecessor authorities, Poplar Metropolitan Borough. We’ll focus here, therefore, on the history.

The 1918 Representation of the People Act transformed British politics at a stroke probably more than any other single law since the Great Reform Act of 1832.  Extending the vote to all men and most over-30 women tripled the electorate, revamped elections, and potentially recast the elected memberships of local councils – though here in Birmingham and the West Midlands, as it happens, the stroke took rather longer than in most of the rest of the country. With the important exceptions of the Black Country and the Potteries, the well-organised and well-funded Unionist organisations controlled by the Chamberlains and Stanley Baldwin at least diluted and delayed the advance of Labour, if not the decline of the Liberals.

Poplar was the complete reverse, the Labour Party there being led by the radical socialist, Labour pioneer, and the party’s future national Leader, George Lansbury. By 1919 he had been a longstanding elected Poor Law Guardian and Poplar councillor, a Labour MP before resigning to fight, and lose, a by-election on the specific issue of women’s suffrage – and, particularly useful for attracting publicity during the Rates Rebellion, editor throughout the First World War of the anti-war Daily Herald.

In the 1919 local elections, Labour’s assortment of railway, dock and postal workers, labourers and housewives ousted almost entirely Poplar’s pre-war class of Conservative and Independent local businessmen-councillors.

The party took 39 of the 42 Council seats, including six women, and 19 of the 24-member Board of Poor Law Guardians, the body elected by local owners and occupiers of land liable to pay the ‘poor rate’ that funded the harsh ‘workhouse’ regime providing minimal accommodation and employment for those financially unable to support themselves. Much less surprisingly, Lansbury was elected a very non-ceremonial Mayor.

The reforms – particularly vividly recounted by Janine Booth and local historian Mick Lemmerman – began almost immediately, aimed at alleviating unemployment, hunger and grinding poverty. The big hurdle, though, was always going to be that outdated, almost intendedly inhumane, 1834 Poor Law, requiring that borough councils fund their own local poor relief – those councils with greatest need having almost by definition the least funding to do so and residents least able to afford any rate increase.

Lansbury himself, both as a Guardian and as a member of the 1905-09 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, had long argued for complete replacement of the workhouse system by a combination of old age pensions, a minimum wage, and national and local public works projects. 112 years on, I doubt he’d be hugely impressed by our minimum wage, but certainly the workhouses have gone.

Back then, though, there was worse. In addition to collecting their own local rates, borough councils had to collect and hand over ‘precepts’ for the funding of four cross-London authorities: London County Council plus the Metropolitan Police, Asylums Board, and Water Board.  And when it came to the crunch – at the Council meeting on March 22nd 1921 – it was these precepts the Poplar Councillors collectively voted to refuse to pay, but to apply the revenues instead to the costs of local poor relief while campaigning for a fairer rate system.

Poplar Borough Council

Which is an excuse to include one of my favourite local government photos – of a (admittedly, not the) 1921 Poplar Council meeting, showing the Mayoral chain of office draped around not the neck of the anti-ceremonial Mayor Lansbury, but a chair.

Hugely supported locally, this illegal action inevitably led to proceedings against the Council. So on July 29th, 30 councillors, including the six women, processed from Bow – accompanied by brass band and a banner proclaiming “Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison”.

Poplar protest

The banner was prescient. Persisting in their refusal to hand over the precepts, the 30 were found guilty of contempt of court and in September sentenced to imprisonment.  The men went to Brixton, the women, armed with flowers and surrounded by thousands of supporters, to Holloway – including the remarkable Nellie Cressall, pregnant then with her sixth child, and who was still serving on the Council in the 1960s.

The revolt received wide public and trade union support, neighbouring councils threatened similar action, and ‘Poplarism’ entered the political lexicon as a short-hand for both large-scale municipal poverty relief and local defiance of national government. Eventually, after six weeks’ imprisonment, the Court responded to public opinion and had the councillors released, while Parliament rushed through legislation roughly equalising tax burdens between rich and poor boroughs.

True, it took until 1929 for Poor Law Unions to be wholly abolished and the poor relief burden lifted from local councils. But try finding anyone, particularly this summer, who sees the ‘Poplar Rates Rebellion’ as anything but a stonkingly historic local government victory.

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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.

The Leaseholder Cladding Scandal and When Ministers Direct

Chris Game

You probably caught at least something of the Commons ‘cladding’ debate last Monday (1st Feb), and almost certainly some of this week’s fallout.  Called by Labour on one of its designated ‘Opposition Days’, the debate sought “urgent” Government action to end the scandal of lease-holding flat owners, living in unsafe, unsaleable, uninsurable properties, being forced to pay unaffordable sums of money for the removal of flammable cladding.

And, if 43+ months after the Grenfell Tower tragedy qualifies as “urgent”, we finally got it this Wednesday, in the form of a statement from Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for the whole thing – Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Important as that statement obviously is, neither its content nor even its questionable squareability with the PM’s most recent pledge that “no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that are no fault of their own” are the central concerns of this blog, which by comparison – Reader Alert! – are arcane verging on nerdy. For the record, however, Jenrick’s three key proposals are for:

  • a further £3.5bn of government grant to pay for the removal and replacement of dangerous cladding systems on buildings over 18 metres tall;
  • for buildings below 18 metres, a long-term “financing solution” of a government loan to the owner, repaid by leaseholders, with a payment cap of £50 per month;
  • a new levy for developers, to become applicable when planning permissions are submitted for high-rise developments.

Back, though, to last Monday. Labour’s motion, introduced by Shadow Housing Secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, called for the Government to establish a new, somewhat Starmer-sounding, cladding taskforce that would make buildings with dangerous materials safe and protect leaseholders from the costs. Initial respondent for the Government was, remarkably, the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, Chris Pincher, not due formally to assume office as Minister of State for Housing for another 12 days. The so-called – and here so appropriately – wind-up was done by Eddie Hughes, Junior Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing.   

As for the not generally publicity-shy Jenrick, he apparently “stayed away entirely”. Which inevitably reinforced the impression, conveyed by his being openly accused of “incompetence” in this matter by his own backbench ‘colleague’, that neither he nor the Government as a whole were any more bothered than they had appeared previously about even being seen to regard this scandal as a major priority.

For the record, Monday’s motion was passed by 263 votes to nil. The Ministers seemed unable to convince anyone that the Government was addressing the issues with anything like the requisite urgency. But Conservative backbenchers, increasing numbers of whom had already been seeking, without noticeable Labour support, to amend the Fire Safety Bill to avoid remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders, chose to abstain, rather than give HM Official Opposition unearned credit.  

At which point I must temporarily side-line cladding, while explaining how, almost by chance, I happened upon one of the latest updates in the Institute for Government (IfG)’s occasional series of ‘Explainers’ – on Ministerial Directions (MDs) – a topic about which previously, I confess, I’d bothered myself relatively little.  

Poor show perhaps, for someone actually endeavouring to teach students about British politics. My rationalisation would have been that, while broadly aware of what MDs were/are and their obvious importance, I sensed that their usage wasn’t that frequent, and that anyway, until “the rules” were changed and GOV.UK was launched in 2011/12, most such directions would indefinitely have remained state secrets.

Unwittingly, I was actually right about the numbers – as shown in one of the IfG’s several excellent graphics: an average of under two a year while I was teaching, compared to 31 in the past three years and 19 in 2020 alone. The explosion, and indeed MDs generally, seemed worth further inquiries.

min-explainers

First, then, what exactly are ‘Ministerial Directions’?  In this case, just what it says on the tin: formal directions from Ministers instructing their department to proceed with a spending proposal – and in so doing overriding the principled objection of the most senior civil servant: the Permanent Secretary (PS), who is also the ‘Accounting Officer’, accountable to Parliament for how the department spends its money.

And it’s not just a clash of wills, or opinions. There are specified criteria any spending proposal must meet: that it’s within both the department’s legal powers and agreed spending budget, meets “high standards of conduct”, constitutes value for money, and stands a feasible prospect of being implemented as specified within the intended timetable. If a PS has doubts about a proposal meeting any of these criteria, they must seek explicit direction from the Minister, who thereupon writes a ‘directing’ letter and takes accountability for the decision.  Interestingly, that’s often how it seems to work: less a Minister’s wanting to spend overriding the horrified protests of a cautious civil servant than the civil servant seeing or at least agreeing the need to spend but constitutionally requiring the Minister’s say-so.

British politics being conducted in the ‘civilised’/secretive way it generally is, even the traditionally rare occasions on which such clashes come to a head are rarely much publicised, but there are exceptions. Remember Joanna Lumley’s ‘Garden Bridge’ over the Thames – proposed as a largely privately-funded project, but taken up with characteristic enthusiasm by the then Mayor of London and given significant pre-construction funding by the Department for Transport?  At which point the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, came back wanting more – arguing to the ‘Accounting Officer’ (the PS)  and in his Ministerial Statement that there were more than mere transport benefits to be considered and that the Department’s pre-construction commitment should be increased by up to £15 million.  It duly was, and of course the Garden Bridge is today the “iconic tourist attraction right in the heart of our capital city” that the Mayor and Minister predicted. Sorry, is it not?

A more specifically local governmenty Ministerial Direction was that the MHCLG should not recover from councils £36 million that, through an error in civil servants’ methodology, they had been overpaid for participating in 100% business rate retention pilots (2017/18). Nice one, Sajid Javid!

What had particularly caught my interest, though, was that noticeable rise in MDs over the past 2-3 years and the positive explosion under the Johnson Premiership, certainly since the arrival of Covid.  In fact, the IfG’s graph reminded me almost immediately of the well-known view of one of the ugliest buildings in London – the Vauxhall Tower overlooking St George Wharf – and, as it happens, just two bridges down-river from the IfG.

tower

There have already been 14 Covid-related Ministerial Directions – worth possibly a blog in their own right – but I’d gone in looking for cladding business, and there it was, in May 2019 – two months pre-Johnson. James Brokenshire, Jenrick’s predecessor as Housing and Communities Secretary, had made clear both his and PM Theresa May’s view that leaseholders should not have to pay – even assisted by the kind of loan scheme announced this week.

It’s worth reading the full exchange of letters between Secretary of State Brokenshire and the Permanent Secretary, but the following extract from Brokenshire’s will convey at least the flavour:

“I  understand  that,  in  making  these  choices,  the  taxpayer  will  pick  up  the  vast  majority  of remedial costs.  However, I have considered that against the safety implications for residents and the need for pace.  I consider those two factors to be more important.”

The only thing, however, seemingly throughout this whole wretched business, to have happened at any pace was Brokenshire’s own departure, like that of Theresa May herself, to the backbenches. A pity – somehow I don’t feel he would have taken last Monday afternoon off, or that nearly 20 months later there would still have been no Government policy.

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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.

Keeping the window open: the 21st Century Public Servant and Covid-19

Image by @laurabrodrick

Prof. Catherine Needham

Local authorities had experience of managing short-term local crises, but the national and long-lasting crisis created by Covid-19 has been something new outside wartime. Local authorities had to manage the local implications of the lockdown and Covid-19 preparedness in their area whilst also moving all of their own non-essential workers to a home working model.

Our 21st Century Public Servant research (first published in 2014) looked at the changing roles, skills and values of people working in local public services. Over the previous six months we have partnered with North West Employers to understand how Covid-19 is changing working practices and skills, and how it links to the 21st C Public Servant findings. Given the constraints of doing fieldwork with local authorities themselves at a time of crisis, we gathered the learning through a series of conversations with the NWE team, published in our new report Keeping the Window Open.

The strain on local authority staff has been intense, as it has on the whole population. However some of the changes in organisational practices have been seen as positive, and have flagged opportunities for long-term reconfiguration. Some of our key findings include:

The importance of Storytellers: the most effective public servants during the crisis were seen by interviewees as those who were values-based and able to tell stories that drew on those values, setting out a path for the long term. They were the energiser and cheerleader – ‘we can get through this’ – despite not knowing the length or trajectory of the story.

The need for Entrepreneurs: the pandemic context has meant that staff have had to innovate, without always waiting for permission, and in some cases bypassing the usual sign-off procedures. The speed and extent of change has been unlike anything in local government before.

A new kind of Resource weaver: A key part of the Covid response has been using internal resources differently. Redeployment has been extensive, which has helped to break down silos within organisations. Many teams changed roles completely – for example leisure services and democratic services teams took on tasks like delivering PPE and setting up community hubs. The urgency and scale of the task made possible changes that otherwise would not have happened. As one of our interviewees put it, ‘People have been more willing to cross organisational lines, looking at partners and saying we can’t afford you to fail.’

Professional skills have been vital for those working in public health, environment health, planning and emergency response. However for many others, it is their more generic skills that have come to the forefront during the Covid-19 crisis. Through skills matching processes, there has been a new understanding of which individual skills are transferable. As one interviewee put it, ‘Lifeguards and fitness instructors have been redeployed to do community support because of their personal style and approach rather than their technical skills.’

Mass working from home has required high trust relationships with and between staff: ‘I think some managers have had their eyes opened about how home working can work. One local authority had no home working at all before this, they didn’t allow it – they had to go straight to 100 percent’. This creates questions about the future beyond Covid-19: ‘Are we prepared to let go and let people continue working from home or will we go back to the long hours culture? Can we focus on outputs and outcomes rather than hours worked?’

Something we didn’t address in the original 21st Century Public Servant research was endurance. It is still unclear how long this crisis will last. In the early phases at least there was hope that the lockdown could be short. Now it is clear that home working will continue for many people: ‘we won’t have everyone back at work ever again’. However, many have found home working to be much more intense, with few opportunities for down time, such as the chats in the lift with colleagues or the daydreaming on the train: ‘There isn’t much informal in my day at the moment. The intensity of it can be quite exhausting. How do we sustain the informal interactions like we had in the office?’

The long-term organisational legacy of Covid-19 is unclear, but the months of the crisis have made much clearer what public services are for and what the people working in them can achieve. Organisations and individuals need to think about how to keep open the window of change, and what are the new working cultures, roles and skills that can be sustained for the future.

This blog was originally published on the 21st Century Public Servant website: https://21stcenturypublicservant.wordpress.com/

Catherine Needham is Professor of Public Policy and Public Management. She is based at the Health Services Management Centre, developing research around social care and new approaches to public service workforce development.

The £3 Billion Pound Question

Jason Lowther

The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest review of English council finances documents why so many chief executives and treasurers have been having sleepless nights since “whatever it takes to tackle Covid” transformed into “as little as we can get away with giving you”.

On Wilkins Micawber’s “income” side, Covid has hit councils’ commercial activities, notably around retail rents, as well as fees for facilities such as leisure centres, and revenue from local taxes.   On the expenditure side, councils are seeing persistent cost increases.  As Micawber predicted: “result misery”.

In social care alone, expenditure on the care of older people will need to increase substantially and quickly.  Adult social care has faced a combination of pressures arising from demographic change and increased costs, rising need and demand, and short-term funding settlements. 

The IFS recognises the huge uncertainties involved in predicting financial and economic issues at present, addressing this by analysing a range of scenarios.

The bottom line across all council services is a £3bn+ shortfall in 2020–21, with the IFS concluding this may well be an optimistic estimate, and a middle scenario projecting a gap of over £3bn a year by 2024-25.  Not surprisingly they conclude that “without additional funding and/or flexibility over council tax rates, it is highly likely that councils will have insufficient revenues to keep pace with rising spending needs”.

What to do about this?  Aside from yet more austerity, the IFS identifies changing the rules on council tax rises (which would increase inequalities between rich and poor areas), increasing government grants, or giving councils additional tax powers such as new local taxes.

Austerity, the sustained and widespread cuts to government budgets which characterised Britain’s public policy from 2010, has already shrunk the capacity of the local state, increasing inequality between local governments and exacerbating territorial injustice[ii].

Greater local freedom on taxation is well overdue in the UK, where a larger proportion of local government spending is financed through grants from central government, and much less use is made of local and regional taxation than in almost all other European countries[iii]

Although the body of existing academic evidence about the impact of devolving fiscal powers is inconclusive[iv], comparative research on how municipal governments function in a number of major international cities demonstrates that British cities have very low levels of fiscal autonomy[v] and lower productivity than these cities.  There are also positive effects on economic outcomes when powers are held at the appropriate level and when local authorities are incentivised to create pro-growth planning regimes[vi] 

It’s also worth noticing again that much local government funding is still distributed through competitions which place considerable pressures upon local authorities and partners[vii], and result in wasted effort and ineffective use of resources.  And, whilst councils and other public bodies can share resources and pool funds to deliver joint outcomes more effectively and efficiently, there are still legal, cultural, governance and other barriers to this collaboration. 

In the short term, government should cull competitive funding and address the barriers to resource sharing.  They must plug the £3bn+ funding gaps over this and the next few years.  And in the medium term much more local freedom on taxation and autonomy are needed to give local government a sustainable future.

Jason Lowther, Director – Institute for Local Government Studies


[i] Ogden, K. et al, 2020, COVID-19 and English council funding: what is the medium-term outlook?, Institute for Fiscal Studies

[ii] Gray, M. and Barford, A., 2018. The depths of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society11(3), pp.541-563.

[iii] Loughlin, J. and Martin, S., 2003. Options for Reforming Local Government Funding to Increase Local Streams of Funding: International Comparisons. Lyons Inquiry into Local Government Funding.

[iv] London Finance Commission, 2013. Raising the capital: The report of the London Finance Commission. London, the Commission.

[v] Slack, E., 2016. International Comparison of Global City Financing: A Report to the London Finance Commission. Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance Munk School of Global Affairs. University of Toronto.

[vi] Cheshire, P.C. and Hilber, C.A., 2008. Office space supply restrictions in Britain: the political economy of market revenge. The Economic Journal118(529), pp.F185-F221.

[vii] Loader, K., 2002. What price competition? The management of competitive funding in UK local government. International Journal of Public Sector Management.

The Transformative Politics of the European Green Deal

by Jon Bloomfield

COVID 19 has highlighted our fragile relationship to the planet. But it represents a minor challenge compared to the permanent havoc that runaway climate change threatens. Politicians and governments – some at least – are beginning to recognise the scale of the danger. In this article we assess the evolution of policy thinking on how to make climate transitions happen; the potential of the European Green Deal; and how progressives need to shape it and any UK counterpart to meet the challenges of modern society.

The European Green Deal initiative launched in December 2019 arose from a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum. Yet its central thrust of active government offers the prospect of reviving a battered social democracy. Green Deal politics failed to cut through after the 2008 financial crisis. Post COVID19 offers a second chance. There is a greater consensus around the need for active government and public investment to help the economy, underpinned by a recognition of the importance of equity to address issues of inequality and disadvantaged regions. This is moving politics onto traditional social democratic terrain, even when it is German Christian Democracy and French centrism that is taking it there. The politics of climate transition needs to be developed on a broad, cross-party basis but it offers major opportunities for social democracy, if it is able to embrace a pluralist and environmentalist approach suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

So what can a ‘social democracy re-born’ offer?  The starting point has to be a recognition that the climate crisis requires a re-making of everyday politics, on the Left as well as the Right. The 19th and 20th century model of high-carbon, fossil fuel intensive economies where the core task is for ‘man to conquer nature’ has run its course. To safeguard our common future a new low carbon model of sustainable development has to become the ‘common sense ‘of the age. That’s what the policy specialists and architects of the European and the US Green Deal have formulated. Politicians and parties across the spectrum are trying to catch up. The anticipated post-Covid, green recovery programmes in the run-up to COP 26 will show which political forces are best able to translate this thinking into everyday politics and to make low or zero-carbon initiatives the golden thread that runs through their policy proposals.

The elements of active government, collective goods, and social inclusion chime with the social democratic tradition yet it needs to overcome the contradictory baggage of utopianism on the one hand, and industrialism on the other. There are four areas in particular where a shift in social democratic thinking is needed.

Firstly, it needs to adopt a 21st Century modernity. The Green Industrial Revolution should no longer be the metaphor of choice. It speaks to a technocratic, top-down model of traditional Keynesianism.  This conjures images from the past while constricting the imagination of the present and future. The potential of a mix of social innovation and digital revolution to transform ‘soft’ infrastructure needs to be at the heart of green deal proposals.  Currently they play second fiddle to ‘hard’ infrastructure investment. Yet new tech opens new vistas.

Secondly, the potential widespread attractiveness of changes in lifestyle through sustainability transitions should be highlighted.

Thirdly, pluralism has to be at the heart of any effective, green deal movement. Successful sustainability transitions rely on a wide alliance of social actors with a shared vision.

Fourthly, the 21st century world is interdependent. We live in a world where the local and regional overlap and are intertwined with the national, Continental and global.   The interconnections are all the stronger when it comes to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change which is why centralised, top-down methods are not the answer. Rather than reheat an old, mission-driven approach, sustainability transitions need a challenge-led approach where national government specifies the broad direction but acknowledges that experimentation around a diversity of solutions must be nurtured with groups of stakeholders at local and city level.  The classic big national projects find this very difficult. They favour national ‘rollout’ with budgets held in Whitehall and local authorities administering central government decisions. The debacle on the UK’s COVID test and trace programme has served to highlight the limitations of this model of politics. Central to the green deal should be transition programmes which set clear sustainability targets but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs in partnership with local stakeholders.

Our article indicates the openings here for a pluralist, ecological Left. The run-up to the next global climate conference –COP26- will be a vital period which will show whether parties and governments across the world are prepared to meet the climate change challenge.

Jon Bloomfield HeadDr. Jon Bloomfield. Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

Policy Advisor on EU Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) programme; writes on cities, governance and migration as well as climate change.

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.