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.

Social care reform – comprehensive is good, but comprehensible vital

Chris Game

Cllr Ketan Sheth’s recent blog on ‘Local Government and the NHS Integrated Care System’ was, as he explained, timely for him personally – as an elected London borough councillor about to take on a novel scrutiny role in a new ICS.

For us Midlands readers it was timely too, for reasons most easily conveyed by the King’s Fund’s recent highly colourful Map 1 of ICSs so far established – highly colourful, that is, for some parts of England, including Cllr Sheth’s London, but bleak grey for others, like the whole of the Midlands, with merely our at least slightly more localised Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs).

This blog is not directly about either STPs or ICSs, which have only a late walk-on role. It is, though, about the future of social care and local government’s involvement in, or marginalisation from, that future, and it opens with one of Boris Johnson’s first Prime Ministerial broken pledges, in his very first speech as PM, to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”.

The ‘clear prepared plan’ bit was obvious fiction, and confirmed as such in the Conservatives’ December election manifesto.  60 pages, nearly 1,000 days working on a promised but still undelivered Green Paper, and no sniff of a plan.  One un-costed pre-condition (p.23) – that nobody should have to sell their home to pay for care – and a slightly desperate hope to build cross-party consensus on reform.

But last week, just eight months on, jostling with daily lockdown bulletins and courtesy mainly of The Guardian newspaper, saw a sudden small flurry of tantalising leaks. First came Ministers’ “radical plans for everyone over 40 to contribute towards the cost of social care in later life” – paying more in tax or national insurance, or insuring themselves against “hefty care bills when they are older”.

Broadly resembling the German and Japanese funding systems, it is variously labelled a ‘comprehensive’ and ‘compulsory’ insurance model, both of which, to be effective, it surely has to be.

But an even bigger question, I suggest in the blog’s title, is surely whether it can become a comprehensible and comprehended model, and pretty quickly – because the evidence is that our collective understanding of even the existing system is worryingly low.

With coincidental but near-perfect timing, the New Statesman magazine recently commissioned a poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies asking a sample of 2,000 GB adults about their awareness of how social care is currently funded and organised. Its findings, for a topic dominating news headlines for several months now, were concerning.

Fewer than one in eight felt they were “significantly aware”, under half even “moderately aware”, and nearly a quarter “not aware at all”. They were then asked which of (1) the NHS, (2) private operators, and (3) my local council, they thought were currently providing community care in their locality.  Being a GB-wide sample, there are no precisely right or wrong answers, and ‘providing’ makes it almost a trick question – which personally I’d have opposed phrasing in this way. Still, there are better and worse guesses.

“My local council”, chosen by 55%, is a decent pick – if, by providing, you mean paying for.  But not, for decades now, if you mean actual care home beds.  As Covid has tragically demonstrated, funding is nowadays effectively separated from extremely fragmented provision, with only some 3% of beds directly provided by councils and at least 80% in over 11,000 homes by for-profit private companies, local organisations and charities.

As for payment – roughly £600 per week here in the West Midlands – just over one-third of residents have their fees met by their local authority; one in eight pay top-up fees, but the biggest fraction must find the full fees themselves.  Which, given our apparently limited understanding of the present-day system, must frequently come as a serious shock.

Exactly half the poll respondents ticked the “private operators” option. However, virtually as many (48%) nominated the NHS, which, note the authors, is nowadays “a very small player” indeed in providing social care.  It’s not totally wrong, but close – and that, in the proverbial nutshell, is Ministers’ social care problem.

The public generally have low understanding of how even the present care home system works, of how literally dis-integrated it has become, with home care provision twice as fragmented and considerably more expensive. But they love, clap for, and think they know ‘their’ NHS.

It was even more starkly highlighted in the crunch question: “Which of three options for the future of social care comes closest to your own view?”  Exactly half the respondents selected the ‘NHS model’ that many had just demonstrated they seriously misperceived: “Social care should be free at the point of use, regardless of whether individuals contributed taxation into the system during their working lives”.

Just over one-third preferred the ‘pension’ or ‘compulsory insurance’ model referenced in the Guardian story – or, rather, first story.  For, the following day, it reported Government plans to in effect merge health and social care services, taking the latter away from local councils altogether and handing them and their £22.5 billion annual funding over to the NHS.

The Department of Health and Social Care issued a routine denial, but the PM’s long awaited ‘plan’ appears, currently, to be that care services would be commissioned by, and funded through, the new NHS regional Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) gradually unrolling across England – although not, as yet, the Midlands, where we’re still in the Sustainability and Transformation Partnership phase.

I conclude with what seems a bit of a personal dilemma. Having worked for over half my life for an ‘Institute of Local Government Studies’, I instinctively deprecate both the fact and implications of elected and accountable local authorities losing a major function for so long integral to their existence.

On the other hand, if that’s what most people reckon they want, and the Government fundamentally misunderstands, distrusts, and already wants to diminish and/or abolish local councils ….   The question is: would the public be prepared to pay the cost of NHS-style “social care, free at the point of use”, largely unaddressed in the New Statesman questionnaire?  But that’s for another blog.

 

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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.

Can democratic renewal help us ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis? Key recommendations from the Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

Elke Loeffler and Nick Pearce

Newham has seen one of the highest rates of COVID 19 mortality in England and Wales. Being one of the 10% most deprived areas in the UK (according to 2019 deprivation indices) the crisis has exposed wider social and economic inequalities – in health, housing, access to services and income – particularly for the Black and Minority Ethnic population.

At the same time, Newham has also seen a flowering of community support and creativity in response to the crisis. The local council has pioneered new ways of working with the voluntary and community sector. A new COVID-19 Health Champions network has been launched to empower thousands of Newham residents to remain up to date on the latest advice about COVID-19, and a new digital initiative  ‘Newham Unlocked Community Broadcasts’ showcases the creativity of local artists.

Newham is also one of a relatively small number local councils in the UK which have a directly elected Mayor. In 2018 Rohksana Fiaz took over from Sir Robin Wales, after his 23 years in the post, as London’s first directly-elected female mayor. In her election manifesto Fiaz promised to hold a referendum on the direct elected mayoral system before the end of her third year as Mayor (i.e. 2021), although the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect this timeline.

The Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

In this context the Mayor and the Council of Newham set up an independent Commission in autumn 2019 to examine both the Council’s current directly elected Mayor system of governance and the alternative approaches that exist in English local government, and to make recommendations on the best system of governance for Newham’s future, and to explore ways in which local residents can become more engaged and more fully involved in local decision-making and the Council’s work.

The Commission was led by Professor Nick Pearce. Extensive evidence gathering took place between November 2019 and February 2020.

A key concern of the six Commissioners was to make bold recommendations to reduce inequalities in public participation and bring citizen power into the Council to improve public services and the quality of life of local people. The COVID-19 crisis, which occurred during the latter stages of the Commission’s work, gave a dramatic glimpse of the huge potential resources in the community and the willingness of local people to make a contribution to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhood.

The “Newham Model” for more inclusive public participation

The resulting “Newham Model” aims to provide checks-and-balances to the way in which Newham is governed. It provides new participatory governance mechanisms. In particular, the Commission Report proposes the creation of a permanent Citizens’ Assembly, selected like a jury – the first of its kind in England. It suggests strengthening the accountability of the executive Mayor to local people and the main stakeholders of the Council, while also limiting the mandate of the executive Mayor to two terms, so that there is a frequent impulse for innovation and creative thinking at the centre of the Council.

Other key recommendations for strengthening public participation and co-production of public services and outcomes with local people are:

  • Extension of participatory budgeting – an increase in the resources allocated to areas or neighbourhoods for expenditure which is determined by local people from the current level of £25,000. The aim should be to spend a minimum of 20% of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) resources through neighbourhood or area-based participation.
  • A new framework for area-based decision-making – allowing powers to be drawn down to the most local level – along with the piloting of an ‘urban parish council’ in one of Newham’s communities.
  • A new “Mayor’s Office for Data, Discovery and Democracy” to provide expertise and leadership on the democratic use of data, digital tools for resident engagement, and learning from digital champions such as the government of Taiwan.
  • Wider use of co-production with residents and people accessing services, including area regeneration, which means that the local council needs to become much better at mapping what local people are doing, and want to do in the future.
  • Enabling local councillors to play the increasingly important role of ‘community connectors’, mobilising local people and their enthusiasms.
  • Support for an independent, community-owned local media organisation.

The Report of the Commission was launched on 6 July 2020 in a virtual public meeting, with presentations from the Commissioners, followed by responses by the Mayor and Vice-Mayor on behalf of the Council. Newham Council’s cabinet members will formally consider the commission’s report and recommendations at a later meeting.

Clearly, councils need to adapt the ‘Newham Model’ to fit their local circumstances, while simultaneously learning from democratic innovators in the UK and internationally.  Moreover, research institutions such as INLOGOV have an important role in sharing learning on new local governance models to help local government to ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis.

 

Nick Pearce is Director of The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath. He was formerly director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), as well as Head of the No 10 Downing St. Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010.

Elke Loeffler is a Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, and INLOGOV Associate. She is author of ‘Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’ and co-editor of ‘Palgrave Handbook of Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’, both of which will be published in autumn 2020.

Local Government and the NHS Integrated Care System

Cllr Ketan Sheth

For those councillors in local government who scrutinise the NHS, it seems to have become an expectation that as one great change ends in our local health services, another begins.

A good few years ago in north-west London we saw the start of the Sustainability and Transformation Plans (later rebranded as Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships) or STPs as they were widely called. Now it seems another change is on the way. By April 2021 an Integrated Care System (ICS) will have been introduced, taking forward much of what was developed by the STPs. And, they are coming at a time of incredible change for the NHS and local government as a result of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with an ICS. If I had to summarise, I would say they are in essence bringing together health providers and commissioners, along with local government, to plan healthcare based on local population health needs in a defined geographical area. I’ve noticed the term ‘place’ features frequently in the NHS documentation and published reports. I should say as well, that the underpinning and thinking for them is all set out in the NHS Long Term Plan. In a few areas such as Greater Manchester, they started in 2018, and more have been set up to the point where around half of England’s population is now covered by an ICS.

As for my local proposed ICS, this will be cover around 2.3million residents across eight London boroughs in north-west London stretching from Westminster out to Hillingdon, with multiple providers, and community healthcare Trusts as well, and not to forget, the local authorities. At the moment, each borough has its own clinical commissioning group (CCG), but the plan is for one CCG to cover the whole area as well (but that development is best discussed at another time) across the eight boroughs.

So, what I want to address here is this – how does an elected member sitting on an overview and scrutiny start to grips with effectively reviewing and holding to account the development of a ‘system’ of such complexity, and in the constraints of the time and resources we all know elected members face? What should our starting principles be? It’s not easy to answer, but I have a few suggestions.

As an elected member, I don’t necessarily need to worry about being a ‘systems thinker’ but I do like to test the local ICS thinking constructively. I would perhaps ask this – thinking about the ordinary residents in my ward what will it deliver for them? What will an ICS do to make them and their families and children healthier, and be able to live longer and with a better quality of life? Ultimately, for me that’s what organisational systems in our public services should be about. Simply, a means to an end of delivering something better for ordinary people and our communities.

Also, while we talk about ‘systems’ in health services, let’s not forget that when we refer to hospitals in particular we are talking often about important local institutions which command a lot of local pride and attachment; not just because of the services they provide, but because of the outstanding research they do. Also, in my home borough of Brent, they are important local employers. I think this way of looking at the world from the grassroots should not be lost in these changes.

So that’s a few ways we can start to get to grips with such a big change, and complexity. Then it might be time to prepare for the next one, whatever that may be.

 

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Cllr Ketan Sheth

Chair, Brent Council Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee

A year in the life of the newly-elected Independent Council

Councillor Paul Millar

Analysis by local government academic Chris Game shows that there were a total of 45 District Councils where no one political party/grouping could command a majority after the 2019 local elections. In the majority of these cases where the result was ‘No Overall Control’, rainbow coalitions were formed. East Devon provided a rare exception to this rule, and this article explores the struggles of running a minority administrations under a Leader-Cabinet system.

In May 2019, the political composition of East Devon District Council changed. The Conservatives had controlled the Council with a comfortable majority for over four decades.   When the Council was created in 1972, the Council was independent-run. Back then, there was a utopian vision of being a non-political Council. Though this convention remains at some town and parish Councils in the area, such as Sidmouth, it didn’t last for long at East Devon District. At the 1976 election, the majority of the Independents successfully ran as Conservatives and, the Council remained Conservative for the following 43 years.

Local elections in 2019 saw gains for independents across the country. East Devon was however a particular success story, with Independent candidates elected in all 31 seats they ran in – a 100% success rate. Most independents in East Devon campaigned on local issues, championing attention for their Wards. When I knocked on doors, while there were a few residents who wanted to rebel against the Conservatives because of the Brexit limbo in Parliament, many more expressed the sentiment that it was time for a change locally, with a general feeling that the East Devon Conservative Group had become complacent in office.

Despite these gains, it quickly became clear that some independent Councillors were too independent and unwilling to work together. A common vision of the strategic running of the Council could not be united around. Broadly, the 31 Independent Councillors were split into three distinct camps. The first comprised of broadly anti-development, anti-austerity Independents who believed the Council’s sole job was to deliver universal and high-quality public services. Many of these indepedents united around the ‘East Devon Alliance’ brand. This camp felt the Council had been let down by the Conservatives, and that inappropriate development schemes had been forced through at the expense of local living standards. This camp also believed that a stronger case made for the Council receiving greater financial support from government to deliver decent public services.

The second camp was mainly made up of broadly pro-development, neo-liberal minded independents who fully embraced the idea of the Council being run as a self-sufficient business, embracing high-risk borrowing for commercial investment, while happy to reduce and narrow the provision of public services which lose the Council money. This camp unsurprisingly contained independents who had previously represented the Conservatives. In my view, often they seemed to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. In the third camp sat independents who were yet to find their political identities and had not been heavily involved in previous local debates. I was somewhere between the first and third camps.

Before 1998, Members were able to run as Independent Conservative, but the Registration of Political Parties Act specifies that political candidates who are not members of the Conservative Party but are otherwise identify with their policies and are wedded to their values, can no run under such a label. In East Devon, a few Conservatives had become Independents due to being unable to fulfil their ambitions within the local party, or personal or policy clashes within their local party associations, sometimes over local matters.

Councillor Ben Ingham was elected Leader of the Council last May and decided to run the Council as a minority of 20 Independents, cutting off 11 whose views he considered were “too left-wing” out of the administration. I, having only recently resigned my membership of the Labour Party as the party had become unmanageable under Jeremy Corbyn, accepted a position in Cllr Ingham’s Cabinet. A Conservative Chairman was elected, and generous offers of positions were made, which made me feel a tad uncomfortable. I recall being reassured at the time that the Chairman of the Council was not a political role. Later, his office became political as the Chair voted against an Annual meeting to have his position elected.

Slowly, it became clear that an overly cosy relationship with the Conservative Group which the electorate had just voted out, had been forged. My election leaflet promised change. After raising concerns with the business-as-usual approach, I was sacked from the Cabinet and I decided to quit the ruling Independent Group and sit as an unaffiliated independent.

Cllr Ingham has a long experience as a Councillor dating back to 1995, the first ten years as a Councillor as a Conservative.  He left the party after launching a leadership bid and ‘No Confidence’ vote against the Leader of the East Devon District Council Conservative Group at the time, Sara Randall-Johnson.

Running a minority Council under a Cabinet system is as unideal as it gets. Constitutional amendments and two Scrutiny Call-Ins on two key issues prevented the Cabinet from administering key policies to significantly increase car parking charges and complete a deeply unpopular and long-running regeneration project in one of its seaside towns. Under a Committee system, some consensus might have been found. By January of this year, the Independent Group lost another Member due to a Cabinet decision not to invest in saving a community hospital despite officer recommendations, East Devon District Council had the smallest number of Councillors in a ruling administration of any Council in the country, well under a third of the membership.

By March, the ruling group could not get any major policy approved by the membership and had started to fight among themselves. One Cabinet meeting descended into a row as the Leader appeared to lose trust in even his closest colleagues. Some independents, the Liberal Democrats and Greens came together in a rainbow alliance and formed a majority new administration last month, while the former Leader has returned to his spiritual home of theConservative Group.

With true colours having finally been shown, the new administration has the immediate task of crisis response. When the crisis ends, the new administration will plan to implement ambitious policies to increase democracy, transparency as well as prioritising climate change, poverty and the economic recovery from COVID-19, which is reflected in a new Cabinet and three new positions.

Councillor Paul Millar is an Independent Councillor at East Devon District Council, Portfolio Holder for Democracy & Transparency, who now sits in the Democratic Alliance coalition.

 

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.