England & Wales, Global Brexit, Democracy, devolution and governance

Mrs May’s new agenda

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Even though it is a few years since I left school, it is hard to shake the sense that September is when a new year begins. The weather is beginning to turn and politics reinforces this impression with the return of Parliament after the recess and the theatre of party conference season.

Most years there’s a pencil sharpening energy about this time of year as desks are returned to and plans are made. This year feels a little different. We are still living in the aftermath of the political convulsions of the early summer and this has a deadening effect, perhaps because so much political energy was expended then and because the scale of some of the challenges remains so daunting.

Brexit we’re told still means Brexit but we still have more devil than detail about exactly how this is going to play out.

There is a sense that we are marking time while we wait to see what emerges.

In many ways Theresa May’s government has been clearer about what it isn’t rather than what it is, with a sharp distinction drawn from the style of the Cameron/Osborne era.

The former chancellor’s defenestration appears to have been particularly brutal. Writing in The Telegraph last month, Fraser Nelson said: ‘Mrs May seems intent on dismantling all of Mr Osborne’s trademark schemes. The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station has been put on hold and his Northern Powerhouse rests in the same shallow grave as David Cameron’s Big Society. To call the last few weeks a purge of Osbornism is an exaggeration, but not much of one…It is as if the prime minister is defining her politics in contrast to those of Mr Osborne’.

For local government this creates a degree of stasis. It is perhaps more notable in his absence than it was at the time how thoroughly the local government agenda was dominated by Mr Osborne. All of the major sources of momentum in local government policy now have an Osborne-shaped hole in them.

Devolution is still nominally the biggest game in town. But Sajid Javid has been slow to seize on it.

Theresa May expressing uncertainty about elected mayors or the Department for Communities and Local Government looking to flex the timetable for mayoral elections, hints at a reduction of urgency in this agenda.

Financial reform of local government was another major plank of the Osborne agenda with the formula grant to be phased out and replaced by business rate retention by 2020 (and as early as next year for some councils). Nothing has been said about this, and while the consultation is still out, the world in which it was devised has entirely altered and many in local government expect changes to be announced in the autumn.

Could austerity itself, the keystone of the former chancellor’s political strategy, be in doubt? Philip Hammond has called for a ‘reset’ of economic policy and hinted that a serious downturn in the economy could lead to a different approach with more fiscal stimulus.

Inevitably, all this has created uncertainty. There’s a temptation to play it safe and wait for central government to get back into the game and for things to become a bit clearer. We should resist this.

Devolution, more fiscal autonomy for local government, public service reform: these things don’t matter because government says they do or gives us permission to pursue them. They matter because of their potential to transform the lives of local people and to make councils sustainable catalysts of change.

Of course it’s hard to operate in a vacuum. But we don’t need Whitehall to fill the void. Local government has more than enough networks to spread innovation and share best practice. At the Local Government Information Unit , our Future Local series has been exploring what local government looks like in a post-Brexit, post-devo world. That is based on extrapolating from the best work councils around the country are doing now – work that we will be celebrating through the autumn.

Around the country we see local government reinvesting in policy and strategy units to try and drive change. We recently hosted Kirklees Council’s Democracy Commission which is drilling down into the role of councillors and the council’s relationship with its citizens. That is just one example of the way local government can seize the policy initiative. There are many more.

Perhaps as a sector our resolution for the new school year should be to get better and more confident about telling the story of just how good we can be.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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