So farewell Sajid and welcome James Brokenshire as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. With local elections on Thursday, it’s an action packed week to be landing in the sector.
Depending on how things pan out on Thursday that could be more or less challenging. But in any case, Mr Brokenshire will inherit an inbox groaning with a series of increasingly urgent problems. All of which represent potential pitfalls for a new Secretary of State but are also opportunities to make his mark and to have a transformative impact on the sector at a crucial time.
First and foremost, among these is fixing local government finance. There’s a general agreement that the current system doesn’t work, but there’s little consensus about what to do next. The fair funding review is a start but it’s tinkering around the edges when we need a fundamental overhaul. This is crucial if we want to unlock progress in key operational areas such as social care and children’s services. There are lots of ideas out there – LGiU’s Local Finance Taskforce is a good place to start – but for years ministers have hesitated before the enormity of the task. As we are currently heading towards a cliff edge in 2020, could this be the moment?
Sajid Javid made housing his key focus and it remains a key challenge and one that looks likely to have a lot of traction in local elections this week. There’s a social housing green paper due in the Spring (presumably this has been scheduled according to the weather not the calendar). There are lots of ways this agenda could be taken forward: James Brokenshire’s period in office could be shaped by which one he chooses.
Questions about local government reorganisation have reemerged recently in Dorset, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire; the approach so far seems to be one of horses for courses but it would be helpful if the new SoS was clearer about the strategic rationale behind this.
Indeed, clarity more generally would be the best gift James Brokenshire could give local government (assuming he doesn’t have a few billion quid tucked away). Clarity about what MHCLG is planning, why it is doing it and how will be a great step forward along with a clear indication about how it intends to help local government and where it will not.
Finally, there are some crucial issues about the way in which people engage with politics and political institutions and indeed with the ways communities engage with each other. Public trust in government is at a low ebb and the country is more politically divided than it has been for many years. Local government is where we can start to rebuild crucial community ties and trust between citizens and institutions. If Mr Brokenshire can enable that he will leave a legacy to be reckoned with.