A little over two decades ago, a 21-year-old Andrew Gwynne became England’s youngest councillor.
Sitting in his parliamentary office as Labour’s shadow communities secretary 21 years later, Mr Gwynne recalls how, a little after being elected to the council, he daringly asked an elderly colleague: ‘Why do we do it like this?’
The answer, perhaps predictably, came back that this was how things had always been done.
In his current job on Labour’s front bench, Mr Gwynne is still questioning the status quo.
If Labour was to win the next General Election – whenever that may be – Mr Gwynne says the first thing he would do would be to launch a review of local government finance.
Responding to critics who bemoan yet another review of finance with no promise of any action, Mr Gwynne insists work has already started with the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Labour group and he wants to involve the other parties too.
‘We have to get it right for the local government family,’ he says.
‘I think we’ve got to take a cold, hard look about how councils can become more financially sustainable.’
Mr Gwynne admits that he was ‘always a little bit sceptical’ about 100% business rates retention, which would be part of the review and must ‘work for all areas’.
His main worry is that councils could be dragged into a ‘race to the bottom,’ competing against each other to attract new business.
Mr Gwynne agrees pooling and sharing business rates across a region like Greater Manchester – as is being done as part of a pilot – makes the policy workable, but adds: ‘There are parts of the country where you will not get that level of co-operation. Some areas will get clobbered three times because they haven’t got the council tax base to raise income, RSG is going so grant-dependent authorities will lose out and it’s hard for them to bring in new business rates income.
‘I’m very interested in the concept of fiscal devolution and I want to make sure that we have this discussion but I would not want to see any local authorities disadvantaged as a result.
'If we’re not careful, we will widen the inequalities between the most deprived and least deprived areas.
'It would be a scandal if we created a system that allowed inequalities to widen.
'If a local authority wanted to deliver a service and has got a way of paying, I’m interested, but I won’t do anything that will disadvantage any part of the country.’
This is a potential flaw in Mr Gwynne’s logic. Whitehall politicians have to realise that if they truly give power away, there will be consequences they cannot control.
The coalition government seemingly struggled with this, calling for devolution proposals to be bottom-up, while dogmatically insisting on directly-elected mayors.
Mr Gwynne is more pragmatic, saying: ‘I’m not going to be a dictatorial secretary of state. There are huge benefits to having a mayoral model in a city region like Greater Manchester, but in some areas they won’t want that model. It might not work. It might not be suitable.’
On local government reorganisation, Mr Gwynne claims to be equally hands-off, insisting he was ‘not going to dictate from the centre that one-size-fits-all’.
He repeats the common mantra that he is more concerned with ‘outcomes – not structures’ and stresses that any proposals need to have ‘public support’.
He says: ‘If they can’t work together then that isn’t local government working well and the outcomes are going to be poorer as a result of that. I don’t want to stand in the middle of a spat.’
One spat he is happy to have, though, is with his opposite number Sajid Javid, whom he criticises for not standing up for the sector, having no prior experience in local government and ‘even upsetting the Tory-led LGA’.
He says: ‘I’m really worried that we have a secretary of state and a department that is becoming increasingly detached from the sector. They are supposed to be local government’s voice around the cabinet table.
‘Sometimes you have to have a hard discussion with local government where local government is failing and we expect standards to be adhered to, but it’s very easy to point the finger and lay the blame.
'Where there has been abject failure at a corporate level, the secretary of state should use their [intervention] powers, but to trash them all because of the failures of one or two local authorities was a big mistake by Sajid Javid.
‘It’s easy to devolve powers down without funding – all you’re doing is devolving the blame. I think we absolutely do need a DCLG [Department for Communities and Local Government] but we need a DCLG that is fit-for-purpose, a DCLG that will fight for local government and that will fight for communities. If we don’t have a secretary of state doing the same round the cabinet table, it does raise the question why have a DCLG.’
Asked about Mr Javid’s controversial speech to the LGA conference, in which he warned local authorities were facing a ‘looming crisis in confidence’ in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, Mr Gwynne said it was ‘incredibly offensive to the vast majority of councils’.
He went on to suggest it was national politicians who needed to regain trust, adding: ‘Collectively, we have let down communities.
‘I think austerity has brought our public services to the brink. I think what it has done is forced councils to think about services in a different way, but I think it would be naïve in the extreme to pretend that the local government sector is not at the point of crisis. Cuts have brought some councils to the brink of bankruptcy.’
Being secretary of state in that climate is no easy task.
But Mr Gwynne, who is steeped in local government, is gunning to represent the sector at the cabinet table in a way that he believes will be very different from Mr Javid.