‘We do need to reset spending in certain areas, and I think local government is one of those…The question is how you are going to fund it.’
Home secretary Sajid Javid gave his promise for more cash for councils in the BBC’s televised leadership debate – but alas it is a pointless pledge. The former communities’ secretary may understand the issues for the sector, but he failed to make it to the last lap of the race to be the next prime minister.
Instead, the final will see the current foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, go up against his predecessor in the role, backbench MP Boris Johnson.
For three weeks, we have heard every detail of the candidates’ policies, plans and opinions on Brexit – we have even had intimate details of Mr Johnson’s household rows – but there has been little detail on the major issues surrounding local government.
While Brexit may be at the top of the in-tray, there will be life after 31 October. The next PM will need a plan for some of the major issues facing local authorities. How will we build more homes? How will we address the issues of local government funding and the rising cost of social care? How will we rebuild community cohesion? And how do we create inclusive growth?
Of the 160,000 Conservative Party members with a vote for the next leader, it’s worth remembering many of them will have a foot in local government.
As a former health secretary, Mr Hunt, told the BBC debate: ‘Having been responsible for health and social care, some of the cuts in social care did go too far.
‘I do think that local authorities need more money for the social care system, but I also think we need better mental health care.’
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for investing in local government, but it is a step in the right direction. He didn’t deliver the social care Green Paper when he was health secretary, but he seems to understand it needs to be resolved.
Speaking to local government Conservative insiders, it seems they believe he has little regard for the sector. Latterly, he attempted to push through Ofsted-style inspections of social care – a heavy-handed top-down approach to improvement which is unlikely to be popular with the sector.
‘He thinks a target is the best way to get stuff done. And I don’t,’ Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter, bluntly told The MJ. ‘He thought we were his problem. We weren’t, we were his saviour in the problem that he was going to face.’
As former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has been part of the local government world, but even some of his staunchest allies are often privately frustrated by his faux buffoonery.
While he was not always au fait with all the details of policy as mayor, he did take a particular interest in the findings of the Local Government Finance Commission. One local government insider told The MJ: ‘He was interested in fiscal devolution. It really floated his boat.’
Chief executive of the think-tank Localis, Jonathan Werran, said: ‘From a local government perspective, Boris should be a far more attractive candidate. Despite his faults, he is an optimist.’
‘It is bread and butter conservativism. He sees devolution of a whole suite of taxes as giving local authorities the wherewithal to create growth and housing growth.’
Lord Porter adds: ‘Devolution doesn’t have to come with a price tag. If it’s used properly, devolution is a way of saving money. But whoever runs the country, they are going to have to run it differently.’
Whether or not the implications of handing fiscal autonomy over to the regions have fully been registered by Mr Johnson is another question. It would also depend on who Mr Johnson chose as his Chancellor, with several names already being bandied about.
As for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, most of the ministers were on team Boris from the outset, which would stand them in good stead if he wins – but not if Mr Hunt is successful. Breaking up the department has been mooted, but it is likely a new PM would want to tackle the top of the in-tray before embarking on any major restructures.
What is also apparent from his mayoralty is Mr Johnson’s need for a strong team to work with him – and potentially keep him in check. It has been widely tipped that he is likely to ‘get the old band back together’, as one source described it.
And the band is potentially an all-star line-up of local government greats. Housing minister and former Westminster City Council deputy leader Kit Malthouse, former London Assembly member James Cleverly, former Wandsworth LBC leader Sir Edward Lister and former Hammersmith and Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh.
A background as a councillor does not necessarily make national politicians sympathetic to the local plight, but it is a start.
Of course, delivering for devolution will only happen after Brexit is resolved and it could be that the next PM could face an exceptionally short tenure. If the successful candidate can’t get a deal through parliament – or perhaps even if they do – there could be a General Election shortly after the October deadline.
While there is £30bn fiscal headroom to play with – assuming Mrs May doesn’t spend it in her dying days of office – investing in local government is not a vote winner so it may not reap much reward from the war chest.
Even the staunchest Conservative supporters suspect both the two main parties’ votes will be split by the Brexit Party and the Lib Dem remainers, leaving a potential hung parliament and no one willing to do a deal with the Tories.
Of the out-going premier, Lord Porter said: ‘She was very unlucky. But nobody wants an unlucky leader.’ Mr Johnson may be Marmite, but if he does manage to buck the trend of the Conservatives never choosing the favourite candidate, it will add to his reputation as one of the luckiest politicians around.
Regardless of the winner, the advice to local government from Mr Werran was this: ‘Play the Bojo game… Be shameless and ask for what you want.’