Much has changed since 2017. As Cllr John Fuller began his tenure as chairman of the District Councils’ Network (DCN), we were barely a year on from the fateful Brexit vote.
Sajid Javid presided over what was then known as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and no council had issued a Section 114 notice in 20 years.
As Cllr Fuller himself put it, ‘a lot has changed, but nothing has changed’.
Despite the huge amount of change that has occurred within the local government sector and the nation at large, it was inevitable that the COVID-19 pandemic would emerge as the defining challenge of his time as chairman.
While acknowledging the terrible toll it has taken on the world and the ‘financial scarring’ left on local authorities in particular, Cllr Fuller says it enabled district councils to prove their worth.
‘You would never have wished COVID on anyone, but it has allowed districts to shine.
‘Some parts of Government look down on districts, but when national government stumbled, district councils became the state. Every facet of society was served by our district councils.’
What’s more, the pandemic has brought councils at district level together.
‘Two hundred councils came together, blind to politics, blind to location,’ he said. ‘Districts are completely united.
‘Our reputation has never been higher.’
Although he has outlasted most of the ministers in post when he took on the DCN chairmanship, Cllr Fuller said he had tried to employ ‘quiet diplomacy’ to advance the DCN’s cause and keep its members on the agenda.
‘What I’ve enjoyed most are building the personal relationships,’ he says, and feels he has delivered on his pre-election promise to help ease the ‘historic rivalry’ between the district and county council tiers.
Cllr Fuller describes the role as ‘one of the best jobs in local government’ but has decided to stand down after staying on for longer than intended due to the pandemic.
‘It has been a real privilege to serve. I’ve really enjoyed it, but it’s been a big commitment for me and my family.’
Over the years he said districts had played a ‘leading role’ in responding to the repercussions of the Grenfell Tower fire and Brexit, in changes to planning, housebuilding, and most recently stepping up to support refugees fleeing Afghanistan.
Although he has no regrets, Cllr Fuller was left a little frustrated at the lack of progress on local government finance issues such as the New Homes Bonus and business rates retention, stymied by first Brexit and then COVID monopolising the political agenda.
He says: ‘COVID got in the way of everything. It would have been nice to have a proper settlement and incentives to build the economy and homes.’
Looking to the future, Cllr Fuller promised not to be a ‘back seat driver’ but sees much to be positive about, despite the challenges facing his successor as DCN chair, the leader Breckland DC Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen and its new director James Hood.
‘Sam is a great person to take us forward,’ he says.
‘With reorganisation taken off the table, no one needs to be looking over their shoulders at what neighbours are doing.
‘Things are constantly changing and evolving. DCN is about stronger economies and better lives – we mustn’t lose sight of our core mission.’
Cllr Fuller says he ‘sensed a step-change’ with Michael Gove taking the reins as secretary of state at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, placing the emphasis on ‘strong leadership for local places’.
He adds: ‘You build the national economy one local economy at a time.’
Cllr Fuller says district councils are best placed to deliver the levelling up agenda, and DCN will need to ensure its members receive the resources to do so while ‘keeping up the pressure’ on initiatives born out of the pandemic, such as the ‘Everyone In’ programme taking homeless people off the streets.
Above all, Cllr Fuller says districts needed to retain a relentless focus on place.
‘Make sure it’s about our environment – the place where we live – as much as the environment in terms of carbon reduction. It’s important that doesn’t get lost in an exclusive focus on carbon alone.’
He adds: ‘We are in a much better place than we were. For too long the discourse was about numbers and spreadsheets – it has rediscovered its purpose.’