Local government, housebuilding and decentralisation

Greg Clark speaks to the Local Government Association conference.

Secretary of State Greg Clark

Gary, colleagues, I’m grateful for the warmth of your reception and I’m looking forward immensely to working with you during the months and years ahead.

Not all of us in this room have the same politics, but we do share a common cause.

We all agree that:

  • local government has the ability to transform the prospects not just of our cities, towns, counties and districts, but of our whole country

  • that powers annexed by central government over decades should be returned to local government

  • and that the time for that change is now

We believe that. We’ve always believed that.

But what is special about this moment is that we’re no longer the only ones.

Born again localists are appearing everywhere:

  • in Westminster
  • in the media
  • in Whitehall
  • even – would you believe it? – in the Treasury

It’s worth considering what caused this change of heart.

It’s not a matter of sentiment. It’s a hard-headed judgement.

As we recover from the recession and look to the future, it’s clear that for our country to succeed to the maximum extent possible, for us to fulfil our potential, every part of the country needs to be successful – not London alone.

Since no 2 places are the same – South Holland cannot be confused with Dudley, nor Cornwall with Middlesbrough – it should be obvious that a central plan for everywhere won’t work anywhere.

To have ministers and officials calling the shots from the centre is to miss out on the knowledge, the drive, the connections, the leadership that local government can give.

This change of heart is also a testament to the achievements of local government over the last 5 years.

You have absorbed some of the biggest cuts that had to be made.

That was inevitable, given that local government accounts for 25% of public spending.

What was not inevitable – but no surprise to me – is that you have managed this in a way that has been professional, responsible, creative and effective.

The fact that satisfaction with the services councils provide has increased or maintained over the last 5 years is an extraordinary reflection of your cool-headed efficiency.

It reinforces my view that central government has more to learn from local government than vice versa, and that view will characterise my approach to working with you all.

So I want to thank every person in this hall for following the call of service to our communities – whether as a councillor, an officer or an LGA staff member.

Local public service is a vocation, not a side-line, and is not always given the respect that it absolutely deserves.

We have thousands of colleagues in local government from care assistants to traffic wardens, financial experts to planning officers.

And every one of them counts.

Whatever your specific job in local government all of you are contributing to a wider mission: to make the lives of millions better, more secure and more fulfilling than they otherwise would be.

  • making sure that vulnerable children are safe and cared for
  • enabling our senior citizens to live with the dignity and respect they deserve
  • giving young and old alike the chance to acquire new skills and knowledge throughout their lives
  • striving consistently for a better future for the whole community

All of you make that happen.

I want to pay tribute to David Sparks.

To chair the LGA for the year before a closely fought general election – as well as running his own authority – is a diplomatic challenge.

He accomplished it all with the independence and the calm authority that has characterised his service in local government and we are very grateful to him.

I welcome Gary Porter to the Chair’s role.

It shows the extraordinary strength of local government that the LGA can be led successively by the leader of an urban metropolitan borough and then by one of the most rural districts in England.

Speaking of plain speakers, I would like to pay tribute to my friend and predecessor, Sir Eric Pickles.

Eric had a somewhat rumbustious relationship with many of you, but one thing stands out.

Before it was fashionable, he saw the opportunity for a new era of decentralisation.

He brought in the Localism Act, and the General Power of Competence.

He got rid of the ring fences that constrained your discretion.

He abolished 4,700 performance targets that you were judged against, and for good measure the Audit Commission who enforced many of them.

The City Deals and the Local Growth Deals that I negotiated could not have happened without Eric’s support.

Eric is the godfather of localism.

Even if, like Don Corleone, he occasionally made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.

I’m absolutely delighted to have the chance to continue his work.

When at the reshuffle I was called to Downing Street, the Prime Minister sat me down and said “I think I’m about to offer you your dream job.”

He wasn’t wrong.

I’m excited about this job because I know what local government can do for our country.

I first met many of you here today when I negotiated 28 City Deals and 39 Local Growth Deals, and travelled to every part of the country to negotiate them personally.

As many of you will recall, they weren’t easy negotiations.

To convince my colleagues I had to show that every deal was in the national interest as well as the local interest.

But it worked, and it surpassed expectations – probably among some of you here as well as in Whitehall.

This is our chance to take that work to the next level, and I wouldn’t have this opportunity now if it hadn’t been for your willingness to talk to me, irrespective of party affiliation, over the last few years.

I will always be your tireless advocate, fighting for our cause around the Cabinet table and across Whitehall.

My team feel the same way.

I‘m very proud to have a ministerial team which is one of the strongest in the whole government.

Mark Francois, Brandon Lewis, Susan Williams, Marcus Jones and James Wharton.

Every one of us has been a local councillor – except James, who was already an MP by the age of 26 – and half the team have been leaders of local authorities.

In the months ahead, we’ll be coming to meet you and your colleagues in your town halls and civic centres.

We’ll be taking your advice and building the relationships we need to succeed in this shared endeavour.

Let me talk about some of those areas in which I want us to work together especially closely – and which are closely related to one another – housing, finance and devolution.

The basic condition of a community is that successive generations of that community should be able to live there.

Otherwise they are, in effect, exiled.

Exiled from their families, exiled from their roots and their shared history, exiled from each other.

For centuries, to be exiled – to be sent away – was considered to be an extreme penalty, reserved for the most serious of offences against the community.

Yet in many parts of our country it has become normal for young people to leave, though not out of choice.

This might be to find work, but more-and-more it is to find a home they can afford.

If we want to maintain the chain of community – and a place for the next generation – then we must make sure we have the homes to welcome them to.

The responsibility lies with us – national and local leaders alike.

One of the achievements of neighbourhood plans is that when local people sit down together to think about the future, what they conclude is that more homes are needed.

The neighbourhood planning process allows them to use their knowledge of, and love for, their communities, to consider where and how homes can best be provided.

In building more homes, communities must have the confidence that they will become better, not worse, places to live as a result.

And local authorities must be assured that in playing their part, they won’t be left out of pocket – indeed, that that they will share fully in the benefits.

A few moments ago I said that I respect and admire the effective and responsible way in which you have made the savings that were required of you to bring our national deficit down to half of what it was.

But to credit you with this acumen means I can’t disguise, even if I wanted to, that there is more to come.

I know, and you know, that whoever had been elected to govern in May would have required further savings from local government.

Across government in-year cuts were made across most areas, but I and my colleagues were determined that the local government finance settlement for this year should not be re-opened.

It wasn’t, and the savings that were made came from the central department and from the public health grant that has been rising in previous years.

I will go on to argue hard for the most reasonable settlement for local government.

One that makes savings, but that does so in a fair, transparent and intelligent way.

I realise that the pressures on local government – whether from an ageing population, a duty to guard our children against sexual exploitation, and the need to help combat extremism, to name but three – all need to be addressed seriously and rigorously, including with the right level of resource.

An intelligent approach lies in recognising that while Whitehall may be organised along neat departmental lines, meeting the needs of real people in real places is a very different matter.

For instance, in the real world, health and social care are intensely related: people’s health needs calling for care support; and the availability of that support determining what the NHS needs to provide.

Jeremy Hunt and I are of the same mind, we must and will make sure that the NHS and local government work hand-in-hand for the good of our elderly – and younger – citizens.

In an era where local government has the right of initiative, the opportunity to do things differently is open to all of you – as the Greater Manchester Agreement on healthcare demonstrates.

When I negotiated City and Local Growth Deals I didn’t pretend that I had new cash to hand out.

At a time when total resources in the public sector are shrinking, what I offered you was the chance to take a bigger slice of the funding that is available.

And, what’s more, the opportunity to make it go further – by managing it more creatively and using it to attract local private sector investment.

You not only rose to the challenge, but did so magnificently.

The £7 billion of funds taken from central government departments became £21 billion worth of local investment.

I now invite you to rise to the challenge again – and on a grander scale.

It is an invitation to every part of the country.

As ever, that includes our cities.

Around the world, cities are engines of national growth and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be true of this country.

As I’ve argued before, the most dynamic cities are led by strong, decisive, visible mayors.

In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel thought it was a better job to be Mayor of that city than to be Chief of Staff to the President of the United States.

In France, national politicians often also serve as local mayors – and do so with great pride.

And let’s not forget our own history – of inspiring civic leaders like Joseph Chamberlain.

It was he who said that: “Unless I can secure for the nation results similar to those which have followed the adoption of my policy in Birmingham…it will have been a sorry exchange to give up the town council for the nation’s cabinet.”

But the glories of this nation don’t just reside in our cities, but also in our counties, towns and villages.

These urban, suburban and rural communities provide the stuff not only of our heritage, but of our future prosperity too.

That is why the Growth Deals went beyond the geographical focus of the original City Deals to embrace other areas too.

Now, with the next stage of decentralisation, I want to go much further.

I want every place in this country to consider how they can assert their strengths and make their mark.

We must be a nation of muscular communities – north and south, east and west, town and country.

I’d like to say something about the essentials of an ambitious deal.

First, unity.

One of the things that has, in my view, held back the decentralisation of power is the fragmentation of local government.

Too often differences between neighbours – side by side, upper and lower – have distracted from the shared interests that unite an area.

These divisions must be overcome.

Some places have done it through combined authorities, others through unitaries, others still through mergers.

I will never impose an arrangement – and neither can one tier impose its will on another tier; rather, a local consensus will need to be agreed.

Second, business participation.

In a few short years the LEPs have guaranteed a strong voice for business in local leadership.

At their best, business leaders have made an amazing contribution to their local areas – bringing employer knowledge of skill requirements, development opportunities and entrepreneurship to complement the civic leadership of local councils.

I would not expect to approve any deal that did not have a clear role for the LEP.

Third, ambition.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is wide in scope.

It allows any power, other than powers to legislate, currently held by a minister or public body to be devolved.

The Spending Review provides an unmissable opportunity to show my colleagues in central government how the nation benefits, as well as local people, if things are done differently.

What are the advantages for local communities of concluding such a deal?

The chance of a lifetime to direct the future economic prosperity and social flourishing of your area.

To make life better for even more people than you can now.

The ability, in difficult economic times, to take control of your fate.

It is only fair that those who are prepared to organise to be more effective and more efficient should be able to reap substantially the rewards of that boldness, whether in costs saved, additional revenues generated, or powers that can be vested.

The opportunity to take decisions in your town halls on matters – from transport to skills, from health to welfare – that over a hundred years have been taken away from you and put in the hands of people hundreds of miles away with a fraction of your local experience.

You have told me that you can do things better.

So why wait?

Why miss your chance to break free?

2,400 years ago Plato said: “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”

The ability of the people in this hall is beyond doubt.

Your superior knowledge of local needs, beyond argument.

It’s your community.

Your future.

So take power now.

Published 2 July 2015