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A good time for the sector to have friends in high places

The big picture is clear: we can start thinking of the realities of power and what it will mean for place, says Jonathan Werran.

In ‘Beyond Good and Evil: prelude to a philosophy for the future', Friedrich Nietzsche observed that if you stared long enough into the abyss, then the abyss, eventually, would also eventually stare into you.  The woefully conceived and managed Conservative campaign has over the past six weeks been an exercise of Olympic level abyss-gazing. 

As of this morning, what does the abyss, into which was the most successful party in the western world since 1834 has desperately fallen, see in its gaze?  Prior to this, the lowest watermark of Conservative fortunes was the 156 seats in Balfour's landslide loss of 1906.  The best that can be said is that this was not quite the fate of the Canadian Conservatives in 1993 or the Wagnerian ‘Götterdämmerung' of complete Conservative annihilation which the ‘zero seats' advocates from the jilted right had been relishing. 

Passing swiftly through its eyes as it passes into the abyss are collapsed fourteen years of shapeshifting place policies and approaches to local government.  From the Coalition years will swiftly pass the hostile approach taken by Eric Pickles to the sector -  marked by the abolition of the Audit Commission, and steep frontloaded council funding cuts in the 2010 Spending Review as well as the autonomies of the Localism Act 2011, whose legacies all live on. 

The abyss glances over to the short years of Cameron's majority.  His chancellor George Osborne's opportunistic alighting on devolution through an artful closed-doors deal with the late Sir Howard Bernstein and his electrifying party conference coup when he pledged to give councils control of business rates.  After the epochal Brexit referendum vote in 2016, the remaining eight years pass by without too much rhyme or reason after Brexit.   Industrial strategy rises under Theresa May's business secretary Greg Clark and falls as a ‘pudding without a theme' under ‘Kama'  Kwasi Kwarteng – Boris Johnson's man at BEIS and Liz Truss's ill-starred chancellor.

The abyss gazes at Boris Johnson as he storms to a ‘Get Brexit Done' election triumph in 2019.  His flagship Levelling Up strategy, announced by an earnest Michael Gove days before Putin invades the Ukraine, was more or less dead on arrival, courtesy of the Treasury's unwillingness to either resource the programme or grant councils the fiscal devolution to deliver.  Instead, the green shoots fail to rise above the arid soil of a cost-of-living crisis and post-pandemic economic and social hangover.  Houses rise and fall. Strategic planning is abolished, a National Planning Policy Framework introduced, the housing system is declared broken by Gavin Barwell until a brave attempt to switch to a zonal planning system is abandoned in the embers of the Chesham and Amersham by-election. 

If the Conservative Party is to recover from the charred wreckage of its most humbling encounter with the electorate, it will have to rip it up and start again from a local government base.

For the meantime, though, it's a case of goodbye to all that.  The abyss, in all likelihood sees this passage of recent political history flow by with stony indifference as the old order changeth and yieldeth to the new age of Sir Keir Starmer's government that is to come. 

A new Labour government armed with an astonishing three figure parliamentary majority to deliver its electoral mandate.

Former leader of the LGA Labour Group Jim McMahon, if he keeps his shadow brief as minister for English Devolution and Local Government, will have his immediate work cut out deliberating over the deals in Lincolnshire, Hull and Lancashire that didn't come in before the election was called

As we clear tired and unbelieving eyes and wake up to the new dawn, awaiting the dust to settle on the final counts and picking over the ember of individual dramas, the big picture is clear.   From the moment broadcast news helicopters track Sir Keir's inevitable and stately drive up The Mall to Buckingham Palace to his appointment with the king, where he will agree to form his government, we can start thinking of the realities of power and what it will mean for place.

We can look forward to a rebrand of the department name from the hubristically campaigning ‘Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities' to either a reversion to the Office of Deputy Prime Minister, – giving Angela Rayner parity with John Prescott – an equally hubristic Department for Powering Up or a former brand name.

On the basis there will be stability among the ministerial ranks, Matther Pennycook will have time to bed in pre-prepared plans to redefine NPPF and reintroduce strategic planning – which could be a gamechanger for housing supply.  This might come as early as the King's Speech set it is believed for 17th July.

Former leader of the LGA Labour Group Jim McMahon, if he keeps his shadow brief as minister for English Devolution and Local Government, will have his immediate work cut out deliberating over the deals in Lincolnshire, Hull and Lancashire that didn't come in before the election was called.  The greater task will be to deliver on the very ambitious constitutional reforms with an economic policy rationale as sheen, as outlined in the manifesto and Gordon Brown's ‘A New Britain' prospectus.  This would, if enacted see English mayoral combined authorities reach parity with the devolved governments in the Council of the Nations and Regions.

This begs the question as to how soon will the Labour government be able to fill in the gaps in the map and cover the whole of England with a total devolution settlement to harmonise with the new statutory local growth plans, how these will mesh with regional ambitions and would be connected in turn within the overarching ambit of a revived industrial strategy.

If growth was the central thrust of the Labour ‘change' manifesto, the role of local government in delivering its day job as well as the initial set of five national missions has to be fleshed out. 

As new Number 10 chief of staff Sue Gray assembles the centralised set of advisers gathering to deliver on these missions,  the need to restore stability to local government finances, to staunch the wounds to prevent a further cascade of section 114 notices will be high among her shitlist of immediate inheritance problems.

The manifesto promised a much-desired multi-year financial settlement an end to the tournament bidding for local growth funds that bedevilled the levelling up years and served as an enemy of long-term prudential planning.  It is unlikely the sequence of fiscal events new chancellor Rachel Reeves will deliver this before December, let alone  unblock the glut of audits from a system that needs the regulatory equivalent of Dyno Rod. 

This will have to wait until, one presumes, the full Spending Review that will take us from the fiscal fantasy island of cliff edge spending cuts, and perhaps even set out a direction for the promised land a radical reform of business rates would represent.

This will be a parliament radically different in its composition to its immediate successor than any before when we factor in the 132 members of the 2019 parliament not standing and the huge influx of new Labour MPs alone.  A weakened opposition will struggle to fully hold the government to account at the despatch box or the Commons select committees – most notably the apex spending watchdog Parliamentary Accounts Committee or the replacement to the DLUHC committee.

However, one form of hope for local government arises in the very large number of new Labour MPs whose selection as candidates was bolstered by the fact they were proven serving councillors.   With recent serving knowledge of how councils work through all challenges in front of them to deliver tirelessly for people and place, now would be a good time for the sector to have friends in high places.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis

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