This was posted on 1 April 2013.
Today’s announcement that the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) is to close is a mark of success. It is the logical conclusion of Eric Pickles’ mission to hand back power to communities and local government. Here are three reasons why its demise could improve the lot of communities and local government:
- Localism means Whitehall doesn’t need to guide local government any more CLG ministers were right to embrace localism, and its implementation means that the local government function of the department has little left to do. Closing CLG makes responsibilities clearer. Government can’t any longer tell councils how to spend or raise money and, conversely, councils cannot blame government for any poor performance.
- Local organisations can support communities better than central government Eric Pickles was awarded the ‘golden axe’ by Conservative Home for cutting his departmental budget faster than any other minister. The department’s non local government budget fell by nearly 50 per cent, and the dependency of communities on the department has been reduced dramatically. Communities are better supported by institutions closer to the action eg council social service teams are better able to help troubled families than a national programme run from Whitehall.
- Construction activity may rise if planning and building regulations are given time to settle down One side effect of CLG’s hyperactive reform of the planning system is that no one now knows how it works. Without CLG pushing further reforms, planning law can now enjoy a period of relative calm, and developers’ confidence should increase. One of the jewels in the crown of CLG policy making is the zero carbon homes legislation, which has spurred new energy in a moribund UK construction sector. Unfortunately, some ministers keen on deregulation began to unwind the high standards but in doing so created greater uncertainty in the construction sector. Asking an existing government agency to take responsibility for implementation of the government’s 2016 zero carbon homes will remove the politics from building regulations and should increase business investment in innovation.
How to make it happen The Prime minister and Mr Pickles can now cement CLG’s legacy in three steps: First, by offering the c.1,000 CLG staff their chance in the sun rather than making them redundant. They should be given the opportunity to work in a local council where there should be some interesting jobs to go to. Our recent survey of city deals suggests the cities are busy developing new housing refurbishment, local transport and green infrastructure schemes. Second, CLG’s £15 billion budget should be handed in its entirety to local councils, who have suffered the most severe cuts in the current spending round. Some of this should be ring-fenced for investment in low carbon energy and public transport projects which can provide a long term source of revenue for council coffers Finally, the cabinet post of communities secretary should be retained but given to a council leader, elected by a ballot of their peers. Their role would be to remind their fellow ministers that there is government outside Whitehall.