One of the priorities of the recent Spending Round was to put councils on a “strong and sustainable footing for the future”, and in particular to address the pressures on social care.
That’s according to Robert Jenrick MP, who was appointed Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in late July.
“To do that, you have to create a platform from which you can build. So the Chancellor and I worked hard to ensure the sector has the resources it needs for this year,” he explains.
“Local authority leaders were clear to me that they need the stability that comes with a multi-year settlement and, clearly, it will be very important for me to deliver that for them next year
“Local councils have been heroic in working so hard over the past 10 years to find efficiencies, make savings, and play a really critical role in the recovery of the public finances.
“This Spending Round was an opportunity to turn a page and invest more in public services and in a wider renewal of our infrastructure, our towns. It was important to me, as the new Secretary of State, to ensure that local government was part of that investment because local government plays such an important role in delivering public services.”
The former Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury was “absolutely delighted” with the extra £3.5 billion for the sector announced by Chancellor Sajid Javid – one of his predecessors at the Ministry for Homes, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), and with whom he is “aligned” on priorities including house building, home ownership and investment in infrastructure.
But he agrees that next year’s three-year Spending Review will be crucial for local government.
“Local authority leaders were clear to me that they need the stability that comes with a multi-year settlement and, clearly, it will be very important for me to deliver that for them next year.”
Social care remains “one of the great challenges that we face”, says Mr Jenrick, and he acknowledges the long wait for a green paper on the issue.
“The Prime Minister wants to find a long-term answer, to reach across the political divide to find that solution, and we’re going to be bringing forward proposals as soon as possible.”
An enthusiast for devolution, Mr Jenrick feels the country is “far too centralised”, and promises a return to this agenda “with all the vim and vigour it had just a couple of years ago”.
“There are many people across the UK who feel that London and the South East get more than their fair share of investment and attention by politicians in Westminster,” he says.
“I sincerely believe that we have to put spreading prosperity and opportunity across the country at the absolute heart of this Government. And local government will play an absolutely critical role in that.”
Mr Jenrick wants to work with local leaders to create more opportunities for devolution, and says his “door is always open” to discuss possible deals, and to try to take these forward “at pace”.
“This Spending Round was an opportunity to turn a page and invest more in public services
He is planning to draw up a framework that sets out the devolution opportunities available to different parts of the country, “so that there’s a levelling up of powers and opportunities for existing mayors, and it’s very clear what’s available to those parts of the country that don’t already have specific devolution deals”.
But Mr Jenrick wouldn’t be drawn on the details – whether there would be rural or county deals, or if the mayoral model would remain the model of choice.
“This is very early days in the life of this government and a great deal more work needs to be done. But I would like to see the opportunity to take greater ownership over the future of your area spread as widely possible, and beyond the great cities that are already enjoying them,” he says.
Meanwhile, councils are also awaiting more details of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), the UK replacement for the billions of pounds of EU regeneration funding currently used by local areas to create jobs and stimulate local economies.
Mr Jenrick hopes the prosperity fund “will be bigger and better, and more tailored to the needs of communities in the UK than is possible as part of an EU-wide scheme”.
“We’ve given this a great deal of thought in the department. We’ve held more than 25 outreach events across the country involving hundreds of people, many of whom have been drawn from local authorities, and with that learning we are designing the UKSPF, which we are going to consult on in due course,” he says.
“The guiding principles are that it should be a fund that unites the country, that helps us to level up and share prosperity and opportunity to all parts of the country, and that it’s focused on productivity and competitiveness.
“In designing something new, we’re very conscious about those parts of the country that are heavily reliant on funding today and those organisations for whom it is absolutely critical that we provide the transition and reassurance that they will need to move smoothly to the new and better regime.”
He adds: “I really wanted to thank the sector for the way in which it has responded to the Brexit challenge. I know a huge amount of work was done before 29 March and, in the short period in which I have been Secretary of State, I have been incredibly impressed by local councils’ professionalism and commitment to delivering Brexit on 31 October.
“I’m working very closely with the Brexit Delivery Group, which brings together a really experienced group of local government councillors and chief executives.
“I see my role as being the voice of local government within the Whitehall Brexit preparedness operation and ensuring that the concerns and questions that the sector has are voiced at the highest level within government, and that we get answers and solutions wherever possible.”
Mr Jenrick’s passion, though, is housing.
“I want to be a Secretary of State who increases the number of homes that are built and who works productively with local councils to ensure that we are building the right homes in the right places, of design quality that makes these homes to last,” he says.
Worryingly, though, for councils, which currently approve nine out of 10 planning applications, the first change he references are “further planning reforms…to make the system faster, cheaper and better for developers”.
“I want to work very closely with local councils to ensure the system is working for them and that they have the capacity they need in their planning departments to get the system working faster,” he says.
Pressed on the issue of planning fees – councils are not currently able to recoup the actual costs of processing applications – he adds: “If there are further steps we can take to make sure councils are properly remunerated for the work that they do and in return are processing applications on time, efficiently, then I’m interested in what we can do in that area.”
Mr Jenrick concludes: “Home ownership is very important to me and to the Prime Minister so we will be bringing forward more proposals to boost home ownership, particularly for young people and those on lower incomes.
“The first step that we have taken is announcing a new model for shared ownership, which I hope housing associations will take up, and which enables people to increase their equity in increments of as little as 1 per cent or £1,000. That’s the kind of initiative we’ve going to be working on in the months ahead.”