The familiarity of uncertainty

By Heather Jameson | 11 July 2022
  • Heather Jameson

With the sudden sacking of levelling up secretary Michael Gove – as he was in the process of piloting the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill through Parliament – you could be forgiven for fearing for the future of the Government’s flagship policy.

But the appointment of former secretary of state Greg Clark will steady the ship in the short-term – he is no stranger to the agenda. He is well-liked in local government, with a reputation for being able, approachable and with the intellectual capacity to grasp the brief.

What is perhaps the most surprising is his appointment by Boris Johnson. Not only did the Prime Minister oust staunch remainer Mr Clark from his ministerial career, he even expelled him and 20 others from the party in September 2010 for voting against a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Clark began his local government odyssey at the very start of the coalition Government, as minister for decentralisation before being named as minister for cities in July 2011. The two posts epitomise his career as a minister.

He was author of the National Planning Policy Framework, which took much of the sting out of controversial house building – still a major policy headache today.

While George Osborne was largely credited with creating the Northern Powerhouse and the first Manchester devolution deal – and the subsequent waves of devolution that followed – it was Mr Clark who, as one local government insider put it, ‘did the heavy lifting’ on the devolution deals.

When he was promoted to financial secretary of the Treasury in 2012, Mr Clark reportedly asked to take the Cities brief with him – and it remained under his stewardship throughout several iterations and we started to see the first City Deals and Growth Deals.

He was warmly welcomed back to the Department for Communities and Local Government as the secretary of state, in 2015. He may only have spent a year in post, but it was an eventful one.

He saw through the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and he presided over a new, lighter touch intervention for Birmingham City Council.

For local government finance, he began to see through the process of business rate retention announced by George Osborne, and introduced a four-year settlement in a bid to give more fiscal certainty.

In an admirable example of political chutzpah, Mr Clark accused the Local Government Association of being ‘confused’ by the local government finance settlement in 2015. He claimed the association had been wrong-footed as they had not been expecting such a good settlement. Nevertheless, he did dig deeper and by spring 2016 there was an extra £150m on the table.

As secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy he produced an industrial strategy that put economic growth at its heart – but was criticised for snubbing councils, choosing to put Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) at the helm.

The then chief executive of think-tank Localis, Liam Booth-Smith, described the decision to put LEPs in the driving seat as ‘sub-optimal for driving national growth and productivity’. However, much of his policy blueprint – and his work with Tory Grandee Lord Michael Heseltine – has morphed into levelling up.

In short, Mr Clark is collegiate, intelligent and a strong advocate of devolution. He understands local government and economic growth, is an arch localist and will provide stability for the department in the short-term.

But with a leadership contest in place, Mr Clark’s tenure may well be short-lived. Who takes on the brief in the longer-term will dictate the future path for local government.

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Whitehall Politics Greg Clark Levelling up