Will Gove strengthen the DLUHC’s role in Whitehall?

By Robert Pollock | 19 January 2022

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations is a canny politician that gets stuff done. As the Prime Minister’s chief fixer, Michael Gove is now in charge of a department that is recovering from a series of setbacks on planning reform, cladding, and the Oxford to Cambridge Arc, but which, from a local perspective, appears to have had a relatively good pandemic.

To fix levelling up he’ll need to put the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) at the centre of Whitehall and reshape the way it operates towards localities.

The Spending Review and declaration on Government reform have put levelling up at the heart of Government. It’s the first of the Prime Minister’s ‘five missions’ (see below) and it runs through each department’s outcome delivery plans (ODPs). These are similar to Labour’s public service agreements and departmental strategic objectives that were abolished in 2010.

ODPs’ emphasis on outcomes, metrics and evaluation is welcome, as is the acknowledgement that policy should adapt as the data points to better ways to achieve outcomes. Ultimately, this is all about making ‘better evidenced decisions on future spending’. If Mr Gove is successful at fixing levelling up and he sees local government as a trusted delivery partner the sector could be in pole position over the next few years.

For better or worse, Mr Gove had a disproportionate impact on education. But he could do so because he had a large, relatively protected budget and could operate independently of Whitehall for much of the delivery. Local government is very different. Many of the DLUHC’s ODP outcomes are cross-cutting and involve swathes of Whitehall.

Mr Gove clearly has his job cut out to change the way Whitehall works together on complex issues in places.

The department has always found it challenging to influence other departments and its voice at Cabinet has been relatively weak. The latter changed almost immediately once Mr Gove arrived. Planning reforms were mothballed and the sector was top rather than bottom of the pile in the Spending Review on real terms growth in annual expenditure Mr Gove has confirmed that DLUHC’s budget for levelling up was ‘significantly increased’ too.

However, the spending increase for the sector only partly plugged large holes in social care and is flat cash in future years. As I wrote in The MJ on 20 October 2021, Cambridge has a £30m savings challenge over the next five years – greater than our annual net budget. We need support to level up the city and build affordable houses, as on some metrics it is the most unequal in the UK.

Many councils find themselves in similar uncertain positions. We are trying to chart a way out of the financial impacts of the pandemic while second guessing future income, the revenue cost of minimum revenue provision reforms and the impact of a future business rates reset. The sector deserves greater clarity on future funding. We need to direct our activity, deliver savings and deploy investment with partners to target inequalities made worse by the pandemic.

I would argue that key to delivering on levelling up is the DLUHC outcome to enable a ‘sustainable and resilient local government sector that delivers priority services and helps build more empowered and integrated communities’. As a sector, we need to continually press that case in the way we behave.

That outcome, at least initially, will be reported on by narrative rather than metrics. The only other department that has been given that type of latitude is the Cabinet Office, where Mr Gove moved from and which tends to be the political fixer in Whitehall. It will be interesting to see how the narrative-based metrics on levelling up are crafted and land.

We should, of course, be led by the data. There is probably enough already to suggest that local government needs resources to deliver vital services and level up inequalities in their areas. Mr Gove will need all his political wits and fixer skills to take the sector with him if he wants to deliver on this important agenda.

Robert Pollock is chief executive of Cambridge City Council

Analysis - Levelling up:extreme measures

@RobertTPollock

Priority outcome and metrics

The five ‘missions’ the Prime Minister has set for the Government are themes for relentless focus – supported by the Delivery Unit he has established in No. 10 – to drive change throughout this Spending Review period and beyond:

• Levelling Up: To fulfil the government’s ambition to level up the UK

• Net Zero: To get our country well on the way to net zero carbon, supporting green jobs and a better environment for the next generation

• Education, Jobs and Skills: Reduce the lost learning from COVID-19, raise productivity through skills reform, and get people into jobs, particularly higher-paid and higher-skilled ones

• Health: Recover the health system following COVID-19, and level up outcomes

• Crime and Justice: Reduce the volume and harm of crime, including drugs misuse; improve how the criminal justice system deals with the highest harm cases

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