It seemed unlikely at one stage, but yes, we have actually made it into the year 2019. And what a year it is going to be.
Everyone will be hoping the incident just before Christmas, when announcement of the local government settlement was suddenly delayed to allow for a Brexit debate, does not become a precedent. But the fact is that all of central government is now totally dominated by Brexit and its consequences. Ministers are finding they lack the mental energy to take any other major decisions.
This isn’t getting better: anyone who thinks things will suddenly calm down once Britain has actually left the EU on 29 March (or whatever later date), is likely to have to revise their expectations.
It’s going to be a problem for anyone trying to put pressure on the government over housing and planning. Shelter put together a commission on the future of social housing in January 2018, which has just published its report, calling for many more homes to be built by public authorities, more protection from eviction for private tenants, and a new regulator to stand up for tenants.
The Prime Minister has put her personal stamp on affordable housing (her “number one domestic priority”); in normal times the Shelter commission would be a big political challenge, but times are very far from normal. Another sign is that the Conservative attempt to help more people become home owners has come under intolerable strain, and ‘Help to Buy’ will be wound down by 2023. Even those who support its aim feel that it has failed to make home ownership more affordable but instead become a very effective government subsidy of large housebuilders.
The first change in the local government map for 10 years takes place in April, when three sets of districts will merge (in Suffolk and Somerset) and Dorset will become two unitary councils. Reform was partly prompted by councils becoming financially unviable: smaller districts have been warning for years, but with Northamptonshire actually collapsing last year and others teetering, action had to be taken. It is quite possible other authorities may need emergency measures this year, but the problem really keeping council treasurers up at night is the Fair Funding Review which will affect government grants from 2020.
2019 will see another metro Mayor (the eighth) for North of Tyne, covering Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North Tyneside and Northumberland, with more pressure for devolution. On 2 May there is the biggest round of local elections in the four year cycle, with most of England involved. The councillors were last elected in 2015 when the Liberal Democrats were in government, Ed Miliband was Labour leader and David Cameron won an overall majority, so some big changes may happen.
London is the biggest exception. But fat chance that the capital will be immune from electioneering, as everything will be ramping up for the Mayoral election next year. London’s Conservatives are getting good at taking potshots at Sadiq Khan, but don’t seem to have made any actual damage to his electoral support. Their Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey is well behind and still little known to the public, so expect strenuous efforts to promote him. Khan will equally be doing his best to ensure he has a good story to tell in May 2020.
It’s not quite correct to say that London boroughs face no elections, as governing parties will be holding their AGMs at which leaders can be challenged and cabinet members deposed. Long-serving leaders accumulate opponents and last year’s elections brought in many new councillors who have now found their feet (just under one third of all London Borough councillors were first elected in May 2018). Expect challenges, with the left feeling fired up (and a first report from the Grenfell Inquiry is likely this year).
Yes, 2019 is going to be an interesting year. Some would say it’s being so cheerful as keeps us all going…