As Byers bows out, its all change for the DTLR

30 May 02
The government is understood to be considering creating a Department for Devolution in the wake of this week's rushed dissolution of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

31 May 2002

In a frenzy of announcements following the shock resignation of DTLR Secretary Stephen Byers on May 28, two new ministries emerged.

Transport was finally moved into a single department after being unsuccessfully merged into a super-ministry in 1997. Former Work and Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling will take the helm at the new Department for Transport.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott returns to his old stamping ground and assumes responsibility for local government, the regions and housing.

Prescott, languishing in the Cabinet Office for the past year, will head a new department specifically created to merge all his responsibilities under the title of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This will take in the Social Exclusion Unit, the regional government offices and the European Secretariat.

According to sources, Byers' resignation took most of government by surprise and came at least two months too early. In the words of one insider, the beefed-up Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is 'a move to plan B'.

Ministers were apparently already considering plans to create a Department for Devolution. Strikingly similar in its remit to the new DP's office, this would merge local government and the regions and reflect the government's policy of decentralisation seen in the rest of the UK.

The department would act as the conduit between the tiers of emerging devolved government in England. It would also be useful in bolstering support in Labour's heartlands, while keeping the party's critics at bay by stemming what are seen as its centralising tendencies.

The idea of creating such a department has already been mooted by Professor Gerry Stoker, chair of the New Local Government Network and widely believed to be the architect of directly elected mayors. 'I hope that this is a clear indication of the government's long-term plans to create a Ministry for Devolution, to ensure that the decentralisation of power becomes an entrenched part of our governance system,' he told Public Finance.

Jack Dromey, national organiser for the T&G, said the new DP's office sent a message to the rest of government. 'I welcome John Prescott's appointment because he is a friend of local government and the regional agenda – unlike many of his centralising colleagues in government,' he said.

Sir Jeremy Beecham also welcomed Prescott's appointment, adding that he would have more time and energy to focus on local government and the regions this time round.

But Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said he would be seeking an urgent meeting to see how the DP intended to move on the two-tier workforce issue.

The Conservatives said it was like putting a 'drunk in charge of a brewery.' Gordon Keymer, Tory leader on the LGA, said: 'We will have a minister in charge more preoccupied with pushing through a personal pet project than tackling real issues.'

There were also several other moves in what became a major government reshuffle. Former chief secretary to the Treasury Andrew Smith takes on the top post at Work and Pensions and is replaced by Paul Boateng who is promoted up the ranks.

Lord Falconer moves from planning and housing at the defunct DTLR and takes the criminal justice brief at the Home Office, while school standards minister Stephen Timms is moved sideways to the Department of Trade and Industry.


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