Any excuse to drag out an old favourite.

Any excuse to drag out an old favourite.

George Monbiot in today’s Guardian brings us the news that David Cameron has been writing to the leader of Oxfordshire County Council to complain about the council’s reduction in services. Probably unsure if he had an actual letter from the Prime Minister or a very clever hoaxer, the leader replied with a careful explanation of how strapped for cash OCC is, as is much of local government thanks to the cumulative effect of funding changes since 2010.

What strikes me most about Cameron’s letter, though, is the way it regurgitates the spin Eric Pickles used to spout about how councils can mitigate the effects of the cuts. Pickles’ time as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was particularly fruitful in prompting posts for this blog, but did very little for local government. Pickles came into office with a vision of local government as something bloated and inefficient that was nothing more than all the worst nightmares of Taxpayers Alliance propaganda come to life, where massive office complexes were heated by diversity officers burning stacks of £50 notes, their work overseen by council meetings that were fuelled by expensive teas flown in from China and hand-made golden biscuits. This fuelled his belief that cuts in council budgets would be easy to make, exemplified in his 50 money saving ideas for local government.

Cameron’s letter comes from the same place, completely divorced from the reality of councils (like most senior politicians, he has no experience in local government) but instead accepting the man in Whitehall (in this case, whichever SpAd at DCLG actually wrote the letter) knows best. That’s why we hear talk of how the council can find savings through efficiencies, cuts in the back office and joint working, completely ignoring the fact that these are all things that councils have already done and have been doing for years. I can recall being at the LGA Conference in 2008 and seeing a message on a comments board there saying ‘if efficiency savings were so easy, we’d be doing them already’ but it seems the impression at the heart of government still remains that councils are full of potential savings that they just can’t be bothered to make.

I’d hoped that the government’s attitude would change after Eric Pickles was found a nice sinecure well away from the Cabinet table, but Cameron’s letter shows his attitudes still remain there. Local government’s still seen as something that should get on with the job of doing what the centre tells it, not having any opinions of its own about what it might be able to achieve. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s busy believing his own spin, even when the reality is staring him in the face.

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Hopefully for the last time: Eric Pickles fails to understand localism

picklesbiscuitsOver the past few years Eric Pickles and his strange contradictory definition of localism – where councils get to locally decide whether they agree with him totally or wholeheartedly – have provided many posts for this blog and I may feel momentarily sad on Friday if he’s no longer around to provide me with such easy pickings in the future.

However, being a generous man he’s given me one last thing to have a shot at it before he (hopefully) goes and it’s yet again him failing to understand anything about localism while showing that his time at DCLG has been about maintaining Whitehall’s central control over everything. Indeed, it’s worth noting that while city regions have their flaws, they are an attempt at some kind of devolution and Pickles and the DCLG have been kept well away from them in case they mess that up as badly as they’ve messed up localism.

But back to the subject at hand, and it seems that Pickles spent Thursday evening going on a bit of a Twitter rant at Nick Clegg talking about ideas for local government that he and the Conservatives had blocked. As ever, these were ideas about how Councils could take more control over their areas and widen their tax base so they didn’t have to rely solely on the blunt instrument of council tax or the rapidly shrinking grants from DCLG. Pickles, unsurprisingly, gloated about how he’d said no to all of these just as you’d expect from someone who sees his job as interfering with councils and keeping them from running services in the way they choose.

Pickles isn’t unique in this approach – though he has a boorish way of expressing it that makes him so much more annoying than previous holders of his job – and if there’s one thing I’d love to see from the next government, regardless of which party or parties make it up, it’s a commitment to real localism and devolution. That includes giving councils a wide range of tools – including a variety of tax raising powers – to choose from themselves and decide which works best for their areas.

The problem with Pickles through out his five years at DCLG has been that he doesn’t see local government as something that should be allowed to get on and do its job according to the wishes of local people. Instead for him it’s just another arm of the centralised state, there to carry out whatever diktats he sends down from Whitehall, the only power it needs being to choose just how much it agrees with him. Real localism needs central government to understand that it has to get out of the way and let local government do what it wants to do, and Pickles has demonstrated consistently over the last five years that he’s a roadblock to achieving that.

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englandjigsawIn this interview with the Guardian, George Osborne does make some good points about the importance of devolution, and does seem to be genuinely committed to giving more powers away from Whitehall, even to the extent of giving some local authorities more control over the purse strings. Sure, it’s not full devolution or a commitment to proper federalism, but when it’s compared to Eric Pickles’ vision of localism – where you’re locally free to decide how much you agree with him – it’s a refreshing change.

However, all that’s tempered by his devotion to a single model of devolution – combined authorities (usually as ‘city regions’) with elected mayors. I’ve written before about the problems caused by combined authorities in that they’re just adding another level of bureaucracy to an already confusing system of local governance and not making things any easier or more democratic.

However, in the light of some of the rhetoric from the election campaign, I’m still confused by the way Osborne – and so much of Whitehall – is continuing to push elected mayors, despite the fact that people have consistently rejected them. We hear howls of protest whenever it’s suggested that the SNP might consider having another independence referendum in Scotland in the next few years, on the grounds that last September settled the issue for a generation. Apparently, though, the people of English cities aren’t allowed to have the same decisive say over how they want to run their affairs. People want more power locally, and to insist that they can only have that power if they agree to Whitehall’s way of running things – a directly elected model of sole power that doesn’t apply nationally – is to get devolution wrong from the start. It shouldn’t be about regions conforming to what the centre wants to get power, it should be about them claiming the powers they need to use in the way they decide is best.

Insisting on a single way of doing things is the Treasury’s way of asserting and remaining in control through any devolution process. Insisting on something the people have already rejected because Whitehall knows best is anti-democratic and undermines the whole purpose of devolution from the start.

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cbebackI’ve been thinking some more about devolution recently, particularly the ‘city region’/combined authority model that seems to be all the rage at the moment. I’ve outlined before why I think this isn’t a good way of going about devolution – not least because the people have been kept as far away from any discussions about it as possible – but I want to look in a bit more detail at the implications of part of that.

One of the mantras readily uttered by proponents of this method of devolution is that ‘people don’t want more politicians’, and so there are no major democratic institutions being set up to oversee these combined authorities. However, just because there aren’t new politicians doesn’t mean that there isn’t any new bureaucracy and like the LEPs before them, combined authorities seem to be a perfect way to create a whole new level of bureaucracy without any sort of democratic oversight. It’s a clever trick, in a way. If a combined authority did come with a new layer of politicians, there might be pressure to abolish something else to make up for that, but by using the distraction of ‘no more politicians’, a lot of bureaucrats can be sneakily created.

The important thing we are told about devolution is that it will hand lots of power to these new combined authorities, so there’ll be a lot of work for people to do, lots of reports to be written, circulated, consulted on, discussed some more and then perhaps approved. The bureaucracy of the combined authority will get to interact with all the existing bureaucracies – remember, nothing’s being abolished or even rolled up into the new authority – but democratic oversight of this process is going to be weak. Control is going to be in the hand of leaders of the local authorities that make up the combined authority, all of whom are going to be quite busy running their own authorities and not scrutinising the work of the combined authority in any detail.

So, we have a situation where there are more layers of bureaucracy than ever before, but fewer ways to keep check on them. What this gives is the possibility to develop what’s effectively a local deep state – a permanent bureaucracy that effectively sets the parameters of what is and isn’t possible within the political sphere and keeps everything within that consensus. An important part of this is having multiple bureaucracies that can feed off each other and give a seemingly democratic imprimatur to anything that emerges from their processes, despite the people having been kept as far away from it as possible.

The important part of having multiple overlapping bureaucracies is that you can give a policy document the impression of having had lots of involvement in it without it having strayed outside the bureaucracy. If there’s one organisation, it’s obvious that a document has just toured the departments, but once a whole host of different organisations are seemingly involved things take on a different complexion. Suddenly, a policy takes on a life of its own, with no clear origin, but lots of people trying to push it through on multiple fronts.

The important thing to note is that there isn’t any active conspiracy here, just people doing what comes naturally when bureaucracy is left unchecked. Their job is to make policy, and in a vacuum of any real political direction, they’ll go ahead and do what seems right to them, which will normally be whatever is the current political mainstream consensus. Even if an idea starts outside the boundaries of the currently acceptable, by the time its been bounced around several different layers of bureaucracy it will have become the requisite shade of grey.

Devolution should be about giving areas the chance to claim power for themselves and do things differently, but the current proposals don’t achieve that. All they’ll do is create a series of new local bureaucracies that are tied into the same way of doing things as everyone else, with no democratic oversight or control that would be able to control the bureaucracy. Instead, we’re likely to get a bureaucratically-dominated system where any democratic involvement is going to involve little more than rubber-stamping decisions that have already emerged from the deep bureaucratic consensus.

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Miliband’s speech: does he want real change, or just change that works for Labour?

Labour annual conference 2014During his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband made lots of references to problems with our political system.

she thinks politics is rubbish. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that a lot on the doorstep…
Our politics doesn’t listen…
And to cap it all, in our politics, it’s a few who have the access while everyone else is locked out…
People think politics is more and more a game and that all we’re in it for is ourselves…
You know people think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives…
We don’t just need to restore people’s faith in the future with this economic and social plan we need to change the way politics works in this country.
In this day and age, when people are so cynical about politics.

So, Ed thinks there are problems with our politics, that people are cynical about it and it’s all a game. So how did he choose to start his speech?

Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well.

He could have used that to praise some of the achievements of Manchester council, to tell us what its done for its residents. In a speech that was going to talk about reform, he could have used it as an example of what councils could achieve now, even when they’re hamstrung by the current system, and imagine what they might do if they were set free. It could have been a great way to illustrate the potential power of devolution and regionalism.

Instead, he chose to appeal to Labour tribalism and make a virtue out of the fact that Manchester is now effectively a one-party state. There are 96 members of Manchester City Council, of which 95 are Labour councillors and the other one is an ex-Labour councillor who now sits as an independent. This is all, of course, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system which means Manchester isn’t a fluke, but a regular occurence. There are councils all over England and Wales where one party has an absurd level of dominance and huge swathes of voters aren’t represented.

Is he against politics as a game, or is he fine with that game as long as Labour are winning? Is he happy for whole swathes of people to be locked out of power and not listened to? Are the Labour Party in this for proper change, or just in it for themselves? In short, does Ed Miliband really want a different kind of politics, or just a slightly tweaked version of our current kind?

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Following up from Monday’s post (a Lord thought it was ‘excellent‘, you know…) and with Nick Clegg launching a new report on devolution today, a few more thoughts that I wanted to set down in advance of writing about this properly.

1) We need a new language of devolution

I’ve had a quick look through the summary of the IPPR report that’s being launched today and it’s generally good. There are some points of implementation where I’d differ from them, but I think the principle is good.

The problem is that if you try explaining it to people, or asking them to read even the summary report, most people’s eyes are going to glaze over very quickly when they hit management-speak phrases like ‘core outcome entitlements’. The reason Yes is doing so well in Scotland is that ‘independence’ is a simple complex, easily understood. ‘Asymmetric devolution to combined authorities’ isn’t, and if we’re going to go out and argue for it, we need to understand how to make that case better. Writing that appeals to fellow policy wonks is not the way to do that.

2) We need to stop the obsession with elected mayors

If there’s anything that shows how much think tanks are generally based within the M25, it’s the idea that everywhere needs an elected Mayor. After all, London has one, so why shouldn’t everywhere else? The problem is, it’s been tried and tried again and people are generally resistant to the idea of having them. That doesn’t stop them sneaking into every report about giving power to the regions or promoting our cities as if they’re the only answer to the question.

There are important questions about how local government (and any future devolved governments) are run, but the options should be more than just status quo or mayors. We also need to break away from the idea that one size fits all, and the same model needs to apply in the same way to every authority.

3) We need simple boundaries and obvious accountability

At the moment, Colchester sits within many different areas for many different things: the East of England, the Haven Gateway, Essex County Council, Essex Police, South East Local Enterprise Partnership and many others. None of those groupings operate on the same boundaries, with lots of them crossing and intersecting with themselves and others. I know we’re not unique in this and the same pattern is repeated across the country. Different regions are set up for different parts of the government, and each one ends up needing a separate bureaucracy and structures for accountability because nothing currently exists in that area that could take it on.

If we’re going to have sensible and popular devolution, then we need to keep things simple. Boundaries need to be set, and then organisations need to be set up to work within those boundaries, allowing them to share the costs of bureaucracy and accountability. Devolved and federal systems work because there’s clearly understood accountability and responsibility, not confusion about which area you might be in for what responsibility at any given time.

Like I said, these are just some general thoughts I wanted to set down before I forget them, but all comments, thoughts and questions are welcome.


There surely must come a point when everyone realises that Eric Pickles is a master satirist. He’s pulled off the routine for far longer than anyone else might have managed – Morris, Baron-Cohen, even Sellers, they could keep up a character for ages, but none ever managed anything close to the length that the ‘Pickles’ hoax has run for.

As we all know, one of his most popular routines of the last couple of years has been localism, where he delivers a speech out of two sides of his mouth at once. On one side, he talks about the joys of local decision making, how planning should be about neighbourhoods and not central targets and how central government should leave local government alone, while on the other side he’s imposing decisions on local government, bringing in planning rules that weaken local power and telling councils exactly how they should spend their budgets. The sheer joy of the comedy comes in him saying these things at the same time while apparently being unaware that he’s contradicting himself.

He’s updated the routine today, with this fantastic claim that councils who’ve played by the rules he set down are ‘dodging democracy’. When told that if they raised council tax by 2% or more they’d have to have a referendum – which Pickles would order but they’d have to pay for – councils who’ve needed to raise council tax levels have chosen to do so by just under 2%. That’s their local decision made by local councillors, and so the champion of localism has had to wade in and tell them that they’re wrong.

According to Pickles, council tax – for which all councils must send a detailed bill, including details of where it goes and how it’s spent, then collect separately – is a ‘stealth tax’ and that councils, elected by the people, just like the Parliament that Pickles sits in, have to ‘win over the public’ before raising any taxes. Councils should ‘stop treating residents with contempt’, because that’s clearly the role of Pickles and the DCLG, not councils.

You have to laugh, because otherwise you have to believe he actually means what he says, and that would be far too ridiculous.

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