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.

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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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I spent yesterday in London at the first ever Councillor Camp. This wasn’t a group of local government people hanging around in tents and/or pretending to be Kenneth Williams, but a version of BarCamp especially for councillors who wanted to look at ways we could use social media to better carry out our roles. It was organised by the LGIU and Futuregov, and we were very lucky to be hosted by Facebook, who gave us the run of their London training and meeting room, complete with Doctor Who-themed room names.

Unlike most local government events that I get invited to, this was a free event, and rather than having a rigid schedule, it was run as an ‘unconference‘ where most of the sessions and what they covered were determined by the participants, not by some schedule determined in advance. Another key feature of the day was that we were all encouraged to keep electronic devices on throughout the day and so as well as what was happening at the event itself, there was lots of discussion on the #cllrcamp hashtag on Twitter.

The day started with a number of different speakers offering a variety of perspectives on the use of social media in local politics. Again, this differed from normal conferences in that they were only allowed five minutes each to speak, and thus none of the presentations turned into death by PowerPoint. (“Conducting a PowerPoint presentation is a lot like smoking a cigar. Only the person doing it likes it. The people around him want to hit him with a chair.”) This meant they had to boil things down to a few key points, which helped to set the tone for the day, rather than telling everyone what to think. Some key points I picked up from those speeches:

  • Brighton and Hove Council created their own Twitter hashtag – #bhbudget – to promote online discussion of their budget, and councillors were active participants in the online debate, which did feed concrete proposals into the budget
  • Denmark’s tax authorities use their online presence to post details and pictures of what people’s taxes are used for
  • “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.” “Your residents are human, so be human.” Politicians need to be on social media as themselves, not constructing a separate online personality.
  • After those brief talks, we were into the main meat of the day, with people filling out a huge number of post-it that were then collated together into a grid of different sessions, where we could talk about what we wanted to. These discussion sessions were, for me, more useful than breakout sessions at other events. Again, there was no sitting round watching one person PowerPoint us to death, and the fact that people had come to a session because they wanted to be there and had chosen the topic meant people were much more willing to participate.

    (And in itself, letting people define the terms of their engagement and interaction, not having it rigidly imposed from on high is something local government could and should learn to do)

    I could go on for ages, but some of the thoughts I’ve had from Councillor Camp are likely going to generate posts in themselves over the weeks to come, but here are some of the key points for me:

  • Engaging in social media means giving up some control – councils and councillors can create and start discussions, but can’t determine where it goes after that.
  • There has to be more work done to get more people involved and online, so the discussion isn’t just amongst the most savvy.
  • Any social media strategy has to be capable of evolving to recognise the growth of new networks and platforms.
  • A new generation is coming through who see being online and involved in social media as entirely natural and integral to their lives, not an added extra (see this quote fromDouglas Adams). That councillors are generally much older than the population they represent could create issues here.
  • The effectiveness of your social media presence is linked to authenticity – people expect you to be yourself and respond as such, not a programmed drone.
  • Interactivity is expected, not an added-extra. People will expect to interact with the social media presence of councils and councillors and get a meaningful response.
  • There’s more to come – and some of it might link with the thoughts I’ve had after reading The Political Brain this week – but overall Councillor Camp was a great experience, and I’d recommend any follow up and repeat events to other councillors, especially those who aren’t as engaged online and want to discover how to go further. One idea suggested was the potential for regional events, to get more people involved in a more convenient location – anyone fancy a Councillor Camp East?

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