A very interesting article in the Local Government Chronicle (behind a paywall, unfortunately, though you may be able to access it through Google) about the Local Government Association’s executive meeting this week, where Eric Pickles came in for some pretty heavy condemnation.
I’ve been pretty heavy on Pickles here too, so it’s good to see that others share my views both within the Liberal Democrats and without. Indeed, it’s very hard to find any voices in local government willing to speak up in favour of the current regime at the DCLG and the article implies that the current mess is inspiring calls for the entire department to be abolished. Of course, that’s not entirely down to Pickles as the department had a pretty poor reputation under the previous Government too. However, the current stream of incoherent policy and ministerial announcements that appear to be targeted solely at the Daily Mail do make me wonder whether they’re the result of a bet to see if there were any circumstances at all in which a ‘bring back Hazel Blears’ campaign would be credible.
But this goes back to my comments the other day – in an age of supposed localism, what is the point of a central Government department to deal with local government? If power is going to be returned to local councils, then the basic duties that remain in central government can be easily handled as part of another department’s brief. (Indeed, the LGC article reports Richard Kemp suggesting it could be handled by the Cabinet Office) As it stands, we have a department with a split personality – on one hand, telling councils to make their own decisions, and on the other feeling it necessary to wade in and criticise councils who do exactly that. If Whitehall truly doesn’t know best, why do we need a department that sees its role as telling councils it does?
However, while Pickles and the DCLG are coming in for heavy criticism, does it matter? After all, it’s only coming from councillors and the LGA, and they and their complaints are so far down the pecking order in the eyes of the national media that this sort of problem will never really crop up on the national political radar. Councillors get brought into news studios to defend themselves against the crazy accusations of the press, not to generate news or point out that there might be problems elsewhere.
Which brings me back to the start – will Pickles go if Cameron decides it’s time for his first reshuffle, and if he does, how will he be replaced? By someone else deciding to use the DCLG as a bully pulpit and a fast track to regular appearances on Newsnight, or a new solution that actually reflects the way the system’s meant to be working now?