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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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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