Worth Reading 44: Call me

Not one link found on somebody’s voicemail.

Earth Hour – A new short story from Ken MacLeod.
Misleading money-saving claims help no one – Bad Science becomes Bad Department for Communities and Local Government for a week, as Ben Goldacre points out how flawed the claim that local authorities could save £10bn a year from procurement costs is.
Michele Bachmann’s Holy War – A Rolling Stone profile of ‘the candidate Sarah Palin was meant to be’. Scared yet?
Murdoch forces normal people to agree with the Guardian – the Daily Mash’s take on phone hacking. “Thank goodness the Daily Mail covered it by making the thing absolutely everyone is talking about the eighth story on the front page of their website, below the heart-stopping drama of a Royal canoe race and a couple of reassuringly familiar stories about foreign scroungers.”
Now is the moment to stop Murdoch – Matthew Norman writes in the Independent

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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?

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Remember localism? That grand idea that Government ought to stop interfering in the business of local councils and let them run services the way they thought would be best for their residents.

If you don’t, don’t worry. Turns out the Government – or at least the DCLG – doesn’t either. Chris White did a good job of pointing out some of the flaws in the Localism Bill on Lib Dem Voice this morning, but the real torpedoing of the idea below the waterline turns out to be a self-inflicted wound.

The only real surprise is that the wound appears to have been caused by Bob Neill rather than Eric Pickles, but as Neill is just echoing similar comments previously made by Pickles and giving them the stamp of kneejerk policy, he’s clearly doing Pickles’ work for him here.

Yes, it seems that councils should no longer have the power to decide how to collect their residents’ domestic waste as Bob Neill has clearly researched the issue in depth, spent lots of times with the various modelling tools and data sources that show the pros and cons of different collection methods, then come to a reasoned conclusion been reading the Daily Mail far too often, and decided that Whitehall knows best. Yes, he’s going to step in and “reverse the legacy of Labour’s savage cutbacks to weekly rubbish collections” which shows a spectacular failure by a local government minister to note that a) councils of all political stripes have moved away from weekly rubbish collections, and b) there are a whole lot more Tory-run councils than there are Labour-run ones, none of which have shown much of a desire to reverse any supposed legacy in this area.

Neill also seems to have spent the last month or so out of the country – or at least, I assume he has, otherwise he’s completely failed to notice the thick blanket of white slippery stuff that’s covered much of the country in that time. It’s perhaps not a shock to most people to discover that bin lorries – which move relatively slowly and are required to start and stop frequently – don’t always operate too well on icy roads.

What’s becoming clear is that rather than becoming the enabler and champion for localism, the DCLG is perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way it happens. Indeed, it says something about the way Britain is governed in that we still have a centrally-run department for local government, seemingly dedicated to ensuring that nothing at all happens locally that Whitehall hasn’t approved of. Labour were at least open about this centralised controlling tendency, decreeing new sets of targets and indicators almost daily, but now we’re in a situation where councils are told to do what they want right up until the moment when a minister shouts ‘stop!’ and berates them for doing it.

True localism would see the DCLG being abolished and Eric Pickles happily proclaiming that he’s made himself redundant, but I doubt we’ll see that any time soon.

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