What You Can Get Away With » eric pickles

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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Elsewhere

As I’ve written enough about Eric Pickles here this week, I decided my next piece about him should go somewhere else, so you can find it on Liberal Democrat Voice.

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The trouble with writing a blog post about Eric Pickles is that just when you think he’s dug down to a whole new unbeatable low, he finds himself a better shovel and heads down deeper.

So today we have the news of the latest round of local government cuts which are about as awful as everyone was expected. But in an effort to claim that any cutbacks in services that result from this aren’t the fault of the Government, we get to hear the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government telling us that there are easy ways for councils to make more savings.

“What is it, Eric?” Councils ask eagerly, hoping that the great minds of DCLG have stumbled upon some magical ways to make easy savings without service cuts. “What great idea have you stumbled upon?”

“It’s not just one suggestion – it’s fifty!” Booms the Secretary of State, and magically sends a list to every Council throughout the land.

“Wow!” Exclaim the councils. “Fifty ways to save money! Thank you, oh wise and knowledgeable Secretary of State. We’re so grateful for this advice that we won’t even make a Fifty Shades Of Grey joke.”

“Never fear, my friends.” The Secretary of State says. “I’m sure you’ll appreciate my sage advice.”

Eagerly the Councils opened their guides and read them quickly, wanting to find what ways the geniuses of Whitehall had found for saving money. What incredible new schemes might they have found? What new advice on making the most of meagre money did they have to impart?

“Wait a minute!” One small and plucky council finally shouted. “This is just a list of things most councils are doing already, mixed in with some political dogma about Common Purpose and trade unions.”

“We’re already doing most of these.” Said another.

“We are too!” Others cried, and soon the calls of agreement became a cacophony, occasionally interspersed with bitter laughter at the idea that Councils might not have noticed that Town Halls made good wedding venues.

“But wait.” One of them finally asked. “If the geniuses of Whitehall think that this is all new and useful information, and not just reminding us of the same things we’ve all been doing and talking about for the last few years, what are they doing with their time? Are they looking at what councils are actually doing, or is the Secretary of State too busy obsessing over bins and talking to ‘Conservative madrassas’ to bother with finding out what local government is actually doing?”

And they looked to the Secretary of State for an answer, but he’d departed, leaving just a newly emptied bin in his place.

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For what sins committed in a previous life have we found ourselves inflicted with Eric Pickles in this one? I’ve written many times about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, each time sure that he’s reached a new nadir, that he can go no lower, and then every time he confounds expectations to find an even lower common denominator. Indeed, so bad has be been at DCLG that he makes councillors I’ve met from all parties positively wistful for the days of Hazel Blears.

One of the main problems I have with Pickles’ reign at the DCLG is the centralist localism he’s continually prescribed. The paradox in that description is intentional – Pickles et al talk about a new age of localism for local councils, but it only means that you’re free to decide locally which shade of his policy you wish to implement. It’s a ruse to try and get councils to take the blame for centrally-imposed funding cuts that will reduce services to the bone. See for instance, the Barnet Graph of Doom, or Birmingham’s Jaws of Doom for a view of how perilous the situation is. As council leaders are warning today, things are dire, and a further 2% cut could be catastrophic.

In this light, the fact that Pickles could find £250m from his budget to pay for councils to keep weekly bin collections does seem an odd priority. (Full disclosure: Colchester Borough Council is receiving money from this fund) It’s right that MPs question this – as Tristram Hunt did in the House of Commons on Monday. Their exchange is worth recording:

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): In towns and cities across England, local authorities are being forced to close museums, shut care homes and end library provision, but the Government found £250 million to empty the bins more regularly. What kind of abysmal, philistine, reactionary Government put dustbins above library books?

Mr Pickles: The people who are putting dustbins above those things are people who care about the general service provided to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman is a bit of a luvvie, so no doubt he is looking intensely at the drop in culture, but that is a matter for local decision, and he is wholly wrong. People should look at how an authority can get more money in by exploiting and using its cultural heritage. Frankly, he is just lining up a bunch of luvvies. He should listen a little bit more.

There we have it – bin collections are part of ‘the general service provided to the electorate’ but libraries and culture are just something for ‘a bunch of luvvies’. That’s the Pickles view of the world, where weekly bin collections are sacrosant, but the work of libraries is irrelevant. Who needs culture when you can have a black plastic sack instead?

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Discussing the Cabinet’s Jubilee gift to the Queen:

Asked whether she might have enough table mats already before today’s gift, Mr Pickles said: “One can never have too many table mats.”

Further comment is superfluous.

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Two interesting stories from recent weeks that show what a couple of Secretaries of State think of it:

From last month, Michael Gove wants more powers to change how schools are run, to stop people having their say over what happens to their local school.

And today, Eric Pickles has started threatening councils that don’t do what he tells them with cuts to their funding. It’s about waste collections this time, but who knows what hoops he might make councils jump through for funding in the future?

As someone once said, while talking about something other than localism: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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We should not send people to prison for being offensive – Jonathan Calder explains what should be a simple principle, but it’s one sadly forgotten by many people.
Eric Pickles: are you a cigar-chomping Commie? – Writing at Liberal Democrat Voice, Andy Boddington points out some of the Communities Secretary’s inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
Perpetual Peace and European Union – To mark the EU winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Chris Brooke reproduces a lecture on some of the philosophical origins of it.
NHS Reform the bill that “no one voted for”? Not really. – Mat Bowles looks at what was actually in the Conservative manifesto two years ago.
Jimmy Savile and David Icke – all the pieces matter – Not for everyone: Frantic Planet looks at the bizarre conspiracy theories being espoused on the David Icke forums. (via)

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I apologise for returning to the subject of Eric Pickles once again, but the man just keeps generating material. This time, it’s because he believes Council spending is responsible for the deficit:

In comments that will further inflame council leaders from all parties, Pickles told Society Guardian: “Local government is a massive part of public expenditure. It has lived for years on unsustained growth, unsustainable public finance. People blame the bankers [for the country's economic woes] but I think big government is just as much to blame as the big banks.”

So, let’s see what Mr Pickles’ own department has to say on the matter, and see how much that ‘massive part of public expenditure’ is. And look, here’s a DCLG publication on local authority revenue expenditure and financing (pdf file, other information here) with the information we need for this year.

In total, local government is expected to spend around £120bn in 2010-11. I’m sure some of you are gasping in shock and horror at that amount, imagining all those horrible council fat cats being rolled around in their gold-plated wheelie bins while issuing political correctness dictats to terrified homeowners, but let’s see what the money is actually spent on. As the charts show, the four biggest pieces of local government expenditure are on education (£47bn, the majority of which comes from central government grants), social care (£21bn), police services (£12.5bn) and highways & transport (£7.7bn). Add in the fact that the £16bn of housing benefit and council tax benefit costs are also included as local expenditure, and that’s over £100bn of that initial sum. That remaining £16bn or so covers everything else Councils do across the whole country – waste collection, libraries, parks, planning services, development control and all the rest.

Almost £50bn of that cash is raised locally though domestic and business (NNDR) rates (though Councils have no say in the level of business rates, they have to collect them and then send all the money to Whitehall to be redistributed) and before you start complaining that Pickles is right and we’re living beyond our means, look at pages 15 and 16 of the report that detail the grants Councils get. These are almost all for carrying out things that central government requires Councils to do – like running schools – and almost all of those schemes listed there has quite detailed rules on what it can and can’t be spent on. For Pickles to complain that this is ‘a massive part of public expenditure’ and somehow responsible for the deficit just says to me that he doesn’t understand his brief at all.

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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