Eric Pickles: a response

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
13 December, 2012 | By Dan Drillsma-Milgrom

Those that listened to the Department for Communities & Local Government’s ministerial team give evidence to its equivalent select committee on Wednesday will have heard Eric Pickles make the bizarre claim that quoting from LGC is like “quoting from a Labour party press release”.

The thoughtlessness of this comment can be demonstrated by simply pointing out that just a month ago, Mr Pickles’ own department was happy to quote LGC’s research into council chief executives’ salary levels in a press release about ending chiefs’ “golden goodbyes”. We don’t necessarily agree with the policy but were happy for Mr Pickles’ department to quote from our research, just as we were happy for David Cameron to do so last year.

Still, mud can stick. So for the record, let me restate Local Government Chronicle’s editorial position.

LGC has absolutely no affiliation to or bias towards any political party. Our editorial position is that we act as a friend to the sector – albeit a critical one where necessary. Our objective is to report on policy issues that affect all councils and, where we can, to put forward the case for local government to be part of the solution to some of the social and economic issues that the country faces. To do this, our reporters speak regularly with senior council officers, civil servants and local and national politicians of all parties.

Mr Pickles’ comment on Wednesday came in response to a question about DCLG’s permanent secretary Sir Bob Kerslake being branded a ‘doom denier’ for dismissing the LGA’s predictions of a looming financial crisis. The actual “doom denier” label was coined by the organisation’s Liberal Democrat group while the original ‘graph of doom’ was created by Conservative-run Barnet LBC. It was the LGA’s Conservative chairman Sir Merrick Cockell who said that while “denying” the growing funding gap that local government is facing “may be convenient for some”, it is “not accurate to suggest the view is overly pessimistic”. It is hard to see how reporting on this issue is representing the Labour party’s viewpoint.

To be honest, with Labour having not released much policy on local government, LGC has not devoted an awful lot of coverage to the party recently. One exception was when we exclusively revealed Labour councillors’ anger at their party’s leadership for forcing peers to vote against plans to give councils greater flexibility to deal with council tax benefit reforms – again, hardly the stuff of central office press releases.

LGC has, however, been critical of the lack of support Mr Pickles and his department have shown for local government. Our lead story and leader article in this week’s issue give an example of why this is.

But at the select committee hearing, Mr Pickles himself gave an interesting insight into why there’s such anger within the sector towards him. The communities secretary was asked by MPs whether Greg Clark’s decentralisation report, published last week, had implicitly criticised his department by saying “it should come to a more settled but ambitious view of the role of local government and communities and neighbourhoods”. He replied that he had inherited a department that was “the voice of local government within government” and that had changed to being “the voice of the council tax payer, of the citizen inside local government services”.

It is quite right for Mr Pickles to act as the voice of the council tax payer – Mr Pickles’ predecessors would surely claim to have done likewise – but many officers and local politicians now feel that councils do not have an advocate within Whitehall. Mr Pickles’ comment seems to confirm that this is the case. Or at the very least, if there is one, it’s not him.

Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that reports in the press this week that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are planning to oppose George Osborne’s plans to raise benefits and tax credits at a below-inflation 1% have important implications for local government.

If spending on the NHS, schools and overseas aid is to be protected whilst overall spending is reduced, then a decision to also protect welfare expenditure implies extra cuts for other spending departments, local government included.

Councils will be unlikely to sit higher up the pecking order under a Labour administration.

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