Another step towards the past or the USA?

“@TweetyHall: “The balance of power has shifted in your councils away from your officials to you” – @ericpickles to local councillor’s at #cca12”

I’ve lifted this from Twitter, not just because it’s yet another piece of Pickles tripe, but also because demonstrates the dangerous illusion that Pickles is selling to elected members – they can do the job with out the officers. We’ve seen this start with the scrapping of chief executive posts by some councils and the thinning out of senior management posts in many others.

I’m not suggesting that local government hasn’t become top heavy and bloated and that the taxpayer is being over-charged through their council tax to pay for this. However, much of this bloatation (I’ve just invented that word) was caused by the very same organisation now criticising it – central government. The blunt instrument being used to redress the balance, massive cuts in the central grant, is encouraging the culling of officers and the apparent inflation of members’ egos.

Unfortunately, this situation has been forced on local government and members will never have the remotest chance to grow in to their new roles ( if that was ever possible). This will probably play out just as things did in the 1980s, when councils such as Liverpool and it’s then leader Derek Hatton, gave Margaret Thatcher the excuse to centralise much of local government’s powers.

It’s difficult not to feel that when people look back in another 15 or 20 years, they won’t see this as just a repeat of previous local government history and that nothing will have changed. Of course the alternative is, that we have become America!

Lack of truth, or just a lack of understanding?

There’s an interesting convergence emerging in the amongst all the claims and counter-claims surrounding the NPPF consultation. The coming together is in respect of the comments made by John Howell, self-confessed author of the Tories Open Source Planning document and those made by the likes of Pickles and Clark, about what the term sustainable development actually means and how it came into being.

John Howell claims that the presumption in favour term was never meant to refer to individual planning applications, but only to development plans. The problem is, the NPPF refers to plans and decision making in the same sentence over and over again, lending a lie to John Howell’s claims.

Where the convergence comes, is in the claims being made, the latest in a speech today by Eric Pickles, that the presumption in favour of development has always been in the planning regulations in some form. However, dig down and you find that the presumption that has existed in the regulations, actually referred to land that had already been zoned, or identified as suitable for development. Put another way, it is land that is allocated, as in a local plan site allocations map.

So John Howell is right in that respect, the presumption was supposed to be all about plan making, not about individual applications. The problem seems to be, that those responsible for the NPPF, the so called wide ranging expert group, appear to have bastardised the presumption term into the catchall statement that is now causing us all so much angst.

Another day,another top down dictate

I see Eric Pickles went to the same school of economics as Gordon Brown, when it comes to protecting the long term finances of local government. Rather than commending councils for making wise investments, that deliver a long term return, Pickles wants councils to flog them off, to pay for the front line services he continues to strip of funding.

Gordon Brown did they same thing when he had the keys to the Treasury and sold off the country’s gold assets for peanuts, to pay for the Labour government’s spending spree.

As the list in today’s Daily Telegraph seems to suggest, most councils are holding assets that deliver a return for their taxpayers, so selling them off would be a one off win – once it’s gone, it’s gone. This is in stark contrast to central government that it is reported owns vast areas of land and many empty buildings, doing nothing and making no return for the taxpayer.

Put your own central government house in order Mr Pickles, before you start telling local government how to do things.

Eric Pickles does Localism

I see Eric Pickles is once again demonstrating that his version of Localism – the directed one – is the only one that he actually believes in with his latest comments about town centre car parking charges.

Having shafted local government big time, by slashing its grant setlement by 28% in one year with even more to come, he now has the nerve to tell the public that town centre car parking charges will drop. Given his financial betrayal of local government, it’s not at all clear how he comes to this conclusion, but that’s about par for the course with this big mouthed minister.

The problem with car parking charges is that they are always viewed in isolation from all other areas of council business. They are either viewed as a burden on the taxpayer that must at best be kept cost neutral because they are so politically sensitive or, at the other end of the spectrum, they are seen as a source of revenue, that can legitimately be used to bolster the council’s income, despite the legislation saying that it should be run for profit. As always, where there’s a will there’s a way and many councils seems to do very nicley out of it, thank you very much.

My view is that, where approporiate, the cost of running a town centre car park should be seen as part of the council’s investment in the economic development of that town centre. If the evidence is there to show that car parking charges, or even the lack of them, is having an impact of the vitality or viabilty of a town centre, then why not include the cost of running the car park in the economic development strategy for that town?

This would then allow the council to justify to taxpayers the provision of free parking, where a town centre is found to be struggling and its shops closing down in increasing numbers, without being accused of subsidising motorists.

Stupid stupid stupid

I like using film quotes to mimic what’s going on in real life; I just wish I could remember more of them.  However, one does keep coming back to me time and time again since the coalition government came to power and decided to mess about with the planning system – again!

The quote I’m thinking of comes from the 1997 Matt Damon and Danny Divto film called Rainman and goes some thing like, ‘you must be stupid stupid stupid’.  The whole quote is (just in case you’re interested) and read out by an insurance company executive whilst under cross examination:   “Dear Mrs. Black. On seven prior occasions this company has denied your claim in writing. We now deny it for the eighth and final time. You must be stupid stupid stupid. Sincerely, Evert Luftkin, Vice President, Claims Department.”

I could quite happily rewrite this to apply to those in government, who keep sniping and criticising the planning system and blaming all the ills of the country on it.  Don’t get me wrong, the system’s not perfect far from it and if I were somebody trying to get a planning permission and finding myself fighting an uphill battle, I might well have the same attitude – it’s all the b***dy planners fault.

However, those in government who are so critical, should actually know better, after all it they (the government of the day) and not the planners, who write the rules; the planners merely interpret and implement them via local policies.  It’s also worth remembering that those policies are approved by local politicians and not planners

So, Dear Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne, Me Cable, Mr Pickles, Mr Neill, Mr Clark and even Mr Shapps (who seems happy to use Eric Pickles as his rolling, sorry I meant roving, assassin), on at least seven prior occasions, the planners have written to you refuting your claims.  We now write to you again, for the umpteenth and final time to tell you the same thing. You must be …………..Sincerely, a profession trying to do your bidding.

So, ministers, stop whinging on about how it’s all somebody else’s fault, put your pens where your mouths are and get YOUR planning legislation changed.  Then perhaps those of us at the sharp end, who are trying make some sense of the mess you’ve made of it so far, can get on with making it work – again!

Big Society – if the price is right

David Cameron is refusing to give up on his Big Society idea, with a speech tomorrow (Monday) to remind people of what it’s about.  One TV commentator was cruel enough to inform viewer that, if this were a film launch, it would be billed as Big Society 4.

I can’t help but wonder if David Cameron hasn’t already missed the boat on this in terms of public attitude?  How many volunteer led activities have folded in recent years, because of a lack of people willing to give up their time?  Scout, Guide and Brownie groups, along with numerous social clubs and community run halls, to name but a few.

Surly, if there were so many willing people out there, wouldn’t they already be doing it?  What is it about Big Society that’s going to bring all these potential volunteers out of the closet?

Even if it does succeed, this drive to turn us in to a nation of volunteers, (now that we’ve pretty much killed off all the shop keepers) has its fair share of negatives.  Just like his ministers, David Cameron seems hell bent on subjecting this country to a local government bypass operation.  It’s as though councils are being blamed for all the ills in our communities and that bypassing them to recruit a new set of volunteers, will somehow bring these communities back to back to health.

I say new set of volunteers because central government seems to have forgotten that local government already has a large number of volunteers.  They’re called elected members and they were put there by their communities.

Until the last government started interfering with the process, local government was very much something you got involved in because you wished to make a contribution to your community and were willing to make some financial sacrifices in order to do so.  Now, with the advent of members’ allowance and special responsibility payments that often run in to the tens of thousands, the clarity of this aspect of being an elected has become decidedly blurred.  Given the Pickles drive to cull local government senior and middle management and give the job to the members, this blurring can only get worse.

My second gripe about the Big Society idea, is that many of the charities that are apparently going to become the saviours of everything the public values, are often run like full blown businesses.  Many have chief executives and senior managers employed on a purely commercial basis, with pay packets to match.  I doubt if these people agree to take a reduced salary just because it’s a charity that’s employing them.

So, as with elected members, the public service ethos of volunteering to provide a service to communities, will become more and more blurred over time, as the big charities and their army of well meaning volunteers burrow their way in to the various local government service delivery areas.  As we see more and more services transferred from the stewardship of one set of elected volunteers and into the hands of those who are unelected and therefore far less accountable, a major question comes to mind.

Unlike those employed in local government, the senior management of the big charities bring none of the public service ethos that is currently present in local government, but do display much of the commercialism of the private sector.  How long will it be before it is impossible to tell the difference between a service delivered by a ‘charity’ and that delivered by an outsourcing company?

Not a major problem in itself you might think – who cares who delivers the service, as long as it’s delivered?  The problem is, once you’ve killed off the competition, in the form of the current local government structures and the only providers in the market are the privateers, it becomes a sellers market.  The defence industry has already done this via the MOD, now it would seem that it’s the turn of local government.  Come on Down The Price Is Right (for those old enough to remember the TV show).

Pickles’ hypocricy continues

Local government continues to be criticised from various quarters, whilst at the same time battling the worst grant settlement in recent history.  Media criticism is a given these days – there’s no news in good news when it comes to the press.  The other, and more damaging criticism, comes from a man who is now clearly demonstrating a pathological hatred of the institution that gave him his start in politics, but appears to have cause him some form of psychological damage in the process, Eric Pickles.

Although given the job of minister for local government and therefore supposedly an advocate for it within central government, this man appears to be on a one-man crusade, but enthusiastically aided and abetted by Shapps, Clark and Neill at various stages, to undermine his area of responsibility to the point of extinction.

The hypocritical utterances of Pickles since taking office just keep flowing, with his latest referring to senior officers’ salaries.  In keeping with his two-faced approach to the Localism agenda, he has now decreed that all councils will publish details of staff earning over £58,000 a year.  Not a big deal in itself, why shouldn’t the local taxpayer know what those running their local councils are earning.  However, at the same time, this ignores completely the government’s cave-in on a similar proposal for civil servants earning ‘fat cat salaries’ – his words not mine – and the subsequent pathetic requirements for them to publicise details of all those earning more than £150,000 a year.  One rule for them and another for the rest of the pond life, as the lower ranks were sometimes called when I was in the military.

The attack from the media comes in the form of an investigation by the BBC Breakfast News show.  It must have been extremely challenging making all those telephone calls to councils – worthy of a bonus, a party paid for from expenses and at least two self-congratulatory award ceremonies.

Apparently, councils are preying on the vulnerable by increasing the charges made for services such as meals on wheels, burials and cremations.  No councillor gets elected on the promise of cutting services, or of screwing the taxpayer for as much money as possible and given the choice, most of us would prefer to reduce the cost of any service the public values.  However, when confronted with a mad fat man in a hurry, whose only priority is to punish local government and grab media headlines whilst doing so, council’s are left with little choice.

Those with access to any of the local government range of publications and in particular the Local Government Chronicle (LCG), would have read numerous articles, written by all manner of so-called experts and informed commentators, some of them from within the government, encouraging councils to be more innovative in the way they raise revenue, with trading and charges being at the top of the list of must do’s.  Trading takes time and money to set up, but increasing charges for services doesn’t.  Desperate people do desperate things and so do desperate councils.