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Today’s food for thought: Michelle Lowe on how districts can offer green paper a focus on prevention
As far as divisive figures go, Eric Pickles is up there with the best (or should that be the worst?) of them.
Often referred to as ‘Piffles’ by people in the sector during his time in charge of the Department for Communities & Local Government, as it was then known, Sir Eric (as he is now known) rarely gave councils much to cheer about.
A key architect of the austerity era which is still impacting on local government today, Sir Eric also made plenty of enemies with his barbed attacks on councils’ reserves, the regularity of their bin collections, and obsession with trying to put a stop to council newsletters.
When Greg Clark succeeded Sir Eric as communities secretary he described his predecessor’s relationship with the sector as “rumbustious”.
Liverpool City Council’s mayor Joe Anderson (Lab) typically put it more bluntly when he wrote for LGC in 2015 that: “Under Eric Pickles, the Department for Communities & Local Government may as well have stood for ‘Department for Conflict and Local Grief’.
“For five years, Mr Pickles used the department as a bully pulpit, playing political games with councils to cover the cuts to our budgets, passing down responsibility to councils for difficult decisions while removing the funding to do anything about them.”
So there will no doubt have been plenty of eyes rolling when, last week, with the media distracted by the royal wedding, the government sneaked out an announcement that Sir Eric had been nominated, along with 12 others, for a peerage. Of those, nine are Conservative nominees.
Since the turn of the century, membership of the House of Lords has grown by 21% – from 675 to 818 – according to research from the Electoral Reform Society, published today.
A report last year by crossbench peer Lord Burns recommended introducing a “two-out, one-in” system in a bid to eventually bring the size of the House of Lords down and capping it at 600.
However, the proposed elevation of Sir Eric and chums suggests there is no appetite to stop the upper chamber from becoming even larger.
Upon learning of the latest nominations for peerages, sceptics immediately leapt to the conclusion that Theresa May was attempting to shore up the House of Lords with allies following a series of defeats over Brexit.
However, Sir Eric was a ‘remainer’ – after the referendum he tweeted about “suffering from post Brexit blues” - although he did tell LBC on Saturday: “Democracy means you’ve got to respect the will of the people. They are at their most effective when they’re seeking to amend and improve. The House of Lords are least effective when they’re seeking to block or make a fundamental change.”
Actually, there have been some quite effective interventions by lords in recent years.
Lord Kerslake’s (crossbench) crusade to let councils retain a greater proportion of their right-to-buy sales receipts to fund the replacement of social housing was memorable as the Housing and Planning Act was passed into legislation.
Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) has also been an active voice in the upper chamber, championing the sector’s cause on a range of issues and occasionally putting people right on any misguided statements they make about councils.
While one could never describe Sir Eric as a public cheerleader for councils he will be another voice with some experience of the sector in the upper chamber – no bad thing when concerns are growing within local government about what its role will be post-Brexit.
Just before the 2015 general election, Sir Eric gave an ‘interview’ to LGC – well, written responses to submitted questions (sad to relate, he was never LGC’s biggest fan).
Between the bluster, Sir Eric spoke of localism and “empowering local communities, neighbourhoods and individuals”, the “untapped” potential of the general power of competence, and the “scope to do more” to let councils retain more of income they raise.
“As a direction of travel, we should certainly aim for self-sufficiency, provided we have the safety nets to help councils with unexpected shocks and we ensure that deprived areas continue to be supported with additional funding,” he said.
Sir Eric might have presided over a department which, according to the National Audit Office, possessed no “accurate measure of the cumulative financial challenge facing local authorities” but he did at least grasp the concept of devolution – albeit not necessarily in relation to decisions about when wheelie bins should be collected or newsletters should be sent out.
Having one extra voice potentially arguing the case for areas to have a greater say over their affairs after Britain leaves the European Union is no bad thing. Well, here’s hoping anyway…
By David Paine, acting news editor