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Pickles at the helm towards a new localism

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Given the frequency with which his name has appeared in articles about dustbins, one might wonder if the new communities secretary Eric Pickles might be disappointed not to have ended up in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Roundly adored by the Conservative grassroots, the charismatic former leader of Bradford City MDC is not short of admirers among the party’s councillors and group leaders.

But the man David Cameron likes to refer to as “your chum and mine” is probably best remembered in local government circles as the shadow communities secretary who threatened to name and shame Conservative-run councils that volunteered to join the previous government’s plans to trial fortnightly bin collections.

Along with Barnet LBC’s declared intention to turn itself into an ‘easyCouncil’, the incident was one of the very few times in recent years that a local government issue made the front pages of national newspapers.

Mr Pickles has also been a trenchant critic of council chief executives, whom he has lambasted for taking ‘Premiership manager-level’ salaries.

The latter comments followed on from a speech he gave to the Conservative Councillors’ Association, when he urged the delegates to stop co-operating with government initiatives, even if that meant ignoring the advice of senior council officers.

Such incidents could lead some to question whether Mr Pickles is 100% signed up to Oliver Letwin’s inherently localist ‘Big Society’ agenda.

Yet there is some optimism about Mr Pickles’ localist credentials. One senior local government figure said Mr Pickles’ comments while in opposition should be treated with a pinch of salt.

“We fully expect that as the political temperature drops, there will be far more space for constructive dialogue,” he said. “People think and act differently when they’re in government from when they’re in opposition.”

Mr Pickles has endeared himself in several key areas.

Despite allegedly vowing to “wipe out municipal socialism forever”, he made encouraging noises at the 2008 Conservative Party conference about the work the Labour government was doing on the city region agenda that has been enthusiastically embraced by councils in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham.

Meanwhile, his aversion to any organisation with the word ‘regional’ in it regularly goes down well with the county and district councils in the south.

One senior Liberal Democrat councillor expressed his respect for Mr Pickles’ local government career. “When he was leader of Bradford, he had a clear passion for his city and led it with an interesting style,” he said.

“He cut all committees and sub-committees but four, so I know he’s a man who hates waste and extravagance and wants to see effective, small government decision-making. As far as I can recall he was a passionate localist … just not when it comes to waste collection.”

One of Mr Pickles’ first actions on taking the helm at Eland House was to order civil servants to investigate ways of halting plans to establish unitary government in Devon and Norfolk.

Given the scale of cuts that are assumed to be heading local government’s way, his pledge to shoot the first civil servant who mentions local government reorganisation with a “pearl-handled revolver” appears to have deprived him of one money-saving tool.

Instead, he has spoken of his wish to see councils merging back-office operations and sharing senior management teams.

It may well be that the speed with which such savings are pursued is the first thing councils notice about the new government’s approach to localism.

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