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The Pickles years are over – but challenges remain

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For me, the plants slowly perishing on the sixth floor at Eland House, for want of a volunteer to water them, was the most apt metaphor for how local government felt after five years with Eric Pickles as communities secretary.

However, while his charge sheet was long and by all accounts political relationships were strained on all sides, I suspect that the last communities secretary’s policy impact will give his successor much to live up to and pause for thought.

Whether it was the abolition of the Audit Commission, the Troubled Families programme, council tax referendums, the end of the Housing and Communities Agency or ultimately the demolition of the ministry building itself, it would be hard to disagree that the Pickles years have had a profound and lasting impact, and that’s before the transition from city deal through to devolution.

Agree with it or not, having a minister and civil service team capable of driving change across Whitehall has been too often missing in the past and local government will miss it again in the future if the new minister’s influence fades.

While much of the post-election talk has focused on how the Department for Communities & Local Government changes might advance the devolution cause, there are two other major issues that need urgent attention.

First, we need decisions on the Troubled Families programme. There have been undoubted successes and the balance between central prescription and local discretion has produced much learning.

As further budget reductions kick in, commitment to extending this approach into other areas is critical. I worry that this learning, which could extend into mental health or other areas of complex needs, will drown alongside the enormous structural and system changes in health, the benefits system and devolution.

Second, the issue of housing and particularly temporary accommodation has always felt like rather more of a DCLG blind spot. In London many boroughs are struggling to meet need, faced daily with unenviable, expensive decisions as a combination of low supply, benefit changes and high demand further narrows choices.

Increased activity in the courts is only adding to the sense of urgency. Colleagues will note the irony that progress made with some of our troubled families can easily be undermined by this mix of issues.

There are no easy solutions here but I urge the new DCLG team to engage with local government on mapping a way forward. For our part, we could do much more to present the right data on the impact of these issues (good and bad).

It’s fair to say Eric Pickles often provoked extreme reactions; on these issues a rather more informed debate is needed.

Nick Walkley, chief executive, Haringey LBC

 

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I agree, and the formation of new 'super Councils', an inevitable remodelling of Labour's failed regional devolution plans, might provide an opportunity for a fresh start for more constructive dialogue. There's certainly scope for the improved central/local decision making model from the troubled families initiative to be adopted by other functional areas. With so much change it would also be good if more opportunities were given for public sector as a whole to share their best ideas as we are at risk of reinventing wheels.

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