Communities secretary Eric Pickles has professed his “love” for local government, praised it for doing a better job at cutting the deficit than the rest of government.
The declaration came after a tumultuous few weeks during which more than 30 Conservative council leaders wrote a joint letter of complaint to the prime minister warning of a “fractious relationship” with ministers.
Speaking at the New Local Government Network’s annual conference, Mr Pickles declared: “I love local government.
“Sometimes I do take liberties in trying to push you on…but it is on the basis of a loving relationship. I just want you to do a little bit better.
“I am there cheering you on, I want you to do better and you can do better.”
He added: “Local government has been absolutely outstanding in dealing with the deficit. If other bits of government had shown your resolve we would be in a better position.”
Mr Pickles was responding to a question from Peter John (Lab), leader of Southwark LBC, questioning the mixed messages from ministers about the role of councillors.
“Two years ago you were questioning the need for a chief executive, but then two weeks ago [former housing minister] Grant Shapps said we were the equivalent of scout leaders. Are we volunteers or proto-chief executives?”
Cllr John was referring to a BBC interview during which Mr Shapps argued that an increase in councillor allowances in recognition of their time and career sacrifice would be inappropriate as they were “volunteers”.
Mr Shapps’ comments has sparked an angry response from councillors, especially as they came shortly after local government minister Brandon Lewis had called for councillors to be barred from the Local Government Pension Scheme. Mr Lewis has also argues they were “volunteers” but not “professional, full-time politicians”.
Mr Pickles’ protestations of love for local government were dismissed by shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn whose speech to the conference came immediately after Pickles’.
“It is no good asking local government to take on this challenge [of falling funding and rising service demand] if at the same time the people expected to take on the challenge are criticised, patronised and belittled.