Street-fighting statesman

29 Jun 11
Loved and loathed in equal measure, Eric Pickles has made his mark on councils. But he has no regrets, he tells PF in an exclusive interview, as his cuts and changes are in the interests of local communities
By Lucy Phillips | 1 July 2011

Loved and loathed in equal measure, Eric Pickles has made his mark on councils. But he has no regrets, he tells PF in an exclusive interview, as his cuts and changes are in the interests of local communities EricPicklesSEARLE

The day we meet is a particularly bad one for the local government secretary. Eric Pickles is being widely berated for failing to meet pledges to bring back weekly bin collections. He is also losing his voice to a summer cold. ‘It’s a cruel and unusual punishment for a politician,’ the usually booming Pickles tells me softly.

Having perked up briefly while discussing top-notch cameras during our photo shoot (it emerges that he and his wife are keen photographers), he looks downcast as we begin the interview proper on the subject of rubbish. But the straight-talking Yorkshireman hasn’t given up. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman might have judged it too costly to include a requirement for weekly collections in the government’s waste policy review, but Pickles insists ‘the bin plans are very much on track’. 

‘The idea that we were going to compel people was ludicrous,’ he says, stressing that all the incentives for fortnightly collections have been removed. He is still looking for other ways to encourage councils to collect ‘for want of a better word – smelly rubbish’ on a more regular basis.   

If it is a bad day for Pickles, it has also been a bad week. Only a few days earlier the communities and local government select committee had published a scathing report on his localism plans. Policies in the Localism Bill – currently making its way through the House of Lords – were ‘neither supported consistently across Whitehall nor implemented coherently by each department of state’, the group of cross-party MPs said. Pickles’ own department was simply not considered a big enough ‘hitter’ to make it all work.

But again, Pickles, dressed in his trademark tie and braces, remains gung-ho. He says the committee ‘doesn’t seem to have grasped that localism is not about giving powers to local authorities exclusively’ but also about handing them to community groups. But what about the 142 powers for the secretary of state contained in the Bill – how is that localism? Most of these are merely hang-ups from Labour legislation, he retorts, and ‘to demonstrate that we’ve got clear intentions, I’m quite prepared to see some of those powers put into the statute removed from me’. The man who invented the term ‘guided localism’ – others call it ‘central diktat’ – adds: ‘The intention is to divest powers from the centre and do it very quickly. I’m keen as mustard to do that.’  

As for his department’s clout, he jokes: ‘I know that it wasn’t a very important department under Labour. Indeed, when they set up the department they put it physically furthest away from Whitehall. If maybe we’d moved it another mile or so it might have actually qualified as regional government.’ More seriously, he says: ‘In terms of the growth agenda, we played a massively important part in Local Enterprise Partnerships and we’ve got enterprise zones – so I think, in terms of our influence, we’re in a reasonable position.’

According to Pickles, criticism of the Community Budget pilots by Labour CLG committee chair Clive Betts wasn’t warranted either. These budgets pool various strands of Whitehall funding into a single ‘local bank account’. The pilots were intended to ‘promote service integration’, Pickles says, but few departments have ‘so far proved willing to devolve budgetary control far or fast enough to permit localism along these lines to flourish’. But he adds that there has been ‘terrific progress’ in the 16 pilot areas, and he now wants to roll out the next phase of these as well as move towards whole ‘neighbourhood budgets’.

Interestingly, Pickles says his optimism about Community Budgets stems partly from a pilot in Bradford, which had shown that focusing pooled resources at a few ‘problem’ families could help tackle social problems and save money.

Bradford takes us back to Pickles’ roots. Born in nearby Keighley to a Labour-supporting family of grocers, he was educated at the local comprehensive. But by the time he left school to go to Leeds Polytechnic he had switched his allegiances to the Right, prompted by outrage at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He joined the local Conservative party and in 1979, then in his late 20s, he was elected to Bradford Council. Nine years later, as leader of the Conservatives, he seized control from Labour. It was then that his political ruthlessness first came to light, as he oversaw an unprecedented round of cuts, job losses and sell-offs at the local authority.

Two decades on – after becoming MP for Brentwood and Ongar, serving in a number of shadow Cabinet roles and a spell as Tory party chair – this approach sounds familiar. Since becoming local government and communities secretary in May last year, Pickles has cut councils’ budgets by 26%, announced the abolition of the Audit Commission and continuously hectored local government over senior salaries, credit card spending and whatever inefficiency he cares to choose on any particular day.

And he is unrepentant. ‘Local government knew this was going to be the year of substantial cuts,’ he says. He adds that previous chancellor Alistair Darling had made it clear that councils would not have been protected under Labour either. In fact, Pickles claims the council cuts might have been even bigger because the coalition has taken more money out of benefits than Labour would have. He therefore went into the Spending Review negotiations with a figure for his department ‘that was not dissimilar to what we came out with’. He believes that without these steps, job losses in councils would have been greater down the line, when larger cuts would have been needed.

When I suggest to Pickles that he lacks empathy for the pain caused by the cuts, he does give ground. ‘I suppose I’m going to start putting more love about. I had a job to do, which was to get this important financial package through and a degree of acceptance for that. What I asked was reasonable but that does not mean to say I’m not a great admirer of local government and that I don’t regard it as being massively important for our democracy.’

Given the extent of his attacks on councils, I question this further. ‘It was within a loving relationship that those criticisms were made and I wanted to see local government become stronger,’ he says with more than a touch of irony, ‘We were getting further away from our roots because of a merger between officers and members.’ At this point Pickles quotes one of his favourite books – Animal Farm by George Orwell, more ordinarily a hero of those on the Left.

He says: ‘Right at the very end when the animals tiptoe to the window and they look at the men, they look at the pigs and they couldn’t tell the pigs from the people. Sometimes in local authorities it’s very difficult to tell the difference between officers and members. They were beginning to talk the talk and lose touch with the vibrancy of local government. The vibrancy of local government is not the local management of services, it’s democratic control of those services.’  

Pickles also agrees that other government -departments should be subject to the same kind of flak that he gives local government over salaries and credit card spending. But he won’t name names and adds that he ‘can’t be smug about it’.

Despite his combative approach, ‘Uncle Eric’ remains well-liked among his own party ranks. Many hark back affectionately to the contribution he made to the Tories’ big victory in the 2008 Crewe by-election and he -consistently scores highly in grassroots popularity polls.

Ravi Govindia, the Conservative leader of the London Borough of Wandsworth, says: ‘He is a guy who gives you a bear hug and tries to carry on the conversation from where you last left it. That kind of convivial -familiarity is disarming in a politician of his stature.’ He adds: ‘He’s open and honest and that’s very -helpful. At least you know where you stand. You might not agree but you know where you stand.’ 

Pickles is indeed open during the interview. The self-branded ‘Tory commoner’ is all too happy to talk of his biggest weaknesses – the same answer he gave during his selection for MP in Essex in 1992. ‘I’m too fat and I like westerns,’ he says unabashed. Asked how he felt about being frequently compared to former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott, Pickles is equally candid. ‘Someone said I was like John Prescott with a brain. I think that’s a bit hard on old Prezza, I’ve got affection for the guy. I just like his grumpiness. It’s like something to hold on to in life.’ 

But his affection for his own party, bluntness, aplomb and ability to get on with the job have also made him, quite simply, loathed by others in local government.

David Sparks, leader of the Local Government Association’s Labour Group, denounces him as ‘more street fighter than statesman’, claiming he is incapable of ‘seeing beyond narrow party advantage’.

Sparks adds: ‘He has been criticised as not standing up for local government and too ready to offer it as the vanguard of public spending cuts. Other departments were able to manipulate their ministers to defend their briefs.My view is that he is sticking to his Thatcherite agenda that he followed so rigorously when he was leader of Bradford.’ 

Richard Kemp, leader of the LGA’s Liberal Democrats, isn’t any more complimentary. ‘It is not the job of the secretary of state to trash councils and councillors… We are having a series of silly season stories because he is trying to deflect attention from the fact that the -biggest problem in local government finance is him.’

Kemp goes on: ‘A leopard can’t change his spots. He was like it 20 years ago when he made a hash-up of Bradford council. We now largely look for a route to by-pass Pickles. We have good relationships with other ministers.’

I put it to Pickles that relations with local LibDems are particularly sore. Irritated, he replies: ‘The level of cuts, the frontloading, these were all coalition agreements. I’m not an idiot. I kind of understood it was important to get coalition buy-in for what we were doing.’

But Simon Parker, director of the New Local Government Network, believes Pickles has ‘played the political game superbly’, saying: ‘He has sown doubt in the public’s mind about whose fault the cuts are and that was probably the job David Cameron wanted him to do.’ Parker adds that he hopes the sector will hear ‘a more constructive tone’ from the coalition during its second year.

One turning point for Pickles might prove to be his plans to repatriate business rates through the Local Government Resource Review. Councils have long called for more financial controls, with many feeling this was the essential ingredient lacking in the Localism Bill. Pickles is determined to move quickly on business rates, promising an announcement in July.  

I query if there is still bad blood between Pickles and the LibDems, who had wanted a wider-ranging review of all local taxes, but he brushes this aside with an interesting admission. ‘Local authorities don’t react particularly well to big bang, and I think that’s where the poll tax went terribly wrong. I think also, given that we’ve got a coalition and we’ve got slightly different views, in order for us to move on we need to embed the repatriation of the business rates. It needs to be there and I think it will be a robust platform for the parties to move on to other things or to go their separate ways.’    

In the hope of scoring a few more points in the sector, the secretary of state is also keen to quell concerns that plans to increase employee pension contributions from next April will lead to mass opt-outs and make local government pension schemes unviable. Following a meeting with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, he says: ‘If we do that, we’ve got to be able to offer stability right across the sector.’

As our interview draws to a close, we turn to his own future. With characteristic humour, he says: ‘I think I’ve got a bit of steam left in the boilers to do this [role] and I serve at David Cameron’s pleasure. When he’s had enough of me I’ll be sacked.’ He dismisses suggestions made by political blogger Iain Dale that he is a future Tory leadership contender with equal joviality, saying: ‘I’m terrifically flattered by that but I do think that’s the ultimate kiss of death.’

While his sore throat will clear up, as the cuts bite his future relationship with parts of local government might or might not get better. It’s been a difficult day, week and year for Pickles, but now, at least, he seems intent on turning his attention to -building a few bridges.  

Eric Pickles is speaking at the CIPFA conference in Birmingham on July 7


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