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Five big challenges for a big man (Eric Pickles)

By Paul Goodman

Eric Pickles cheerful Michael Gove is under fire over his Academies Bill.  Iain Duncan Smith is under siege over welfare reform.  The scale of Andrew Lansley's NHS revolution - set out by Steve Baker on this site recently - is beginning to stir protests.  Liam Fox is grappling with the Treasury over the defence budget.  But the Cabinet member who faces, in political terms, one of the hardest tasks of all seems to be having the time of his life.

Since his appointment as Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles has announced an end to regional housebuilding targets, home insurance packs, comprehensive area assessments, the Standards Board, the proposed Norwich Unitary authority, the local government office for London, and bin taxes - in the last case, sparking a departmental struggle with Caroline Spelman at the Environment Department.

He's also found time to instruct Councils to published details of all spending of over £500 on line, tighten rules on council newspapers, attack his Labour predecessors for squandering taxpayers' money on official photographs and fancy furniture...and begin a regular column for Conservative Home, pledging a "golden age for local government".  How's all that for a start?

One would scarcely imagine from this buoyant beginning that Pickles is the Coalition's thin (or not so thin) red (or rather blue) line.    When Parliament returns in the autumn, the spending negotiations will be continuing. The DCLG doesn't have the protection of Health or International Development, which have been promised real terms increases.

Nor has it received, as Education and Defence have, a nod from the Treasury acknowledging special treatment.  Big cuts are coming.  Local elections follow in May, at the same time as the AV referendum (if the bill to set it up passes the Commons).  Conservative Councillors will lose their seats.  If they're in Tory constituencies, they'll buttonhole their MPs who will, in turn, badger Pickles.  Bad results could even sink the Coalition, if the Liberal Democrats panic as a result.

So a lot rests on Pickles' shoulders.  There are three keys to him as a politician, and he faces five main challenges as a Minister.  The points to grasp about him are -

  • Though not a model of tact, he's popular with his colleagues.  Pickles plays on his reputation as a certain type of Yorkshireman: no-nonsense, straightforward, a man of few words - everyone's "chum", even if he has to be blunt from time to time.  His first words to me, some 30 years ago, were: "You're talking crap". (He was right.)  This no-nonsense approach wasn't always popular with the members he had to face as Party Chairman or the Councillors he had to deal with as Shadow DCLG Secretary.  But he's a way of cutting through flannel to get to the point, and could win cheers and applause at 1922 Committee meetings in doing so.  He's an intuitive, cunning, political intelligence, and will have a mix of affection, respect, and a bit of fear to draw on in the tough times to come.
  • He's been around for years, and has forgotten more about local government than most of us will ever remember.  Pickles started out on the left of the Party - I remember him aggressively questioning Enoch Powell at a conference fringe meeting in the early '80s.  He was an opponent of racism when it wasn't acceptable in all quarters of the Party to be one, and traces of this background remain.  But he's moved right over the years, backing David Davis in 2005 and working as part of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare team after 1997.  More importantly, he's been a Council leader in a multi-ethnic city - Bradford - where he privatised services and cut staff.  Tory Councillors know that he's "one of us", and that he understands how they tick, town halls work, and Labour will campaign during the next year.
  • He's not one of the beautiful people...but has strong Tory beliefs about what Conservative Councils should do and be.  In writing that Pickles isn't exactly Jeremy Hunt, I don't mean to be rude about either.  But the Communities Secretary is the antithesis of the easy-on-the-eye-and-ear type of politician who captures the mood of Cameron's Conservatives.  Pickles has won through because he's made himself indispensable on local government, appreciates how to campaign, and has an acute eye for self-projection.  Above all, he's got views on how Conservatives can shape local councils - cutting taxes and charges, offering better services, providing better value for money.  He isn't just there for the ride.  It's difficult to see where he goes from here, though I could imagine him as a down-to-earth Home Secretary...

...although, of course, he'll be concentrating on making a success of his present post.  To help do so, he'll have to -

  • Save up some good news for next autumn and spring.  Look back at that list of announcements Pickles has made.  They've been released during relatively easy times - since the spending negotiations are in their early stages - which has helped him to start well.  Ministers tend to believe that initiatives can't be re-announced too often, but Pickles will need to store some new product away for later, when his Decentralisation and Localism Bill comes before Parliament in the autumn.  There's more to be said and done, for example, about giving local councils a general power of competence, phasing out ring-fencing, and allowing Councils to junk the Cabinet system if they wish.
  • Keep local Conservative Councillors and activists on board.  This won't be easy going.  The Party tends to reach its high tide, in terms of local government representation, when it's in Opposition.  There's no reason to think that matters will be different this time round.  Moreover, some defeated councillors will be hit hard in the pocket when they lose their allowances, which they've come to rely on.  Pickles can't save every seat, but he can take the axe to Labour's pet projects, bust ring-fencing, and pass as much money as possible straight on to local councils.  The signs are that he recognises this.  He'll also be well aware that the Government's funding formula must be put on a fairer footing.
  • Press on with localist change.  Classic localism means local taxes paying for local services - the view championed by Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell in "The Plan".  I'm not a pure localist: for example, I believe that, for the foreseeable future, voters want national rather than local government to be responsible for healthcare.  But I'd shift the status quo in a localist direction.  The Party's manifesto proposed repairing the link between local taxing and spending by allowing Councils to keep more of the money made by local building and businesses.  The promised review of local government finance should keep this sense of direction.  Pickles has made a sound start by dropping some of the burdens imposed on local councils by Labour's local democracy bill (guidance on some new duties simply hasn't been issued), slimming down guidance and freezing CLG publications.
  • Ensure that Councils have their say in the Big Society.  Many Councillors will have reservations about parts of the Government's programme - and not just Labour or Liberal Democrat ones.  Some Tory County Councils are suspicious of Michael Gove's Free Schools policy, worrying that they'll be left short-changed.  Others are uneasy about plans floated by the Party to allow community groups to bid for local assets, such as post offices, swimming pools and libraries.  Others still fear that they'll be left holding the baby if, say, housing projects or anti-alcohol programmes run by local voluntary groups, charities, clubs or faith groups collapse.  They're not always right, but Phil Johnston wrote a telling piece yesterday about the exclusion of councils from an early Downing Street Big Society summit.
  • Finally, he needs to preserve his team.  Some Government teams slot together more neatly than others.  The Work and Pensions team, for example, isn't a natural fit, and has lots of strong players with ideas that won't necessarily mix.  However, the DCLG Ministers blend together reasonably well, and Pickles is good at allowing his team opportunities.  Grant Schapps, for example, has had lots of play over the Barnet councillors pay saga, and Greg Clark's brains will be indispensable to turning Big Society dreams into reality on the ground.


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