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Harry Phibbs interviews Eric Pickles: "The Party activists are vital. I remember that I wouldn't be here without them.".

EricpicklesYesterday I went to see the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, in his Ministerial office at Eland House near Victoria Station. Waiting in reception, the portrait of Her Majesty The Queen was prominent for all to see.

There is rather more space in the office block than there used to be. Since he took charge, the number of civil servants has been slashed and he is looking for tenants to fill the empty floors now available.

While Pickles is a Cabinet Minister in a coalition government, he also remembers that he is a Conservative politician. He is an avid reader of this website, and asked to be interviewed as he values and is comfortable with the Conservative grassroots.

"As Ronald Reagan used to say: 'Dance with the one who brung ya'," he says. "The Party activists are vital. I remember that I wouldn't be here without them. We have to stay connected with them. That's why I do the rubber chicken circuit speaking at constituency events. In fact, generally the food isn't rubbery at all."

In the local elections last year there was the extraordinary, gravity defying, result that the Conservatives made net gains. This year, in contrast, there were heavy losses, and Eric warns that the county council elections next year are sure to be a challenge.

"We hold every county with the exception of Cumbria so gains are out of the question. We took counties last time we didn't anticipate we would ever run. Counties we hadn't run for decades. It would be unrealistic to expect us to hold on to all of them.

"But in terms of the message to ConHome readers these elections are really massively important. Winning the counties was what brought us back because the counties along with the unitaries are dealing with really important matters, really big bucks and if the counties fall into our opponents hands that will make it much harder to deliver Conservative policies across the country.

"Part of what I have been trying to do is to make local authorities matter. I want the old joke: 'No matter who you vote for the council always gets in' to be untrue. I want our policies to be different. People will pay more for substandard services under Labour or the Lib Dems.

"Before, you could say that the Government would protect you from the worst excesses of your council, so it didn't matter so much who was running it. But under localism it will matter.

But in some respects, isn't the role of local government being diminished? One of the important functions for county councils has been running schools. The way things are going, those county councils that Labour might gain, may have precious few schools left under their jurisdiction. The Government also wants more children to be adopted rather than being brought up by councils in the care system. Isn't the municipal empire shrinking?

Eric responds that while councils may have less to do with children they will probably have more in other respects.

Roughly half of the grant from Government is spent on adult social care.  Given the growth of the elderly population that is something that is going to increase exponentially. The Government is going to be producing a white paper very soon to talk about adult social care. We have to get the figures right. If you underestimate the number of people needing residential care that has a huge impact. 

But on the generality of what you are saying, the great thing about local authorities is that they do change, they do adapt. The nature of local government in the 1890s was very different from 1990s and it will be different again in 2020.

Another new development is Police and Crime Commissioners.  Eric points out that in a way it is local government returning to its roots, with the elected county sheriffs of previous centuries. There are also new opportunities for councils with welfare reforms, such as the incentives for councils to come up with innovative ways to turn round the lives of "troubled families."

I asked about the impact of the spending cuts, and whether, after all the dire warnings of catastrophe, he agreed that councils had generally coped pretty well.

"We knew that local government would be able to deliver the kind of savings that we were requesting. They knew it was going to be the year of reckoning whether it was us or Labour. We should not be surprised. We set the level of reductions at a level that was going to be achievable. All the nonsense that we saw was just top dressing. Most authorities have coped very well.

"A number of authorities refocused and decided to prioritise what was important. A lot of them had drifted to the Government tune in the appointments that took place - according to the latest fashions. I dare say if we had been awash with money a lot of Directors of Localism would have been appointed. Or Portas Co-ordinators would have been appointed. But they decided to focus on quality services that the public wanted. The way that we responded made local authorities have to justify what they did. Why were they spending so much money on flowers? Or executive trips? Or paying their chief executive so much? Relatively few councils have had to resort to compulsory redundancies."

What about the case that is made in town halls that they have had higher cuts than central government? "I think that point is very important," says Eric. "That is why this department has cut its staffing by 40%. We were among the first to publish spending items over £500 online. While authorities were going through the process, I was going through the process. I didn't feel that I could look local authorities in the eye if I wasn't doing more than they were doing."

It is implicit in that response, that some parts of the public sector have not, so far, made quite the effort that either town halls or the DCLG have.

What of the proposal from the Taxpayer's Alliance and Institute of Director's 2020 Tax Commission that councils should raise half their own revenue - perhaps through a sales tax - rather than the 17% that the Council Tax finances?

Pickles is not intrinsically opposed to it but thinks we have to bear in mind the economic circumstances the country is in.  And we can look out of the window and see local authorities that have come unstuck by parking charges.

What about extending the right to buy for Housing Association tenants, with the scale of discounts available for council tenants?

It is something that we might like to think about for the next manifesto.

Eric was constrained in talking about slashing council rent discounts for the rich as it is under consultation.

Just speaking generically I can understand how a rich plutocratic trade union boss might want for nostalgia's sake to live in a working class flat. But I don't see why he should deny a working class family that flat. It is not unreasonable that he should pay the market rate. It is the same kind of logic as it being unreasonable for someone on benefits to have a house that someone working could not afford.

Does localism mean that Lincolnshire should be able to reject windfarms?

It would be more interesting if that had come from a district council as they are the ones who are the planning authority. Each application is treated on its merits. If district councils have views on where wind farms should be placed that is sensible. In some places they would be inappropriate. I cannot imagine that there would be a strong case to put a wind farm next to Dove Cottage.

Eric adds that he has "long advocated, consistently advocated, nuclear energy".  He is not a Johnny come lately.

He adds that it is too early to judge how successful the Government changes will be in streamlining the planning process to to allow faster and better decision making.

I had brought along a copy of the Institute of Economic Affairs pamphlet by Christopher Snowdon, How the Government lobbies itself and why as something to read on my journey.   As Eric was favourably mentioned for stopping councils employing lobbyists, I presented him with it as a parting gift. I suppose this act constituted lobbying the Government against spending money on lobbying itself.


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