You know you’re a geek when you buy a copy of Total Politics magazine (I could just leave that sentence there, but no, I will finish)… a copy of Total Politics magazine on the basis that it has Eric Pickles on the front cover. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is a somewhat unlikely pin-up, but that is, of course, why I am growing to like Total Politics a great deal. As long as it stays on the nerdy rather than the braying end of the elitist political class spectrum.
So anyway, Pickles’ interview was refreshingly honest, down-to-earth and all the other things people keep saying they like about the coalition before the cuts kick in. This honesty included the admission that the localist agenda would not stop him being ‘an opinionated so and so’ in his dealings with local authorities, even though he would not be setting them targets.
One example mentioned was the salaries for local authority chief executives:
Have I introduced a pay scale for chief executives? No, that’s none of my business. But that doesn’t mean to say I don’t have an opinion. Authorities need to know if they’re talking about a lack of resources and they’re a little district and paying £180k for their chief executive, or if they’re a county with a chief exec on over £200k, I am not going to take them seriously. There’s been a rush of increases in members’ allowances. I’m not going to introduce a national scale. I’m not going to cap them. But I have to say to them, I don’t take it terribly seriously at all.
Because this is about money, it seems eminently reasonable. But is this necessarily an improvement, or how we want things to be decided from now on?
The obvious point to make here is the threat that the imbalance of power in government will tip not from the central to the local, but from Number 10, the Treasury and civil servants towards ministers. In some ways this can be seen as making sense in terms of accountability – something the Conservatives have played on in their proposed planning reforms. But you can certainly see a potential situation where councils simply replace chasing targets with chasing the posteriors of the relevant ministers.
In his book Thatcher and Sons, Simon Jenkins pulls a paean to localism out of an interrogation of Thatcherism, speaking of Thatcher’s introduction of posts like ‘Minister for Liverpool’ which made a mockery not only of local autonomy but even of our present flawed electoral system, and which was revived by the Conservatives in opposition. Councils had two choices with regard to such ministers: get in with them or fight them. Liverpool’s choice of the latter option notoriously provided a riveting political story and inspired one of the formative moments of New Labour in Neil Kinnock’s ‘taxis’ speech to the 1985 Labour Party Conference.
Whichever way councils go, the outcome is likely to be demagoguery. I’ve written before, starting nearly a year ago, about the massive long-term problem of allowing a ‘political class’ to develop, the members of which have in some ways more in common with each other, across party lines, than they do with the people they represent. Target culture did nothing to improve this either, but some might feel that it was easier to judge and relate to public decisions and public servants in an open and transparent fashion when they’re standing, shamed but still relatively upright, on the wrong side of a meaningless number than when they’re trying desperately to get into bed with Eric Pickles
The ‘free schools’ programme and the closely linked expansion of the academies programme is a key coalition initiative that should be scrutinised closely on this basis. Billed as giving power and ‘choice’ to local people (more on my loathing for the ‘choice agenda’ another time…) there is a powerful case that, by undermining local authorities’ remit to coordinate school provision across an area, and thereby making schools accountable to Ofsted and the Secretary of State, a lot might depend not on local control, but on how good your headteacher is at poking the Pickles (or in this case love-ing the Gove?)
Perhaps I’m being naive, but from the interview, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Pickles does seem to understand the potential for such unwelcome elements of dictatorship. Communities need to jump on the bandwagon and grab all the power they can – perhaps using initiatives like the Sustainable Communities Act – before he gets to like it too much.