Minister Eric Pickles tells councils to 'get your noses out of the trough'
London Editor Graeme Demianyk speaks to Local Government and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles about council cuts, why Cornwall councillors should buy dark sunglasses... and bins.
Eric Pickles is the man local council leaders love to hate. Not that the Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities cares much.
Yes, councils are going to have to do things differently as the austerity years stretch on. But it is nothing personal and they only have themselves to blame.
"It wouldn't matter if David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, or Mao Tse-tung was running the government," says the Conservative minister, one of the Cabinet's most quotable.
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"The level of public spending was going to come down. Council leaders were warned it was coming down, they were warned by Labour it was coming down, and some chose to ignore that.
"And some have chosen to use the poor as a battering ram – and I think that's a dereliction of duty."
So when the minister, one-time leader of Bradford council, announced details last month of the latest round of Whitehall handouts, they should not have been surprised it was less than the year before. And the year before that.
But, while Mr Pickles claimed an average 1.7% cut in "spending power" was a "bargain" for councils, most on the ground disagreed.
"Eric Pickles seems determined to bring a return to Dickensian Britain," said Councillor Mark Lowry, Labour cabinet member for finance on Plymouth City Council. "Which is probably why he is behaving like Scrooge in not caring about the impact he is having on the most vulnerable residents."
Tories were no more philosophical. This from the Conservative elected Mayor of Torbay, Gordon Oliver: "We simply cannot sustain the yearly level of cut that central government requires and our local Members of Parliament voted for, without cutting services."
That's not how Mr Pickles sees it. Councils should be generating money rather than blaming cuts. Unions raise the spectre of things people care about being at risk. Libraries, day centres, youth clubs. But the minister is adamant there are still plenty of savings to be made in the back office.
His new 50 tips for town halls guide – perhaps unlikely to feature in any best-seller lists this Christmas – includes opening a coffee shop in the local library and cancelling "glitzy" award ceremonies. They could also cut spending on consultants and agency staff and on head hunters and expensive adverts that can cost thousands of pounds in national newspapers. Councils, for their part, say they have already ticked off most of the list.
"The trend of joint working is going to have to continue," he goes on. "And they are going to have to look seriously at their procurement. Their procurement has been a bit of a paper tiger. There's so much more potential to do."
Mr Pickles urged any council wanting to raise more cash to face the voters – by staging and winning a referendum, required for any planned council tax rise above 2%. He added: "Funnily enough, in all these cries and screams of 'we can't cope' that's the one option they are not prepared to go with."
An MP since 1992, Mr Pickles has long cut a formidable figure in local government circles. He entered politics to "wipe out municipal socialism forever". When asked what he did for his stag do, Mr Pickles once explained he was writing the half-yearly report for the Yorkshire area provincial council.
A straight-talking Yorkshireman – often held up as the Tory antidote to the "arrogant posh boys" (trademark Nadine Dorries), though this belies a love of opera and bird-watching – he has got on with business since being put in command of the Department for Communities and Local Government after the election.
He has declared war on everything from local authorities paying chief executives more than the Prime Minister to over zealous traffic wardens and slop buckets. Quangos and town hall freesheets have also been caught in his cross-hairs.
His department has pioneered the Mary Portas "pilots" to regenerate high streets, and he's managed to streamline planning policy after a dust-up with national newspapers and the environmental lobby.
He has overturned the ban on prayers at council meetings via the much-vaunted Localism Act, persuaded councils to tackle problem families and arguably coined one of the best quotations of this Government over his so-called "binquisition" – which is the mission to get councils to collect rubbish bins once a week.
It goes something like this: "It's the basic right for every English man and woman to be able to put the remnants of their chicken tikka masala in their bin without having to wait a fortnight for it to be collected."
Many councils are still to switch from fortnightly to weekly collections, including Tory-controlled East Devon, Mid Devon, South Hams, Teignbridge and Torbay councils; Lib Dem-Independent led North Devon; and Labour-held Exeter City Council. Plymouth City Council, Cornwall Council and Torridge District Council already boast weekly collections.
"There are lots of things there to encourage weekly collections," said Mr Pickles, who doled out £250 million last month to encourage more. "Weekly collections is mostly what people want. And fair enough. In urban and rural areas you can collect rubbish cheaply. You can increase your recycling. And you can deliver something that is acceptable."
He goes on: "And that rather cheeky tikka masala quote is right. For most people it is the only service they get from the local authority that is visible. It's an example of how local authorities have become more about the management of local government services rather than democracy. The lecturing to the public. Making the public take a PhD in bin rotas seems to me to be utterly ridiculous. It shows how the political classes have got out of touch with the public."
Despite the rows, he sees councils in a "year of transition" as the localism agenda takes hold: neighbourhood planning, a right for people to challenge councils and more takeovers of local authority service provision. "Sometimes local authorities will get powers, in a lot of cases it will be giving power – and through the local authorities – to the wider community groups. That shift in power is going to start this year."
Last year, ministers signed off on "city deals" with eight major conurbations, including Manchester, Bristol and Leeds, getting more power from Whitehall.
"Am I in favour of more devolution to local areas?" he asked. "Yes, I most certainly am. I think the city deals gives us a way we might go on that. I think that's the future – the kind of deal we did with Newcastle; the deal we did with Manchester, the deal that's up there for Bradford and Leeds. That's the way local government should be going – a lot more autonomy. And a lot more control over taxation."
Asked if the "city deal" devolution packages should be extended to rural areas such as the Westcountry as well, he added: "Yes. It's the future – it's the way it should go. We're going to start looking at market towns."
Some councils, though, should perhaps avoid his gaze. He thinks proposals to make the Westcountry's poorest residents pay a share of council tax is "disgusting".
Councils across Devon and Cornwall have been considering plans to effectively end the 100% council tax discount for hard-pressed families from April, including those out of work. The possible change has been compared to the introduction of the poll tax and could mean households that pay nothing face huge bills.
Tory-led Cornwall Council is considering a 25% cut to so-called council tax benefit, which means asking residents to pay at least a quarter of their bill. By contrast, Conservative South Hams and West Devon councils – which were considering a 30% and 25% cut respectively – have postponed the reform for a year.
Mr Pickles pointed out that many councils had avoided making low-income households pay. But others were planning to tax the poor: "That struck me as being obscene." Councils could instead focus on helping people find work, he said. "I thought it was a singularly unambitious scheme, just taxing people who are in receipt of council tax benefit rather than helping them get into work, dealing with mistakes and fraud."
Latest Government figures show 157,000 people in Devon and Cornwall claim council tax benefit. The council proposals follow a 10% Government cut to rebates available to councils, and giving local authorities control of council tax benefits for the first time.
But the cut has left councils with a black hole to fill. For example, Cornwall Council has to find £6 million and Plymouth City Council has a £2million shortfall. Mr Pickles said he was considering using his powers as Secretary of State to order councils not to impose council tax charges on the unemployed.
He added: "Their job is not to tax the poor. It's to help the poor. That's why I'm so angry with these plutocratic city leaders who are not prepared to get alongside the poor. Who are happy for people to stay on benefit."
The Secretary of State also has little time for councillors in Cornwall who in October voted in favour of bumping up their pay packets by £2,472 a year on top of the current £12,128. The move saddles the taxpayer with an extra £304,056 a year.
Mr Pickles said: "I would suggest they spend that money on buying themselves the darkest sunglasses they can possibly get. And the reason they are going to need dark sunglasses is they will find it very difficult looking into the eyes of their employees who have had to endure a pay cut over a period of time. And I believe councils should lead from the front, not put their nose in the trough."
Meanwhile, crisis-torn West Somerset District Council can be saved, he says. A local Government Association report concluded tiny West Somerset had no long-term future because it was due to run out of money within two years. He said small councils may be allowed to side-step the council tax referendum in future.
Mr Pickles said: "One of my junior ministers is actively involved with this. There are a lot of things that could be done to help them out. There is a willingness around Somerset from adjoining authorities and from the county to help. I think it is very bridgeable. The process doesn't help by talking in apocalyptic terms. This is a very manageable thing."
Amid the fall-out of the Leveson inquiry into press ethics, he heaps praise on local newspapers. He is cautious of statutory under-pinning of a new newspaper watchdog, as suggested, warning that "once you cross that Rubicon you can't come back".
He said: "Having a free press locally and nationally is as important as having free and open elections. The last thing I want to see is a homogenised, everything-has-to-be-balanced thing. All our great newspapers built a reputation not out of being balanced but caring about things."