Pickles’s meddle and populism bill

Jessica Studdert, political adviser to the Labour group at the Local Govt Assoc, examines Eric Pickles's meddling in the very localism he claims to champion.

Jessica Studdert is the political adviser to the Labour group at the Local Government Association (LGA)

“Power to the people” rhetoric comes easy to communities secretary Eric Pickles. It comes almost as easy as deflective attacks on local government which, amongst other things, he has branded ‘lazy’ if they are forced to cut local services as an inevitable reaction to revenue grant cuts of as much as 17 per cent next year. On closer inspection, the Localism Bill turns out to be a license for Pickles to meddle and interfere, and for local vested interests to capture the local democratic process.

The localist agenda has broad political support. But too often the Government’s brand of localism leaves local communities worse off – and not just financially.

Firstly, the government sees democratically elected, accountable local authorities as an obstruction and not a partner in delivering their localist agenda. They have consistently sought to undermine their role in communities across a range of reform including free schools and directly elected police chiefs. The coalition promotes a populist localism that would supersede the strategic role of local authorities, who must respond to the needs of a community as a whole and over the longer term. This instinct is very much visible in the Localism Bill.

Take planning reform. The complex proposals allow groups of residents to get together to block developments in their area, take over services and to compete for local funding allocations. The most resourceful, well organised and powerful people in a community will be best placed to take advantage of this new system – for example forcing a local authority to adopt a neighbourhood plan.

These moves have the potential to fuel local controversies and turf wars between different sectional interests. There are very real threats to community cohesion and the proposals seem specifically designed to build in chaos and blockage into the system.

Secondly, the bleak funding landscape for local authorities nurtures only a hollow localism. Mr Pickles has made it clear that he expects councils to do “more for less”, and that he believes it is possible to cut significant sums out of local authorities by improving the way local authorities operate. But the speed and depth of the cuts he has implemented make this impossible even if it were possible to achieve at a slower pace.

This increases the likelihood of affecting frontline services and jobs. It is not just simply the total funding shortfall of £6.5bn for local government over the two years of the finance settlement. The average 12.1 per cent cut to formula grant in 2011-12 is the first step of a 28 per cent reduction in local authority budgets over the next four.

Frontloading so severely in year one significantly limits the scope of councils to reduce their spending using innovative measures such as shifting to shared services models, renegotiating contracts or supporting Big Society approaches to service delivery. These changes all take time and cost money to implement – finance directors now have just a matter of weeks to find savings for the next financial year. Pickles has recognised this point in relation to fire authorities, whose cuts are backloaded, but he refused to substantially address the issue for the local authority settlement.

The positive aspects of the Bill, for example the introduction of a new general power of competence for councils, are severely weakened by the dire financial settlement, and the absence of any new finance powers for local authorities. Giving councils more freedom to innovate and take on new responsibility, at a time when discretionary spend is coming under such enormous pressure, means that new powers and responsibilities cannot be fully realised.

Finally, it is surprising just how much central control the government remains partial to. Mr Pickles’s control-freakery ranges from meddling – trying to get local authorities to run down essential reserves, perhaps unsustainably, or imagined Winterval celebrations – to the more manipulative. Instead of letting councils and communities decide their own governance arrangements, the Secretary of State will now have the power to put shadow elected mayors in place and initiate a mayoral referendum.

The Secretary of State will force councils to undertake costly and time consuming referenda, outside of the regular local election cycle, before being allowed to raise council tax to a level needed to boost spending locally – not a principle the government pursues for its own revenue-raising. The Secretary of State will have a general power to order councils to contribute to the UK’s obligation to pay a fine, despite the Lisbon Treaty clearly specifying that failures to meet agreed targets are attributable to member states.

So whether Mr Pickles or a future Secretary of State will use his power to threaten local authorities that don’t play by his rules or pass the buck down for shortcomings nationally, centralism remains a feature of his localism.

Taken together with the decimation of local government grant funding, this localism will ring a little hollow as essential services and investment – in education, childcare, social care, community facilities such as libraries, recycling services, community policing, road repairs and so much more – are cut.

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