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.

20 Responses to “Pickles’s meddle and populism bill”

  1. Hazico_Jo

    RT @leftfootfwd: Pickles's meddle and populism bill: //bit.ly/g5Joub by @JessicaStuddert

  2. Nick Copland

    RT @leftfootfwd: Pickles's meddle and populism bill: //bit.ly/g5Joub by @JessicaStuddert

  3. Barnsdale Brigade

    RT @leftfootfwd: Pickles's meddle and populism bill //bit.ly/esBddZ

  4. Anon E Mouse

    “Mr Pickles’s control-freakery”

    From the party that gave us thousands of new laws, the smoking ban, ID Cards, CCTV, Control Orders, numerous overseas wars, Damian McBride, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls…

    Who wrote this drivel?

  5. Bernard and Paul

    RT @leftfootfwd: Pickles's meddle and populism bill //bit.ly/esBddZ

  6. L DTUC

    RT @leftfootfwd: Pickles's meddle and populism bill: //bit.ly/g5Joub by @JessicaStuddert

  7. PrimlyStable

    If the Government is so in favour of local people making local decisions, why are ministers ignoring the massive opposition to HS2 in every local area the line will run through?

  8. Richard

    CCTV was around way before Labour came to power, and let’s not forget the innumerable avoidable wars the Tories took the country into, their hidden love of control orders, and a plethora of very nasty pieces of work.

    Who wrote that drivel? A pseudo that dare not speak its name.

  9. Anon E Mouse

    Richard – I do hope you’re not going to compare liberating the Falkland Islanders from a facist dictatorship or Gulf War 1 where Saddam was attacked without the need to mislead people with a “pack of lies” dossier?

    Nah you couldn’t be. All you’re doing is the nah nah na nah nah pointing finger stuff so whereas the EVIDENCE is Labour brought in those aforementioned dreadful laws and all you can say is YOU believe the Tories love them.

    One is a fact the other is your opinion. And the facts are the facts….

  10. Tracy Jones

    TracyJones Pickles's meddle and populism bill: Taken together with the decimation of local government grant fund… //bit.ly/gljhcs

  11. scandalousbill

    Anon,

    As I recall Blair avoided defeat in parliament from a back bench rebellion of Labour members thanks to the Conservatives. The Tories were steadfast in their support of the invasion of Iraq. There is plenty of evidence to be gleaned from the media coverage of events at that time as well as from Hansard

  12. Paul Evans

    Pickles’s meddle and populism bill //bit.ly/fQt73q

  13. scandalousbill

    Anon,

    A second point is to wonder how your comments relate to the draconian policy Jabba is foisting upon local government?

  14. Mr. Sensible

    Jessica I fully agree.

    The government preaches localism, but, as you have highlighted, 1 of the problems with the bill is that councils will have to hold referenda if the council tax settlement is higher than a level set by Whitehall.

  15. Anon E Mouse

    scandalousbill – What you say may well be true but it has nothing to the point I was making.

    Richard stated that the Tories took this country into “innumerable avoidable wars” which is simply not true. The only government that blindly followed the US into their “overseas adventures” was the Labour one.

    Also your comment on “foisting” policies onto local government is just your opinion on them – I see the public being able to hold local servants to account (since they are being paid by those same people) as an act of freedom from state control.

    The bigger picture is when Labour is going to dump the useless Ed Miliband or prepare for a long long time in opposition.

    The man’s a dud…

  16. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – It will calm the councillors down is all. None of the doom and gloom scenarios you’ve predicted so far have happened.

    Because the councils have to have a referendum it means they might start acting on behalf of their employers – the taxpayers and not themselves.

    It’s a good thing dude – embrace it. Power being taken from dishonest thieving MP’s many many miles away is a very good thing.

    Imagine people being answerable and responsible for their own decisions locally…

  17. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – To illustrate my point with EVIDENCE and not OPINION look at the BBC today: //www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-11984977

    Basically in the UK’s sixth worse off area, Newham in East London, the LABOUR councillors spent more than £111m on one office block – a third of the cost of the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s grounds.

    I know Shamik Das will be choking on his Frosties this morning as he realises how bad it is for Labour councillors to waste money like this and once Eric Pickles gets this stuff in my guess those Labour councillors will be for the high jump.

    Bit like those 1600 members of staff the council is having to lay off to pay for this disgraceful Labour waste. Power to the people. Vote Lib Dem now…

  18. Localism Bill could pave the way to higher levels of inequality | Left Foot Forward

    […] analysis has been done by the BBC and the Guardian and Left Foot Forward has published a wonderful summary of the potential wider impact on local […]

  19. Michael Macpherson

    While Left Foot cannot be expected to endorse the Right wing’s policies you should concede that there are (at present Dec 2010) some positive feature in the Localism Bill. Especially the potential for political empowerment of citizens. Until now we had (for general issues) a democratic system which is entirely INdirect, “representative”.
    Some gains for democracy may be:

    Citizens will be able to demand and obtain a referendum on any local issue “economic, social or environmental”. One in twenty members of an electorate must endorse the referendum proposal.

    All levels of local government are to be involved, e.g. the Greater London Area, cities, towns, counties and districts.

    Electronic collection of endorsements can be used.
    ————–
    We have critically evaluated this citizen-led democracy at //www.iniref.org/latest.html and //iniref.wordpress.com/localism-bill-2010-and-citizen-led-democracy/

  20. iniref

    While Left Foot cannot be expected to endorse the Right wing’s policies you should concede that there are (at present Dec 2010) some positive feature in the Localism Bill. Especially the potential for political empowerment of citizens. Until now we had (for general issues) a democratic system which is entirely INdirect, “representative”.
    Some gains for democracy may be:

    Citizens will be able to demand and obtain a referendum on any local issue “economic, social or environmental”. One in twenty members of an electorate must endorse the referendum proposal.

    All levels of local government are to be involved, e.g. the Greater London Area, cities, towns, counties and districts.

    Electronic collection of endorsements can be used.
    ————–
    We have critically evaluated this citizen-led democracy at //www.iniref.org/latest.html and //iniref.wordpress.com/localism-bill-2010-and-citizen-led-democracy/

Leave a Reply