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11/05/2013
Eric Pickles's 'hollow' council promises percolate the Queen's speech


Eric Pickles's 'hollow' council promises percolate the Queen's speech

Communities secretary's latest legislation preaches localism but won't revive parched desert traveller that is local government

Men in desert
Local government, like a parched traveller in the desert, is readily taken in by Pickles, says David Walker. Photograph: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images

Communities secretary Eric Pickles insists in his usual, modest, evidence-driven style that he knows what council taxpayers want and doesn't need councillors to tell him what local authorities should do about money or publicity, to take two examples from the Queen's speech.

The latest legislation on local government will inevitably be proclaimed 'localist', but the word never made much sense and is even more incoherent applied to the new measures.

Take the two bills promised that are related to HS2, the proposed fast link from London to the Midlands. They empower central government to ignore, instruct or where necessary, countermand decisions about land use and development taken by councils along the route. That might be justified on the grounds that the rail link is "national infrastructure". Perhaps Buckinghamshire or Warwickshire have to be constrained to get the railway built. But the legislation makes nonsense of the promise, set out in the Communities and Local Government business plan, to "give local people and communities far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which they live" by enhancing planning powers.

How can Greg Clark, the Treasury minister, blog with a straight face about a bonfire of controls and ordain "humility" on Westminster and Whitehall when the government is specifying in detail what councils can and cannot spend their money on when they want to communicate with local people. Does he really know what Limehouse needs better than Tower Hamlets borough council?

Of course he doesn't, but the localist card gets trumped every time, whether it's by partisanship Pickles' dislike of the imaginative use of local council newspapers by Labour-controlled authorities or fiscal imperative, the way cuts have been disproportionately loaded on councils or the command to hold a referendum if councils want to exercise their tax judgement in a way that offends the centre.

Local government, like a parched traveller in the desert, is readily taken in. The Local Government Association grasps at Pickles' promises, such as the abolition of the Audit Commission, which is finally to be enacted, according to what the Queen's speech said.

But it's hollow. Never mind that Pickles's "quango state" is expanding rather than contracting as he condones new, opaque sharing arrangements between councils out of the line of public scrutiny what do the residents of Shepherds Bush know about "tri-borough" deals concocted in Kensington?

Never mind the large expansion in the role of a central quango, the National Audit Office, that is now happening as its auditors and investigators fill the vacuum created by abolition to start on the town and county halls. Councillors now face a summons to the House of Commons public accounts committee, hardly a convincing demonstration of local autonomy.

The disappearance of the watchdog will mean more not less "bureaucracy". Civil servants, who trust councils no more than their political masters, have festooned the abolition legislation with detailed rules about what councils can and cannot do in appointing auditors.

The government is claiming abolition will save £1.2bn over 10 years. Media reports, typically, took the figure as given. CLG offers no breakdown. But we know it is calculated on a baseline year of 2009-2010 when Audit Commission costs were inflated by the Comprehensive Area Assessment. We know it excludes the cost to councils of complying with the NAO, and with the peer reviews and sector assessments from the Local Government Association and others that CLG is covertly insisting on. The figure was wonkily estimated on the basis of cuts in data returns from councils to Whitehall that, if you look at the Department of Health or Environment or Work and Pensions are not actually happening.

The Audit Commission itself has secured a cut in the cost of auditing, albeit at the price of less vigilance on the part of the private sector auditors who are now to do the work.

David Walker is contributing editor to the Guardian Public Leaders Network

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