Vir Cantium

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Category Archives: Localism

Is Eric Pickles Rewarding Failure Now?

Eric Pickles, British politician and Chairman ...

Eric Pickles: (make up your own caption)

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has come forward with another potentially popular and localist announcement, pre-conference:

Weekly bins are on the way back!

Minister pledges £250m fund to PAY councils to dump fortnightly rounds

Local authorities will have to guarantee weekly bin rounds for five years to qualify for funding
[…]
In a victory for householders and the Daily Mail, ministers unveiled a £250million fund to restore them.

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said councils will now have ‘no excuse’ to maintain hugely unpopular fortnightly schemes. ‘My view has always been that people expect a weekly collection,’ he said.

He cannot force town halls to go back to weekly collections, but made it clear that voters should throw out councils which do not – a provocative suggestion, given that many of those that have gone fortnightly are Conservative controlled.

Mr Pickles told the Daily Mail: ‘I’ve had council leaders sitting at this very table who claim their public like a fortnightly collection and are very supportive. Well, good luck to them. Come the elections, there can be no excuses.’

Well, that’s nice. Nice if you’re the sort of council who simply cut the collections to fortnightly, with the spurious justification of ‘going green’, and faced a revolt from residents who would be equally rebellious (and understandably so) against any increase in council tax to restore what they thought they were already paying for.

In other words, this morning you will be delighted if you are a council that messed up (sorry) and are now being bailed out; rewarded for your failure.

Where I live, however, I’m not so sure they’ll be so pleased. We have fortnightly collections of general waste and non-paper recyclable stuff, and weekly pick-ups of kitchen waste and paper. Complaints have been very few – honestly: in some council areas the local rag’s letter pages would be bulging week after week with angry missives, ours have barely registered one. The reason is that the council has done it properly: still picking up the smelly, rat-friendly organic waste weekly, and thus immediately dealing with the main gripe of ‘fortnightly’ collections. In doing so, they have surely forsaken some of the savings that could have been made by the Foxtrot-Yankee approach adopted elsewhere.

So, screw up and you will now have been saved by our chum Eric. Well run councils, on the other hand, will likely get nothing extra for their efforts of listening to their residents, some of whom will now have their expectations raised unnecessarily.

As one of the latter councils you might also be somewhat miffed that Mr Pickles has ‘found’ £250m but is not just putting it into the local government formula grant for councils to spend according to their local priorities. ‘Localism’ I think it’s called.

(Pic. credit: The Health Hotel)

So Farewell, The Audit Commission

The Government Office for London … Comprehensive Area Assessments … now it’s farewell to the Audit Commission. Like Frankenstein, it had grown mutated from its financial roots such as its name suggested to being an instrument of Labour’s paranoid control of local government, delivering the vision of local councils as branch offices of the New Labour project.

I had been wary that the Government’s apparent enthusiasm for smaller government might stop at simply reversing some of Labour’s efforts, yet in abolishing the Audit Commission, Eric Pickles’ team has also undone one of Margaret Thatcher’s centralising turns. The Commission was not one of her better examples of rolling back the frontier of the State, her suspicion and hatred of Socialism, I suspect, trumping any small government instincts.

That wrong has now been righted, and so now we in local government will be on our own with no oversight … apart from our own external auditors, internal audit, scrutiny by fellow members, opposition and the media. Oh, and the small matter of elections.

Now, if Eric would let me know where the Audit Commission will be buried … I feel like a boogie.

Lessons in Localism

Something that councillors like me are going to have to get used to is the fact that ‘localism’ means devolving power to the lowest practical level. That sometimes will mean bypassing us altogether, as with today’s “Community Right to Build” proposals from Grant Shapps, where local land trusts can obtain permission via local referenda to build small developments.

I expect that some of my own colleagues will not be happy with this one but, so far, I am.

One group that has already come out against the move, though, is the Council for the Protection of Rural England:

“A more democratic approach to house building is welcome as local people should always be given a say in development…. However, bypassing the planning process is not the way to deliver it and any proposals should include proper planning scrutiny.

“The level and location of development should be informed by a proper assessment of local housing need and an understanding of whether the local environment can accommodate more development. This capacity should be assessed through democratic local plans and not a simple public ballot [my emphasis].”

Yes, you read that last bit right. I think that the term “democratic” in this instance, describing central planning under a system introduced in the 1940’s, is used in the same sense as it is in, say, the “Democratic Peoples Republic of (North) Korea”. (Certainly, at least in the past, it has given us a fair amount of architecture in a similar style too).

I could even comment that the use of the term “Council” in the CPRE’s name is somewhat incongruous, as it suggests a body made up of elected representatives. Perhaps that explains why the CPRE (chief executive: former Labour MEP Shaun Spiers) is so confused about what democracy really means.

When we councillors do draw up our local development plans, we are doing so as delegates of the local communities in our wards, divisions or parishes. At a borough or county level, it is the most practical method of getting democratic input into the process over large areas.

However, if you are talking about a neighbourhood or village, then a local referendum could clearly be a practical option. (Incidentally, Grant Shapps has tentatively suggested a high approval threshold of 80-90%). Yes, consideration must be given to the effect on the local environment, transport routes, schools and other infrastructure, but surely those best placed to judge this are those living in that same neighbourhood? What makes us, the local great and good councillors, think that we know any better? Is that not the philosophy of the paternalistic central state bureaucrat?

Taking of which, just how “democratic” does the CPRE think it is when, under the current system of central planning, a development wins approval after a successful appeal to a planning inspector reporting to his superiors in Bristol? “Not very” would be the answer, I suspect, but there’s no point in being half-hearted if you want to overturn decades of anachronistic state planning machinery.