It’s a funny thing, change and loss. Sometimes (as the song says) you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, whilst at other times change can be met with more relief than a cold beer at the end of a long, hot summers day. It’s between these two points that emotions swing when the DCLG career of Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is reflected upon.
Just a few short days after the Conservative party won a small majority in Parliament, David Cameron set about completing his grand reshuffle of seats and positions great and powerful. Among these was the announcement that Eric Pickles would be moved away from his position (be)heading the Department for Communities and Local Government to be replaced by Greg Clark, former Minister for Universities, Science and Cities. And you know what? I’m not sure where I stand on Uncle Eric’s legacy.
Over the years, many – this blog included – have given E-Pic a fair degree of criticism for some of his more outlandish behaviours and obsessions. I am not sure I will ever quite understand his fixation on flying flags and bunting. He has been a constant and vocal advocate on flag-flyers behalf, encouraging flags to be flown from council buildings high and low (with double points no doubt awarded if in the process you flew the flag of some long forgotten historical version of a local authority).
And then there are the bins. Mr Pickles over the years basically declared war on bin collection on a less-frequent-than-weekly basis, aiming to “tackle the ghastly gauntlet of bin blighted streets and driveways.” Never mind that councils are having to be creative to collect bins at all within their much reduced budgets, he wanted to see them under pressure to maintain or even improve on levels of service that the overwhelming yet silent majority of service users had no problem at all with. And don’t get him started – EVER – on local council funded newspapers (an area I won’t go into for fear of causing an internal WLLG Towers debate once more...).
And it wasn’t only the little, petty things (throw in parking charges for good measure too) which blot his copybook. During his time at the helm it did not for one second feel like he ever had our back, that he was on our side. It’s difficult to remain hopeful for the future when the person theoretically at the top of the local government decision making pile does nothing but publicly and privately berate your work and belittle your efforts, demanding ever more and condemning progress as not good enough.
Eric regularly singled out individual councils for harsh criticism, rightly or wrongly, and never missed an opportunity to score political points at the expense of other hard working councils who had the ‘misfortune’ to be run by someone wearing a different colour tie than him. That he was such a persuasive orator and garnered such a high public profile meant that his undeniably negative public views of the sector bled out to the wider public, who were led to believe that all local government staff were sitting on their backsides, doing very little for massive paycheques and wasting fortunes of tax payer’s money.
Perhaps this was why he was so ever-eager to give it away to his colleagues. As a friend recently said, the impression was that at Cabinet meetings when George Osborne said "ok, we need to make another couple of billion....any ideas?", whilst everyone else looked down and shuffled their papers, E-Pic could barely wait to offer up another slice from the local government pie. Not only was there no fight to protect his service, there was active enthusiasm to trim, trim and trim once more.
Nobody can accuse him of not living by his own values. Under his stewardship the DCLG budget itself was slashed significantly, so much so that they were able to move in with the Home Office as they simply didn’t need all that much space for themselves. While he couldn’t get other departments to quite take his approach to austerity as seriously as he did, that didn’t stop him practicing what he preached at every opportunity.
And the financial impact doesn’t stop there. Mr Pickles was vital in the process of reducing and removing the amount of ring-fencing around budgets, giving local authorities a far greater degree of financial flexibility than they had before. That some councils may have abused this in various ways large and small is an issue for them to sort out, and that even these budgets have since been further reduced can at best be described as unfortunate, but at the time it was the right thing to do and a brave thing to do.
Braver still was his decision to abolish one of the most powerful bodies in the world of local government during the previous decade – the Audit Commission. This major QUANGO required huge amounts of data collation, analysis and presentation, powering whole departments of statisticians across the country but not really with the purpose of service improvement in mind, more service reporting. Again, this freed up councils to attack local problems with local solutions rather than reinforcing a one-solution-fits-all-philosophy that was arguably in place at the time. All this reporting was replaced by a massively reduced set of performance indicators to report on and the hope that an army of armchair auditors would spring up to take their place (admittedly we’re still waiting for this army to by fully recruited and armed for battle).
He did however start at the very least pushing to supply this army with ammunition, forcing councils to up their game somewhat when it came to open data and releasing hitherto hidden datasets to the rigours of public scrutiny. Of course there were and are issues around data quality and context, but if nothing else it undoubtedly led to councils reducing the number of highly paid jobs at the top in the face of this increased public scrutiny (and with no small amount of help from the Tax Payers Alliance). Whether this saw cuts to unnecessary spending or it instead removed a huge amount of senior experience from the ranks when it was needed the most is as always up for debate, but it certainly had an effect.
The fact was though that he gave councils the ability to make these decisions for themselves. Taking aside points about flags, bin collections, parking charges and prayers at meetings (an area for another post on another day, I assure you...) he ushered in the Localism Act, and through it the general power of competence. After years of being told what to do, how to do it and what evidence to collect to prove it had been done, he simply gave councils free rein and released them to the wild. They were better able and empowered to give things ago than many thought possible and perhaps sensible, and some (though not nearly enough) took advantage of this to really push their local interests forward.
Leading on from this was devolution and the power ceded to cities through City Deals. City areas were better able to push for bespoke deals with central government, with the aim of redressing the perceived imbalance between the almighty powerhouse of London and regions outside of the M25. Yes, a lot more could have been done, but it was a move in the right direction.
If there’s one thing I wish had felt different throughout that entire, turbulent stint it would be the relationship he had with local government. Just once you wanted to hear him say publicly that while the sector would of course need to do more, that actually they were doing great things and people should lay off from criticising for a bit. Perhaps if he had been seen to defend anywhere near as much as attack his charges his words and intentions may have fallen on more sympathetic ears. This isn’t some form of demand for acceptance like a teenager to their distant parent, more a professional acknowledgement that local government was leading the way in so many areas and should be seen as the leaders they were and are.
Pickles said at the start of his reign that he felt much could be cut from local government budgets without services to the average person being severely affected, and certainly for those not deemed vulnerable that is indeed the case. A few streetlights get switched off, perhaps some libraries have closed down but in general for the majority of the population the local world hasn’t collapsed. Maybe he had something of a point after all. I only wish he hadn’t used it like a rapier to repeatedly stab at those trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Many years ago I watched an excellent road trip documentary where Stephen Fry (one of my heroes) drove across the US in a black cab. Along the way he shared a probably apocryphal quote from Oscar Wilde (one of his heroes) about scale and impact; “the immensity of some things, like the Empire State building, can only truly be appreciated from a distance”.
The intent was I believe to say that some things, when viewed up close, seem as ordinary as the next and nothing to remark upon. However, the addition of distance allows those grand works to rise above their lesser brethren and stand proud for all to see.
Perhaps in future years we will look back at Uncle Eric and appreciate that, love him or loathe him as a person, he pushed the sector to change when it needed to change the most. Perhaps not. But at least he made an impact, one way or another.
Eric Pickles; well played sir, well played.