Published:

PicklesnewEric Pickles remains in post as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The team he leads has almost completely changed.  Apart from Baroness Hanham, it's all new faces. Mark Prisk replaced Grant Shapps. Nick Boles replaced Greg Clark. Brandon Lewis replaced Bob Neill.

So when I went to see Mr Pickles in his House of Commons office above St Stephen's Entrance, I asked how his new team were settling in. Would they be less combative? For instance, would Mark Prisk be a less combative Housing Minister than Grant Shapps?

"Mark is going to be an extremely competent Minister, I've known him a long time. He will be happy to have a go. I think Nick will be the same. Brandon will definitely be looking to rock the house."

At the Party Conference last year, the Pickles speech saw lots of cheering policy announcements – right to buy, incentives to restore weekly bin collections, plans to get rid of trade union Pilgrims and Council equalities sex snoopers.

More is promised this year in Birmingham. "It will be a good conference, " he says. "We will have lots of things to say on local government.  It will also be about making sure Ministers are out there. Local Government, Planning, and Housing Ministers will be at lots of fringe events, lots of receptions, and eager to talk to Council leaders. I've had a rule since I've been at the Department that council leaders can get in here to see me and other Ministers – that was certainly not something that applied under Labour."

How can more people be attracted to come forward as Conservative council candidates?

"It is a worthwhile thing to do now. People will see that it is not a waste of their time. The problem with local government in the past was that it was the creature of the centre. Now due to a series of reforms, people have a lot more opportunity to shape their communities to reflect local needs."

For the first half of the Parliamentary term the big story on Local government was the cuts.  Would the second half be about the Green Belt, and how and where to get houses built?

"We have been very clear that the Green Belt is within the DNA of the Conservative Party. It is in the coalition agreement. The Green Belt is there for a purpose and you are not going to remove that purpose. It is to stop conurbations bumping into one another."

However, there should be "a degree of flexibility" within which the environment can be enhanced:

"We tried to get a sensible debate on this last year about where development should take place. The Focus and In Touch newsletters about the sanctity of the Green Belt mean it has been harder to have a sensible discussion about development on scuzzy land rather than green fields. If there is a derelict quarry or you've got a scrapyard I am not averse at all to saying let's build on it. But we must have those green lungs of separation."

A lot of scuzzy land both inside and outside the Green Belt is owned by the state. Hundreds of billions of pounds worth. So far the Government is due to sell 7,000 acres of surplus land to provide 100,000 homes and raise £10 billion. Yet the Ministry of Defence alone owns 600,000 acres – roughly equivalent to the size of Surrey.  Shouldn't the Government step up their land sales – to provide more housing and boost the economy?  And it would make the 1980s privatisations of telephones and electricity look small beer in terms of the sums raised.

"The Government owns a lot of land being developed in Wandsworth where the American Embassy will be and there will be lots of housing. There is a lot of surplus MOD land and bases that will come into play and we are going to be marketing that and we should by the end of the year have two land auctions taking place.  I wouldn't see it in comparison with the 1980s' privatisations as being small beer."

The scandal of trade union officials being paid by the taxpayer is being addressed. But what of the dubious but widespread arrangement by councils and other parts of the public sector, of trade union subs being collected via payroll departments?

"It can't be free if we are going to collect the subs for them, maybe they should consider making alternative arrangements. It is a question which we are actively considering."

I asked about the Policy Exchange paper, which pointed out that councils and housing associations retain many high value properties, sometimes individual houses worth over £1 million. If these were sold when they became vacant then more replacement properties could be built. What is he going to do about this?

"I'm a  great believer in the power of nudge. And of openness and transparency. Where councils own property they ought to be looking at using that property portfolio reasonably well. A recognition by local authorities of what they own and what value it has, would be very welcome.

"I had a large metropolitan authority come to see me, I think we will spare their blushes, about the development of their town centre and wanting help putting a land bank together. When we dug deep it turned out they actually owned all the key properties. "

Council Tax Benefit funding is being cut with local councils being left to decide where to make the savings, but instructed to protect pensioners:

"We have asked them to take out 10% which is not unreasonable. I have to say that I am less than impressed by some of the schemes coming forward. Councils should not be bothering with the nickle and dime approach of trying to take very small sums from the low paid – claiming 20% or 30%. Some Labour councils are relishing the chance to attack the poor and blame the Government.

"Councils should be saving the money by tackling fraud and by getting people into jobs so that they can generate money from people paying Council Tax rather than being on Council Tax Benefit."

"This is an area where we need Conservative local authorities to demonstrate that they really are Conservative."

One initiative where he is happier with the progress councils are making is the Troubled Families programme. When I interviewed him in June councils were still getting used to the idea that they would be paid by results, but how they achieved them would be up to them. How it is working out?

"I am genuinely delighted that we are well ahead of schedule. We are seeing examples of serious savings. A good example would be a metropolitan authority in the Midlands which has managed to save £560,000 by reducing the number of children in care.  They managed to achieve that by looking at the problems that the families were having."

"We are seeing a chance to make a big difference for people who have made life so miserable for themselves and their neighbours."

There continues to be the paradox that Eric Pickles is giving more power to local government while being unrestrained in voicing his frustrations at his failings. He is exasperated at councils not using the powers they have.

Certainly I personally have lost count of the number of times a bureaucrat has told me that such and such a function must be carried out in such and such a way, due to a statutory requirement.  But  when pressed to check the details they admit this to be nonsense.

Despite the delay in its implications sinking in, the localism reforms will be  pursued. I asked about scrapping more Quangos (the Heath and Safety Executive was a candidate I nominated) and devolving their power to councils. Mr Pickles agreed that this should be the direction of travel.  Of course councils have their instances of failing to be "proportionate" over health and safety, yet at least there is some level of accountability which is not available with Quangos:

We are not alone as a Government Department in wishing to have fewer Quangos. DEFRA is looking long and hard at trying to pull back on their Quangos and to see where they can deliver something more sensibly.

Health and safety people demanding traffic management orders for cul-de-sacs need to get a grip of themselves.

The frustration felt by Eric Pickles is especially strong when it comes to Conservative councils that do not take the opportunities now offered to implement Conservative policies:

We've given local authorities more freedom, a lot more power. We need those local authorities to start dealing with matters as Conservatives, not as an extension of the management team. I think there is a woeful lack of knowledge about the changes we have made.

"It isn't business as usual. The prime test for any Conservative council is: would somebody queuing for a bus for their weekly shopping know that it was a Conservative authority? Would they be able to tell, and would they be able to give one or two reasons? There are very few councils where people could happily do that. We need Conservative councils which recognise that it is the public's money, that they should be delivering more for less, and that are determined to protect front line services.

What will be the DCLG's focus in the coming years?

We will be changing the department more into a economic department focusing on local growth. The big push will be towards jobs, sustainability, making people proud to live in a particular area.

There we have it. He has given us the tools. But can we finish the job?

Comments are closed.