by Eric Pickles
Today, public sector borrowing stands at £149 billion – and that's got to mean a change in mindset towards public money. Every part of the public sector has to play its part in cutting the highest deficit in the UK’s peacetime history – and rediscover respect for taxpayers cash rather than assuming it will continue to come pouring in.
Councils will play a particular role in this. They spend around £122 billion a year, including £42 billion on buying goods and services. What they choose to spend their money on can have a huge effect – not just on local public services but on the local economy as a whole. And every single council taxpayer is going to be looking to their council to make wise and prudent decisions about where their hard earned money is spent. They will want to make sure that every penny is going on the front-line services they rely on – collecting the bins, keeping the streets clean and safe, maintaining the roads and parks.
What people absolutely don’t need or want is to see their money being fritted away on projects that don't make a blind bit of difference to anyone's life. Whether that's some of the ridiculous 'non-jobs' that we hear about, or lavish spending on lobbyists. This seems so obvious, that frankly, it is shocking to hear there are 100 public bodies, including eight councils and 15 housing associations, still showing up in the latest Association of Professional Political Consultants records as employing public affairs firms.
Councils should not be spending taxpayers cash on bankrolling elaborate lobbying campaigns. Government paying to lobby government is indefensible. It undermines democracy to the level of decisions being made behind closed doors in smoke filled rooms – exactly the sort of corrosive practices which have undermined faith in the political process. And more immediately, when councils face some difficult decisions about how to spend their money, it is impossible to see how they can justify that kind of spending to the public. Good luck to any council who tries to explain to local residents why they need to keep this sort of spending going – especially if they then start to hit frontline jobs and services.
Of course, I absolutely want to hear what councils have to say – but if they want to persuade me of anything they can drop me an email or give me a ring. I'm simply going to put the phone down to any hired gun lobbyist.
For any council which fails to get the message, I am determined to see this wasteful practice stop. I will shortly be publishing new stricter rules on local authority publicity – which will guard against campaigning with public funds and make it tougher for councils and police authorities to employ lobbyists.
The whole ethos of this sort of lobbying goes absolutely against the new era of openness and transparency which is so important. It's important to rebuild trust in politics – but also to protect money. Transparency will expose waste and enable a generation of 'armchair auditors' to see exactly what their council is up to and ensure it represents value for money. Six months ago, I called on all councils to put their spending over £500 online. More than half of all councils (193) have now got their house in order. But by the end of the month I expect all councils to be up to speed.
But this should only be the start of councils throwing open their doors. I can't see any reason why councils shouldn't put details of senior pay, councillor expenses, tenders, contracts and meetings into the open, so that the public can clearly see the decisions being made on their behalf – and challenge them if they aren't happy.
Yes, there are difficult times ahead for councils and some tough choices. As I've said repeatedly, there are lots of steps that councils can take – cutting excessive chief executive pay, sharing back offices, joining forces to procure, and rooting out wild overspends, embracing innovation, thinking creatively and protecting the frontline services that people want – before they even start to think about the alternative.
The standard has got to be more service for less cost, not more cost for less service. The public expect and deserve nothing less.