By Tim Montgomerie
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Last Tuesday Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, gave a speech to ConservativeHome's Innovation and Improvement in Local Government conference. Download a full PDF of his remarks.
The speech was a comprehensive account of the Coalition's agenda for local government and, fresh from encouraging local election results, Eric Pickles was in uncompromising mood. He attacked the Left for their scaremongering about cuts. He questioned the tactics of Liberal Democrat councillors who had attacked the Coalition rather than their Labour opponents. Most of the speech was, however, dedicated to how local councils can protect the frontline at reduced cost. Mr Pickles focused on transparency exposing waste, procurement reform, elimination of fraud and merger of council services. Billions can be saved through these efforts, he said. At a time when some Cabinet ministers are under pressure this was a Secretary of State on top form, confident of his agenda and sticking to a very clear roadmap of reform.
Key extracts pasted below:
The desperate scare tactics of the Left: "The trade union Unison issued a press release two days before the local elections. As you know, we’re looking to catalogue and review outdated and unnecessary statutory burdens on local authorities. Yet Unison warned this would mean: Strip clubs on every corner… Soaring domestic homicide… Paedophiles running loose… Bodies piling up in the street. All this from a bit of localism? The left diminish their credibility with baseless attacks like that. But it illustrates that the left have to resort to extreme exaggeration as they don’t have the confidence to rebut our basic assertion… that councils can make sensible savings and protect the frontline and the vulnerable at the same time."
Coalition policy will be motiovated by fairness towards poorer parts of the country: "Labour have been attempting to divide the country by playing off different parts against each other. Metropolitan versus Shire; North versus South. Yet the most deprived areas continue to receive far, far more government grant per head. Tower Hamlets receives £1,000 of formula grant per head. Wokingham just £142. The most affluent areas and most expensive homes contribute far more in council tax per head. Every man, woman and child pays an average of well above £700 a year in council tax in the likes of Richmond-upon-Thames or in West Dorset. This compares with in the region of £350 a head in Manchester or in Hull."
Anti-Coalition Liberal Democrat councillors should have attacked Labour: "During the local elections, Conservatives highlighted how our councils deliver better quality services and still charge the lowest average council taxes on comparative Band D bills. We exposed how Labour councils were opposing transparency and championing secrecy to hide their waste. And we criticised Labour for intentionally cutting the frontline – pursuing a ‘bleeding stump’ strategy, playing politics with people’s lives for partisan advantage. I think that strategy worked. The public understood and agreed with the need to pay off Labour’s deficit and to cut the waste. And they appreciated that councils could make sensible savings by innovation and still protect the frontline. By contrast, some in local government didn’t spend their airtime attacking Labour’s fiscal legacy; exposing the waste of Labour councils; or even highlighting the work of their own councils. Instead, some of them attacked the Coalition and the deficit reduction programme. Their bluster, drowned out other Lib Dem councillors who defended the Coalition’s economic policy. It’s not for me to tell other political parties how to campaign. After all, we are in Coalition nationally, and not (as a whole) locally. But the fact is the Spending Review and the Local Government Settlement was a collective decision of both the Cabinet and the Coalition."
Transparency is exposing waste in local government: "Transparency is at the very heart of this transformation. All councils – with the exception of Labour-run Nottingham – are publishing spending over £500 online, empowering a new army of armchair auditors to drive out waste. The publishing process itself will save money. Experian reckon councils waste £150 million a year just in duplicate payments. In Labour-run Islington, an independent audit of just 30 of the councils' top 500 suppliers found that: Many invoices had even been paid two or even three times over. Four out of ten suppliers had no formal contract. £5 million of council tax payments had disappeared down the sofa when the town hall changed its IT systems. And a £1 million of funds were sitting in a “suspense” account for four years because officers didn’t know which department it belonged to. That is why this year, we will be drawing to the press and public’s attention their legal rights to enter councils’ offices and physically inspect the accounts, the ledgers and even the receipts. It’s far more powerful than Freedom of Information, and I suspect, it will be far more fun when people turn up. Residents of Nottingham: you know where to visit this summer. To coin a phrase from Jerry Maguire, Show Me the Money!"
Reform of procurement could save £10 billion a year: "Respected industry experts – firms like Opera Solutions – have estimated that expert spending analysis followed by professional procurement practices could reduce local government costs by 10 to 20 per cent. This represents savings to local government of up to £10 billion a year. This isn’t a criticism of local councils – corporate bodies face exactly the same problems. But attitudes need to be commercial. Challenges that Opera have identified include: Insufficient staff skills, as local government employees quite reasonably may not be procurement experts. A lack of sponsorship or buy-in from senior officers. A resistance to sharing and consolidation of procurement to get the best prices, as officers protect their territory. And the lack of consistent and clean spending data."
Action against fraud could save £2 billion: "The National Fraud Authority has estimated that councils could save £2 billion a year by improving their prevention, detection and recovery of fraud. Money currently lost to fraud and error costs every household almost £100 a year, thanks to the practices of increasingly sophisticated organised crime."
Councils should cut costs by working together: "The general power of competence in the Localism Bill – which receives its Report Stage today – will remove legal obstacles to joint working and creative improvement. No longer can council officers justify keeping unreformed sprawling empires for their own sake. Councils should share senior staff. Combining chief executives with other councils or other public authorities, or even scrapping the chief executive post entirely. Every authority needs a Head of Paid Service, but not everyone needs a chief executive. We should share back office services, from planning to press, from HR to legal. Does the country really need 350 different business rate collection departments?"
The definition of a good council: "A good council will make sensible savings. A good council won’t wait for Whitehall to be innovative in its approach and transform service delivery. A good council will trust the people – respecting their civil liberties, giving them choice, and working with the local voluntary and social enterprise sector to build the Big Society. A good council will be open and transparent to its local press and local taxpayers, listen to local residents, learn and draw upon the feedback of its own elected local councillors. A good council will keep council tax down. Council tax has more than doubled since 1997."
Harry has already highlighted other contributions to the CH Local government conference:
- Stephen Greenhalgh of Hammersmith and Fulham used his speech to praise Eric Pickles' first year achievements.
- Cllr Royston Smith told of his struggle against unco-operative trade unions in Southampton.
- Mark Lehain told of his struggle to open a free school in Bedford.
Harry's overall summary is here.
I thank again Spikes Cavell for their sponsorship of the conference and all the speakers and attendees who made it such an interesting event.