Ronald Reagan reflected, in his farewell speech as US President:
“We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference.”
An important test. To my mind there have been three great reforming Ministers over the past five years. There has been Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, Michael Gove at Education and Eric Pickles at Communities and Local Government.
Mr Duncan Smith remains in post which is excellent news. Michael Gove was moved from the Department of Education which was a great pity although the policies have continued – with more schools becoming academies and more free schools being established.
Then we have Mr Pickles who has left the DCLG although. He will become Anti-Corruption Tsar, lead for the PM on his Open Government initiative and join the Holocaust Commission.
Mr Pickles has proved a staunch friend of the Council Taxpayer. Those on Band D have saved an average of over a thousand pounds over the past five years. That is compared to what bills would have been if they had gone up with inflation – without the funding for the Council Tax freeze and the requirement for a referendum to approve large increases. Indeed that is probably to understate the position. In Labour-run Wales the Council Tax has been going up ahead of inflation – as it did in England when there was a Labour Government.
At the same time local democracy has been reinvigorated. Under a regime of tough love councils have become accountable to their residents rather than Whitehall jobsworths. While funding has gone down the quality of local services, as measured by resident satisfaction, has gone up.
A spirit of innovation has replaced the tyranny of sameness that used to be imposed by the unlamented Audit Commission.
Red tape in the planning system has been eased but localism has given councillors more control over what is built. The New Homes Bonus has provided an incentive as an alternative to draconian targets – over 100,000 empty homes have been brought back into use.
Where councils have behaved unacceptably – as in Rotherham and Tower Hamlets – Pickles has been tough in intervening. His new role as the anti-corruption tsar offers the prospect that he will help to combat electoral fraud.
As I am sure he would be the first to agree the mission is not complete. Local government’s culture has improved but there is still a long way to go. There is still gross overmanning, overspending and inefficiency. There is still a fondness for obfuscatory jargon and political correctness.
But there can be no doubt that Mr Pickles has made a great difference in the past five years in making the state, at local level, the servant rather than the master of the people.