Back to articles • Back to home page

 
Look back in wonder - with the benefit of hindsight
Local Government Chronicle – 16 December 2010

It opened - and closed - with anxiety about snow and council gritting supplies. The intervening months saw a change of government, councils learning they faced a 28% average grant cut and Eric Pickles telling councillors to grow up. Mark Smulian looks back at 2010.

It was a year of three thirds - the run-up to the general election when cuts were on the horizon, the phoney war after it waiting to see where and how hard the axe would fall, and the period since the spending review when the misery became clear. It was also the year when a government actually took some steps towards localism, but unfortunately handed councils wider powers over money just when there wasn't any.

And it was the year in which local government's master in Whitehall changed from the low-profile John Denham to the hyperactive Eric Pickles - who despite his professed localism found time to pronounce on councils' expected behaviour on matters as diverse as dustbin collections, scientologists, chief executives' pay, Christmas illuminations and the display of the Queen's portrait. This was 2010, the year the money ran out.

January

The year opened with the country in the grip of snow, and arguments about councils' stockpiles of de-icing salts. Transport minister Sadiq Khan blamed some councils for misstating their supplies, which drew an indignant response from the Local Government Association. Business as usual then.

Councils were relieved of a 'duty to promote democracy' when the government shelved this on cost grounds, leaving almost nothing to show for the much-trumpeted and now forgotten Empowering Local Communities white paper. Katherine Kerswell, then president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Mangers, secured positive local media coverage when she published her salary and urged other chiefs to do the same.

Public sector salaries were to become a major political issue, with the Conservatives trying to set the prime minister's stipend as a maximum. One person unimpressed by this was BBC director-general Mark Thompson, who justified his 834,000 a year with the observation: "We are not a county council." Quite so, county councils don't pay celebrities millions of pounds of public money.

LGA chairman Margaret Eaton (Con) became a dame and Barking & Dagenham LBC chief executive Rob Whiteman took the helm at the Improvement & Development Agency.

February

Mr Denham decided that Exeter and Norwich city councils should become unitaries, even though neither met the criteria the government had set for this. Political opponents cried "foul" as, more surprisingly, did Department for Communities & Local Government permanent secretary Peter Housden.

In fact, Mr Housden was so concerned about value for money that he demanded and got a written instruction from Mr Denham, absolving civil servants of any liability if they implemented the policy.

Also taking an unusual step was Audit Commission chief executive Steve Bundred, who wrote to senior Tories to deny a press report that the commission had paid 60,000 for a public affairs company to lobby against Eric Pickles' opposition to the comprehensive area assessment. Sadly for the commission, Mr Pickles, as secretary of state, became its boss three months later.

Crystal balls were clouded for shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, who said councils would not be given responsibility for the public health budget. Five months later the health secretary gave them that responsibility. His name was Andrew Lansley.

The first council-commissioned soap opera Hollywould ended as the plug was pulled on Kent CC's Kent TV station, Essex CC leader Lord Hanningfield (Con) resigned after being charged over expenses fraud and a BBC presenter was sacked for abusing Bassetlaw DC's parking wardens on air.

March

The 13 Total Place pilots were criticised by the Treasury for being "coy" about providing hard evidence of their efficiency savings. The pilots feared their grants would be cut by the same amount as any 'hard' figures.

District councils found they faced a 1.16bn gap in their 10bn total spending. Described as a "worst case scenario", it may prove not to have been. 'Trialogue', 'wellderly' and 'goldfish bowl facilitated conversation', joined the LGA's annual list of banned jargon.

In another change at the LGA, the long-serving Sir Jeremy Beecham stepped down as leader of its Labour group, to be replaced by David Sparks.

Joanna Killian, chief executive of both Essex CC and Brentwood BC, gained the distinction (or not) of heading the TaxPayers' Alliance Town Hall Rich List at 265,000. She took a pay cut six months later.

The five-year saga of Cheltenham BC's legal action against its former managing director Christine Laird ended with a report on why the council came to spend 2.1m on failed litigation. The report cost 80,000.

Hammersmith & Fulham LBC was declared LGC's Council of the Year.

April

Purdah descended, government activity slowed and ministers had more pressing things to do than meddle with local authorities as the general election campaign got under way.

The parties all decided localism was 'A Good Thing', and some politicians may even have meant it.

Mid campaign, like a troublesome relation locked in local government's attic, the perennially difficult Doncaster MBC stirred. The Audit Commission deemed its problems urgent enough for immediate publication. It cited "bullying, intimidation, obstructive and improper behaviour" and said the elected mayor, cabinet, some councillors and officers - "do not collectively have the capacity or capability to make the necessary improvements in governance". Intervention followed.

Ructions over unitary reorganisation in the previous four years had led some counties and districts to pilot new models of two-tier working. A government report found these had made little headway, hampered by a "legacy of mistrust" and fears among districts that counties would take them over.

The LGA extended the contract of chief executive John Ransford. His salary was not announced then, but would return to haunt both.

May

After a decade of soul-searching about how to increase public interest in politics some councils were embarrassed to find they had succeeded so well that queues snaked around polling stations as general election voting ended at 10pm.

Sheffield City Council chief John Mothersole gave up his 20,000 returning officer's fee, saying he wanted to acknowledge mistakes.

The country waited a week and found it would be governed by a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, an outcome foreseen by almost no one.

There had been carnage among Labour MPs but the party performed well locally, recapturing many strongholds it had mislaid in the Blair years.

Eric Pickles became communities secretary but the Whitehall alphabet soup remained almost unstirred as CLG became DCLG.

He was joined by Greg Clark, the first 'decentralisation minister', housing and local government minister Grant Shapps and Andrew Stunell, the department's Lib Dem.

Lambeth LBC proposed its 'John Lewis' co-operative council and Lincolnshire CC chief executive Tony McArdle trekked to Everest's foothills to deliver council laptops to a Nepalese village (kitted out in an LGC fleece).

June

Mr Pickles halted the short-lived comprehensive area assessment system. This assault on the Audit Commission was matched by his veto of its proposed 240,000 salary for a new chief executive.

The coalition's drive to control public sector salary levels made an exception for Kirklees Metropolitan Council chief executive Rob Vincent, who took over at Doncaster on 176,000.

Exeter and Norwich had their unitary status rescinded, and a judge ruled their creation by Mr Denham had been unlawful anyway.

Regional development agencies were marked for abolition, to be replaced by local enterprise partnerships based around 'functional economic areas', which were left to emerge from local horse trading.

The free swimming programme for under-16s and over-60s was ended and the Future Jobs Fund scrapped, but the Budget offered councils money to secure a one-year council tax freeze.

Education secretary Michael Gove rushed through legislation to allow free schools, an opportunity the public chose to avoid.

July

Bemused chief executives were told by Mr Pickles at the LGA conference that theirs was a "non-job", justifiable only if shared with other public bodies. He suggested this could include primary care trusts, apparently unaware that they were to be abolished.

This reform meant that councils would gain the public health promotion brief, and at least some money with which to do it.

Meanwhile, LGA chairman Dame Margaret Eaton became a baroness. Building Schools for the Future was scrapped, and councils lost their role in 16-19 years education, which they had regained only in April, having lost it to assorted quangos under Labour. The assorted quangos got it back.

In the new hairshirt climate the LGA admitted Mr Ransford was paid 245,000. Pickles, bulls, red rags.

Four councils were named as pilots of the Big Society, a concept energetically promoted by the government but which remained the political equivalent of the Loch Ness monster - you'd know it if you saw it, but can't describe it because no one has seen it.

August

As the nation went on holiday, the Audit Commission went on a permanent one. Mr Pickles' war with the quango culminated in its abolition, with ministers hoping staff would form a commercial audit practice. The compulsory Place Survey was scrapped.

Among examples of supposed commission profligacy was a day at Newmarket races, when it in fact used the conference suite for a doubtless riveting session on auditing.

Mr Pickles published all spending by the DCLG of more than 500, hoping 'armchair auditors' would hold government to account, possibly ejected commission staff among them.

There was union anger when the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities imposed a 0.6% pay rise, complaining pay talks had dragged on too long.

Borough of Poole lost an investigatory powers tribunal test case over surveillance to ascertain whether or not a family was living in the right school catchment area.

Bournemouth BC officers revealed an unsuspected expertise in pornography when papers for a standards hearing on former leader Stephen MacLoughlin's (Con) downloads, judged them to be "above top shelf".

Lincoln City Council's headquarters were attacked by an axe-wielding intruder, who presumed he was in the offices of Lincolnshire CC.

September

It was permanent holiday time for Standards for England, along with the code of conduct and local standards committees. How would councillors' behaviour now be regulated? As the poet Hilaire Belloc wrote: "Always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse."

Mr Pickles still found time to admonish councils over 'street clutter' and urged them to follow his example by exhibiting the Queen's portrait in their offices. Across the political divide, Labour councillors declared overwhelmingly for David Miliband as party leader, only for brother Ed to gain the job and commit himself to localism "without the former constraints" imposed by governments in which he served.

The government gave Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg some good news at his party conference (there had to be some) launching tax increment financing - which allows councils to borrow against future increases in business rate income.

Suffolk CC revealed plans to turn itself into a 'commissioning hub' employing only a few hundred people and outsourcing the rest to social enterprises.

In job moves, West Sussex CC chief executive Mark Hammond was summoned back from holiday and sacked, a step described as "arbitrary and outrageous" by the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives.

Sir Bob Kerslake was promoted to permanent secretary at the DCLG and David Faulkner (Lib Dem) became leader of Newcastle City Council. News of his promotion was illustrated on his council's website with a picture of a child face-painted with tiger stripes.

October

After months of fearful anticipation, councils learnt in the spending review of a 28% average grant cut, which would be unexpectedly front-loaded. Ring fences, however, were moved from 7bn worth of grants.

Former Labour minister Lord Hutton conceded public sector pensions were not gold-plated, but in a report for the government said final salary schemes were unaffordable.

The police suggested they might fill gaps in their ranks by encouraging local government officers to become special constables, though surely the large number of about-to-be-former officers would have even more time for civic duties? Mr Pickles decided to pick a fight with the Church of Scientology, telling councils not to accord it tax breaks. One of the church's main paths to improvement is, oddly, called auditing. Did he confuse it with the Audit Commission?

He said the proposed 12 big city elected mayors would be created only after local referenda and not, as had bizarrely been proposed, beforehand.

November

Like Oliver Twist, Mr Pickles went to the Treasury to ask for more after criticism that he had failed to fight the sector's corner hard enough. The Treasury sent him away with a jumping insect residing in his aural facility.

Dissatisfaction with the cuts led to heckling at the London Councils summit. In an exchange of pleasantries, Mr Pickles told councillors to "grow up" and stop "being hysterical".

The first batch of LEPs was revealed, leaving large chunks of England blank as ministers rejected most bids based on historic counties.

There was 946m set aside for the New Homes Bonus, meaning in theory that councils will be falling over themselves to face down nimbys and encourage new building, because the bonus will match the extra council tax raised for six years. And when those planning applications are made, councils will now be freed from national fee scales and able to "recover the actual cost of submitting an application", though not make a profit, an invitation to creativity if ever there was one.

But councils that hoped to make money with virtuously green behaviour with the carbon reduction commitment found the government had decided to keep all the scheme's money itself.

Also out of pocket was Mr Ransford, whose salary slumped to less than 100,000 under pressure over high pay.

December

The year ended as it began with snow gripping the country and lamentations about salt supplies.

Council tax froze over too, as an LGC survey found almost all councils planned to accept government payments equivalent to a 2.5% council tax rise in exchange for a freeze in 2011-12.

DCLG ministers sought a way to 'damp' cuts in the most deprived areas, and suspicion grew that the transfer to councils of public health might come with less money and fewer powers than expected.

Selby DC proposed to reduce itself to 14 staff, with others outsourced to a 'service delivery vehicle,' in the most extreme downsizing yet suggested.

Home secretary Theresa May said plans for elected police commissioners would go ahead - uniting the local government and police sectors in alarm and derision. Mr Pickles adopted the persona of Santa Claus telling councils "to take pride in Britain's Christian heritage; celebrating the nativity and all the traditions that have sprung up around it, from tinsel and tree lights to turkey".

He then soundly chastised them for hoarding 10bn in reserves. Perhaps they could consider spending it on turkeys and tinsel?