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No winners, only losers
Local Government Chronicle – 10 March 2011

Local government was promised a new role by the coalition government - but it did not expect it to be as Eric Pickles' punchbag, says Mark Smulian

His assorted declarations of war have been pointed enough to provoke a fightback, but what if these hostilities become a way of life?

Relations between central and local government have hit a low, even by their own fractious standards. Yet when Mr Pickles was appointed communities secretary last May, he came as a declared localist willing to free councils from Whitehall's shackles.

Leaving aside his more eccentric instructions to councils - to hang Christmas lights and shun Scientologists, for example - a pattern has emerged.

He has sought to paint councils as profligate at a time of financial stringency, repeatedly referring to senior officers' pay, levels of financial reserves, 'waste' of public money on council newspapers, and the alleged sponsorship of 'non jobs'.

Local government reaction has gone from restrained comment, to silence, to rebuttals that hardly bother to be polite - the Local Government Association included.

It has not just been Mr Pickles' political opponents who have been angered.

His publicity code for councils was denounced as "draconian" and "extremely disappointing" by the LGA's Conservative chairman Baroness Eaton. Essex CC leader Peter Martin (Con), who says his relations with Mr Pickles are good, protested that the communities secretary's claim that the council hoarded 200m in reserves was "a headline-grabbing figure" and that the true sum was 33m.

"I am concerned public understanding of the decisions we will have to take will be undermined if they are left with a misunderstanding from press reports that councils are hoarding money for no purpose," Cllr Martin wrote.

If comments on the local newspaper's This Is Essex website are anything to go by, this is exactly what has happened. "No doubt it will be spent on another astronomically expensive, monumental waste of money," one reader said.

"This is obscene, they should spend at least 90% of it"; "far too much is spent on 'jollies', expenses, other payments and increasing banks' profits"; and "with that lot in County Hall, it will probably end up in the pockets of their private contractor mates", were among other comments.

If Mr Pickles had set out to discredit local government he could scarcely have done a more effective job.

But why? A localist would surely accept that councils can keep what they please in reserves and be judged by their voters?

Mr Pickles' objection to 'non jobs', which bizarrely included an assistant director of adult services, shows "it's pretty clear relations between DCLG and local government are awful," says Ian Briggs, a senior fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.

"It would be cynical to say that discrediting local government is a way to get it to take the blame for cuts, but that may happen."

Mr Briggs says senior Department for Communities & Local Government officials may have "decided they had better kick local government because going along with that ideology may get them brownie points".

He thinks there can be a healthy creative tension between central and local government "but when it is dysfunctional it is not good for either".

Alex Thomson, chief executive of the Localis thinktank and previously the Conservative party's adviser on local government, thinks things must be patched up quickly because councils have an opportunity with "the first government in decades that is committed to localism".

But Local Government Information Unit director Jonathan Carr-West says: "There is a feeling that the government talks a good game on localism but then you get interventions on newspapers, bins, pay, reserves and other statements that might not have mattered so much in good times but come together now to leave people feeling fairly cross."

He feels that central-local relations will inevitably fray so long as their financial relationship is lop-sided.

"The way ahead is to give local government freedom to raise money and spend it," Mr Carr-West says.

"If local government had real power and responsibility people would see it was not part of central government."

Jules Pipe (Lab), elected mayor of Hackney LBC and chair of London Councils, has called for a formal codification of the relationship between central and local government, something being examined by a select committee.

"Once local government gets into a place where it is happy, we need that [situation] codified so that there would be tests of whether new tasks could be done at a local level," Mr Pipe says.

But at the moment, the situation is not a happy one. "Ministers want to denigrate local government in the public's mind and local government is trying to fight back," he adds.

"I think [LGA Lib Dem vice-chair] Richard Kemp has done a good job, but the government has access to the Daily Mail and Daily Express, so local government is on the back foot and I can't see an easy way off it."

Mr Pickles' warlike declarations in the tabloids allow him to appear as the champion of the masses against spendthrift councils.

They also allow him to imply that pain flowing from spending cuts will be the fault of councils, not from any failure of his own.

Councils are fighting back but this hostile relationship cannot benefit anyone long term. Sooner or later peace must break out, but who will make the first move, and how?

Cllr Kemp remains positive. "I think he will quieten down now that most councils have set their budgets," he says. "There are senior figures in the Tory party who are voicing their disquiet about him to ministers because every time he attacks councils it damages the government's whole localism agenda."

Cllr Kemp thinks the problem will solve itself. Perhaps it will. Or perhaps it won't.

"The LGA has to respond in kind, we won't take that kind of crap from ministers," Cllr Kemp adds.

Concordat

The Central-Local Concordat was signed with much fanfare in December 2007 by communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears and LGA chair Sir Simon Milton (Con).

Its 17 points set out where the boundaries should lie between Whitehall and town hall responsibilities and how relations between them would be handled. It then rapidly vanished.

It still exists but, as with the Social Democratic Party, or The Tremeloes, few know this.

The Central/Local Partnership, set up in 1998, brought senior ministers, councillors and their officials together, but its meetings soon declined in frequency and productivity.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee hearings on codification concern a different path.

This would be a formal constitutional settlement for local government, giving it something to deploy "if it felt that central government was encroaching too heavily on its turf, a committee paper says.