I have been connected with the national side of local government for 16 years. I had my first Ministerial meeting on behalf of Liverpool in 1977 so I do have a bit of history.
That historical perspective leads me to an inexorable conclusion that never have the relationships between local government and our sponsoring ministry been so bad. But I also strongly suspect that never have the relationships between our sponsoring Ministry and other parts of government been so bad either. Why do I think this? Well let’s take one example – recent Ministerial utterances on bins.
At the behest of Mr Pickles junior minister Bob Neill sent out a letter to all English Councils which gave a clear impression to the press that councils were incompetent and considered bin collection an optional extra. It reiterated the old hobby horse from part of the Tory Party about weekly bin collections. In fact there was no correlation between poor performance and fortnightly collections. The facts are that 95%+ of all bin collections were being made on time either to a normal collection date or to revisions which had been well publicised to local residents and are standard proactive after Christmas.
Mr Pickles’ proxy got a good slapping from three sources:
- Council Leaders who were incensed that the efforts that they and particularly their staff had made in horrendous weather to keep services going had been traduced in this way
- David Cameron who had rung the Chair of the LGA out of the blue immediately prior to Christmas to congratulate councils on their efforts
- Caroline Spelman who made it absolutely clear that the frequency of bin collections were a matter for DEFRA and not DCLG.
This is indicative of the current placement of DCLG in the minds of the sector and central government but I don’t think it needs to be this way.
Let’s just look at three things DCLG are involved in at present the first of which they are responsible for:
- The DCLG Bill is, in my view, an excellent one. I like 75% of it as it is. I oppose 5% of it outright and believe that the remaining 20% – relating to planning – could eb improved in Ministers and their officials worked with us.
- The discussion relating to housing benefit. I believe that a discussion on how benefits are applied is a debate that is long overdue. As I go round the sector I discover loads of people who believe likewise although they do not support some of the specific remedies of the government
- The Police Reform Bill where again I agree with very large amounts and only wish to engage (as I will be doing later today with Lib Dems) to improve what is a very good basis for onward work.
But there is no real dialogue between local government and DCLG at present not because of the policies but because of the tone of the debate and the blame game culture which Eric and colleagues learned in opposition and have not given up in government.
Having a weak Ministry is no use to anyone. I strongly suspect that the only reasons localism might be retained by DCLG after the Localism Bill goes through is because of the respect held throughout Whitehall of Greg Clark (which I share).
So hear is my offer which I am sure I can make on behalf of all in local government. Let’s start again and build up the working relationship that is so essential.
I won’t mention Laurel and Hardy again – you won’t consider it your duty to send out misleading press releases to the right wing press every Thursday. You highlight to the LGA problem areas and problem councils and we will work with you to fix them. You have ideas that you want to test out in private – we will enter an honest dialogue with you to help introduce good policy and make it better or reduce what we consider to be the effects of bad policy.
That’s the adult way of working that we need to adopt. I am up for it Eric so are you? I won’t be writing to you formally about this but I know that people close to you read my blog. As the Mafia say – you know where to find me and my door is open!