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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Eric gets in a pickle

There is still time of course but at least the centralising tendencies of the Labour-Plaid Cymru One Wales Government have not yet led to the excesses of the English Local Government Minster in emasculating local authorities.

Eric Pickles has found himself the centre of controversy in recent days for his eagerness to chop council budgets. I suspect that he would not be comfortable if he was not stirring things up, but that does not excuse his behaviour or that of his fellow Ministers in targeting local authority cash in the way that they have.

Many key services are delivered by councils, which means that it is vital that everything possible is done to protect their Government grant even in the face of inevitable cuts. Despite the story put around by civil servants and Ministers, what fat there is in Council expenditure is not easy to get at in the short term, so any cuts will quickly translate themselves into the closure of vital facilities such as libraries, schools and leisure centres.

When the Welsh Liberal Democrats went into government with Labour in 2000 we ensured that there was sufficient protection for Councils written into the partnership agreement. It was a lesson Plaid Cymru did not pick up on until after the first One Wales budget, but it is one that they now have engraved on their hearts. To be frank, I was astonished that the Liberal Democrats did not pick up on this when negotiating the current UK coalition agreement.

Eric Pickles though has gone even further with a display of control freakery that defies his so-called commitment to localism. Does he even know what localism is?

According to today's Guardian the Local Government Minister published a code of conduct banning Councils from publishing their own newspapers more than four times a year. He has also ordered councillors not to spend money on lobbying and to refrain from making comments on "contentious areas of public policy".

To be fair the last one is not as draconian as it sounds as it refers to Councillors acting corporately and using public money, but even so this is neither a liberal agenda nor is it is democratic.

Whatever Eric Pickles thinks, Councils are accountable to their local electorate not to him. They may have to follow statutory guidance he lays down but this sort of micro-management is both unreasonable and unnecessary. Anybody would think the Secretary of State has too much time on his hands.

I know that Liberal Democrat Councillors in England are very unhappy but why have we not heard from our MPs? Where is Simon Hughes, the self appointed conscience of the party?

This is not a Liberal agenda, nor was it specified in the coalition agreement. At the very least Nick Clegg should be pushing Cameron to rein Pickles in before the whole local government portfolio explodes in his face.
But we have have heard from Lib Dem MPs, haven't we? Andrew Stunell (local govt minister)described council complaints as a "pointless debate" whilst Nick Clegg called the letter to the Times for 90 senior local government figures as "megaphone" politics. Presumably the rest are following their lead. Not much to choose between tory and Lib Dem stances in this respect, is there?
Both of those are Government Minister of course and have collective responsibility so I would expect them to toe the line though maybe with less enthusiasm!
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