Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Labour scourged you with inspection, I will scourge you with Pickles"

Lib Dem local government leaders have called for regime change at the Department of Communities and Local government (DCLG). It is hardly a secret that relations between the department and local government are at an all-time low.

This might be dismissed as simply councillors defending producer interests, but none of the Lib Dems quoted, Chris White, Gerald Vernon-Jackson and Richard Kemp are ones to romanticise local councils or deny their shortcomings. They just have a basic belief, which the government is supposed to share, that democratic local government has a part to play in representing and delivering services to people.

It is quite an achievement that when much of the government's localism agenda is welcomed by local government, relations between DCLG and councils are so bad. Even the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association admits that local government has a more civilised relationship with the health and education departments than with DCLG.

The problem is that in Eric Pickles the DCLG has a secretary of state who is not a serious person. He gives the impression of being more suited to sitting in a pub sounding off about how awful the council is than to running a government department. Despite the hands-off, localism agenda professed by the coalition, from the first he has been unable to stop himself trying to micromanage local government by soundbite (further example here). It is not the job of DCLG to be the uncritical champion of local government, but nor should the secretary of state hold it in unconcealed contempt. (Such attitudes may arise from his own period as leader of a council being abruptly terminated at the first opportunity by an ungrateful electorate.)

Richard Kemp may have a point when he suggests:

If [local government is] to be central to public sector delivery wouldn’t it be better to be part of the Cabinet Office which is central to public sector delivery?

Far better that than DCLG, a Mickey Mouse department, currently led by a cartoon character. There would be a delightful irony if Eric Pickles, the denouncer of 'non-jobs' in local government, found the biggest non-job of all was his own.

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