Archive for the ‘Big P Politics’ category

In defence of Eric Pickles (no, really this time)

March 8, 2012

Our very own cover boy; two days in just one week

Two days ago a guest poster hinted at a defence of Eric Pickles but after flashing us a little piece of leg gave us an equally valid but slightly less Pickles-defending post about the way some critics of Mr Pickles choose to attack him for reasons not connected to his policies.

After a quick editorial meeting at WLLG towers we decided that one of us should write a proper defence of Mr Pickles. At first I thought it would be a challenge but to be honest there is much about Mr Pickles to admire.

Let’s start with the obvious:

If you accept the Conservative’s overarching philosophy which says that the country is bust and we need to do everything we can to cut public spending and thus the deficit then Mr Pickles has been a consistent presence. Whereas other cabinet ministers have caved into the pressures of their departments Mr Pickles has been steadfast in cutting the budgets of both the DCLG and the wider local government sector.

However, that is not to say that Mr Pickles has been a single minded budget cutter. Where there are issues which he feels are important to local voters the Secretary of State has been a consistent defender of his pre-election policies. Thus, we have seen two years of council tax freezes and money set aside for weekly bin collections. Like it or not Mr Pickles has identified issues which he thinks justified his party’s election and has delivered on them.

It hasn’t just been pet causes Mr Pickles has found money for. Yes, the budget cuts faced by local authorities have been tough but many of those in areas with tough budget cuts have talked about the dampening grant being a real life-saver. Not something the Secretary of State would crow about but it has made a real difference.

So what about those issues not related to the budget of local authorities?

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In defence of Eric Pickles

March 6, 2012

Does he need defending?

It’s a guest post today and with a title that needs no introduction. So without further ado courtesy of a guest poster, ‘In defence of Eric Pickles’:

There, that got your attention.  It’s not completely true, as in, we’ll be defending some other people as well.

I am troubled by the constant references to Mr Pickles’ girth.  Whether it is Nick Clegg saying that Eric Pickles is the only cabinet minister who can be seen on Google Earth or Greg Clark talking about the heavyweight presence that Local Government has at the Cabinet table, people enjoy a laugh at him, and at John Prescott before him.  This Billy Bunter style humour is unhelpful at best and possibly destructive, being redolent of Form 4B on a Tuesday afternoon.

People might say that he will laugh it off, and it is a bit of a joke and not serious, and he should develop a thick skin.  As a fattie in my younger days, I can tell you that it isn’t a joke, he shouldn’t have to laugh it off and why should he develop a thick skin.  It is unpleasant to know that when you wake up in the morning, you know what will happen.  Fattism seems to be the acceptable face of bullying in public life.  I wonder how long it might be before this gets referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission?

And whilst this is an issue for Mr Pickles and Lord Prescott, this distracts attention from the impending obesity crisis that we are facing.  Whilst we maintain an adolescent and puerile approach to obesity, we won’t get anywhere near sorting it out as a major public health issue.  The reasons that people are overweight are many and complex, much as those reasons as to why people are underweight and malnourished.  Understanding those reasons and looking to address them rather than resorting to fattie jokes surely has to be the best way.

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Interim Judgement

February 20, 2012

Starting a storm: The unfortunate (but wealthy) Mr Lester

Two weeks ago we had a sense that the unmasking of Ed Lester from the Student Loans Company as the sole employee of his own personal services company was going to lead to a bit of a public sector witch hunt and so it has proven.

But whilst the majority of the heat so far has been on the civil service and the QUANGO sector it was only a matter of time before Eric Pickles jumped into the fray. And whilst others had been pussy footing around the issue (after all, other ministers are meant to be defending their own departments) Mr Pickles has typically been able to come out with both guns blazing and a nifty soundbite.

Mr Pickles on Friday called for Local Authorities to target ‘town hall tax-dodgers’ arguing that:

Local people have a right to know whether town hall tax-dodgers are short-changing the public purse; whether bumper bonuses are being awarded to poorly performing workers; or whether pay is being hiked up for execs who’ve boomeranged from post to post.

I am actually quite sympathetic to Eric Pickles.

My first job in local government was on a team that involved about eight staff; of which I think five of them were interims and all of those were in some form of separate company which enabled them to pay less tax. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what happened next; within a year the two members of the team who were on the payroll had left to take interim roles elsewhere and had set up PSCs (or joined a different umbrella company which apparently did the same thing… Who said tax isn’t meant to be taxing?!?).

I also don’t really like the idea of any member of staff setting up arrangements that enable them to pay less tax than I do. It just feels wrong.

And yet and yet…

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Diving into the downward spiral

February 13, 2012

How cool does this look?

When I was a kid our local leisure centre had a cool water flume type ride. What was great about it was that after you had gone through the fun of the flume it opened out into a big bowl which you spun round and round before dropping out of the end. It was great!

Please bear with me as I torture a metaphor but being in local government is a bit like that water ride at the moment (and not in the sense that it is great).

The top half of the flume represents what local government has experienced so far. Much like the tube section of the flume was predictable, if difficult to control, the budget cuts so far have been understandable for local government. Yes, we’ve been shaken from side to side and yes it feels like we are being pushed downwards by a never ending torrent of budget cuts (told you this metaphor was going to be pushed) but at least we’ve been able to manage the cuts within the context of a direction of travel we all sort of understand.

To return to my flume the ride in the tube was always fairly similar but the big bowl at the end was absolutely unpredictable. Sometimes you flopped straight down into the hole and sometimes you went round and round before falling rather ungracefully into the hole after 30 seconds or so.

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Neutrality

January 30, 2012

Keeping a Straight Face

‘Right Eric, I have had enough. When you and your acolytes have been purposefully dishonest about local government services I am fine to disagree. When you slash our budgets and then blame local government for closing services I can understand that this is politics. But when you have the bare-faced cheek and total lack of integrity to attack council officers for giving impartial advice that you disagree with I have simply had it.

Pickles, I’m calling you out!’

So started what was going to be an epic rant about Eric Pickles’ latest salvo in the war about the council tax grant.

For those who missed it Mr Pickles said the following:

‘Particularly to finance officers, there is a danger here of being involved in politics, in a way. There is a referendum [trigger], and to suddenly find yourself mysteriously arriving in that place between zero and where you have to face the electorate is a highly political decision.

To put it another way I’m happy to use the headline from the Public Finance magazine:

‘Don’t meddle with council tax freeze’, Pickles warns FDs

As you imagine what especially annoyed me about this is that Mr Pickles had just tried to drag officers into the debate about council tax. He should know better. Much like civil servants local government officers are, especially at the level of finance director, politically neutral.

However, I took a deep breath and decided that having a Monday post upset with Mr Pickles two weeks in a row was the beginning of an unhealthy obsession; and continuing that rant was going to be bad for my blood pressure.

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Morally Deficient?

January 23, 2012

Eric being moral?

We’re not really the sort of people who have New Year’s resolutions but when the excellent Guardian Local Government Network asked us to name one we said that we were going to be nicer to Eric Pickles in 2012. And you know what; we meant it.

Unfortunately, much like the diet, alcohol ban, gym attendance and intention to spend less money on cheesy Wotsits this New Year’s resolution has not made it to February.

So what caused our feelings towards Mr Pickles to turn so rapidly? Before showing the headline it is probably worth reminding people that Mr Pickles has offered every council money equivalent to a 2.5% increase in council tax and in return the council has to commit not to increase their tax this year. So back to our outrage…

One headline can sum it up:

Councils have ‘moral duty’ on tax – Eric Pickles.

A moral duty?!? As in this is an absolute? As in this is correct and any other interpretation is thus immoral?

Are you kidding me?

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Positive for yoof?

January 18, 2012

Same Words: Different Order?

We love guest posts and today’s is a classic environmental study; in that it despairs of the amount of paper wasted in not particularly ‘original’ research, studies and reports. The argument is quite strident and encourages debate so please do chime in. If you would like to submit a post for the blog please drop us a line at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com but not until you’ve enjoyed, and commented on (?!?) today’s post.

After a long day of long tedious meetings, answering phone calls, replying to emails, I try to take some time to catch up with the going’s on in the sector. Who’s tweeting, what report is out, who asked the most ridiculous question in PMs Question time?

Today I was catching up with a thorough read on the Positive for Youth report launched in December 2011. Whenever I open up a document that Adobe tells me is over 50 pages, it usually serves a quick scan, pick up on the important points and move on. However, being in the youth sector, I thought it important that this particular report should get a little bit more of my attention; particularly if the government isn’t going to change for a while…

The more I read this report, the more I kept saying to myself – surely someone has just copied and pasted this from previous papers, reports, academic studies, green and white papers. This isn’t anything new and actually, most of this is just recycled common sense.

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Racism and the council

January 11, 2012

No to racismThe conviction of the killers of Stephen Lawrence was big news last week and yet for some reason I could not get excited by it. I was happy for the family but just did not feel particularly connected to the story. Institutional racism and the 1990s seemed like a long time ago and not especially relevant to my consistently multi-cultural here and now.

I mentioned this to a few people at work, including some who, unlike me, are not middle aged white men and the response was quite surprising.

Comments such as this were not uncommon (and apologies for the fact that these are not proper quotes… I didn’t always have my pen with me!):

“Despite all the progress made it is sad but true that even if you (me, white man) and I (in this case a talented woman from an ethnic background) have exactly the same qualifications, skills and experience for a job; if we both applied you would get it.”

“Do you think it is a coincidence that the only ethnic female senior manager in the Authority is the one who receives the greatest stick?”

“You know, in my last role there was a guy in my team who refused to be managed by me simply because I wasn’t white.”

Geez, that made me think.

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Do we have a failing social care system or just a failing funding model?

January 9, 2012

Layers of complexity distilled

‘Welcome to the New Year!’ I said to myself washing my face and listening to the early morning news headlines on the 3rd January. That very morning, the first working day of the New Year an open letter from charities, faith-based groups and senior figures in the NHS and local government said that we had a failing social care system that must be reformed.

The letter to the Telegraph argued:

As a society we face a growing care challenge. We should celebrate the fact that we are all living longer lives, particularly disabled people and those with long-term conditions. But the unavoidable challenge we face is how to support the increasing number of people who need care. It is a challenge which we are failing to meet – resulting in terrible examples of abuse and neglect in parts of the care system.

This comes at huge cost to the dignity and independence of older and disabled people, but also to our society, family life and the economy. An estimated 800,000 older people are being left without basic care – lonely, isolated and at risk. Others face losing their homes and savings because of soaring care bills.

Disabled people are unable get the support they need to live their lives independently and be part of society.

Businesses are losing increasing numbers of experienced staff who are forced to give up work to care for older or disabled relatives. These carers can then be pushed to breaking point, providing round-the- clock care. Our NHS is also paying the price, as a lack of support leads to avoidable hospital admissions and then keeps older and disabled in hospital beds because they cannot be cared for at home.

We have a duty as a nation to change this – but it requires political leadership.

I’m no social worker but whenever we look at the council budget it is hard to avoid the feeling that the social care element of the budget is a ticking time bomb that at any time might just blow up a council’s budget; especially when cuts are being made.

However, I don’t think social care is failing; I think the funding of social care within the local government budget is failing.

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New Year, New Predictions

January 3, 2012

But will we even remember to turn the months over?

Happy New Year!

2011 was a pretty momentous year for those of us working in the public sector with cuts, strikes, riots, redundancies, rising demand for our services and a surrounding narrative that pitted those who work in the public services against those who use those services.

For those of us working in local government this led to panic, defensiveness, stress, pressure, innovation, decisiveness and a lot of hard work. And despite everything I really believe we enter 2012 in a stronger position than we entered 2011.

This time round we know what the cuts will be, most of us are well versed in the attitudes of the coalition government and the vast majority of councils have set themselves a realistic plan for meeting the budget pressures placed upon us.

So with that in mind, what do we think will be the five top story lines facing local government in 2012?

1)      The cuts

As I’ve mentioned before many authorities took the easy way out for their cuts in 2011/12. A few bits of low hanging fruit here, some small marginal redundancies there, a little bit of money from reserves and a few budgetary adjustments and most of us got through relatively unscathed. The plans for 2012/13 are severe in contrast. The low hanging fruit has gone and really tough decisions need to be made. Funnily enough, it’s not the decision making I’m worried about but the deliverability of these cuts. Making staff redundant is one thing but cuts to social care, education provision, housing or any other service that is demand led are very hard to accurately predict, especially as the budgetary pressures elsewhere in the economy come home to roost. The big question for local government is ‘are we able to deliver the budget cuts we promised in 2012.’ It’s a mighty big ask and a challenge for us all.

2)      Housing

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