From observing David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign, you’d believe the Conservative Party’s only ideology is pragmatism. In his first New Year message as Prime Minister, Cameron said, “I didn’t come into politics to make cuts… We’re tackling the deficit because we have to — not out of some ideological zeal.” This isn’t the impression I got from Eric Pickles.
I meet Pickles, Minister for Communities and Local Government, the day after Cameron has shifted emphasis from pragmatism to ideology. At the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the PM said the reductions in spending are intended “Not just for now, but permanently.” I ask Pickles whether he agrees. “Without a doubt the state is too big,” he declares. “It would clearly be ridiculous to go through this process, which sometimes can be painful, of bringing the state down and then just to explode the numbers again. In terms of a smaller state I think that’s something integral to any Conservative administration.”
This means an end to absolute faith in the public sector. “I think we [Conservatives] see with the provision of public services, not necessarily that wholly the provider should be the state — we think that voluntary organisations, community groups, charities, have a role to play.”
And does this include the private sector? “I still get irritated when you wander into a council and people say ‘you’re privatising services’. And I say, ‘yeah, and?’ ‘Well you’ve privatised services.’ ‘And?’”
Once local government defines what is needed, “whether it be care for children, care for the elderly, or even just emptying dustbins”, the state should open to businesses: “Once you’ve got it worked out then put it out for tender. And if the public sector can provide it cheaper, then great. If the private sector can do it then embrace it.”
At times, Pickles reframes the economic crisis as an opportunity for radicalism. “We wouldn’t have been able to get those changes through if times had been good. I actually think you can get more change to take place when times are difficult than in times of aplenty.” I find this line sinister; obviously the recession necessitated policy change, but this implies that the language of ‘austerity’ was seized upon to legitimise pre-existing ideological motivations.
These remarks sound like the “ideological zeal” Cameron has rejected. They’re bold sentiments for a cabinet minister, but Pickles is an unusual politician. Born into a working class Bradford family, he became a Conservative member while still a Communist, to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He rose through the party gradually; elected to Bradford council in 1979, he led the city’s Conservative group in the late 1980s and became an MP in 1992.
Working class Tories are rare in the Conservative Party nowadays. I ask him if elite groups are overrepresented. “I’ve met people that have gone to Eton and to Harrow, and they’re people that need our sympathy, they’re people that need our help,” he jokes. “We shouldn’t look down our noses just because they haven’t had the opportunity of having a comprehensive education.”
We meet in the Union bar, before he gives a speech to OUCA. He never meets my eye, staring into the middle distance and speaking in a monotone. An overenthusiastic spad occasionally interjects to suggest PR-appropriate anecdotes. This is a strange demeanour considering that Pickles is known for his sense of humour. At a party conference in 2010, punters bet on the odds of him being seen in a curry house — he responded by posting an image of him tucking into Indian food on Twitter.
I wonder whether Pickles’s hilarious public persona has side-lined proper scrutiny of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). In the eyes of the press, local government is dull, and fat people are funny — why would anyone talk about council reform when they could talk about the side-splitting overspend on the DCLG’s snack budget (as Pickles notes, this was misreported — the sum spent on food has decreased since 2010.)
Perhaps the electorate’s ambivalence towards DCLG policy has saved them from widespread condemnation. The 2010 Conservative Manifesto promised “to push power down to the most appropriate local level: neighbourhood, community and local government.” The main legislative change towards localism was the 2011 “general power of competence”, allowing councils to do anything they wanted, unless it was specifically banned.
Does he believe localism has been achieved? “I do. But there have been a couple of factors which have worked against it. The first is Stockholm syndrome. Insofar that local councils have been very happy being told when and where to judge, they got very happy with us telling them what to do, and when you take down that cage — particularly when it’s a gilded cage — people find it hard to break beyond the prison walls and see that it’s actually very liberating.”
I’m sceptical that this “gilded cage” is the problem. When most councils are facing budget cuts of 40 per cent in real terms this Parliament, I wonder if local government can become more powerful. I ask if Oxfordshire’s Conservative council has been empowered, considering they are being forced to consider shutting 37 out of 44 SureStart centres. He rejects the idea that this is the government’s fault: “They’re consulting on that, and I hope that common sense will prevail, because I think it’s a duty of county councils to protect the most vulnerable… I can’t imagine a Conservative authority closing them down.”
But what alternatives do local governments have? In 2012, the DCLG sent councils a booklet entitled ‘50 Ways to Save’. I quote Pickles some examples: “Open a ‘pop up’ shop in spare office space”, or “Reduce first class travel”. He suggests I’m being disingenuous — “obviously” these aren’t the most important changes, compared to the introduction of joint procurement. Actually, councils “are in a much better position than they seem to believe.”
Government statistics imply the councils being cut the most are those in deprived areas, especially in the north. I show Pickles a list of the most reduced council budgets. The top four are Hull, Doncaster, Lincolnshire, and his hometown, Bradford. He says this isn’t the full picture. “We actually put more into the north than into the south to a big degree… If you say look at all the money but don’t include the money that’s coming in from health, the money that’s coming in from charges, don’t include Council Tax revenue, then anyone can come out with figures like that.”
There are instances where Pickles’s changes have ended corruption and incompetence. He tells how he analysed credit card payments of civil servants abroad, and found that one expedition claimed expenses from a strip club, ‘Hooters’, to the state. The bar “turned out not to be a memorabilia museum for the railways, but turned out to be a topless bar. And I’ve got no problem with that, but I don’t think I should pay for it.”
Yet I doubt strip clubs are a major expenditure for many councils. Pickles’s rhetoric is contradictory. He talks of empowering local government, while slashing the funding which would facilitate this. Maybe DCLG policy is naïve; or maybe localism is a Machiavellian attempt to pass blame for library closures to local administrators.
The DCLG will never be held to account, for the same reason most Cherwell readers won’t finish this article. Local government is boring. During the interview, I find myself repressing yawns; even the sycophantic grins of OUCA hacks at Pickles’s subsequent speech look strained.
The coalition has unleashed a revolution of sorts in local government, but the press hasn’t noticed. Newspaper editors don’t use SureStart, and they get books from Amazon, not underfunded local libraries. Pickles has pulled it off.