Irretrievable breakdown or intolerable cruelty?

The link between local and central government is currently providing the best soap opera  in politics.  It’s also offering a case study of what happens when a government’s relationships with one of its key stakeholders disintegrates.

In the face of sizeable cuts in funding for local government, bloggers and tweeters are lining up on the Local Authorities’ side, despairing of the way cuts are being handled.  Arguing that relations between local and central government have never been so bad, LibDem Council Leader, Richard Kemp,  has likened Secretary of State Eric Pickles and his sidekick, Grant Shapps, to Laurel and Hardy; called for Pickles to be sacked and, according to his blog,  written to the new non-exec director on the DCLG board to request that she investigate “school boy howlers” being made at the Department.  Normally mild-mannered members of the LGA are said to be enraged by the repetition of the argument that frontline services can be saved if overpaid council leaders take pay cuts and hack away at back office staff.  The Mayor of Middlesbrough has accused Pickles of refusing to listen to those with experience on the ground when it comes to funding.  (Eric certainly doesn’t give the sense of a man who feels the need to listen.  In size, accent and attitude he reminds me of Charles Laughton in Hobson’s Choice:  “take that or none”.)

The jockeying for position is, of course highly political and despite protestations that power is being devolved to a local level, it reveals how much is being held at the centre.

The LGiU blog has suggested that the recent spat about bin collections was a shot across councils’ bows to remind them who’s boss.   The Spectator argues that Pickles has bigger fish to fry:   “Communities are being empowered; councillors are not.  Pickles has introduced a radical agenda on which the dust will take time to settle. The Bill’s political genius is to devolve responsibility and enforce cuts without relinquishing financial control.”

What’s clear is that neither side are making much of a fist of hiding their animosity.  Lambeth and Camden councils are blaming the government for the cuts as they consult locally to decide which services will go.   Pickles is arguing that wasteful local government is to blame for the UK’s budget deficit.  For a non-combatant the entertainment value is terrific – as long as you can ignore the potential outcome of the cuts.  Government’s relations with such a major partner can’t have been as bad as this since the days when then-Education Secretary David Blunkett was trapped in a cupboard by demonstrators at the NUT’s conference.  How long will it take for a proper working relationship to be re-established?

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3 responses to “Irretrievable breakdown or intolerable cruelty?

  1. Great post! I think it might actually be a really well executed plan: Get everybody united against a common enemy (Mr Pickles springs to mind), have that enemy make some huge cuts and be a nasty piece of work.

    Then, a few months down the line move him over to another department and replace him with someone a little bit nicer, who local government feel they can actually influence and work with. Before you know it, people are so happy that ERic Pickles is gone that they ignore continuing cuts and challenges.

    Or maybe not…

  2. There is always a tension between local and central government, and each tries to shift some part of the blame for whatever unpleasantness appears necessary under the circumstances to the other. Howevermuch the centre may say it wants to devolve to the regions, localities, communities, it will always worry about them taking the latitude too literally. Look at the local government “reforms” of the 1980s: barely disguised attempts to bring looney left council to heel by curtailing powers and making the bulk of revenue dependent on central government grant.

    I wouldn’t call it a plan, so much as the achievement of a long-repressed ambition. Eric Pickles was, if you remember, once leader of Bradford Council, and took a delight in doing things his way and not caring whose nose he got up (not least his own party’s Secretaries of State). He now appears to be relishing the fact that, in power, he can take on the things which have annoyed or frustrated him about local government over the years and ride roughshod over them. It would appear his views on being a nasal irritant haven’t changed.

    The curiosity is that so many MPs and indeed Ministers are former councillors and council leaders. It makes you wonder what they actually thought of what they were doing when they held those offices. They can’t just have seen them as staging posts to Westminster.

  3. Pingback: Some new bloggers (well, new to me anyway) | Flip Chart Fairy Tales

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