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?