Eric Pickles

Where idealism meets reality: Brighton Green Party’s folly

brighton green eric pickles

I told myself, after last week, that I was going to leave the Greens alone for a bit. I also have a general policy of trying to avoid commenting on localities where I don’t have an personal interest.

I’m about to break both of those statements of intent, I’m afraid, because down in Brighton things are edging dramatically beyond the usual standards of crazy which govern things down there on the south coast.

The Green Party in Brighton & Hove have decided to forgo any attempt at rationality, and embrace fantasy. Which would be all well and good were they not responsible for the local government managing the lives of 275,000 people.

Read on…

Tories/ Lib Dem coalition slashes Southend’s funding by £11 million

southend civic centre

Can you picture £11 million? I mean, actually picture it? In cash, in change, in whatever denomination you like. Can you see it in your mind’s eye?

I cannot.

But the number is one which I haven’t been able to escape. £11m is how much Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s funding has been cut for the 2015/16 financial year. £11m is how much less that the council have to spend on local services for Southenders.

So when you’re writing your Christmas thank you letters, don’t forget to thank the Tories and Lib Dems, and especially Uncle Eric at the DCLG. Because of them the council will have to make some tough decisions next year, and won’t be able to fulfil as much as it would like to to make your lives better.

Cheers for that.

Read on…

Southend Conservatives knifed by national party over “spy cars”

southend spy car

You have to, on some level, feel for Southend Conservatives. Not only have they been roundly rejected by the Southend electorate, lost control of the council for the first time in fourteen years, but they do keep getting kicked by their national counterparts.

The efforts of James Duddridge to single-handedly alienate every Conservative activist and voter in his half of the borough are laudable, but you can’t fault the work of the  national party as a whole who seem intent on taking their local policy positions apart from the top downwards.

From Duddridge’s declaration that the sea wall was clearly a terrible idea — conveniently coming just after Tory councillors had lost their seats over it — to the recent decision by Eric Pickles to ban the use of so-called “spy cars” to enforce parking regulations, you wonder if there will be anything left of the local Conservative platform at all.

Read on…

The Art of the Politician’s Apology

eric pickles

It’s a funny thing, a politician apologising. Hardly a rare thing, but a fairly rarefied art form in itself, pitched in a certain tone, and phrased in a certain way.

It occurred to me after Eric Pickles’ apology on the Andrew Marr show, yesterday morning. It has been framed in the media since as a mea cupla on behalf of the government, admitting failure on the flooding in Somerset. Which is strange, since that isn’t actually what he said.

Observe; the “apology” of the saintly Secretary of State for (submerged?) Communities and Local Government:

Read on…

Parish Precept Pickle, Part Two

scheming eric pickles

Last week I blogged about how the vaunted Localism Act 2011 contains a worryingly little-known loophole which makes it apparently illegal for Parish Councillors to set an annual budget without signing a special dispensation first.

Only two days after that blog was published, Brandon Lewis — a Conservative junior minister in Eric Pickles’ Department of Communities and Local Government — wrote one of those lovely DCLG letters to everybody-and-nobody on the matter (thanks to Cllr Martin Petchey for the tip). Mr Lewis says:

…some council monitoring officers are informing their councillors that being a council tax payer is a disclosable pecuniary interest in any Budget debate. Councillors are then informed they would be committing a criminal offence if they speak or vote in that debate unless they obtain a formal dispensation.

Whilst my department does not issue legal advice, in our opinion, such dispensations are unnecessary. Council tax liability applies to the generality of the population; councillors have no unique position in that regard.

Being a council taxpayer or being eligible for a discount under the new local arrangements for council tax support are pecuniary interests, but are not disclosable pecuniary interests as specified in regulations. Therefore a councillor does not need to seek a dispensation in order to participate in discussions or vote on decisions in the council tax setting process or local arrangements for council tax support.

Which makes for very interesting reading. It’s nonsense, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Mr Lewis appears to be trying to paint omitting an exemption from the interest declaration rules for the setting of precepts as a deliberate act. It’s common sense, says Mr Lewis. All councillors will be paying council tax, so it’s obvious that this couldn’t prevent participation in a budget.

A nice thought, but it doesn’t really hold water. The previous code of conduct had explicitly contained an exemption. The new code, under the Localism Act, has no such exemption. The only legitimate conclusion — if one assumes that the government is halfway competent, and knows what it is doing with legislation — is that the exemption has been deliberately repealed because it is not intended to apply any longer.

It would have been refreshing had Mr Lewis admitted that the DCLG had made a mistake in the drafting. It would even have been passable — though nonsense in a different way — if he had explained it as an ideological move to do…something. But I’m afraid this is just hollow spin from a government which doesn’t have a clue what its doing.

Uncle Eric’s Parish Precept Pickle

scheming eric pickles

It’s that time of year again — all across the country, local authorities are setting their budgets for 2013/14. From the big county councils and unitary boroughs, right down to the tiniest of parish councils, and Wargrave is no exception.

Last week, I and the other councillors on Wargrave Parish council debated and discussed our own budget. Decisions were made on the rates charged for services like the youth centre, and spending on upkeep of areas within our remit. We also made a decision on the precept, the element of council tax set at parish level.

Now, Uncle Eric (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles) has already said that local authorities of city, borough and council level have to hold a referendum if they want to raise their council tax by more than 2% (a blog will be forthcoming in the near future on that, believe me). This doesn’t yet apply to parish level, but there are fears it will do  next year.

Anyway, in the course of setting the precept for the next financial year, an interesting problem has come to light in the drafting of the Localism Act.

Almost all parish councillors will live in the parish. Most will pay council tax in the parish. Some may even own property in the parish. Thus, they all have a personal and pecuniary interest in the level of the precept.

In the normal course of parish council business, if I have an interest in a matter under discussion (say, a planning application by my neighbour, which will potentially impact upon the value of my own house) I must declare it and leave the room for the duration that it is under discussion.

The old parish council code of conduct, under schedule 1, paragraph 10 of the Local Authorities (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2007, contained an exemption from the declaration rules in the case of setting the precept:

You do not have a prejudicial interest in any business of the authority where that business — … (c) relates to the functions of your authority in respect of— … (vi) setting council tax or a precept under the Local Government Finance Act 1992.”

However, that code of conduct was replaced under the Localism Act 2011. Now the provision dealing with declarations of interest is as follows:

(2) If the interest is not entered in the authority’s register, the member or co-opted member must disclose the interest to the meeting, but this is subject to section 32(3).

The member or co-opted member may not — (a) participate, or participate further, in any discussion of the matter at the meeting, or (b) participate in any vote, or further vote, taken on the matter at the meeting — but this is subject to section 33.

As you may notice, the exemption for setting precepts is gone. But it does mention s33 of the act, so what does that say?

(1) A relevant authority may, on a written request made to the proper officer of the authority by a member or co-opted member of the authority, grant a dispensation relieving the member or co-opted member from either or both of the restrictions in section 31(4) in cases described in the dispensation.

(2) A relevant authority may grant a dispensation under this section only if, after having had regard to all relevant circumstances, the authority — (a) considers that without the dispensation the number of persons prohibited by section 31(4) from participating in any particular business would be so great a proportion of the body transacting the business as to impede the transaction of the business…

So an exempting disposition can be granted, but it has to be done so specifically. Hence the Wargrave Parish Council clerk rushing around forms for us to sign so that we could decide the budget, last week. So when we approve the new budget tomorrow, it will be entirely legal — but how many parish budgets across the country won’t be?

Most people won’t have read the Localism Act, and won’t notice this change. Indeed, the lack of comment on it suggests that it might have escaped the notice of many who really ought to know.

To me it looks like either Uncle Eric has laid a cruel and unusual trap for parish councils, or he has no idea what effect his flagship piece of legislation has. Neither of which is encouraging…

Five reasons not to vote Conservative today (or why Eric Pickles is wrong)

Nope, sorry Eric! Wrong on all five counts!

I wasn’t going to do any more election blogging, but when I saw Eric Pickles “5 Reasons to vote Conservative today” post on ConservativeHome, I just couldn’t help myself. Here are each of Eric’s points in turn, why he is wrong, and why you shouldn’t vote Conservative in the borough of Wokingham today.

1) Conservatives deliver better quality, better value local services… More Conservative councils have frozen council tax this year than Labour councils.

Yes, Wokingham have frozen council tax. But that freeze was made possible by a one-off grant from central government. This will almost certainly not be repeated next year, which means that council tax will have to go up by at least 2.5%- just for funding to stay at the same level.

And that’s even before we get to the massive stealth tax that the council introduced under the guise of a new rubbish scheme.

2) Conservative councils have been at the forefront of the transparency agenda, opening up their books and finances to public scrutiny.

Transparency my foot. Do you remember the budget? Do you remember how the council executive only released it the statutory week before the vote, whereas other authorities had released it months earlier for scrutiny by residents and opposition parties? And maybe you remember that it was simply voted through, with a minimum of debate, and no opportunity for proper examination.

Judging from this, the Conservatives were going all out to make sure there was no public scrutiny of how they were spending public money.

3) Councils account for a quarter of all public spending, and need to do their bit to help pay off Labour’s deficit.

This doesn’t play too well next to council leader Cllr David Lee’s near-constant bleatings about being the worst funded council in the country. If we’re supposed to be cutting back even harder, why does he always seem to be begging for more money? Also, the notion of there being no money left sits ill next to Eric Pickles’ slush funds for weekly bin collections and short-term tax giveaways- all of which seem calculated to give the Tories something to crow about at election time, having achieved nothing all year long.

Don’t believe the lies.

4) Conservative councils are cutting municipal non-jobs like town hall ‘pilgrims’ and waste like town hall pravadas.

I’m not sure who exactly Wokingham have been cutting, but they don’t seem to have been left with a particularly brilliant crop. The local government officers in charge of the bins, in particular, don’t seem to have covered themselves in glory of late.

And as for these “town hall pravadas” (I can only presume he means “pravda”, a reference to the newspaper of the Soviet Union), one of the biggest complaints about the new rubbish scheme was that nobody knew it was coming. People didn’t know there was a new scheme, and they didn’t know their collection day had changed.

I guess we can thank the Tories for that, then.

5) This Government is devolving significant new powers to local councils…Conservatives can be trusted to use these powers well.

You’ve got to be kidding me? Trust them? I don’t trust them with the powers they’ve got at the moment. So far, Wokingham Conservatives have:

  • Introduced a completely unworkable bin scheme as a cover for a stealth tax.
  • Launched a plan to sell off the libraries, without asking anyone.
  • Closed all of the public toilets in the borough.
  • Threatened to close and sell off care homes.
  • Wasted £90,000 on a PR exercise, and God knows how much in the end on the regeneration of Wokingham Town Centre.
  • Ignored the views of residents at every turn.

Would you trust them with more power. I wouldn’t.

Please, don’t vote Conservative today. Send a message that Wokingham deserves better, that it deserves a council that will listen to it, and act in its best interests.

The Cult of Council Tax

Here, on Thursday 23rd February, Wokingham Borough Council will vote on the budget for the next year, with embarrassingly little scrutiny or debate

So, a week from the debate where it will be doubtless rubber-stamped with as little debate as possible, Wokingham Borough Council have released their budget for 2012/2013. Make no mistake, this is only because the law forces them to- if they could, the first any of us would see of it would be when it was debated on the floor of the chamber.

I haven’t had a chance to properly scrutinise it- and likely as not I won’t until it’s already been passed- but if you want to have a look, feel free to. The budget itself can be found here (with thanks to RobDennis), and if you see something you don’t like, feel free to tell your (likely-as-not Conservative) councillor(s). You might also want to ask them why only a week has been allowed for resident scrutiny, and the publication of the budget timed so as that by the time the paper version of The Wokingham Times can report on it, it will only be the day before the debate. Just an idea.

So far, the biggest headline has been the frozen council tax- made possible by the grant from central government for that purpose. A cynic might suggest that this is hiding something more unsavoury in the budget. One suspects, however, that Wokingham would have kept it frozen regardless of the grant, given that they have previously frozen it and the glee with which they’re cutting and selling off services.

This is a recurring theme of Conservatives in local government: council tax must be cut or frozen at all costs. And really, only a fool could believe it can be done without cost. There are doubtless efficiency savings that can be made in areas, but on the whole local taxation goes to pay for local services. If the amount of money that local government receives is cut (and a freeze is a cut in real terms, as inflation means a sum one year is not worth the same as the next) then it has less to spend on service provision.

And there are problems too with central government’s scheme to provide grants for councils to freeze council tax. Foremost is that the money is only guaranteed for this year. It’s very unlikely that, with economic and deficit reduction policies failing, the Tory-led coalition will be able to repeat this populist handout. Hence councils who take the money this year to freeze their tax will next year be faced with an increased gap- and have to raise it by twice as much to make up the gap. That council tax freeze will look really good this time next year when residents are facing a huge hike.

Wokingham residents are already seeing hints of things to come as far as that is concerned. Social care and library services being sold off. Charges introduced for different kinds of waste collection. That will only get worse as money gets tighter. What’s more important, shaving a few pounds off your council tax bill, or keeping services flowing and available to all? I suppose that’s the dividing line between parties.

I also find it ironic that this doesn’t actually mean that council tax bills won’t go up. Local authorities make up only a part of the sum, parish council precepts and other charges making up the rest. And, as you might guess, parish councils don’t get a lovely big government grant to make up their losses.

The Conservatives like to paint this as black and white. To them, cutting/freezing council tax is good, and raising it is bad. But local government is there for something, to provide essential services to residents. If funding is cut to the bone then services will suffer, that’s the simple truth that Eric Pickles and David Lee alike seem not to grasp. I’m not advocating council tax rises; I’m simply calling for a more reasoned look at what the money pays for, and what the consequences of a cut could be.

Budget-Making in the Dark

David Lee's arguments why local residents don't need to see his council's plans for their services and taxes holds neither intellectual weight nor sympathy.

Local budgets aren’t usually big news events, despite the fact that they are probably at least as immediately relevant to the lives of the ordinary person as their national equivalents. So most of the time when local authorities set their yearly budgets they are only of interest to those already interested in local politics. Julian Ware-Lane, for example, has posted a bit of a blog on Southend Borough Council’s budget.

For those of you worrying that I’m about to launch into a hugely technical dissection of Wokingham’s proposed budget, fear not. I’m not. I won’t. Why? Because the council are refusing to publish it until the point when the law forces them to. I’m not the only person to write about this, but I feel I have to vent my confusion and outrage at this decision.

Let me start by saying that I’m very much in favour of transparency at all levels of government. You won’t find many (if any) politicians disagreeing with this, but often actions tell a different story. Take Mr Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He very vocally espouses transparency in local government. He also advised local councils to refuse FOI requests on spending.

So to Wokingham. Cllr David Lee, the council leader who featured on this blog not that long ago, has refused calls for openness and consultation, on the grounds that it would “just be a PR exercise”. Sorry, what? Surely that depends on how you respond to the consultation? True enough I expect the Wokingham executive to ignore whatever local residents tell them, but actually coming out and saying it is frankly astounding.

He also says that any consultation would be pointless because the budget is already “cut to the bone”. Now, people might disagree with me on this, but when there is less money around it seems even more important that it is well spent and that allocation of funds is fair and responsible. Cllr Lee’s attempt to back up this argument with another claim about Wokingham’s poor funding (a subject that I’ve already addressed) lends it neither intellectual weight or sympathy. Publishing the budget would allow residents to have a look at it, and to feed back into the process.

In Brighton & Hove, the minority Green Party administration has launched rather a novel “open budget” process, where they published it long ago and invited councillors from all parties to participate. I’m not holding it up as a perfect example- and as Cllr Warren Morgan has told me, it’s become something of a political gimmick whereby the Greens can find popular dissatisfaction with particular measures and change them, whilst remaining vague on detail- but it certainly gives more of an impression of caring what residents think.

And honestly, I think I’d rather that than Wokingham’s secretive, high-handed approach.

This approach, where the decisions are taken by an elite group (the executive) and no heed is taken of the majority (the residents), is pretty typical of the one party junta-style approach in Wokingham. The Tories completely dominate the political scene, as they hold such an entrenched majority that they don’t believe they will ever be electorally challenged- so needn’t fear consequences of decisions they take. There’s some truth in that, but the comments on the aforementioned Wokingham Times article show a certain resident concern about what their taxes are to be spent on.

So there you go. I may, eventually, post some analysis of the Wokingham budget for 2012-2013. But since I won’t see the budget until 16th February, a week before it is debated at a full council meeting, it will neither be soon nor thorough. The decision to wait until the last minute stifles debate and analysis, and shows further that Wokingham Conservatives have nothing but contempt for the public they are meant to be representing.