Plain speaking Pickles
“Do you want a Prezza Pen?” smiles Eric Pickles mischievously. He proffers a white plastic biro emblazoned with the grand words ‘Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’, complete with coat of arms. “The great thing is...it doesn’t even work.”
Sure enough, a few attempted scribbles later and not a drop of ink comes out. The personalised biros, mementos of his predecessor at Eland House, are the perfect symbol of what Pickles sees as the spendthrift Labour era.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government certainly believes that no amount of overspending is too small, a philosophy that drives his personal crusade to force his department to publish every item of spending over £250.
Although the spectre of Prescott haunts the glass and steel building he opened, Pickles has changed the fabric of his large office suite to reflect Tory sensibilities. The paintings on the walls include depictions of Liverpool Street station (the gateway to his Essex constituency) and of Yorkshire trees (by David Hockney). There’s a photo of a younger, thinner and more hirsute former Bradford Council leader alongside Mrs Thatcher in her pomp. A rare terracotta bust of Disraeli looks over Pickles’ shoulder, while a smaller one of Gladstone (“he was a Tory for a while you know..and we are in Coalition”) lurks nearby. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s also an iconic black and white photo of Che Guevara, but he explains it’s there “to remind me that unless I’m careful the cigar-chomping Commies will take over again”.
In a typical Pickles touch, there’s also a miniature black cab, a Churchill poster and an original film cell of the John Wayne classic western ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’.
Since he took over in 2010, Pickles has been seen by many councillors as The Man Who Shot Council Budgets, overseeing council tax freezes and squeezing the town hall pips till they squeak.
After the Autumn Statement, he knows that many councils don’t mind zero cuts planned for the coming year but are very unhappy at the idea of 2% cuts the year after. And ahead of the Local Government Finance Settlement next week, he is keen to stress that this year’s deal is a ‘much gentler settlement this year than they would otherwise have expected’. But the message is clear: more cuts are needed. “I have one or two little surprises up my sleeve for them but nevertheless they have got an opportunity this year to do something serious in order to show they are in a better situation the following year. This year has got to be about two things: better procurement (with the exception of a handful of authorities, nobody has really tackled this yet) and joint working.
“I’m deadly serious about this, a lot of the smaller districts are just going to have to simply join together. I’m not asking them to do a formal reorganisation but I am saying ‘you should work together’. They should work together not just to save money but also to provide a much better service.”
He says that sharing services like payroll, benefits, housing, free school meals makes sense. “If councils are good at deciding what they want, I really think they can operate on the same chief executive, the same director of finance. Hammersmith and Fulham, K&C and Westminster have clubbed together and that looks to me like the future of local government.
“The people who tend to be against this – and I’m not making a reference now to Hammersmith and Fulham and the rest - generally speaking are officials, because they see themselves losing jobs and they see themselves having to be accountable to a much wider range. Well, you know…it’s a price that we should be prepared to pay.”
Pickles says he’s more interested in ‘what works’ rather than privatised or in-house service delivery. But he is proud of the ‘big cultural change’ at the DCLG in general.
“We were the voice of local government in the Government and what I think we’ve done is we’ve become the voice of the council taxpayer within the Government….And that’s why we’ve had such a lot of trouble with our chums [councillors] on localism: they seemed to think that it was about giving power to them, it wasn’t. Sometimes they got more power but sometimes it went through their hands to community groups.”
Pickles can’t resist confrontation with the Local Government Association, declaring that ‘nobody is going to take you seriously’ if they claim, as the LGA did, that the Autumn Statement’s funding package was unsustainable.
“I kind of understand that the LGA are sort of a trade union organisation..They are the voice of the officer class with the odd politician thrown in as a hostage handcuffed to the radiator and they occasionally speak,” he says, pointedly.
“The problem is that we’ve had the various stories people crying ‘wolf!’, saying it’s all going to be a disaster. Well actually with two and a half years on local government seems to be coping very well. Satisfaction with local government has actually gone up. It’s a quarter of public expenditure, they’ve managed very well they’ve been very adaptable despite the rhetoric.”
“What they’ve got to do is produce more for less, what they’ve got to do is to address all of the hidden Spanish practices that exist. It is utterly ludicrous that within a few miles of one another there are organisations doing their own payroll, doing their own legal services, having their own planners.”
Speaking of planners, he has a message too for those Tory councils like Richmond-upon-Thames who have vowed to wage war on his relaxation of restrictions on home extensions. “Wait for the rules. Wait to see what they are. We haven’t come to a final decision about how far we will allow permitted development to go out.” But there is a hint of a concession: “The ones we were suggesting were pretty much a maximum. Those might be considerably less than that.”
“But what Richmond needs to understand is the figure for the size of developments we were talking about…94 % or 93% or so were going through on officer recommendation already. Now maybe this is just a suggestion to local authorities, maybe you’re better using that officer time on something else.”
As for his favourite subject, weekly bin collections, he’s seen some progress. “My main bête noir is bins.” Pointing to his Disraeli bust, he says: “There’s the guy who introduced weekly collections , he thought it was important for public health…To me it was all about the political classes, the new elite, the top officers and the top officials who decided to do something that was good for us all. And most people out there would like their bins cleaned on a weekly basis, they don’t want to have to take a postgraduate course in time management to realise which things have to go out at such a time. It is such a drag. This was a very good example of no matter who you talk to the council always gets in..
“I felt we need to address that. The more I talked about it the more I realised I was taking on the most enormous vested interests; the bin barons, the industry, the EU, the audit commission, all gang up on councils who wanted to be able to provide a decent service. We have been prepared to put our money where our mouth is to try and get examples of how we can at least stop the rot.” How many have gone back to weekly collections? “It is difficult because a number of authorities are on contracts…but we’ve had a fairish number, five or six, do that…It’s not like I’m asking for something very complicated, I’m not asking to go back to Lonnie Donegan, my old man’s a dustman”
Councils often cite the landfill tax as the reason for their fortnightly move. But Pickles is unimpressed. “It’s a lazy way of doing it there are lots of ways you can recycle lots of ways you can offer incentives, rather than descending Stasi-like on some old lady who’s had the temerity to put the wrong yoghurt pot in the wrong container on the wrong day and to actually concentrate on things that matter, fly tipping matters, inconsiderate neighbours matter.”
Pickles was reported to have come under attack from other Cabinet ministers over the slow progress on Local Enterprise Partnerships at Cabinet the other week. But he has a different account.
“I actually was there and I don’t recall that happening. What I do recall is a degree of impatience for them to get moving. I think there’s probably about three of them that are really giving me worries but most of them are really starting to develop. I’m very pleased with the way LEPs have worked.”
He does point the finger himself at those to blame for LEPs not moving as fast as they could. “I did say the people that were causing the most problems were sat round the [Cabinet] table. And I think that’s absolutely true because it is Government departments that are slow at making decisions. But we’ve got the Prime Minister’s backing, we have the Chancellor’s backing. We had some officials saying just show us these lists [of problems]. I presented a list to a Cabinet sub-committee of no less than 120 separate barriers to growth and in fairness we’ve got to remove those barriers one by one.”
As for his other big innovation, transparency on spending by the DCLG, Pickles wants to go much further. “When we started it was [all items of spending over] 25,000 quid, Unbelievable. We thought I couldn’t look local government in the eye if I didn’t go down to 500 quid. I remember announcing it at an LGA conference and you could see the officers in the audience – you can always pick them out because they have the more expensive suits – mouths just opening and shutting because we were moving towards this.”
He now wants the DCLG – and councils – to publish every item of spending. “I can see no reason why that shouldn’t happen. Maybe soon I’ll expect them to go down to £250. We found it very easy to do. We are like a small district council.” Will he go down to zero and list all items of spending? “I would hope to do it within the lifetime of this Parliament.”
Brussels is famously not keen on keeping its spending to a minimum and Pickles is among many ministers who regularly feel constrained by EU rules. He points out that only this week he had to go through a laborious European environmental impact assessment as he was abolishing a regional spatial strategy left by the last Government.
But with the Prime Minister still to make a long-expected speech on Europe, Pickles is unimpressed with colleagues who have been setting out their own battle lines for a prospective referendum.
“I am very impatient with some colleagues who start talking in tactical terms. ‘If we do this, we’ll win the election. If we do this, we’ll outsmart UKIP.’ Oh come on” the Minister begins. “This is like a really big deal. If we have a referendum, if it becomes an in/out referendum, it’s got to be about the national interest. It’s not going to be about the interest of the Conservative Party, it’s not going to be about the interests of the Labour Party or our dear friends in the coalition, it’s got to be in the national interest.”
Pickles accepts that “sooner or later we’re going to have to come to a view about our relationship to the euro and those that want to stay outside the euro and those that want to embrace it”, and is clear where he stands: “The last thing this country wants to be is something like Switzerland or Norway, which to misquote William Hague’s old slogan, is out of Europe but run by Europe.”
So how would Pickles feel if he campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU while typical Tory voters ticked the No box? “It would feel very strange”, he admits, adding: “Ultimately democracy is a messy business, isn’t it? Ultimately you’ve got put your trust in the people. There’s no point being an institution if people don’t like it.“
His own vote “would depend on what the question was, what the circumstances was, and I’ll make my own decision.” However, he ends with another warning for any Tories playing politics with Europe. “I am of an age and of a type that I would put the national interest before anything, before my party’s interest, before my personal interest, before everything. That’s what Churchill said, didn’t he? Country first, always.”
The European question has gained greater urgency following the recent UKIP surge, and Pickles accepts that Tories must up their game. “There’s only one way to defeat UKIP, and that is to be close to the people” he argues. “Politicians don’t get out enough, don’t get on the knocker, don’t spend their time listening to the electorate. If you don’t like the folks, don’t be in our business. I quite like being on the knocker, I quite like that, kind of, interchange. I don’t mind if people are unpleasant to me, it’s that process of getting genuine, kind of, feedback.”
Not that UKIP are doing well enough to worry him, he says, adding, a cheeky dig at his coalition partners. “They’re, kind of, just below the Lib Dems. Where you thought they were going to make this big breakthrough, they haven’t really.”
However, UKIP’s strong showing in recent northern by-elections has underlined the Tories’ failure to engage with voters north of the Watford Gap. Pickles shakes his head. “We’re not weird. The north of England’s not weird”, he bluntly states.
So what should Tories do to win back northern voters?
“The same way you get votes in the south of England, and that is by application, by organising, and recognising why we lost out in the past, because the Tory Party started just to talk to itself in the north of England. It stopped opening its doors to other people”, Pickles argues, accepting that the Tories still look unattractive to northern urban voters.
“The Party is remarkably classless, but can be very off-putting for people who don’t really understand it” he candidly admits. But can an urban foothold be regained? “That’s only going to happen if the party becomes much more normal and doesn’t speak just to itself, and when the party is at its worst is when it just talks about things that it agrees with” Pickles replies, and this is not just a job for this collector’s item of a northern Tory. “Don’t think that we need to find some special to person to talk the language: it’s about empathy, it’s about understanding, it’s about pride, it’s about getting jobs cracking up there.”
Of course, Nadine Dorries famously said that she went on I’m a Celebrity to try to connect more with the wider public. But having previously joked that he would keep voting for Dorries to remain in the jungle, Pickles gave up.
“I religiously sat down to watch it, and I did see two episodes where I thought I can’t put that dear woman through any more pain so I won’t want to watch it again” he admits. As for Dorries’ return to the Tory fold, Pickles isn’t exactly encouraging.
“Well that’s lovely” he deadpans when reminded that her constituency has endorsed her. “I’ve got a lot of affection for Nadine but I wouldn’t seek to interfere with the Chief Whip’s deliberations.”
One area where the Tories are fending off UKIP is over green energy policy, with John Hayes, Owen Paterson and the Chancellor all injecting a new approach to wind power, fracking and shale gas.
Pickles says: “I think it needs to develop sensibly. In terms of an energy policy, I want to see a diverse and sustainable one which means a lot more nuclear. I’m in favour of expanding fracking. I’ll look with an open mind. The reason why I want to do that is I do not want this country ever to be dependent on the caprice nature of whoever’s running Russia, whoever’s running Belarus, whoever is controlling that line that goes through Azerbaijan and works its way through Georgia, I don’t want it to be dependent on the level of democracy in the Middle East. I want to ensure that we have some kind of edge. I think that’s massively important.”
Referring to energy policy in general, he says: “I don’t think this is a green issue. This is geo-political issue and I think that needs to be absolutely addressed. I don’t really mind windmills in the sea.” And on land? “Sometimes, if they’re appropriately placed.”
Sensible policy on immigration is another Pickles theme and community cohesion is central to his approach. Latest Census figures show that ‘white British’ citizens are a minority in London for the first time. “We’ve got to kind of understand, London is always going to be a very cosmopolitan place”, is the Communities Secretary’s reaction. “Just because you’re a Sikh or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Rasta doesn’t mean to say you can’t be English or British. And I think we should learn to celebrate that in a way that we celebrated over the summer. No grasping, nasty vile EDL are ever going to be able to take our flag away from us again. It’s to our shame that we allowed our flag for a brief period, a few years’ go to fall, into the hands of not very nice people.”
Pickles is also scathing about those who in the past warned against immigration in the 1960s. “Do you remember Leicester saying to those Ugandan Asians 40 years ago, ‘don’t come to Leicester, we’re full up’? Can anybody doubt for even a second that Leicester’s current prosperity was not built on those very people they tried to keep out?”
But he does caution that English has to be spoken by immigrant groups. Referring to situations in some cities where citizens can’t speak to each other in the same language, he says: “That’s terrible for community relations. And that’s one of the reasons why we changed the community function round here: the first principle is about celebrating what we have in common not what’s dividing us.
“English of course is a key, and all over the world, from Mumbai through to Beijing.., every ambitious parent is trying to get their kids to learn English. And I think we need to ensure that ambition is felt very strongly right across the capital and right across this country, and it’s about getting the best out of our citizens. Our citizens should be able to talk to one and other, and they should be able to talk to one and other in a nuanced way.”
Nuanced, but plain speaking, it’s no wonder Pickles is one of the PM’s favourite ministers. After a long year, he’s looking forward to spending Christmas with his godson “and a load of chums”.
But before then he still has a couple of typical Picklesian touches up his sleeve: a staff curry and a special party for the top DCLG civil servants. True to form, he will “go back to the 1960s and have beer and sandwiches” for his senior civil servants. “And I’m providing Brentwood Ale.”
Pickles on… The Only Way Is Essex
“I’ve watched it once or twice. I’ve been to Sugar Hut. I wanted the experience and they seem very nice people and I thought it was very entertaining.”
Pickles on…Barnet’s ‘easyCouncil’ model
“The jury’s out. When they started talking about he sort of easyCouncil..I thought hmmm..Let’s just see how it works out.”
Pickles on… Heseltine’s plan for more unitary authorities
“The reason why we rejected it is..we’ve seen the problem of a wholesale reorganisation. Local government gets taken out at critical phase and for a couple of years would do nothing else but reorganise.”