Saturday, 1 October 2011

How Eric Pickles Defines 'Localism'

Why does Eric Pickles make life so hard for supporters of localism? The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been all over the press in the last few days promising funding totalling £250m to local authorities in England and Wales that re-introduce a weekly bin collection. He was quoted as saying:
"The last Labour Government ruthlessly forced councils into axing bin collections. Their policies of bin taxes, bin fines and bin cuts hammered hard working families and fuelled fly-tipping."
And I have no problem with Eric Pickles telling anyone who'll listen what he thinks about the frequency of bin collections, and subtleties of weekly vs. alternate weekly collections. It's just that, in my mind at least, the frequency that Rugby Borough Council collects my rubbish, how it does it, how much it costs, and the overall quality of the service, is between me and Rugby Borough Council. The government generally, and the Department for Communities and Local Government specifically, must have enough to occupy its time than to start poking its nose into my rubbish (no pun intended).

Eric Pickles was one of the principle cheerleaders for localism following the election of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in May last year. His department very clearly defined localism as:
"......the transfer of power and resources from central government to the local level. It is the idea that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people they affect. Localism can also mean allowing local people to set priorities and become involved in decisions about the future of their area."
I am fully supportive of this as a philosophy to guide the delivery of public services. The UK is one of the most over centralised countries in the world as far as who makes the decisions. Local councils are considered an irrelevance by so many of the public because they are so limited in the extent of the local discretion that they have. Local authorities don't, by and large, decide what to do. They simply do what the central government of the day tells them to do.

Is it any surprise therefore that electoral turnout for local elections is so poor compared to national elections? Is it any wonder that anyone with political ambition wants to become an MP (of the governing party, naturally), rather than be a councillor? But give local councils the power and authority to actually make meaningful and real decisions about services, and then leave them to get on with it, and the local authorities up and down the country will start to matter to us all once again.

I began to believe that the Conservatives finally 'got it'. Well, at least they did whilst they were in opposition. But once they got their hands on the levers of power, it became too difficult for people like Eric Pickles to say that bin collections were nothing to do with him, and that if someone had a complaint then they should take it up with the people who make the decisions on these matters ie. local councils. Instead, he launches a campaign to get weekly bin collections reinstated, and offers a £250m incentive for councils to do what he wants them to do.

So despite being told during the last few months that local bus services were being cut because councils don't have enough money, and public libraries were being closed because councils don't have enough money, I'm now told that the government has found £250m to pay for an extra collection of refuse which, as far as I can tell is not particularly wanted, and is certainly not needed. I'd like to suggest that if the government does have £250m it doesn't know what to do with, it might like to use it to reduce its own budget deficit this year. Or at least divide it up proportionately amongst all of the councils in England and Wales and let them decide what to spend the money on.

If I don't like Rugby Borough Council's policy on bin collections, I'll raise the issue with my local councillors. If, come election, I still don't like what I'm getting, I'll vote for the party who promises to do things differently. I'm really not sure why Eric Pickles, and the Department for Communities and Local Government, needs to get involved.

After all, isn't that what localism is all about??

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