The Pickles plan

The Secretary of State for Local Government on how he’s taking on councils

8 December 2012

Some Cabinet ministers develop airs in office. Eric Pickles isn’t one of them. Sitting at the head of a conference table that looks like it’s been purchased from a discount office supplies catalogue, he explains his outlook on life. ‘There are two kinds of people,’ he says. ‘There are those who open that door and courteously speak to people, and there are those who bellow. There are those who write long memos on the temperature of your cappuccino and those who are just grateful if you get a warm beverage, and I’m the latter.’

He would place himself in an even rarer group: a minster who gets things done. He boasts that ‘this department has fundamentally shifted from being on the side of local government to being on the side of council tax payers’. As evidence of this he cites the fact that his department is scrapping more regulations than any other.

Pickles is happy to advise Cabinet colleagues on how to follow suit. ‘You’ve got to see it from the side of the public and not from the side of the bureaucracy,’ he says. But not all of his colleagues, particularly the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, agree that deregulation is what the economy needs.

When I put Cable’s objections to Pickles, he tartly replies that ‘every department, including his, needs to get a move on. We do need to deregulate.’ He says, using the kind of tone a teacher might deploy with a too wilful pupil, the ‘really important thing here is we don’t just slash away at regulation willy-nilly. We started from the basis, and I’m sure Vince might find this helpful: what should government do? what should be our priorities? what gets in the way of those priorities, what are we asking business to do?’

But Pickles isn’t finished yet with his advice for the man he sits next to in Cabinet and ‘occasionally shares a Mento mint’ with. ‘Vince clearly has an important role because the second thing that people complain about is our training programme and the way in which colleges and the like are unresponsive to the needs of business.’ Pickles wants to see businesses taking over the running of many more youth training schemes.

The criticism of the Business Secretary is typical of Pickles’s willingness to stir things up with his coalition partners. He’s been an outspoken opponent of a mansion tax, even going as far as to delete the government’s housing valuation database in an attempt to make it harder to implement. But Pickles himself came in for criticism from one of his Conservative colleagues at a recent Cabinet meeting, with the Chancellor probing him about how much his department was doing to promote economic growth.


Pickles’s explanation is that ‘George is a guy on a mission and that mission is the prosperity of the country’. But he does concede that ‘a minister might get occasionally irked’ by the Chancellor’s impatience.

One area of contention between the two men has been planning. Pickles confides: ‘I was asked by a senior member of the government, two weeks after the National Planning Framework had come into being, why it hadn’t worked.’ He goes on: ‘In terms of economic growth, there is an element that is whispering in your ear,’ and here Pickles starts to do an impersonation of a child in a car, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’

He’s quick to stress that this constant questioning is no bad thing. But one does sense that he has been slightly irritated by being second-guessed so often.

There are still problems with the planning system, Pickles admits. Too often, he says, there’s a ‘view that if you can get a thousand signatures that somehow we should turn a planning application down’.

He likes to take on the role of a mystery shopper, plucking out some of the decisions that have been appealed up to his department to see what’s going on further down the chain. He recalls how, soon after taking office, ‘I spent the best part of half a day looking at a development in one of the London boroughs. There was a bit of office there, a bit of social housing, some shops, and actually it was going to revive the area. I thought, wow, that looks pretty damn good.’

He asked why it had been turned down. His officials explained: ‘Secretary of State, you don’t understand the system. This is a very good development, you will see the inspector is very much in favour of it and the council think it’s a wonderful scheme, and they are very much looking forward to it.’ But they wanted central government to take the political heat for approving it. Too many councils are still turning applications down, he says, in the knowledge that ‘in 18 months’ time Pickles will pass it but they won’t blame us. That’s no way to run a planning system.’

When it comes to Europe, Pickles strikes two different notes. On the subject of leaving the European Union, he’s more cautious than many of his Conservative Cabinet colleagues. He stresses that Britain’s ability to prosper outside the EU ‘would require our ability to get at that single market, it would very much depend on that’. He’s also ‘really irritated with people who start to talk to me about how tactical this is, we can deal with Ukip better that way and we can shoot Labour’s fox’. He insists that the matter is too important for party political considerations to intrude upon it.

But Pickles is nowhere near as cautious when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights. He wants to stop individuals from appealing their cases to Strasbourg, and describes as ‘ridiculous’ the fact that they currently can. But to change this, of course, Britain would have to leave the jurisdiction of the Court, which could be done by passing our own Bill of Rights.

This view is shared by a growing number of Conservative Cabinet ministers, but Pickles is the first to articulate it publicly. The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, would almost certainly resign if it became Conservative policy. One senses that this split could  become a problem before the next election.

Pickles is also robust on the Leveson report. He’s adamant that ‘it’s not a balance’ between press freedom and privacy that the government should be seeking, but that it should ‘always err on the side of a free press’.

Following Nick Clegg’s Commons statement on Leveson, I ask if there are any subjects on which Pickles would have liked to have given his own view rather than hewing to the prime ministerial line. Pickles admits to four issues which fit into that category. ‘But to misquote P.G. Wodehouse, wild horses on their bended knees at their most eloquent and persuasive could not persuade me to tell you what they are. You’ll have to wait for my memoirs.’ And at that, an official arrives to end the interview, and I begin what I expect will be a rather lengthy wait for the memoirs.

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  • Orson_Cart

    He really ought to disable his cookies!

  • Jebediah

    I think the Govt should use Pickles a bit more. Antithesis to the Eton rifles.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    Perhaps before Pickles starts sharing his opinions (however sensible they seem) on other matters as he does here he should get his own house in order.

    Perhaps he should make it clear to all those Tory councils in Kent who think they can help themselves to the Pickles multi- million pound pot for waste collections for cynically collecting everything but food waste on a fortnightly basis can go and get stuffed. Its the most mendacious and disgraceful piece of conniving by these Tory heartland councils and is going to cost them and their MP’s (some of whoms seats are marginal) massively. It’s got to the point where people should be allowed to opt out of council waste collection (for an appropriate significant reduction in their council tax) and be allowed to make their own arrangements rather than be forced to use the council’s sub-standard service!

    I’ll be joining UKIP because of it and be sure that in my neck of the woods come the County Council elections voters will know what a dishonest money grubbing bunch Kent Tories are!

    • acorn

      Spectator could demean itself and interview Kent tory councils?…
      As James says, Pickles could be dealing with this food waste (does he know a lot about food waste?) instead of considering his memoires. Is that the best long term thinking going on?
      I shalln’t be reading Tory or other political memoires of these depressing self-serving, minority-pleasing times. Unless they are anti-European and written by people who are capable of disabling their cookies – nice one guest, got it 😉

  • marrer

    He keeps saying he want weekly collection and in the last two year umteen councils have gone from weekly to fortnightly including my council Wigan.

    • HJ777

      My council have gone the other way – from a once weekly rubbish collection and once fortnightly recycling, to weekly for both.

      I have no idea why they increased the frequently of recycling given that the list of things that can be recycled is relatively short.

  • roger

    Gives ‘Down your way’ a whole new lease of life.

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