Microphone

The Portland Interview

The Communities Secretary answers Portland’s questions

The Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is leading the Coalition Government’s localism agenda. We asked him for his views.

You became known as a radical cost-cutting council leader in Bradford, where you were restructuring, outsourcing and shaking things up for 20 years. Is this the same agenda with local government but on a bigger scale?

Not really, many of the methods I used would later be adopted by New Labour – best practice and outsourcing. Today it is about getting more for less and unleashing the sleeping giant of local government to deliver services for its community rather than the centre.

Not all councils have been co-operative with your approach so far. A recent leaked email compared you to a republican in charge of a monarchy. How do you find dealing with those who simply don’t want to play ball?

There are clearly councils who are out grandstanding – but I’d much rather work constructively with the vast majority of councils who aren’t playing politics but rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the job of protecting public services.

What day-to-day changes in the lives of ordinary people would you expect the Localism Bill to bring?

It will give them much more control over the decisions which have a huge impact on their daily lives.  For example, instead of just having new development imposed on them from above, without their involvement or say, they will be able to choose for themselves where new homes, businesses and public services should go and how they will fit in to the rest of the community.  People have been frozen out and frustrated for too long – the localism bill will put real power back in their hands.

Some people are concerned that the Bill is a NIMBY’s charter. How can businesses make sure that their developments and expansion aren’t hobbled by changes to planning law, for example?

Actually, what really turns people into NIMBYs is inappropriate development being dumped on them because it fits in with a grand plan that’s been drawn up somewhere else.  We want to make the planning system much more positive – give people a reason to say ‘yes’ to growth because they will directly see the benefits in the form of new businesses, new jobs and new infrastructure.

Is local election turnout low because people aren’t interested or because local councils don’t listen?

Obviously there are a lot of complicated reasons, but I think one of the reasons is that power has been drained away from councils over decades.  Why bother turning out to vote for someone who can only blindly follow orders from the Government?  By giving councilors real clout, we’re restoring the reasons for people to vote.

You’ve gained a reputation as a campaigning Secretary of State who gets his way. What’s your secret?

There is no real secret. I spent thirteen long years in opposition so am in a hurry to get things done. You don’t get any second chances in politics.

How do you find Coalition Government? Do the Lib Dems have a different view of what local government should do or how localism should work? 

I have worked in coalitions before so it wasn’t too much of a shock to the system. I find the coalition incredibly collegiate. We agree on most things and where they are differences we have a healthy debate which can only be good for democracy.

As well as supporting localism, the Government has made clear its interest in large scale infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2. How can you marry a localist planning system which gives decisive weight to the voice of local residents with an intent to build huge projects that are nationally important but face local opposition?

Neighbourhood plans will pass unprecedented power and influence down to the local level – but that doesn’t mean they are a blank slate which people can use to refuse any development at all.  Of course, there are always going to be some decisions about nationally important projects where actually, you’ve got to balance the needs of the local community with the wider needs of the country.

You’ve instructed all councils to put their spending online and are now proposing that all council officials paid over £58,000 should be named on the internet. How have digital technologies changed the way that local government is done and who are the people who have pioneered these changes?  

There is huge potential for digital technology to get people much more involved and have much more say over how things are done in their area.  There’s no reason at all why decisions should be taken behind closed doors any more.  Simply by putting spending online, you open decisions up to much greater public scrutiny – enabling people to spot waste and suggest alternative, more effective ways of getting things done.  There are some really excellent councils who are fully embracing this – like Redbridge or Windsor and Maidenhead who are using raw data to have a proper conversation with residents about where money should be spent.

As spending cuts begin to take effect, some council leaders are already blaming you personally for redundancies in their authorities. How can the Coalition make sure it isn’t irreparably harmed in the eyes of the public by this process, or is it simply a question of do the job and roll with the punches?

We have a clear plan and it’s important we stick to it. The worst thing we can do is dither or delay. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. That’s just politics.