Eric Pickles is unpopular with Liverpool's mayor. Photo: Getty
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With friends like Eric Pickles in local government, who needs enemies?

A broader criticism can be made of Eric Pickles for his tenure as Communities Secretary, after he overturned a major planning decision in Liverpool.

Last week, Eric Pickles decided to overrule the independent Planning Inspectorate to reject one of our key regeneration projects here in Liverpool. The Welsh Streets area of the city, a run-down part of inner-city Toxteth, includes Ringo Starr’s old home, albeit one he lived in only briefly before ascending to greater things.

Heritage campaigners (mostly from outside the city) want to preserve these terraced houses, which are slated for demolition. Local people, who actually live in them, don’t. As one put it, the "heritage" of many of these homes is the misery of bronchitis. The cramped, damp conditions they live in, with few amenities, are something we desperately want to alleviate by selective demolition and the construction of new, fit-for-purpose family homes.

They were either furious or heart-broken to learn that Pickles had snatched away the opportunity to make their lives better. Needless to say, he’s never been near the place. It appears his priority was to get a headline about "saving" Ringo’s old home at the expense of prolonging the misery of an entire local community. For the residents of Welsh Streets, the curse of Pickles, in my opinion the worst local government minister in living memory, has struck again.

This case is just an illustration of the broader problem local government faces with the current Secretary of State. He seems to prefer mischief-making to navigating local government through the unprecedented cuts to our budgets and services.

Councils have, on average, seen their government funding reduced by a third since he became Communities’ Secretary. By 2017, Liverpool will actually have lost 58 per cent of its budget – some £330m. This is due to Pickles’ single most-damaging decision, borne of his eagerness to please (or his naiveté), when he caved in to Treasury pressure back in 2010 and accepted a spending envelope that has simply decimated local government. His inability to fight his corner in Whitehall has cost us dearly.

Councils provide too many frontline services and too many vulnerable people and communities are dependent on us to carry this lame duck Secretary of State who remains oblivious to the fallout from his unfocused and ideological tenure at DCLG.

Unfocused because his arbitrary interventions from Whitehall show him up for the dabbler he is. As well as his fondness for micro-managing planning decisions there was his plan to allow motorists to park on double-yellow lines for up to 15 minutes. This was quietly dropped when the public consultation showed people were opposed to it.

Then there was his flagship scheme to "help" councils retain weekly bin collections. Nowhere has taken him up on the offer. Not when councils had to sign up for three years and he would only fund the first twelve months.

But as the residents of Welsh Streets have found out, the big problem is that Pickles just doesn’t "get" localism (which is all the more surprising as he is a former council leader himself). The gap between him and, say, Michael Heseltine, or Greg Clark, or George Osborne is now a chasm. On paper at least, the Chancellor knows the importance of cities and their local economies in driving growth. He still needs to put his money where his mouth but, conceptually, he is in the right place with calls for a “Northern Powerhouse” and HS3.

But Pickles is a bit-part player in all these big, strategic, long-term discussions. Thankfully, we are now at the tail-end of this parliament and I, as someone who works in local government, hope that his disastrous reign of confusion and incompetence is coming to an end.

“I get by with a little help from my friends,” sang Ringo. With "friends" like Eric Pickles, local government doesn’t need enemies.

Joe Anderson is Labour Mayor of Liverpool

Joe Anderson is Mayor of Liverpool. 

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.