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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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear