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