Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Sontaran

I was delighted by the Dr Who Christmas episode.

The Sontaran reminded me of Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I’m not referring to his appearance – it’s the way he responds to questions.

A Sontaran's weak spot is the "probic vent" at the back of the neck, through which they draw nutrition. Mr Pickles’s behaviour seems to be driven by a similar weak spot - he doesn’t want facts to get in the way of the story. However, no-one should under-estimate how he can whip up the tabloid media to believe that, if only council officers travelled 2nd class on the train, there would be no need for any service cuts.

When the Secretary of State, and his Ministers, appeared in front of the CLG Select Committee recently, I asked him ‘How many [councils] actually are moving back from an alternate weekly collection of general household refuse to a weekly collection?’

He took us on a long journey through his views on the issue without answering the question. It took a series of supplementaries before we got to the answer. From a fund of £250m, removed from the revenue support grant for all authorities, just one council is moving back from alternate collection to the weekly collection of general household refuse.

So, not only is there a complete failure in his stated policy objective – ‘it’s everyone’s human right to have their bin collected weekly’ - but it will be at the expense of local services which are valued much higher.

When I asked him whether he joined ‘with your Permanent Secretary in being what the Local Government Chronicle called a "doom denier"?’, his response was to suggest that given that you are quoting from the Local Government Chronicle, that is almost like quoting from a Labour press release and that the ‘graph of doom’ was a ‘Malthusian fantasy.

All good knock-about stuff – conveniently ignoring the fact that ‘doom-denier’ was coined by a Liberal Democrat and the ‘graph of gloom’ came from a Conservative London Borough. More worrying, of course, was his view that his ‘modest changes’ will have little impact upon local government services and local communities.

Perhaps it’s that disregard for the facts which allowed him to assert, in his statement on the Local Government Settlement, that ‘councils’ spending power would be cut by 1.7%’ * when the reality is that council funding will be cut 4% next year ands 9% in 2014/15, and that local government will be cut by more than 33% in the current spending review compared to the promised 28%.

Unfortunately, Mr Pickles’ approach has also been adopted by his Ministers. Last year, the then Minister of Housing, Grant Shapps, told us that this government should be judged by whether it achieved building 200,000+ homes a year.
As the number of new housing starts has fallen again, the new Housing Minister, Mark Prisk, simply recast the 200,000+ homes as an aspiration, saying that ‘we have no intention of having the old Soviet-style central targets.’

I’m now totally lost as to whether this government is in favour of targets or not, and I rather suspect that it doesn’t know either.

Targets still appear in different ways. On homelessness, David Cameron had said "I think that it is simply a disgrace that in the fifth-biggest economy in the world that we have people homeless, people sleeping on the streets, sofa-surfers, people in hospitals" in 2008.

But, homelessness has risen relentlessly since 2010. Statutory homelessness, where families without a roof over their head are accepted by their local council as homeless, has risen by nearly a third since the general election. There are now more than 75,000 children living in temporary accommodation. There has been a near 200% increase in the number of families in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than 6 weeks.
Yet when asked the direct question ‘can you assure the Committee that these figures are going to start to fall’, Mr Pickles told us that ‘Nobody in modern-day Britain should sleep on the roads or under the arches, and nobody should find themselves exploited in someone’s back-garden potting shed’.
I agree. But I’ve no more confidence that homelessness will fall than I have in promises to ensure that everyone will have their bin collected weekly or that we will see 200,000 homes a year being built by 2015.
The Sontarans are with us.
This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle at:

* Since I wrote the article, it has been confirmed that the ‘average 1.7% cut in councils’ spending power in 2013/14’ asserted by Eric Pickles, both in Parliament and in the media, considerably understates the cuts because the Department for Communities and Local Government had double-counted some elements of the Local Government Financial Settlement.