Eric Pickles seems to be relishing his role as the axe man in chief of Town Hall spending. The Communities and Local Government Secretary was in typical form addressing the parliamentary press the other day, telling us that councils knew the cuts were coming and that they had the capacity to be “enormously adaptive.”
He left his most substantial jibe for northern councils complaining about the unfairness of the cuts. He said their leaders were like the characters in the famous Monty Python sketch where they compete in telling each other what a deprived background they had. You know the one. “You were lucky to live in a slum; we lived in a cardboard box!”
Mr Pickles referred in particular to the comments of the Mayor of Liverpool. Joe Anderson. He has led the charge against, what The Mayor sees, as the disproportionate impact the cuts are having on northern cities. The Minister said the problem with this approach was that having painted a picture of poverty and deprivation, the Mayor would then say what a great place Liverpool was to invest in. Pickles then made a similar criticism of the leadership of Bradford Council, an authority he once led.
So has he got a point? Well the Liverpool Mayor and the leaders of our great northern cities like Leeds and Manchester are in a bind. Politically they have to speak up for their communities. They also have to try and lure investors in. If too bleak a picture is painted of the impact the cuts are going to have, it could well put off some potential employers.
Meanwhile Mr Pickles continues to rough up the councils. He is after all one of the token northerners in a cabinet of posh boys. He is frustrated that some authorities like Manchester have managed to get around his 2% council tax limit because levies by police and fire authorities are not under Town Hall control. He is already threatening fire and brimstone for the rebels next year.
“Sooner or later councils are going to have to sit down with their electorates and decide what to spend” said Mr Pickles.
Then there is the Graph of Doom. That’s not something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Instead it is a forecast that at the current rate of cuts and the growing need for elderly care, it won’t be long before councils will only have sufficient funds to empty the bins and look after the old. They won’t be able to do anything else. What does Indiana Pickles say about this Graph of Doom?
“Share services, end duplication, adapt. You knew it was coming,” that’s his uncompromising message.
Added to all these challenges, councils are soon going to face the ending of restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain. How many school places and houses should Town Halls prepare for?
Eric Bloodaxe’s answer is honest if not helpful. “Nobody knows. All that government can do is be careful of the ‘pull factors’ like housing and health benefits.” He then added an awkward truth about the Eastern European immigrants: “very few carrots would be picked without them.”