Some years ago a civil servant appeared in St Albans attempting to sell some ‘new’ ideas from the Government of the day about local government. He stood up before various district and county councillors in Hertfordshire and announced that ‘in future the Government wanted councillors to represent the people to the town hall rather than the other way round.’
He said it without malice or irony and as a result was not lynched – turning up some years later to dismantle the Audit Commission.
The ability of the Department for Communities and Local Government or its ministers to understand or indeed wilfully misrepresent local government is remarkable.
Most recently Eric Pickles, a man who does not do irony at all but has plenty of malice, announced the abolition of pensions for councillors as part of the 2013-2014 local government spending settlement.
It is worth examining his words closely:
‘We have also announced today that further savings will be made by the abolition of pensions for councillors.
‘Councillors should be champions of the people, not the salaried staff of the town hall state.’
This can be simply unpicked: if you receive the benefits of an employee (a pension or an income that allows you not to work outside the council) then you are not, in his opinion, a champion of the people.
This presumably applies not only to those people doing a fulltime job like council leaders and sometimes their opposite numbers but also to directly elected mayors, who are also expected to do a full-time job and whose usefulness Pickles has championed in his absurd Localism Act.
It also, of course, applies to MPs and ministers, including people like Pickles. There are times that hypocrisy is so breathtaking that you have to pause a moment to admire it.
Consistency, of course, has never been Pickles’s strong suit but on this occasion there is another recent statement which reveals his thinking. He recently told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee that he had inherited a department that was ‘the voice of local government within government’ and that was now ‘the voice of the council tax payer, of the citizen inside local government services.’
Some of us are still old-fashioned enough to believe that the voice of the taxpayer is the voter and that the mechanism for that voice to be heard is through the local government ballot box and not through a remote and entirely partisan person in Whitehall advised by civil servants who have for the most part never had a minute’s experience in a town or county hall.
That voice will be heard less and less as there are fewer and fewer councillors around who can afford to devote years of their lives and sacrifice their (pensionable) careers to serving the very people that Pickles absurdly claims he represents.
* This post was commissioned by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors; Chris White is a member of the ALDC management committee.
* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association