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Speech

Eric Pickles: We will let councils make their own decisions

Rt Hon Eric Pickles, Saturday, March 5 2011

Eric Pickles

Fifty one years ago, Mrs Thatcher made her maiden speech to the House of Commons. As you might expect, she broke with tradition. 

She didn't give a long commentary on the colour and the character of her constituency. Instead she came "straight to the point" and introduced a Private Members' Bill.

Her Bill, which became law in 1960, opened up council meetings to the press and public.

It ended the practice of Labour councils kicking journalists out of meetings, to prop up the vested interests of print industry union barons.

She told the House of Commons: "the public has the right to know what its elected representatives are doing".
 
Half a century on, those words still ring true.
 
Today, when the new Government is handing over power and freedom to councils, it's just as important that local residents can keep tabs on what their town hall is up to.
 
The best councils already recognise this, and are embracing a new era of openness and accountability as a way of improving services and saving money.
 
Remember, councils account for a quarter of all public spending.
 
And every bit of the public sector needs to do their bit to pay off Labour's toxic legacy of debt.
 
This year, interest on that debt will be 43 billion pounds.
 
That's more money than we raise from stamp duty, inheritance tax and council tax combined.[i]
 
Labour maxed out the nation's credit card, and they still want to carry on spending.
 
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls fail to realise that when you're up to your neck in debt, it's time to pay it off.
 
Building on Mrs Thatcher's legacy, we believe that more town hall transparency will help identify waste and inefficiency, keep council tax down, and most importantly, protect our frontline services.
 
This is why our new Government is changing the law.
 
We will ensure all town hall pay packages over £100,000 are subject to a vote of all councillors in the open.
 
No more cosy sweetheart deals in smoke-free council rooms.
 
Let's end scandals like the chief executive of South Somerset district council receiving a cheque of over half a million pounds last year.
 
The Audit Commission has said soaring pay for chief executives is not justified by their performance.
 
I helpfully pointed this out to the Commission when they tried to pay their own chief executive 240,000 pounds, and I vetoed it.
 
And the Government is tightening up the rules on council publicity.
 
Taxpayers' money should no longer be wasted on town hall Pravdas - the likes of Labour's Greenwich Time and Tower Hamlet's East End Life.
 
This propaganda is putting independent newspapers and independent voices out of business.
 
If councillors want to engage in party politics, absolutely - knock on doors, pick up the phones, deliver leaflets, just don't do it on the rates.
 
Council decisions need to be publicised.
 
So we're giving new rights to citizen journalists to blog and tweet from town hall chambers - at no cost to the public purse.
 
And in England, the Government has asked all councils to publish online everything they spend over £500.
 
In Wales, I'm pleased to see Conservative-led councils such as Vale of Glamorgan and Newport leading by example here.
 
Every council in England have now opened their books.
 
Apart from one.
Nottingham.
Guess who runs them?
Labour.
 
And in the mean-spirited tradition of the Sheriff of Nottingham, Labour's "Shadow Minister for the East Midlands" - Hilary Benn - has defended this secrecy.
 
Labour say this spending information is too complex for people to understand.
 
How patronising.
I say - Let's trust the people.
 
The Labour Mayor of Lewisham says openness is "interfering."
 
Actually, the new Government far from interfering is scrapping ring-fencing.
 
We are abolishing Labour's box-ticking inspection and interference.
 
The Labour leader of Bradford, another charmer, said it would be "embarrassing" if different firms were "able to sell to the council more cheaply".
 
When I was leader of Bradford, I'd be embarrassed if firms were ripping my taxpayers off.
 
Some advice to Labour: Incompetence is no reasonable excuse for secrecy.
 
And the Labour leader of Nottingham say openness is too expensive.
- No, openness saves money.
 
Business experts, Experian, have estimated councils are spending £150 million a year - just on paying the same bills twice by accident.
 
Only £150 million? Small potatoes Labour might say.
I say that's enough to pay the wages of nearly 9,000 care workers.
 
Labour's comments betray a particular attitude.
 
A lack of respect for public money.
 
And a lack of trust towards the people who put them there.
 
And a lack of faith in the power of the internet to help expose corruption.
 
In my own department, I'm practising what I preach.
 
We're publishing our spending over £500.
 
We're cutting back waste and inefficiency.
 
* Using standard class post.
 
* Stopping glossy magazines.
 
* Cancelling the cakes and biscuits laid on for staff meetings....something Mrs Pickles is very pleased about
 
We're cutting the department's running costs by a third.
 
We're closing down the interfering and unelected tiers of regional Government -
* the Regional Development Agencies,
* the Government Offices for the Regions
* the Regional Assemblies.
    Goodbye. God bless.
 
And with a tearful farewell, we'll also say goodbye to the Audit Commission.
 
Now. Are you sitting comfortably?
 
They are. That wonderful spending watchdog spent 53,000 pounds on designer chairs up to £1,000 a piece.
 
They held a conference on "best practice" in government audit...
With a subsidised banquet which spent £14,000 on food, £1,000 on flowers and £600 on a string quartet.
 
Well, it's time for their swan song.
 
My predecessor, Labour's John Denham, was also fond of soft furnishings.
 
He bought 28 luxury Parisian sofas at £5,000 each, as part of a Whitehall "efficiency initiative."
 
Before that, John Prescott signed a £38,000 contract to water pot plants in the department.
 
The small print even demanded special shrubbery for "the First Secretary of State".
 
We've cancelled the contract.
 
Our staff have volunteered to water them for free.
 
We've also publishing all spending over £500 made on the Government Procurement Card.
 
...The "Procurement card".
 
Sounds efficient doesn't it?
 
It's actually the Government's corporate credit card.
 
Whitehall's flexible friend.
 
No expense too small.
 
I can reveal that John Prescott's office ran up a £52,000 bill on his procurement credit card.
 
On top of that, he procured £2,000 from the 5-star Mandarin Oriental hotel in Prague.
 
He and his staff procured £3,000 from the Wimbledon branch of Oddbins.
 
And his office procured £9,000 on Dial-a-Cabs.
No doubt, in his world, this was "Labour investment" in integrated transport.
 
When we say that Labour Ministers went on a spending spree with nation's credit card, we mean it literally.
 
On spending large and small, procurement under Labour was a disaster.
 
The Highways Agency bought in a photocopier paper for £8 a box.
Ed Miliband's Department was paying £73 a box for the same.
 
Under Labour, there were 140,000 Government Procurement Cards in circulation.
 
Whitehall's corporate credit card is open to the whole public sector.
 
And 40 per cent of all spending on procurement cards is by local councils.
 
So I say today - council bosses should open up these corporate credit cards to the sunlight of public scrutiny.
 
Town hall chief executives... what have you got to hide?
 
Unfortunately, Labour councils just don't get why we need to pay off the budget deficit.
 
These councils didn't plan for a rainy day.
 
They don't believe in sensible savings or pruning their sprawling municipal empires.
 
So instead, these Labour councils are cutting frontline services and axing support for local charities.
 
It's a lot easier than embracing transparency and better procurement. They can just blame someone else.
 
Take Labour-run Manchester. It's cutting sport centres, libraries, bin collections, even public lavatories.
 
Yet it's got £100 million of reserves in the bank.
 
And it still finds the time to hire a "Nuclear Free Local Authority" policy officer, and bankroll a chief executive on £230,000 a year.
 
Or take Labour-run Camden.
 
Ed Miliband's local council.
 
His councillors are cutting the Surma Community Centre, coincidentally visited by Samantha Cameron.
 
Yet the council has spent twice as much on its town hall newspaper.
 
His councillors are now cutting back tax relief for local voluntary groups.
 
Heard of the People's Supermarket - the social enterprise featured on Channel 4?
 
Camden are hounding it the courts for £40,000 of rates.
 
Camden has refused this local co-operative rate relief for non-profit groups.
 
But the council does bankroll EIGHT union officials at taxpayers' expense.
 
 
David Cameron coincidentally visited this Big Society project recently - notice a trend?
 
So much for Labour being the Cooperative Party.
 
In 1985, Neil Kinnock attacked Derek Hatton for the "grotesque chaos" of his Labour council.
 
A quarter of a century on, we have Labour councils yet again
* playing politics with people's jobs
* and people's homes
* and people's services.
 
But unlike Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband is too weak to take on his unions and his militant council leaders.
 
He won't stand up to his councillors and their "bleeding stump" strategy.
 
A man who can't even lead his party, can't expect to lead his country.
 
But there is an alternative.

Conservative councils are leading the way at saving money and saving services.
 
Next door to Manchester, Conservative Trafford is sharing its back office, improving procurement, hot desking staff.
 
As a result, frontline services are being protected.
 
Next door to Camden, Westminster is combining their back office services with Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea to save £35 million.
 
Westminster is keeping its libraries and its toilets open, and is increasing spending on adult social care.
 
Don't let Labour do to your council what they've done to our country.
 
Conference,
 
Cutting waste and saving money isn't enough.
 
It's time for the economy to grow, to boost business and create jobs.
 
Not only to promote recovery - but to lay foundations for progress and prosperity.
 
Not just to rebuild - but to move forward.
 
People say that you can't have localism and growth - that localism is some kind of obstacle.
 
As if centralism has been such a great success. 
 
Regional house building targets resulted in the lowest peacetime building since 1924.
 
Regional Development Agencies did little to reduce inequality between north and south.
 
Under Labour, the economy became completely unbalanced - too reliant on the banks and on the public sector.
 
Yet the new Government is putting decision making back in the hands of people who know what they are doing.
 
The people who are affected by the decisions should be the ones taking them.
 
We believe that incentives are far more effective than instructions. 
 
So we are introducing a New Homes Bonus - where local communities will directly see the benefits of new development.
 
We've encouraged local enterprise partnerships for councils and businesses to work together.
 
And we're looking at letting councils keep the business rates they collect - so they directly see the benefits of growth.
 
We're giving more freedom for people to set up businesses in their homes - including social tenants.
 
And we will reform planning.
 
New neighbourhood plans to allow communities to decide where shops, housing and businesses should go and how best to protect the environment.
 
And we will ensure national infrastructure projects are decided swiftly.
 
Paying off Labour's trillion pounds of debt is a challenge. It's not an easy job for councillors setting their budgets this month.
I've led a council myself.
I've sat in the chair.
I've dealt with the budget.
 
I've got the deepest respect for those who approach these difficult times with
thoughtfulness,
imagination
and a deep sense of care for the people they represent.
 
Conference,
We can't wait for the deficit to be reduced before we make our councils and communities more powerful.
 
This is an opportunity to re-examine the way that every council works.
 
The way every single service is delivered.
 
To do more for less.
 
Not just tinkering round the edges, or being just that little bit more thrifty.
 
Transforming everything that councils do.
 
We will increase accountability and transparency to the people -
 
... so that power isn't abused, money isn't wasted and residents aren't ignored.
 
We will let councils make their own decisions -
 
* We will give them the incentives to create new jobs,
* to support local shops and local firms                                                                  
* to provide more homes, and literally build a better Britain.
 
Our task, as we unravel Labour toxic legacy, is to build a fairer Britain. One built on the strengths of social justice, enterprise and local communities, where those communities can work together to build growth and prosperity that will last beyond the life time of this parliament and well into the decades to come.

Rt Hon Eric Pickles

Eric is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

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Eric Pickles

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