The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has an assured place in history as the man who oversaw the first regulations to officially recognise the flag of Wessex. Although the Wyvern has a long pedigree, the current design of the flag dates from 1974, meaning that it took just 38 years to go from an idea to recognition in law. Few can match that. East Anglia took about a century. Cornwall and Wales didn’t have it easy either. It’s a point worth quoting whenever we’re accused of making no progress. Well done to the Tories for changing the law in our favour. It certainly makes a mockery of Labour’s claim to be a ‘progressive’ party, which ought to be on our side.
Pickles is a mixed blessing though. He picks and chooses shamelessly when it comes to turning localism on and off. Some things he does get right and long may it continue. We applaud his support for community identity, marked, for example, by the series of county flags that have been flown outside his London headquarters. We applaud too his no-nonsense approach to local government finance. Second-home owners should pay full Council Tax – why ever did they not? Councillors must question more to improve value for money. Cutting real services and causing real pain, in order to blame the Coalition while protecting politically-correct pet projects, is what Labour does. Pickles yesterday challenged everyone to do better, in advice entitled 50 ways to save. It’s blunt, using the language a Yorkshireman prefers, with no hint of the carefully crafted phrases of the civil service. When Pickles tells councils to cut the ‘posh hotels and glitzy award ceremonies’, you can hear Sir Humphrey cringe.
We applaud many of the suggestions, which offer potential for huge savings with no harmful effect on services. That we’d rather see the savings go to maintain and improve those services than line bankers’ pockets is beside the point. Waste is waste.
We particularly applaud the suggestion that councils make money by doing business, for example by using spare capacity at depots to offer MoT tests to the public. Now that councils have a general power of competence there are few legal limits to municipal trading. Pickles has, knowingly or not, opened the way for a new wave of gas-and-water-socialism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many councils ran profitable businesses in electricity, gas, transport and water and some even managed banking, restaurants and telephones. Specific Parliamentary approval was needed for every venture and many were successfully opposed by private businesses who felt threatened by public enterprise. Today the door is open to local communities to claw back some of that profit for themselves. Well done to the Tories for changing the law in our favour, yet again.
We do query one other suggestion, however, that councils should lapse their subscriptions to regional organisations now that regions are no longer in favour with the London regime. Just because its regional institutions have been abolished doesn’t mean that regional issues have. We think the Prescott geography was wrong but we don’t say that councils should be made to feel guilty if they work together at regional level. If the issues are too big for them to handle individually, or on a local cross-border basis, then regional thinking is inevitable if good government is to be achieved. The only alternative is for Whitehall to interfere in problems that don’t need to be resolved at so exalted a level. The result of Pickles’ irrational hatred of regionalism is bad government. It’s time he pulled his head out of the sand. Because regional co-operation might very well be the 51st way to make some really significant economies.