Jail house rock

Eric Pickles has been as good as his word in opposition. He is letting Councils out of jail. His blistering pace of reform includes scrapping Comprehensive Area Assessments, regional plans and top down housing targets.

Out goes all that box ticking, gold star and black mark awarding and all that national and regional bureaucracy. In comes more direct accountability of Councillors to electors. If the Council messes up or annoys you, it is the Councillors fault and not some regional quango or remote Minister pulling the strings. When we recommended sweeping away this bureaucracy in the Economic Policy Review it was a £2 billion overhead. It is doubtless much dearer today.

The question now, is will your Council flourish with the new freedoms? Are they happy to get out of jail, or do they secretly wish to have the Ministerial authority figure back in charge?

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29 Comments

  1. Martyn
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Hooray! I have always bitterly resented Labour’s regionalisation of England and establishment of dozens of agencies, quangos, partnerships and other useless organisations, whose sole function appears to have been to make people's lives as difficult as possible. I am delighted to see that a start has now been made on ending their largely unelected, undemocratic involvement with the government of England. Good riddance, say I!

    • whistle
      Posted June 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      The Regionalisation of England is the EU's orders for the breakup of the UK. NuLabour simply obliged. Time to get rid of the EU,if Mr.Cameron can pull this off,he will be in power for the rest of his natural life!

  2. APL
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    When will The Standards board for England be abolished?

  3. adam
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    In his emergency Budget this week, Chancellor George Osborne announced he was cutting public sector expenditure by 25 per cent. Unions have declared the cuts irresponsible. But are they? Here, one employee for a large inner London authority lifts the lid on the culture of inertia and incompetence at his workplace. The Mail knows the true identity of the man – a graduate who has been a planning officer for eight years. But to protect his job, he is writing under an assumed name.
    Monday morning, it's 10am and I'm late for work – but there's no point hurrying because even though I should have been at my desk 30 minutes ago, I know I'll be the first to arrive at the office.
    Sure enough, the planning department is a ghost town.
    Our flexi-hours policy means that employees can start any time between 7.30am and 10am, but council workers like to treat that as a rough guideline rather than the contractual obligation that it is.

    I'm a senior planning officer: it's my job to inspect buildings, grant planning approval and to guide members of the public looking to alter their homes.
    Our department has 60 employees and – until last Tuesday – a budget of £22million.
    I've been there for two years and in that period the only time I've ever seen every employee present and correct was at the Christmas party.
    At least ten people will be off sick on any one day. The departmental record holder is (x) – he/she has worked a grand total of eight days in 14 months.
    (details of an individual case left out-ed)
    But having just eight weeks of full pay left won't be a problem for (x) and the rest of the council's sickly staff – they'll simply return to work when the six months is up, put in a day or two's work and then go off sick for another six months on full pay again. Easy.
    Of course they have to provide sick-notes from a doctor, but as you can buy fake ones online for £10 it's never proved a problem.
    There are procedures in place to address attendance, but nobody ever follows them through – chances are the person whose job it is to monitor sickness is probably signed off himself…
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1289702/P

    • StevenL
      Posted June 27, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      That's London Boroughs for you. To be honest some of that sounds wildly exagerated (I wonder how much the Mail paid for it) but the general gist of it is about right.

      I once worked in a London Borough and was set next to someone froma different team who seemed to do nothing all day but surf the net and write a diary about what everyone else in the office was doing.

      It turned out that her manager had disciplined her for not doing enough work, so she'd taken out a grievance against her managers who had been told by HR that they were not allowed to manager her until the grievance/disciplinary procedures were over in a few months time.

      He's also right about the 'untouchables' (although I've never heard them called that before) who are just counting down the days until they get pensioned off. I bet most of them voted tory for the first time in their lives in May.

    • Acorn
      Posted June 27, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      I have been on the other side of this equation as a councillor. There was never any point in trying to find an officer before 9:30 or after 15:00 hours. Flexitime means they can cut their average working week to about 30 hours.

      • StevenL
        Posted June 27, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        And the 30 hours includes time they spend 'working at home'.

  4. Paul from MK UK
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Of course, the biggest bureaucratic mechanism of all is still happily churning out more and more dicktats and rules from Brussels. How much longer must our politicians pretend that we want it that way?

  5. Amanda
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Mr Pickles announcements and pace of working hearten my enormously. Along with Mr Gove on schools in particular. I begin to 'hear' the heart of England beating again.

    Now can Dr Fox and Mrs May not do anything about (words left out-ed) Muslims' shouting abuse at troops. I cannot imagine that if the English Defence League were to regularly stand outside mosques (misbehaving -ed) they would last 2 minuites. So why does Dr Fox say he cannot do anything about these disgraceful groups.

    Also, can Mr Hunt please stop the BBC acting like the opposition and insist they fulfil their impartiality remit. Or otherwise can he release those of us who don't want to pay for them from being forced too. The latter may be the best – consumer choice can be a mighty sword.

  6. Ross J Warren
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    This really should be a massive improvement, the less interference from above is always wise. Openness about what is being done in our name and who is pulling which strings has the potential to reengage the public. Isn't it time for the Government to withdraw from peoples lives where ever possible? The years of socialist state may have given the impression that we are all slaves of an overprotective state. Good Governance is as hands off as possible.

  7. Brian
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    The executive committee of WDC were due to meet on Thu 24th June to discuss/agree on the Core Strategy for the 4 housing developments around Wokingham.

    Does anyone know the outcome?

    reply: yes, they accepted my advice and agreed not to approve the Strategy. They will now consider new lower housing targets.

  8. JimF
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Seems the unemployment rate amongst Box Tickers is about to soar. Good. We need them making things, not stopping people making things. Tell the Stasi who comes to our business every couple of months to check whether we're using our Business rates-relieved empty part of our property.

    And I understand that those irritating local Council propaganda Pravda "newspapers" are to be halted. Excellent news, keep it up.

  9. Paul
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Indeed.

    From the Council's POV it means fewer employees (smaller empire) and more personal responsibility (which they hate) so I suspect they'd rather not …….. which makes it a good idea.

  10. Nick Leaton
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    There is a problem.

    Freeing councils doesn't mean that the yoke of government is lifted from the citizen. You could well end up with Dereck Hattons in charge locally, and get screwed just as much.

    The question is then how to constrain them.

    I would implement this. Everyone council in the country gets the same pro rata spend.

    Tax rates are set centrally.

    If a council's projected tax take isn't enough to get to the pro rata spend, or is above the pro rata rate, the government redistributes. Rich areas subsidise poor areas, and the poor get a figure as to how much they are receiving.

    Now a council can't do more by passing on its costs. It can only do more, if it becomes more efficient.

    Nick

  11. Cliff.
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    The proposed changes are well over due; Let's hope Wokingham uses them to stop concreting over more of the borough.

    I read a piece yesterday that has annoyed me; We have gone through thirteen years of Labour mis-rule with WBC keeping our bin collections weekly and using sensible bin policies. I now read that it is all going to change; eighty "official" bin bags per house per year, this I suspect will lead to bin police, fines etc and I see they are doing away with the green garden waste recycling bags and are going to sell residents an ugly wheelie bin for £60-00 to recycle garden waste.

    If WBC wanted to save money they should do away with NAG s, walk about sessions and meetings where they bribe the residents to attend with pizza etc.
    Cutting down on jobsworth hi-viz jackets for everyone would also save some money too oh, and stop using Common Purpose for training.

    John, just for my information; Do you feel our elected councillors still make the decisions or is it really the unelected council officers that really make those decisions with our elected reps just rubber stamping them, you know, a kind of mini EU type set up?

    reply: I think Councillors need to understand that as we devolve power to Councils we want Councillors to make decisons based on the public good. Under Labour Councillors often did have to make decisions officers told them to make in order to conform with central government plans.

    • libertarian
      Posted June 27, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      I wrote to my local County Councillor with a minor complaint. First he told me I was lying, when I produced photographs and a newspaper article about it he told me his job was to support the council NOT the residents.

    • Alan Jutson
      Posted June 28, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Cliff
      On Friday I visited a Local garden Centre with a work mate, both of us reasonably fit people, (Construction Industry management and workers) for our age, earley 60's, both of us 6 ft, tanned, in shorts, laughing, and walking perfectly normally towards the entrance.
      We were approached by 2 nice ladies, and given 2 free leaflets about the dangers of trips and falls. Now I have to admit that I have fallen and tripped during my lifetime, but this leaflet "Stay on your feet", 55 pages thick outlined how I should look after myself and gave tips on many things (all commonsense) on how to reduce the risk of accident tripping or falling.

      The leaflet/book has Wokinghan Borough Council and NHS on the front cover. On the rear it has in addition: Stay On Your Feet WA, Health Promotion Services, Department of Health, West Berkshire NHS.

      Would it not have been better, if these books are required at all, for them to be given out at either the Doctors or Hospitals and the like, and targeted to chosen people who have problems with their legs and or balance.

      How many thousands of pounds I wonder has been spent on this initiative.

      • Cliff
        Posted June 28, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        Hi,

        The council and indeed government, really need to reassess just what their remits are.
        It seems to me that governments, both local and national, have taken it upon themselves to become a kind of mother or nanny to their citizens rather than just do the things governments used to do such as, providing schools, police, security etc….I don't want a government to tell me how to wipe my own backside or to run my life for me, I just want a government to stay in the background and do what it is supposed to do.

        Come on John; We came to office saying we'll roll back the state….Let's also roll back its tentacles too and leave people to run their own lives.

    • Alan Jutson
      Posted June 28, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      John.
      Did you know Wokingham Council have a "Falls Advisory Service" Seperate leaflet enclosed in the "Stay On Your Feet booklet".

      Appears they will make a visit to your home and advise on trip hazards, and will give you a personalised falls-prevention plan.

      Will also help install equipment (handrails etc) to help mobility etc.

      Whilst I appreciate this type of service may be of some help, to some people, I thought this would all come under some sort of general Social Services/Service for the Disabled type scheme which has already been in operation for years.

  12. English Pensioner
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Certainly there is a great tendency for Councillors to try to blame government legislation. At a recent meeting with some of our (Conservative) Councillors, when questioned about why the council did various things, one (or more) of the following answers was given to virtually every question
    a. We are required to do so by Central Government
    b. We have received legal advice that we must do this.
    c. We might be sued if we don't do this
    d. Health and Safety reasons
    e Child protection reasons
    Never did they give the answer that they were doing something because they thought it was what the local community wanted!

    I would also question whether Councillors can do their job properly when they are on more than one council. We have a Parish Council, a District Council and the County Council. Many are on both the District and County Councils, or the Parish and District Councils A friend of mine who served on a local parish council told me that he was hard pressed to find enough time to do the job properly. How can these people serve on two councils and do their job, particularly as there are often conflicting interests between the different councils?
    There's still a lot for Eric Pickles to sort out!

  13. John
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Cliff's points are well made.

    May I add. For some time I've listened to Wokingham Conservative Councillors blaming the "Standards Board" regulations for their inability to publicly express their views. This has given the Councillors the opportunity to agree privately with everybody and has provided excuses to explain away their voting on matters of importance within the Borough.

    I am a Conservative voter and cannot wait for our elected representatives to take genuine account of the electorates views.

    What a change they are about to undergo. If they are not prepared to change then they should go PDQ.

  14. StevenL
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    But what will council managers do without all their tractor production targets to meet?

  15. no one
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    i notice lovechips.co.uk website is still up, a 100% publically funded website, i would have thought this was in the list of early things to be swept away with the new govt?

  16. lola
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Yeah. Right. Lots less boxes for council employees to tick. I'll make you a bet that not one council recognises that a lot of its employees are now in redundant posts and releases them to provide more satisfying wealth creating jobs in private business.

  17. christina sarginson
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I do not agree with box ticking and never have but do agree with the councils keeping up standards and someone checking that standards are being maintained. Who will check this now if all the audit type work disappears? The councils will have the freedom but will they use it wisely?

    • Mark
      Posted June 28, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps the electorate?

  18. Citizen Responsible
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    That housing benefit is to be capped at £20,000 per year should help councils keep costs down. To use a word currently in constant use- it is “unfair” to expect tax payers to subsidise people living in properties that they themselves can not afford. It is “unfair” for large families to choose to register as homeless in expensive boroughs at enormous cost to the tax payer.

  19. Jan
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    If only it were that simple. The problem is that Local Authority councillors are not doing their job. I have sat on too many planning committee meetings where the elected members simply rubber stamp every recommendation for a refusal made by the planning officers. It is always safer to say NO and no-one votes to remove them because no-one knows what goes on with these, effectively, sinecured positions. The problem is a vast lack of transparent democracy.

    To add some ‘pro-development’ incentive, I would require planning authorities to return the planning fee to the applicant of a refusal is granted. At present, the applicant has to cover all the costs of the application, consultants, bat specialists, archaeologists, traffic experts…the list is endless…only to be given the “computer says no” treatment.

  20. John Wrexham
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Steven L has it right. In responise to the daily mail article, one can back up any argument if one chooses to rely on anecdotal evidence. I work for a local authority in a county museum and thought i was doing enough hours working from 9.0am – 6.30pm, until i met the county librarian and saw that most days he was starting at 8am and leaving at 7pm. the problem with local government is not that the end of the public service ethos especially in the cinderella services, but rather the managerial culture and HR departments which have adopted the worst of the private sector ( eg love of consultants, making excuses, worshipping the latest trends and big salaries) while ignoring the better characteristics of business ( eg delivering to customers and working hard).

    I can't speak for the council where Acorn was a councillor, but it sounds badly run and most organisations go bad from the top rather than the bottom. Flexitime is a great idea, but it doesn't mean fewer hours, at least not in my contract. It means working intelligently ie not knocking off at 5pm when you have a deadline to meet, but working till the job is done.

    If we want councillors to have more say, we will need to improve the quality which after three decades of centralisation is almost universally poor. We might have to pay them and expect them to work say… 30 hours a week.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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