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In High Places....

In High PlacesIn order to bring our readers the inside track on what's going on, counterbalance needs, and indeed has, many friends in high places.

Our photograph on the left will give seasoned political watchers an idea of just how high we can reach when the need arises.

But sometimes the route is more tortuous.

One of our readers works in association with big, multinational companies. It's a sort of auditing role, and he was in the 'deep south' of England recently, meeting the Managing Director of a new account he had been given.

He told us about the meeting, and (with his permission) we would like to share it with our other readers.

The meeting began with an exchange of 'getting to know you' pleasantries where the interests of each were discussed, and our reader mentioned he was involved with local government via a parish council.

Keen to find common ground, the MD said one of his new neighbours had just been elected as an MP and he seemed to be a decent sort of chap as far as you could tell from chatting to him in the local pub near where they both live.

The conversation continued around the topic of government and the changes being made, when the MD - in agreeing some point of Local Government with our reader, said "Yes, and Eric seems quite keen on that sort of thing as well"

Now, counterbalance readers are nothing if not sharp, and he immediately said "Eric? Is that Eric Pickles? Is that who your neighbour is?"

"Yes"   replied the MD. "Do you know him too?"

Our reader was honest and said, "Well, not personally, but where I come from God takes second place to him at the moment, because of all the incredible, common-sense things he is doing in Local Government. in fact there's a local website that has started a campaign to make him King and has already canonised him to Saint Eric Pickles MP"

"Really?" said the MD "I'll have to tell Eric that - I'm sure it will amuse him"

"I'll send you a link to the counterbalance website" said our reader.

We'll let our readers know if Saint Eric signs up for notification of new counterbalances in the next week or two.

Mind you, he's awfully busy just at present.

Another day another abolition. Common sense is being heaped all over local government, and it's wonderful to see.

Mind you, there will be a price to pay further along the road of course. Localism is about making local councils responsible for their actions. That means not using the Call-In procedure to change planning decisions made by councils.

It also means that after a couple more years of the 'austerity cap' that will keep Council Tax down, the cap will eventually come off, and it ill be crucially important to elect the right people to make decisions about the level of Council Tax this area can stand.

Just imagine how awful that would have been for us if the Commissar had stayed in charge.

But it may not be too bad. Councils up and down the land aren't going to have much time to plot big tax increases in the next few years. There is a hurricane of change bearing down on every one of them

And the change that is coming to Local Government will be very significant.

Its not just the cost-cutting. It's going to be a root an branch shake-up of the way things are done.

As our readers know, we have some experience in this area, and we're convinced this is going to be the biggest shake-up of local government since its last major re-organisation in 1974.

You can get a flavour of where it's going if you read Saint Eric Pickles MP's Keynote Speech to the annual Local Government Association conference this last week.

It's such an important speech for local government across the country, we've reproduced it in full.....

"Can I start by congratulating Dame Margaret and Sir Jeremy on their elevation to the peerage. Both of them are magnificent ambassadors for local government.

Do you know, public borrowing is more than double the total grant that councils get from Government each year?

That means far more than just trimming a few budgets away.

If we don't get it right, Britain will be an economic laughing stock.

Future generations will be paying for our mistakes for decades.

Now, I'm under absolutely no illusions about the difficult challenges in local government.

But none of us went into public service to smell the roses and bask in perpetual sunshine.

There is a choice.

We can either assume that because government has no money, public services have to get worse. And accept an age of enforced, unthinking, austerity.

Or we can say, hang on a minute.

Did all that big government, all those billions of pounds of unsustainable spending, actually get things done?

Or is there a better way?

We could take this forced opportunity to shake up the way Britain works.

We could replace big government with the Big Society.

And we can make localism a reality.

Not because it's an economic necessity. But because it's the best way to get things done.

To run services, to build a stronger economy and a stronger society.

We do not need to be less ambitious, or less radical, just because we have less money.

Instead we will put people back in charge of their lives.

Put businesses and councils back in charge of economic growth.

Put town halls back in charge of local affairs.

That's what localism means.

For the first time in decades, councillors have the chance to take real decisions.

To get things done.

To genuinely make a difference.

You won't be strangled by central government or smothered by regional bureaucracy any more.

It's time to put things right.

The previous government did talk a good game.

But their actions spoke louder than words.

In one year, my immediate predecessor, the former Secretary of State managed to publish more than 1200 publications.

Like the 74 page guidance on filling in the 'handypersons financial benefits' form?

I think if you need 74 pages of guidance to fill in a form, there's something fundamentally wrong with the form.

I've got to accept some blame too.

I must admit, while I've been Secretary of State, there have been twenty more publications.

So I want to apologise, here and now, for those. And the extra, unnecessary burdens they've put on you.

That's not what I'm about.

In the past fifty days instead of writing guidance, I've been shredding it.

Instead of creating legislation, I've been dumping it.

You've been a prisoner of regulation, chained to the radiator with red tape, for too long.

I want to liberate you.

Focus on what really matters. Making localism a way of life.

So by the time the localism bill is introduced into Parliament, localism is already a fact. How are we doing it?

By taking powers away from bureaucrats and quangos and from me.

And restoring powers to communities and elected officials.

And I can announce today, as I promised to a fringe meeting here two years ago, we're also abolishing the TLA. The three letter abbreviation.

We've already scrapped the IPC, the CAA, the RDAs.

We've put an end to the centrally imposed, unwanted garden grabbing which blights so many communities.

The HIPs which tied up the housing market.

Instead we've given you control of the money.

You are now in charge of something like £38 billion every year, no strings attached.

And put you back in charge of the decisions which matter.

How you get the job done - improving standards and saving money - is down to you and your voters.

I don't presume that I know more than you do about how your area should be run.

You and your voters, should decide how you organise yourselves. Whether you want a mayor, a cabinet or a return to the committee system, I don't mind. That's up to you.

Nor do I believe that targets build homes.

So while I've already written to you to set out my intentions, I'm pleased to confirm that before I left for Bournemouth today, I laid before Parliament a statement revoking Regional Strategies with immediate effect.

You can finally get on with planning without being held to ransom by top-down targets.

As the Chancellor said last week, as a government; "we want to change the incentives in planning so there are direct economic benefits for local communities."

And my statement today talks about 'direct and substantial benefit.'

So people can say yes to new homes.

And new local housing trusts, with backing from the community, will be able to develop new homes, shops, and businesses themselves.

Those housing incentives are the other side of the ending of the regional spatial strategies.

Ideally, I would have liked to announce them together.

But I inherited a number of pending appeals. Given that I was not elected to implement the previous government's failed policy, it was important to announce the change quickly.

If I just wait around, it's a bit like saying I'm going to abolish the death penalty, but then saying, everyone on death row must be executed so that we can have a clean slate.

The country has a housing shortage.

But it's time to concentrate on building homes, rather than dreaming up numbers.

I always felt those regional spatial strategies would have fitted in nicely with the old Soviet Union. And the 'Nikita Khrushchev' style of management.

Back in the USSR, if tractor production fell in the Ukraine, Mr Khruschev would do two things.

First, he would pick up the phone and shout at the tractor producers.

Second, he would increase the target.

As a result, we've ended up with more disputes and fewer homes.

No reason for people to want new housing anywhere near them.

But starting today, power will be handed back to councils and communities.

So they can make their own decisions on planning and housing issues.

These are the sorts of big choices that you need to make. Housing. Planning. Public services. But you need the time to make them.

So what I want to do is help clear your desks of all the other things that get in your way.

Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister launched his campaign to promote 'Your Freedom'. As Nick said; "For too long new laws and regulations have taken away people's freedoms, interfered in everyday life, and made it difficult for businesses to get by."

And I agree with Nick.

So it's time to get rid of all the absurdities which are still on the statute book for no reason.

Like the law from 1919 which says that when councils want to buy new land for allotments, I'm supposed to sign it off. After all my years in politics, I finally get to choose who gets to grow carrots and who doesn't.

But there's a problem.

As Mrs Pickles will tell you, I'm not a dab hand with the trowel.

So what skills am I supposed to bring to this job?

What searching questions can I ask the applicants. How big are your marrows?

And there's a lot more where that came from.

We've got three different sets of regulation governing tree protection.

Who knows how many trees have been felled to write these.

Surely one would do.

And as for the guidance on 'the duty to carry out an economic assessment.'

Do you really need twenty pages saying you should know what's going on in the local economy?

Today, I'm saying, it's time for a 'bonfire of the inanities'.

Laws are supposed to protect people. Not smother them.

I've got a list of the sorts of things I want to ditch.

But I also want to hear from you. What barmy rules and regulations make your lives a misery?

Where-ever you can find 'outmoded, outdated and obsolete secondary legislation', just let me know. We can dump it on the scrap heap together.

In return, I want to make something very clear.

Localism means much more than a tug of war of political power between Whitehall and the Town Halls.

It's a fundamental shake up of the balance of power in this country.

So power goes right back to the people who elected us.

People must have a genuine voice. A reason to get involved. A sense of responsibility for their neighbourhood.

They aren't going to get that if the only discussion about localism is between you and me.

So the relationship between councils and residents should change as much as the relationship between central and local government.

It's quid pro quo.

Instead of reporting to me, on the things I say are important to me: you should report to voters on the things they say are important to them.

For example, we're going to scrap the cap on council tax.

But instead, there'll be local referendums so people can decide for themselves if their council tax is too high.

We've ditched the CAA.

Because instead of telling me how you are performing, you should be telling voters.

There has got to be a new era of transparency, accountability and openness.

Now a few years ago, when myself and Mrs Pickles came down to Bournemouth, it was raining, so we went to the cinema. And we saw this film: Jerry Maguire, with Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr.

And they had a phrase that stuck.

'Show me the money'.

That's what we need to do.

Show the public the money.

That's why we've been encouraging you to put your spending online.

It's not for my benefit. It's so we get the information out there which will let the public make up its own mind.

Like the Prime Minister has said, we need to 'rip off that cloak of secrecy and extend transparency as far and as wide as possible'.

So that people no longer think government has something to hide.

And it's not limited to spending.

Putting jobs on the web - in a format anyone can re-use or re-publish - not only shows local people where their money is going.

It means they can question whether those jobs are really needed at all.

We've just heard about that 'cheerleading development officer' for example.

And really, how many transformation officers and business development directors does one council need?

I saw a council this week that was advertising for a 'communications waste strategy officer'. Well, that's someone who spins for bins, isn't it?

Do you really want a spin doctor? Or do you want someone to empty those bins? Do you really want somebody to tell the public why it is necessary for their chicken tikka masala to stay rotting in their bin for a fortnight? Or to employ officers who will get rid of it once a week?

But there are bigger questions for councils about justifying how they work to their voters.

In the case of education, is it really necessary to have separate education or separate social services departments.

These sorts of mergers could actually make services work together, across boundaries, much more effectively.

And it will free councillors to be focusing on what's happening within neighbourhoods.

Neighbourhoods are going to be key: they are the building blocks of public services society.

Now, over the past few weeks, it's been clear that there are various things we can learn from the German nation.

And various phrases have entered our language.

Deutschland vier, Argentinien null.

I want to add another one.


It's one they came up with when starting their local government reorganisation.

And a question which we didn't address in the move towards executive members.

Doppelspitze means 'identical authority'. Where you have Chief Executives and elected leaders responsible for the same thing. It's both expensive and pointless.

Couldn't chief execs bring more to the table by working across boundaries, rather than replicating what the leader should be doing?

But I know, if I'm going to ask you to be more transparent and careful with money, it's only right that I set the pace.

Especially when it comes to procurement. And given what I've told you about sofas and love pods, it's clear central government has got a long way to go.

Let me tell you a story. Two major Departments - which I'll leave to your imagination - went to market on the same day for new electricity contracts.

They didn't speak to each other first.

Instead of combining their purchasing power to drive prices down, suppliers played them off against each other. Prices actually went up.

It's no laughing matter when taxpayers' money is going down the drain.

So I'm going to put my own house in order now. I'm embarrassed to look you in the eye and ask you to put all spending over £500 online if my own department is only putting spending over £25,000 online.

So CLG and its agencies will be putting all spending over £500 online too.

I want to lead from the front. And it might cause me some embarrassment, but it's the right thing to do.

I'll also be shortly be publishing the plan to shake up my own Department.

Previously it worked to make town halls deliver for Whitehall.

Now we want to free you to deliver for the public.

We're not going to be micromanaging, second guessing, and interfering in your affairs any more.

We're going to get on and let you get on with it.

What I can tell you is that you can expect to see much more of the same.

The same momentum and pace of change.

The same bold and radical steps.

And it's not just from me. My cabinet colleagues and I speak with one voice on this issue.

So you'll shortly be hearing more about how we'll be taking forward localism in the health service, including the important role for councils.

And about involving the voluntary and community sector too.

Now I have found in my first few weeks that the LGA has been an extremely constructive partner.

And I want to thank you for the comprehensive offer which you have made to the coalition government.

On behalf of the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Cabinet, I'm delighted to accept your offer to find a better way for us all to do business.

The coalition government has brought about a realignment of UK politics and a new stability.

That stability can be used by you and me. To change the power structure. To change the constitution.

So I don't mind whether you are a Conservative councillor, a Labour councillor, a Liberal Democrat councillor, or an Independent councillor.

I want you and me to work together, to ensure that by the time we meet next year, power has shifted to the local base.

Thank you very much.


Some of the issues Saint Eric is looking to abolish are set out below, and he's asked for the public to send more ideas to him at cutredtape@communities.gsi.gov.uk or you can find out more at this website

We've already sent a few, and the following are already on the current hit-list.

1. The Small Holdings and Allotments Regulations 1919
Remove. This required councils to get the consent of the CLG Secretary of State for certain actions in relation to allotment land, such as if they want to purchase allotment land or lease allotment land to an association or lease allotment land for more than a year at time. It is not considered that these regulations have effect any longer and this will help clean up the statute book.

2. The Council Tax (Demand Notices) (England) Regulations 2009
Remove. End burden on local authorities to include efficiency savings on council tax bills and leaflets from 2011-12 onwards. The removal of the requirement will lead to a real reduction in the burdens on local authorities and their partners, and free them to explore more effective ways of sharing information with their citizens.

3. Tree preservation regulations: Statutory Instruments 1999 No. 1892; 2008 No.2260;and 2008 No.3202
Simplify. We will consult on streamlining the approach to tree protection to reduce the administrative burden and creating a more equitable system. Aim is to consolidate three sets of regulations governing the making and management of tree preservation orders, reducing the complexity of the model order and producing a unified system which will apply to all tree preservation orders.

4. Town and Country Planning (General Development Procedure) Order 1995/419 and 16 amendment orders
Simplify. From October combine seventeen statutory instruments into one. This will greatly clarify the planning application system for local authorities, applicants, and other interested parties. The greater clarity provided will free-up valuable local planning authority officer time, which can be redirected towards more fruitful actives than wading through pages of amendments to secondary legislation.

5. Statutory guidance on local economic assessments - Local Democracy, Economic Development Construction Act April 2010
Remove. End statutory guidance on local economic assessments which will free up local authorities to decide locally how they monitor their local economy.

6. Statutory guidance on Multi Area Agreements with duties - Local Democracy, Economic Development Construction Act April 2010
Remove. Will not issue the final guidance on Multi Area Agreements with duties as planned by the previous Administration. No partnerships have taken up MAA duties and given the Coalition Government's focus on local enterprise partnerships we are not expecting any to partnerships to do so in the future, so there is no need for final guidance.

7. Building Regulations Statutory Instrument 2531/2000; Approved Inspector Regs; Statutory Instrument 2532/2000; plus c18 sets of amending regulations
Simplify. Reduce 18 separate pieces of building regulations into 2 will cut the administrative burdens on both business and local authorities. This will simplify their use for those that deal with these regulations such as professional and building control bodies and builders.

8. Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations 1999 No.293 and amending regulations
Simplify. Consult on changes to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations to reflect recent EIA case-law and to ensure the regulations remain fit for purpose and more accessible to users.

9. Fire Protection measures in Local Acts
Remove. Consult on local fire protection requirements to see if they are still required. There are a number of local fire protection requirements relating to commercial buildings that the evidence shows don't actually increase safety but are a burden to industry.

10. Special Management Interim Orders - Housing Act 2004
Remove. Consult on the removal of Special Interim Management orders which gives local authorities the power to take over the management of a privately rented property which is associated with significant and persistent anti social behaviour. The power is not well understood and has never been used.

11. Requirement on social landlords to provide tenants with information on costs and responsibilities of home ownerships - Housing (Right to Buy) (Information to Secure Tenants) (England) Order 2005.
Remove. End the requirement placed on social landlords to provide tenants with information on costs and responsibilities of home ownership. There is already a separate legislative obligation on social landlords to provide specific information to tenants who wish to purchase their home under the Right to Buy scheme. We will remove the additional requirement when we are confident that no tenant will be adversely affected. Removing this requirement will reduce the administrative burden on local authorities.

As you can see he's made a start. And like Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner in 'The Mikado' he's got a little list.

Maybe counterbalance readers can help him to expand it.

Dated:  12 July 2010


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