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Big Eric invokes Chamberlain: ‘We must set the cities free’

Big Eric invokes Chamberlain: ‘We must set the cities free’

🕔29.Sep 2014

Chief blogger Paul Dale braved the warm white wine to enjoy the biennial banter between Big “localism” Eric and Sir “municipalism” Albert as the city officially welcomed the Tories to town. 

The imposing physique of Tory Communities Secretary Eric Pickles strode into the party conference reception in this Labour-run city and began his speech with an amusing quip.

“Comrades…..welcome to Birmingham. And that’s the nearest you will get to seeing a Labour Secretary of State.”

Laugh? They almost spilt the wine and dropped the canapes.

Possibly Mr Pickles had not attended a seminar earlier in the day that dissected the latest private polling by Lord Ashcroft.

Although media representatives were barred from the meeting the bad news soon leaked out and by the afternoon was quite the talk of the ICC.

Ashcroft’s polling showed a firm Labour lead in the marginal seats that the Conservative must hold or win if they are to form a government in 2015. The findings are part of a trend mirrored by a ComRes poll for ITV giving Labour an 11-point lead over the Tories in marginal seats.

This trend must be slammed into reverse gear if David Cameron is to stand any chance at all of winning the General Election.

The truth is that when the Tories next return to Birmingham for their conference in 2016 it is likely that a Labour Secretary of State will do the honours at the welcoming reception, despite Mr Pickles’s bravado.

Sir Albert Bore welcomed the news confirmed earlier in the day that the Conservatives would be returning to the city every other year for their next three conferences, but without help from the Council’s subvention fund.

Time is running out for this coalition government and Mr Pickles gave the impression of being in a hurry to deliver some post-Scottish referendum devolution to English cities.

Predictably, there was a hat-tip to Joseph Chamberlain 100 years after his death.

Chamberlain’s radicalism and localism, and a reputation for delivering change, “scared to death” most of those in Parliament and that is one of the reasons why there are so many restrictions on local government spending today, Mr Pickles told his audience.

It was a nice historical flourish, but the claim hardly stands up to scrutiny.

Centralisation and the emasculation of local government began in this country after the Second World War and continued under the post-war highly-controlled command economy. The centralisers were given even more encouragement in the 1970s and 1980s when local government spending soared out of control, leading to a familiar declaration (chiefly from Tory MPs) that ‘something must be done’.

So, here we are today with councils only able to raise locally about 20 per cent of their budgets, relying on Government largesse for the remaining 80 per cent. It’s a bit thick to blame Joe Chamberlain for that.

Mr Pickles declared that it was time in the name of Chamberlain to “set cities free”.

He backed English votes for English MPs on English matters, but did not elaborate on how exactly this might be achieved.

“I rejoice at being part of the Union. I rejoice that Scotland will be a powerful partner within our Union, but I want to see fairness. Eighty-five per cent of the UK population lives in England and I think the time has come when English MPs should be able to vote on English matters.”

One thing he was very clear on was that devolution must not mean establishing “big regional authorities”. The Conservatives hated Labour’s regional assemblies and continue to rail against any form of regional governance, which they regard as far too European for their liking.

Mr Pickles talked about devolving power to neighbourhoods “where people live”.

He added: “You don’t achieve localism by creating big structures. You don’t create localism with big regional authorities. You have to find ways to make devolution closer and closer to the people.

“If you trust people and let people make the decisions they will most times come to a sensible decision.”

The Government appears to be backing at least part of Birmingham city council’s triple-devolution approach, namely the amalgamation of local authority, health, police and all other public budgets under some form of Birmingham-wide authority.

This idea has been knocking around for a long time. New Labour called it Total Place, the present government prefers Whole Place, but the logic is the same in that it aims to introduce one public sector budget for a city thus cutting out costly duplication.

In Birmingham’s case, the total annual public sector budget amounts to £7 billion so there is much to play for.

Mr Pickles said: “We want to see the gradual merging of decision making by government into a single place and that has got to be local. Whether it’s paying benefits, health services, housing or education it makes sense to get people used to working together to pool budgets.”

Slipped in towards the end of his speech was a pledge to revolutionise the Unified Business Rate system, under which councils retain only half of the money they collect.

Mr Pickles declared: “I don’t think it is acceptable that you just retain 50 per cent of the business rates. I would be very disappointed if by 2020 that wasn’t up as high as 80 per cent and the high 90 per cents by 2025.”

The Communities Secretary was addressing the official welcome reception for the Conference staged by Marketing Birmingham and think tank Centre for Cities, sponsored by Resorts World Birmingham, and staged in the new Library of Birmingham.

Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, told Mr Pickles that the Government had to take note of the Scottish referendum and deliver “genuine and radical” devolution to English cities and regions.

Only the restoration of tax-raising powers and freedoms would enable regional and city economies to punch their weight in future, Sir Albert argued.

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