As Conservative party chairman in opposition, Eric Pickles was barely in David Cameron’s outer circle, let alone the inner one. But in government, the portly figure sometimes dismissed as a token Tory northerner has set quite a pace.
Whether it is abolishing the Audit Commission, sweeping away Labour’s regional housing targets, regional development agencies and home improvement packs, announcing the end of bin taxes (thus provoking a turf war with Caroline Spelman, environment secretary), or ordering his department and local councils to publish online details of spending over £500, few have taken to office with such relish as the communities and local government secretary. Last week he was at it again, urging councils to reduce street sign clutter and cutting red tape for street parties and fetes.
Mr Pickles was once described as moving “like a hippopotamus through mud: slowly, calmly and with a weird grace”, but clearly he understands the imperative of acting quickly. A portrait of Che Guevara on his wall reminds him that “if we let the system take over before we stop in any way, then the cigar-chomping commies take over again”. (Born in Keighley, Yorkshire, he leaned towards communism before joining the Tories after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.)
All this is reminiscent of the late 1980s, when as leader of Bradford city council he moved quickly to slash jobs by a third and privatise services. Acting swiftly is not the same as acting wisely, of course. Business is worried about whether the local enterprise partnerships he is encouraging (along with Vince Cable, business secretary) will be too small to be effective, and about whether housebuilding will decline even further without adequate incentives to give planning permission.
Mr Pickles’ popularity with Tory councillors and the grassroots may come under strain as council budgets are cut, particularly if the Conservatives suffer in next spring’s local elections. The test will be whether his much-trumpeted localism results in better, rather than just leaner, government.
I would say something amusing about the Pakistan cricket betting scandal if I could, but the whole thing seems ineffably sad – sad for cricket, which had hoped it was getting on top of the match-fixing blight, and sad for Pakistan, which did not need this on top of its floods and problems of extremism and instability.
Saddest of all is the way it has ensnared Mohammad Amir, the 18-year-old fast-bowling prodigy who has been shaping up to be one of the game’s great players. The seventh child of impoverished parents from the Punjab, he is blessed with talent and good looks. Pakistani cricketers are poorly paid by world standards, but he had a career ahead of him in which to make a legitimate fortune. Now that is in jeopardy.
Will Pakistan be tougher on alleged corruption than in the past? We can only hope.
Wrong BBC issue
Too much fuss has been made about BBC staff being reluctant to move to the new base for departments such as sport and children’s programmes at Salford Quays, Greater Manchester. Of course there will be strains and some may choose not to go, but the arrangements seem generous. The move is an important signal of devolution of power and influence.
So what if Peter Salmon, controller of BBC North, will live in rented accommodation for two years while his eldest child completes A-levels, or a couple of Blue Peter presenters quit? Plenty of talented people will be happy to live in such a vibrant city. The BBC is a national institution and London does not own these jobs. There are many valid questions about the BBC’s future: this is not one of them.
Out of the Hole
While the world’s central bankers met at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Saturday, Mervyn King, Bank of England governor, was taking a break to umpire a cricket match in Canterbury to raise money for a new theatre. His deputy, Charles Bean, was at the bankers’ gathering. A double-dip recession in the UK may be unlikely but I hope Mr King found time to ponder Plan B between overs – or at least that he had no suspicious no-balls to contend with.
Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published