EXCLUSIVE: Communities secretary Eric Pickles gives his views on some of the big Norfolk issues
Communities secretary Eric Pickles is well-known for his forthright views. In a wide-ranging interview at the Furzedown Hotel in Great Yarmouth with EDP editor PETER WATERS, Mr Pickles, who is a frequent visitor to the county, explains why, when it comes to following government policy, it's both right and wrong for Norfolk to do different.
Peter Waters (PW): Our coalition MPs, the county council and district councils are all pretty much singing the same tune – we call it Norfolk United. But there is one real bone of contention in this county at the moment – it's the county council plan for an incinerator in West Norfolk at Saddlebow.
Eric Pickles (EP): Stop. I am secretary of state. Everything goes out in my name. I cannot comment about that at all. Not a dickie bird, not even if I had something interesting to say.
PW: Not even further to David Cameron's comments at PMQs on Wednesday about the Bedfordshire incinerator when he said ministers had to make decisions and be responsible and accountable?
EP: He can say exactly what he likes. He's not responsible in law for it. I am. I'm really sorry, I am by my nature a really gabby person, but all my officials say if you go to Norfolk you can't possibly talk about it.
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PW: Related but unrelated is the localism bill. Clearly part of that is that local people can hold referendums.
EP: I suspect what you are going ask me is about local referenda – but it's the same subject, isn't it?
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PW: Well, you know there was a local poll. If, once the localism bill has been passed next year, there is a referendum on the incinerator and still the vast majority of people in the west of Norfolk don't want it, what happens?
EP: As you know planning applications are not subject to referenda. I'm starting to become uncomfortable. It's not that I am coy about it and I don't have views and I am trying to avoid it. I am legally restrained from doing so and the consequences of me saying something just slightly adrift could affect the decision.
PW: It is something that's really dividing the county. It will be interesting to see, once it's all over, how we bring the county back together again.
EP: I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not making any comment, direct or indirect, formal or informal about the incinerator.
PW: We have very poor broadband access here, although we have just received some government match-funding to improve things.
EP: You certainly do. But pretty soon you won't. It's rolling out – I think by 2015 Norfolk should be covered. We've had discussions with BT about rolling it out.
PW: BT are putting their hubs in areas with most people, like the enterprise zone. But what about the rural areas?
EP: Local government has got to rise to the occasion and make the right kind of offer. There are two kinds of local authorities in this game. There are the ones that say. 'this is something our voters want' and it's up to us to deliver that. The thing that people don't understand, it's not about giving streamed films and things like that. It's about giving local business the edge. There are others that are saying, 'how much can we charge them for a box, how much can we get away with and charge for the lines?' I think the time is coming when BT will say 'that's really interesting but there's an authority down the road that's going to make it cheaper – let's go for it'.
PW: What concerns us here is that BT will go for the areas of most population.
EP: By 2015 Norfolk will be covered. If it isn't there by 2015, you can have your money back.
PW: Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis, sitting next to you, is leading the county's 'fare's fair' campaign. We have a �4.5m shortfall on concessionary bus fares. Is the government going to help us?
EP: It's a complete dog's breakfast. I know that colleagues in the DfT are looking at that. We're kind of ancillary to all this. I tried to unravel it because it is basically unfair and just simply threw a load of extra money at it to make it work out. I remember a colleague, who knows a lot about transport, said at the time that 'this is a perfect scheme, providing nobody travels by buses'. That has indeed proved to be the case. It will take a lot of unravelling to get the formula right. At the moment, rural areas are at a distinct disadvantage.
PW: I'll ask a cheeky question then. We think there is a shortfall of �60m to sort out the entire country on concessionary bus passes. Wouldn't that be �60m better spent than �200m on weekly household refuse collections?
EP: I've seen the decision in King's Lynn to cut weekly rubbish collections, which is a very interesting decision to go, about a week before the scheme is going to come out that will tell them what the possibilities are. But I love literature, I love Lewis Carroll, and I love Alice in Wonderland, and I particularly love the idea of sentence before judgment. I think that's a very interesting way of doing it.
PW: King's Lynn's proposal is to go in line, for the most part, with the rest of the county, which is to have collections of household rubbish one week and recyclables the next. What's wrong with that?
EP: I think if that's what the people of Norfolk want, fine, don't apply for the money. More money for the rest of the country. I'm completely relaxed about that. The reason I just don't like it is this: to me it symbolises more than anything the disconnect between the political classes and the general public. All I want to see is for the smelly rubbish to be taken away, every week. The thing that really hacks me off is it's not nice rows of houses that suffer. It's social housing. It's terraces. The poor suffer most on this. There's nowhere to put these various bins. If you've got something stinking outside your door, it's a bit different to something stinking at the bottom of your garden. I think there are some very strong social reasons for doing this.
PW: I suspect you may have been reading the Daily Mail too much. We have districts who all have different refuse policies, and a county council which is responsible for disposing of the waste. Surely a way of resolving that, and also of saving a lot of money in these austerity times, would be to have unitary for Norfolk?
EP: No you are utterly wrong. I have a view that the traditional way of changing local government is to have a restructure. I don't have time for that. We don't have the money for that. What I've been trying to do is get local government to react to issues. That's why I've been saying to them start sharing your back office. Start working together on problems. I'm not saying that somewhere down the line we might do a restructure to catch up. But I believe structure should always play catch-up. I am very content for local authorities and local enterprise zones to go at a different pace. I want to release innovation. It doesn't worry me at all that some local authorities might flounder, while others will succeed and flourish, because they will pull the floundering ones up. I've been talking to local authorities here who are looking towards merging some of their back-office functions and that's the future. But I don't see why we should go through an expensive reorganisation. There's never been a reorganisation of local government in this country under any circumstances since the Romans left, that's been cheaper. It's always cost a lot of money.
PW: So you are okay with backroom merging. But isn't that unitary by the back door?
EP: Who cares?
PW: You talked about if Norfolk doesn't want a weekly bin collection, that's fine, we'll opt out of it. The prime minister said in a meeting in Westminster last week that in terms of elected mayors one size doesn't fit all. So if Norfolk wants to do different, can we opt out of police commissioners, because one size doesn't fit all? We are perfectly happy with the way the constabulary is run here, they are doing a very good job. They are making the savings they have to make and the EDP often prints the headline: 'Safest county in the country'. That's what the people of Norfolk are concerned about: do I feel safe and do I see policemen when I want to? Not spending more than �100million on elected police commissioners when our county council has to save �137million over three years.
EP: Your newspaper has strong views on this and you think we've made a mistake. I don't think we have. I think we need somebody in charge of the police force, and don't you tell me that the police authority is in charge of the police force. I think we need somebody who can speak up for the public, someone who is accountable to the public for the police. It's a system that works perfectly well in other countries. If I feel there is something wrong with the police, who do I talk to?
PW: You can talk to the police authority.
EP: Good luck on that.
PW: So what happens if someone like Tony Martin wants to stand as the elected PCC on a populist ticket?
EP: Good luck. We'll see what happens. Somebody like that is not going to be elected.
PW: You've got great faith in the electorate.
EP: My dear chum, I should not be a democratic politician if I didn't have faith in democracy. I do not believe in a totalitarian state. I do not believe in being ruled by an elite. The Eastern Daily Press has got a view, but your newspaper's view is no better than the ordinary person out there.