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I am an experienced online journalist and political editor working for Trinity Mirror papers in the West Midlands and the North East, based in the Parliamentary Press Gallery at Westminster.

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Councils, not the Government, are to blame for massive cuts in local services, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles tells political editor Jonathan Walker

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has launched a blistering attack on Birmingham City Council, accusing bosses of “screaming incompetence”.

Mr Pickles described Birmingham as the “biggest problem” in the whole country and said the city council has only itself to blame for spending cuts that could see services slashed and hundreds of jobs lost.

eric

Eric Pickles

He condemned comments by council leader Sir Albert Bore that the city had been unfairly targeted for cuts as “absolutely ludicrous”.

Speaking to the Birmingham Post, Mr Pickles said councils should stop making cuts and start working more efficiently and raising their own funds.

Councils have "chosen to use the poor as a battering ram".Eric Pickles


Instead, they were choosing to “use the poor as a battering ram” by cutting services used by the least wealthy, he said.

The outspoken cabinet minister also condemned plans to make low-income families pay a share of council tax as “obscene” – and said he might block councils from imposing charges.

He accused Birmingham of “screaming incompetence” due to its failure to tackle the issue of equal pay, which has left it with a bill for £757 million in compensation for female former staff.

But Mr Pickles also dropped heavy hints that he was planning to make extra cash available to Birmingham to help it cope with the massive compensation payout.

He was speaking as Birmingham City Council continued a public consultation about spending cuts which it insists have been forced on it by the Government.

The authority says it will be forced to make savings of more than £600 million by 2016-17 and up to 1,100 jobs could go.

Sir Albert dramatically warned earlier this year that the scale of the cuts marked the “end of local government as we know it”.

And he also claimed earlier this month that the scale of the cuts was a result of the Government unfairly cutting Birmingham’s funding by more than other local authorities.

The council leader said: “If Birmingham’s grant had been cut by the same amount as the national average then it would have received an extra £80 million each year. Many cities in this country need a fair share and I intend to take this back to government.”

Asked for his response to that remark, Mr Pickles said: “I think it’s absolutely ludicrous.

“There is a reason why larger sums are coming out of some of the cities – and this is really important – because we are paying more to the cities. We are paying more to the cities by an enormous tune.

“If we were to take the same amount of money out of the budgets of other parts of the country, we’d actually have to send them a bill.

“In many ways, some of the cuts we’re expecting from Birmingham are bigger than the total grant we pay to many other authorities.”

To give one example of the point Mr Pickles is making, Birmingham in 2012-13 received a revenue support grant of £646 million. Divided between the city’s 1,050,654 residents, that comes to £615 per person.

By contrast, the unitary authority of Windsor and Maidenhead, serving a wealthier population, received £19.49 million shared between 147,004 residents – or £133 per person.

However, wealthier councils typically raise more funding from council taxes, and face less demand for their services.

Birmingham also faces financial ruin after the District Auditor ruled that it must find £757 million to compensate former female members of staff who were not paid at the same rate as men carrying out similar work.

The Government has already lent it £429 million, but Sir Albert has warned it could go bankrupt unless it receives more help.

Mr Pickles dropped a strong hint that he was preparing to make more money available, but also condemned the city council for failing to deal with the issue.

He said: “Birmingham is in a unique position because of the screaming incompetence of not dealing with equal pay.”


Recalling his days as leader of Bradford Council, he said: “Now, I haven’t been a councillor for 20 odd years. When I was a councillor I was putting away something to deal with this. Most authorities did. But Birmingham ploughed on regardless. So Birmingham has a particular problem due to its inability to wake up and smell the coffee.

“Now I have a choice. I can either say to Albert, ‘it’s your own fault, get out of it’, in which case the people of Birmingham suffer, or we could look at creating ways in which we could try to help Birmingham through the problem of this enormous sum of money, more than £700 million

“It’s an enormous sum of money. It’s so big that I’ve decided I can’t deal with it in the settlement. So we’re going to have to deal with Birmingham separately to be able to get them out of the mess that they are in. And we’re actively looking at ways we can achieve that.

"It wouldn’t have mattered whether David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or Mao Tse-tung was running the government, the level of public spending was going to come down."Eric Pickles

“But it’s probably the biggest, most difficult problem that I have had to deal with, and it’s entirely self-inflicted.”

The Local Government Secretary attacked councils for cutting services – and suggested that some councils were deliberately cutting services used by the least wealthy in an attempt to make the Government look bad.

“It wouldn’t have mattered whether David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or Mao Tse-tung was running the government, the level of public spending was going to come down.

“They were warned it was coming down, they were warned by Labour it was coming down.

“And some chose to ignore that and some have chosen to use the poor as a battering ram.

“And I think that’s a dereliction of duty.”

Councils could raise extra cash by putting up council taxes, he said, although they are now obliged to hold a referendum if they plan an increase above the level set by the Government.

“We do give them the possibility, if they say they can’t cope, they can put the council tax up. I’m not stopping them putting the council tax up. They can do what they want.

“The difference is they’ve got to go to the people, and say: ‘We’d like to increase the council tax, will you vote for it in a referendum?’

“And funnily enough, in all these cries and screams of we can’t cope, that’s the one option they are not prepared to go with.”

He condemned proposals to make low-income households pay a share of council tax as “disgusting” .

The possible change, which critics have compared to the introduction of the poll tax, will mean that some city residents who currently pay nothing could face bills of £244 a year or more. Many other authorities are taking similar steps.

It follows the Government’s announcement that it is cutting funding for council tax benefit in the city by £10.9 million.

Birmingham City Council will decide how to respond early next year. But in a consultation published in September, it said it was considering asking residents who currently pay nothing because they are unemployed or on a low income to pay 24 per cent of the standard bill.

This could mean £244 a year for a Band C property, up to £500 a year for a large property in Band H.

The council says it has to raise the money somehow, and the only other option would be to cut spending – which is already being cut by £62 million this year. Mr Pickles said: “What I thought was disgusting, objectionable, what I thought was irresponsible, was authorities who rather than helping people get into work, were going to tax them.

“That struck me as being obscene.”

Mr Pickles threatened to change the rules to stop councils charging council tax on poorer residents.

Councils wanted power but they hated taking responsibility for difficult decisions, he said.

“Everyone wants local power except when it’s a difficult thing. Then it’s ‘oh no, let the Government give us more grant.”

He added: “If I was a city boss now, there’s no way I’d think about charging people on benefits but I would think about making the system better.”

 

Read more http://www.birminghampost.net/news/politics-news/2012/12/21/eric-pickles-accuses-birmingham-city-council-of-screaming-incompetence-65233-32468867/

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Jonathan Walker Political Editor of the Birmingham Post, Birmingham Mail, Sunday Mercury, Coventry Telegraph, Newcastle Journal, Newcastle Chronicle and Sunday Sun.

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Email jonathan@walkerjon.com (but please send press releases to my work email which is
jon.walker@trinitymirror.com, as this is the email I monitor during working hours).

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