COMMUNITIES Secretary Eric Pickles has been accused of preparing a slush fund to reward southern Conservative councils at the cost of deprived North East neighbourhoods.
Durham North MP Kevan Jones made the claim in the House of Commons amid continuing efforts to try to ensure millions of pounds are not denied to the North East as part of a change in how business rates are spent.
Mr Pickles and his Department for Communities and Local Government will allow councils to keep the money they collect in business rates, ending the current system of the Treasury redistributing the funding based on each council’s needs.
North East councils need that redistribution in order to add around £400m to pay for day-to-day bills. With the region having a lower number of businesses to tax than other parts of the UK, the fear is councils will be forced to cut jobs and services once again if Mr Pickles is handed “a blank cheque” to spend how he wishes.
Ministers have so far promised to ensure no authority loses out in the first year of changes, but what happens after, Mr Jones said, remains open to manipulation.
Pushing local government minister Bob Neill to be clear on just how extra funding will be handed out, Mr Jones said: “It will not come as a great surprise to members that I do not trust the Secretary of State.
“He is a very political individual who is clear in his philosophy – he will help people who support the Conservative party at the expense of northern councils. He does not care whether those councils thrive or not.”
He added: “I can imagine that there will be fights between different councils. If the Secretary of State says that deprived Wokingham should get a bigger slice of the pie than Knowsley or my constituency, without explaining or justifying it, I can imagine there being legal challenges.
“I would not put it past this Secretary of State to blatantly reward the councils that support the Government, just as he has already.
“Looking at the whole Bill, it is clear that the strategy of the Secretary of State is to blame local councils for the decisions, while he stands back and says that it is not his fault. These are highly political moves. If he is guaranteeing that need will be taken into consideration, it would be better to put it in the Bill than to just give us an assurance and say, ‘trust us’.”
Council minister Bob Neill told the House the Government “will enable the distribution of the remaining balance to be carried out as is appropriate at a particular time.”
He added: “ For example, it might be appropriate to distribute it to authorities on the basis of need, or if we assess that there is no such need, we might wish to return it to some of the levy authorities to make up for the taking of levy moneys that were not needed for disbursement. It would be wrong to preclude that possibility, which is provided for in the Bill.”
Is it time for Eric Avenue?
ERIC Pickles may soon be catching the eye of council bosses hoping for some extra cash.
MPs have queried whether, with funds short, the country might see streets and parks renamed in his honour, even in the North East.
When Warrington North MP Helen Jones, speaking in the House of Commons, said Mr Pickles will have too much power she added: “There is nothing in the Bill to stop him doing as he likes. What will his decision be based on, on whether he once had a nice day out somewhere, or the fact that an open space was named “Pickles Park” in his honour?”
This, Durham North MP Kevan Jones said, would perhaps not go down well in Durham with its socialist history.
He said: “I might have to suggest to Durham County Council that it renames Marx Terrace, Engels Terrace and Lenin Terrace in Stanley in my constituency. Perhaps one could be called Pickles Terrace.”
Even the local government minister Bob Neill joined in.
He said: “I will endeavour to confine myself to matters that are germane to the amendments, so I will be fairly brief despite the temptation to inquire what happened to Trotsky and Bakunin Drives. I imagine they were probably airbrushed off the map in Durham at some point.”