Magazine article The Spectator

The Pickles Plan

Magazine article The Spectator

The Pickles Plan

Article excerpt

Some Cabinet ministers develop airs in office. Eric Pickles isn't one of them.

Sitting at the head of a conference table that looks like it's been purchased from a discount office supplies catalogue, he explains his outlook on life. 'There are two kinds of people, ' he says. 'There are those who open that door and courteously speak to people, and there are those who bellow.

There are those who write long memos on the temperature of your cappuccino and those who are just grateful if you get a warm beverage, and I'm the latter.'

He would place himself in an even rarer group: a minster who gets things done. He boasts that 'this department has fundamentally shifted from being on the side of local government to being on the side of council tax payers'. As evidence of this he cites the fact that his department is scrapping more regulations than any other.

Pickles is happy to advise Cabinet colleagues on how to follow suit. 'You've got to see it from the side of the public and not from the side of the bureaucracy, ' he says. But not all of his colleagues, particularly the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, agree that deregulation is what the economy needs.

When I put Cable's objections to Pickles, he tartly replies that 'every department, including his, needs to get a move on. We do nee d to deregulate.' He says, using the kind of tone a teacher might deploy with a too wilful pupil, the 'really important thing here is we don't just slash away at regulation willy-nilly.

We started from the basis, and I'm sure Vince might find this helpful: what should government do? what should be our priorities? what gets in the way of those priorities, what are we asking business to do?'

But Pickles isn't finished yet with his advice for the man he sits next to in Cabinet and 'occasionally shares a Mento mint' with.

'Vince clearly has an important role because the second thing that people complain about is our training programme and the way in which colleges and the like are unresponsive to the needs of business.' Pickles wants to see businesses taking over the running of many more youth training schemes.

The criticism of the Business Secretary is typical of Pickles's willingness to stir things up with his coalition partners. He's been an outspoken opponent of a mansion tax, even going as far as to delete the government's housing valuation database in an attempt to make it harder to implement. But Pickles himself came in for criticism from one of his Conservative colleagues at a recent Cabinet meeting, with the Chancellor probing him about how much his department was doing to promote economic growth.

Pickles's explanation is that 'George is a guy on a mission and that mission is the prosperity of the country'. But he does concede that 'a minister might get occasionally irked' by the Chancellor's impatience.

One area of contention between the two men has been planning. Pickles confides: 'I was asked by a senior member of the government, two weeks after the National Planning Framework had come into being, why it hadn't worked.' He goes on: 'In terms of economic growth, there is an element that is whispering in your ear, ' and here Pickles starts to do an impersonation of a child in a car, 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'

He's quick to stress that this constant questioning is no bad thing. But one does sense that he has been slightly irritated by being second-guessed so often. …

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