The claim

“By sharing back-office services, they’ll be able to protect the front line – and even improve the choice and services that’s on offer to local residents.”
Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary, October 22, 2010

Cathy Newman checks it out

Despite Eric Pickles’s political hinterland as leader of Bradford Council, there’s no love lost between the Communities Secretary and town hall bosses. Council bosses have privately complained to David Cameron about what they call his “gunboat diplomacy”.

What’s irked them most are repeated broadsides from him and his ministerial sidekick Bob Neill on council pay, inefficiency and so-called “non-jobs” in local authorities. Mr Pickles has suggested that if councils shared back-office admin they’d be able to safeguard the stuff we all really care about – like weekly bin collections, libraries and swimming pools. But disclosures under the Freedom of Information act cast doubt on that claim.

The background

Apparently frivolous but highly-paid managerial roles in local government are a pet hate of the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles.

He asked the Local Government Association, rhetorically: “What does an audience development officer do? Is a cheerleading development officer what taxpayers want? One council is even advertising for someone to spin for their bins last week.

“I wonder whether their residents actually want a communications waste strategy officer or whether they’d prefer more bin men?”

Local Government Minister Bob Neill was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying: ““Crazy non-jobs like cheerleading development officers and press officers tasked with spinning propaganda on bin collections provide no value to the public.”

If back-office bean-counting was shared, and the much-maligned cheerleading development officers were shown the door, would the savings be enough to protect frontline services?

The analysis

A request for information from the Department for Communities and Local Government under the Freedom of Information Act – seen by FactCheck – suggests there’s a lack of research underpinning some of the rhetoric on ‘non-jobs’.

The department was asked about the total amount of money spent by councils in England and Wales in 2010 on pay for jobs which department ministers class as ‘non-jobs’? “Please detail the methodology and research carried out to arrive at this figure.”

The response was: “Central Government does not collate this level of detail for each council. As such I am unable to provide you with such aggregated information across England and Wales you requested as the Department does not hold it in recorded form.”

That suggests very clearly that there is no definition of a ‘non-job’. Can ministers expect councils to scrap them if they can’t even define them?

Pay for senior council officials is another hot topic for Mr Pickles. He’s called for council chief executives to accept pay cuts of up to 10 per cent.

Research by his own department suggests that cutting pay for all senior officers by 10 per cent would save £57.7m per year – a significant amount but tiny in comparison to the overall scale of the cuts.

As far as back-office services (like IT and human resources departments), Mr Pickles has said: “By sharing back-office services, they’ll be able to protect the front line – and even improve the choice and services that’s on offer to local residents.”

The Freedom of Information request shows that his department has no idea how much councils could save by sharing such functions.

And yesterday the New Local Government Network (NLGN) thinktank said that if councils achieved “hugely optimistic” 40 per cent targets for back-office savings, it would represent only around 3.6 per cent of their annual expenditure.

In fairness to Mr Pickles, figures quoted by the DCLG suggest there is scope for councils in England to save £641m in 2011/12 by joining forces to procure.

His department also made the point that chief executives salaries are just about the savings. By taking a cut, the council chiefs would be leading from the front and setting an example to others in these times of austerity.

Cathy Newman’s Verdict

At a recent Downing Street reception for council bosses, a Tory town hall chief made a beeline for Eric Pickles to lobby for more cash. The Communities Secretary apparently went to some lengths to avoid him. It’s not hard to see why. Despite his friendly exterior, “Uncle Eric” – as he revels in calling himself – has made many enemies in local government, including on his own side.

And now, with no sign of a ceasefire in this gunboat diplomacy, they’ve got some ammunition to lob back at him. The Freedom of Information documents suggest he’s wide of the mark to suggest sharing back-office bits and bobs would net the £6.5bn of savings the Local Government Association says are required this year.

Cutting senior staff pay wouldn’t make up the shortfall. And as for axing “non-jobs” – he may well have a point, but until Mr Pickles comes up with a definition of what exactly he means, FactCheck can’t very well reach for the calculator.