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PLANNING THE REVOLUTION

With his hand picked Core group in place, Pickles began searching for detained policy inspiration. He contacted Conservative Central Office and asked if they had a model radical "manifesto" for a local authority like Bradford. The answer was "No". But Pickles was assured that plans were well underway for a central government onslaught on local authorities which would lay the groundwork for Tory controlled councils throughout the land. The plans were later made public following the Tories' June 1987 General Election victory, when Thatcher announced plans to take her policies "into the inner cities".

Nicholas Ridley was brought in to run the government's Department of Environment, with former Wandsworth council leader Christopher Chope as his junior. Ridley was set to introduce radical plans to change the face of local government.

His biggest and most unpopular move would be to bring in the Poll Tax (although this was the brainchild of Kenneth Baker). But other changes would be established to force local authorities into accepting privatisation of service provision.

Ridley was later to set out his vision for Britain's local authorities when he referred to a hypothetical American council, which met only once a year in order to award new contracts to private companies.

Ridley also encouraged local government Tories to take up the fight. In a pamphlet he wrote called "The local Right" he urged radical right-wing Tories to become more overtly and ideologically political and to begin the task of breaking down the councils "monopoly provision" role.

In the meantime, as the government was preparing it's strategy, Eric Pickles was referred to the network of "independent" right-wing organisations that were busy preparing the way for this local government revolution.

Pickles began studying various pamphlets. He coyly concedes to reading documents from "The Centre for Policy Studies, the Bow Group, the Tory Reform Group, stuff like that." But of course there was a wealth of such material available, including works from the Adam Smith Institute, Aims, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Freedom Association and the Institute of Directors. Other material included "Down with Rates" by Michael Forsyth - a Westminster councillor and consultant to private contractors Pritchard Services Group and "A long way to go" published by the Selsdon Group.

Another key document was the "Coopers and Lybrand Study" commissioned by the Department of Environment. Coopers and Lybrand are the country's largest accountancy and management consultants firm. They would later be brought in by Pickles to help sort out his own privatisation plans. Their study recommended that local authorities should sell off practically everything; markets, golf courses, theatres, public halls, vehicle and ground maintenance, cemeteries, catering, sports centres, accounting, computing etc.

But most important of all for Pickles were a series of reports produced by the Audit Commission. This body had been set up by the Tory government as an "independent watchdog" on local authority financial affairs. But it's reports went much further, bringing together many of the various ideas promoted by other organisations, and dealing with the necessary reorganisation of local government's management structures required before radical policy changes could take place.

The Audit Commission reports culminated in March 1988 with its document. "The Competitive Council" and it's recommended reading of "In Search of Excellence" - a term which would be adopted by Pickles as the slogan for his brave new strategy.

Pickles also sought practical models for his ideas. There were no large northern inner cities under Tory control and so he had to look to London. Two London boroughs in particular provided the models Pickles was seeking, although for very different reasons.

The London borough of WESTMINSTER is the richest borough in the country. It is home to the Queen and Parliament and covered the constituency of Peter Brooke MP - chairman of the Conservative Party during the period when Pickles was drawing up his plans.

For many years under Tory control the borough had been run "a little bit like a gentlemen's club... very dozy, musty, old fashioned".

In 1983 Lady Shirley Porter, heiress to the Tesco fortune, was elected leader. She immediately set about bringing the Thatcher revolution to the borough.

Her first moves were high profile stunts. They included campaigns to:

  • Clean up the borough - pooper-scoopers, new bins and instant £10 fines for litterlouts were brought in.
  • Crackdown on porn in Soho - a tough new licensing system was introduced.
  • "Say no to drugs" - borrowed from America.

This was hardly revolutionary stuff, but Porter's up front, busy body image caught media attention and put her firmly on the map.

Then Porter started her cost cutting and privatisation campaign. She wrote to every council employee telling them; "We are not going in for wholesale sacking. To a great extent I hope we can utilise natural wastage due to retirement, but it is only right to warn the lazy and inefficient to be on their guard."

She began headhunting for a new dynamic Chief Executive to push through her programme. In 1984 she recruited Rodney Brookee - the Chief Executive of West Yorkshire county council.

But even Brookee was soon dismayed by some of Porter's moves. Westminster began privatising most of it's services; refuse collection, street cleaning, building maintenance, leisure centre management etc. When Porter sold 3 local cemeteries to property speculators for 5 pence each, alarm bells rang throughout London. There followed several fraud inquiries.

The district Auditor reported that the sale was "seriously defective" and the council had shown a lack of commercial awareness .

Porters' actions also began to alienate many of those around her.

In the local elections of May 1986 the Tory majority was slashed from 26 seats to just 4. Undeterred, Porter stepped up the pressure.

Tory councillor Patricia Kirwan explained;

"Shirley will fight as dirty as she has to. She will bully, she will do anything to keep the power she enjoys."

Council officers found it increasingly difficult to work for Porter and morale plummeted. Former City valuer George Tuchard explained why;

"I've never had to work in a climate like I worked here, ever. Have you ever sat in one of our chief officers' boards and heard Lady Porter accuse me of being the most negative officer she had ever come across? If you put up any opposition you were either not one of them, you were opposed to them politically or you were negative."

By 1989 more than 50 senior officers had left, including Chief Executive Rodney Brookee. His departure alone (including an assurance not to discuss his period in office) cost the Westminster ratepayers a total of over £1 million.

Shirley Porter was none the less proving a leading light for the radical right. In 1985 she had joined the Advisory committee of the newly formed pro-privatisation group PULSE and was eagerly pursuing their more extreme ideas.

However, as the local elections in 1990 approached, open dismay at her tactics began to surface in Tory ranks. Westminster council was rapidly becoming a one-woman show. Porter brought in her own private political advisors, like Daily Mail leader writer Roger Rosewell. She also began planning a "dirty tricks" campaign for holding onto power.

All Westminster council seats were due to be fought at once in May 1990. There were 8 key marginal wards in the district and Porter needed to hang on to most of them. Porter and a small group of loyal officers drew up "ward profiles" for the key wards. They developed a new council policy called "Building Stable Communities" which was simply a front for retaining the wards in Tory hands.

The plan was to spend millions of pounds in these targeted wards with the aim of bringing in 2200 extra Tory voters by 1990.

Included in the plan was a policy of "designated sales", where empty council flats in the key wards would be sold off to anyone who lived or worked in the borough, thus bringing in "yuppie" Tory voters. Meanwhile the borough's homeless were increasingly shifted to Bed and Breakfast accommodation outside the council's boundaries, or moved to run down housing estates in safe Labour wards. The extra cost of disposing of the Labour voting homeless was estimated at £6 million by 1990, but for Porter it was money well spent. The thought of Labour winning control of Westminster was too horrible a thought for her to contemplate.

At the same time as the council's policies to increase the Tory vote were being pushed through, Porter presented the local Westminster South Conservative Association with a strategy document called "Keeping Westminster Conservative". She proposed a number of political tactics to tackle the key marginal wards;

  • Appoint 5 full time political officers.
  • Cultivate good relations with residents associations.
  • Infiltrate those resident associations judged to be hostile.
  • Dig up any dirt on Labour candidates that could be publicly exposed to discredit them.

These proposals shocked many Tories and the local party agent Donald Stewart. None the less, Stewart wrote to Porter saying;

"We believe that you might have already succeeded in raising the money for your scheme and in recruiting the necessary personnel."

Porter decided to bypass her own party association altogether for her next move. She brought in a private PR. firm, Market Force Communications, to produce a glossy version of the Tory newsletter "In Touch". 2 of the firm's 3 directors were former leading lights in the now disbanded right-wing Federation of Conservative Students. The F.C.S. was scrapped by Norman Tebbit for being "too extreme".

The newsletter bore the imprint of the local party agent Donald Stewart, but he had never seen it before it was published.

Association vice-chairman Marc Cranfield Adams said;

"One is concerned that the role of the association is being usurped and with the various activities going on with the initiative of the current leadership, one is concerned that it ceases to be a party matter and might become a personal crusade."

Porter was dissatisfied at Donald Stewart's lack of support and insisted that the local party chairman, lain Walker, sack him. Walker refused.

At the association's Annual Meeting in May 1989 Walker's chairmanship was challenged by a loyal supporter of Porter. But by now Tory opinion was turning against Porter's excesses and the challenge failed.

However, the guest speaker at the meeting, national party chairman Peter Brooke MP, came to Porter's rescue by singing her praises and urging everyone to get behind her.

Many of Porter's "high profile" tactics and privatisation policies would be subsequently adopted by Eric Pickles, but for a more pertinent model of an urban radical right council Pickles looked elsewhere in London.

 

Eric Pickles had close personal contacts with another leading light in the right's onslaught on local government.

The London borough of WANDSWORTH lies on the south bank of the Thames. In May 1978 the Tories took control of the council under the leadership of Christopher Chope. Even before Margaret Thatcher came to power the Tories on Wandsworth council had lain plans to reduce both rates and services.

Wandsworth was to become the flagship of Tory plans for running councils. It was to strike out on a bold cost-cutting and privatisation exercise that would galvanise the Tory government's policies towards other local authorities.

Wandsworth, more than any other council, was to be the model for Eric Pickles - not just in terms of the results of it's policies, but also because the then Wandsworth Tory leader, Christopher Chope, was to become a close personal friend of Pickles.

The Wandsworth cuts started immediately, but gained momentum in the Spring of 1981 when reductions in the council's Rate Support Grant from the government left them with a budget shortfall of £21 million.

The council announced a 3 pronged initial strategy; £7 million raised on the rates, £7 million raised on rent rises and £7 million through a workforce cut of 700 jobs and small-scale privatisation.

There were some strikes but eventually the policies went through. However, for Christopher Chope it was just the beginning.

In July 1981 Chope announced the first of his major privatisation plans - street cleaning was to be sold off.

There followed a one-day token strike by 1000 council workers. Chope responded by giving himself "Emergency financial powers" and brought in top accountants and management consultants Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. to plan further privatisation.

In February 1982 the private company Prichards took over street cleaning. Refuse collection was next on the list.

Dustmen voted to strike and bitter industrial action followed for several weeks. At one point over 1000 workers were involved. Chope stuck to his guns, even though the elections of 1982 saw the Tory majority on the council cut from 11 to 5.

By late May the strike was crumbling with NALGO withdrawing. By May 21st 500 police were brought in to escort scabs driving council dustcarts. A few days later several dustcarts were blown up in a well-organised "guerrilla" attack. An outraged Chope threatened to sack all the strikers, but by then the strike was already collapsing. After 8 weeks a disillusioned workforce gave in.

A victorious Christopher Chope tore up the council's "No compulsory redundancy" agreement for manual workers and refuse collection was given to private contractors Grand Metropolitan.

The council then instructed the directors of all it's departments to offer every service possible to private tender. By 1989 many of Wandsworth's services had been privatised often with disastrous results.

The council's workforce had been cut by a third and even where the councils own workforce offered the cheapest tender, the services still often went to private companies. In these cases the council justified it's actions by claiming "It is impossible to achieve changes in working practice with direct labour workforces and privatisation would ensure greater accountability."

For Christopher Chope personally, the Wandsworth experiment was a great success. In 1983 he was elected Tory MP for the Southampton Itchen ward. He quickly rose to become personal private secretary to the then Treasury minister Peter Brooke MP.

Later Chope was appointed Under Secretary to the Environment minister Nicholas Ridley.

Chope also got himself a job as parliamentary consultant for the very firm to whom he had awarded Wandsworth's refuse collection tender - Grand Metropolitan.

For Eric Pickles the example of his close friend Christopher Chope was an inspiration. In the March 1989 edition of the glossy Shipley Tory Association "Constituency News", the usual front page message from Marcus Fox MP made way for "A message from Eric Pickles". Pickles took the opportunity to sing his praises for the achievements of Wandsworth council. "The principle message must be" wrote Pickles "that the Conservative group in Wandsworth has been proved right."

As his plans began to take shape, Pickles condensed each major issue onto an A4 sheet, stored on his computer. By the time he came to power he had around 25 of these sheets, neatly filed in his bulging filofax.

Backing from the rest of the Tory group was achieved as the plans developed at the Tories' "weekend retreats" held every 6 months at Ilkley College. The evolving ideas were first presented as early as July 1986 and the final plans were rubber stamped in July 1988, just 2 months before Pickles took control of Bradford council.

The plans developed rapidly. By 1987 an initial cuts figure of £8 million had been agreed along with controversial decisions such as the sale of Old Peoples Homes.

Pickles and his group, however, had not worked everything out on their own. Outside help had been sought.

Shortly after the formation of the Core group in 1986, Pickles had commissioned a study of his financial plans by a firm of accountants. The identity of the accountants and how they were paid remains a closely guarded secret. However, it is worth noting that Kath Metcalfe - Pickles' choice as finance front woman - had shortly before taken a job with accountants Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. at their Manor Row branch.

Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. are the country's second largest accountancy and management consultants firm. Their clients have included British Aerospace, British Steel Pension Fund, Town and City Properties, Tarmac, Costains and even Richard Wightman's companies. They were advisors to the London Docklands Development Board and have played a leading role as consultants to radical right-wing local authorities like Wandsworth.

One of the key "independent" pressure groups in the radical right network was an organisation formed in 1985 to push for privatisation both at a national and local level. It took the name "Public and Local Service Efficiency" - better known as PULSE.

PULSE's director was David Saunders - another right wing radical and former vice-chairman of the now disbanded Federation of Conservative Students.

PULSE had an advisory committee made up of prominent right wing MP's along with figures like Westminster council leader Shirley Porter. Also included were a number of figures from other groups such as Norris McWhirter from the Freedom Association, Lord Bellwin from the Adam Smith Institute and Baroness Cox from the Centre for Policy Studies.

Based in London, PULSE set up regional branches throughout the country with financial backing from companies set to profit from the privatisation bandwagon.

There is some evidence that PULSE first came to Bradford in 1986, but details are confused.

However, in July 1987, PULSE director David Saunders was personally invited by Eric Pickles to lecture at a weekend seminar. The "teach-in" was held at Bradford College and attended by 60 local Tory activists.

Pickles later claimed that it was this meeting which "converted" him to the policy of mass privatisation. But this is clearly untrue as Pickles missed most of Saunders' lecture. Tory deputy Richard Wightman, on the other hand, was particularly fascinated by Saunders and engaged him afterwards in a lengthy and detailed discussion.

Saunders was to observe how "the great majority of the Tory councillors are being very cleverly led by the nose by the Bradford leadership

The following year David Saunders wrote to Pickles and invited him to join PULSE's Advisory Committee, but media publicity forced Pickles to decline. None the less Bradford councils Tories soon had direct links with PULSE through rising young star Jac Beeson. Beeson, "right wing and proud of it", had become a close friend of David Saunders from their days in the disbanded Federation of Conservative Students. Beeson agreed to become the Yorkshire regional representative for PULSE.

In August 1987, a month after the PULSE lecture, a regional Conservative committee was established in Yorkshire to promote and plan for local authority privatisation. Eric Pickles was made chairman and co-ordinator.

PULSE meanwhile stepped up the pressure at both local and national level. Every Tory councillor in the land was put on its mailing list.

PULSE members were also busy in Parliament, helping with Nicholas Ridley's Local Government (no. 2) Bill. The first bill in 1982 had already established overall central government control of local authority spending. The second bill was designed to enforce councils to sell-off public services. According to Pickles there wasn't "a hope in hell" of realising his plans without this piece of legislation.

The new act made it compulsory for local councils to "tender out" 6 specific services. The act also laid down deadlines.

But the act was intended to go much further. As the bill was being debated in Parliament, 2 prominent PULSE members Teresa Gorman MP and Robert Jones MP - rose to propose an amendment. They wanted a further 33 services added to the initial list of 6. The amendment was never intended to succeed. It was a set piece manoeuvre, there to make clear the government's long term intentions.

Junior Environment minister Christopher Chope MP thanked Gorman and Jones and pointed out the government's hope that local councils would take the process much further. He said; "If councils do not apply the market test to activities not directly covered by the Bill, we will not hesitate to use the power contained within Clause 2(3) to the fullest extent."

This clause allowed the government to add to the initial list whenever they chose.

Eric Pickles was aided in the research and development of his new radical plans in 1987 when, for the first time, the council approved the appointment of political researchers to the Tory leader, paid for by ratepayers.

In July 1987 Pickles appointed 30 year old Keith Pigott, a former lecturer in politics and public administration, as his £17,000 per year research officer. 23 year old Sue Musson was appointed Tory research assistant.

But even here things didn't run smoothly. Within 2 years Musson had resigned and Pigott, at his own request, was transferred to the Chief Executives office.

By the summer of 1988, with the prospect of power just around the corner, Pickles prepared a secret document outlining the general thrust of his plans. Reduced to 2 A4 sheets, his document "Bradford council - a model for the 1990's", set out his blueprint for the Bradford Revolution (see Appendix one).

Picklesdiscussed his final plans with Environment minister Nicholas Ridley and Local Government minister John Gummer. He had maintained close contact with central government throughout the period of his evolving ideas, dovetailing his plans neatly with new government legislation. Ridley was well pleased with the final result. As PULSE director David Saunders put it at the time; "Eric Pickles is doing exactly what the Department of the Environment wants someone to do. The D.o.E. are frustrated at the general level of inactivity. Pickles is different though".

Ridley set the final government seal of approval on Pickles' plans by visiting Bradford on October 21st 1988, just 4 days before Pickles' first council meeting as leader. Ridley told journalists, in a rather confused tone;

"I am most impressed by the ideas and hope other local authorities will copy them.

"I cannot comment on the details because I do not even know what they are. But they have a very good plan to provide better services at a better cost. My ignorance of the details demonstrates that they can hardly have come from me. They have come entirely from the leader, Councillor Eric Pickles and his colleagues. And I congratulate them strongly for having thought out the proposals, and the credit for improvements they are going to make lies on their shoulders"

As well as planning policies for his Bradford Revolution, Pickles had to lay plans for gaining power.

The 1986 election had left the Tories 16 seats adrift. It seemed an enormous uphill struggle.

With their support cut right back to the base Pickles decided on a new electoral strategy; he would embark on an all out attack against Labour.

Firstly the Tories' campaigning activities would be targeted at Labour marginal wards with all grassroots local efforts concentrated on these. Tory held wards would be left largely defenceless. It was a risky strategy, but Pickles developed detained computer printouts on each marginal ward - giving him a "hit list".

Secondly, promoting Tory policies would be largely ignored and replaced by a concerted attack on Labour's failures. In this Pickles was fortunate to be faced with a disastrous 2 years of Labour control.

Flushed with success from their 1986 landslide, the Labour group had embarked on a number of ill-conceived "stunts" with maximum publicity. These included expensive council funded "rallies" set up largely to promote personalities within the Labour group, which were disasters.

The equally badly handled promotion of "fringe issues" played straight into Pickles' hands. Even though in many respects commendable and in financial terms almost irrelevant, the appointment of a "Sex Equality officer" and "Nuclear Free Zone officer" were lampooned in the media almost daily.

The 1987 elections saw the Tories begin to make gains. They finished 11 seats behind Labour, but that was early days with Pickles having been in control of the Tory group for only 3 months.

The tactics were stepped up and as the 1988 elections approached, canvass returns indicated a growing disillusionment by voters in the Labour groups' antics.

Some senior Labour councillors of the time now recognise their shortcomings. Former deputy leader of the Labour group, Gerry Sutcliffe, said;

"When Labour came to power (in 1986) we were the best prepared as far as policy was concerned but inexperienced in delivery and had misjudged the bureaucratic politics of City Hall. Officer structures and restructuring burdened us down and deflected us away from service delivery. However, there were some excellent initiatives that were started, but a failure to communicate beyond City Hall was a problem. The insecurity of the Labour group in terms of internal politics did not help and there were some in the group not able or prepared to accept the responsibility of control."

Labour councillors may now be learning lessons with the benefit of hindsight, but as May 1988 drew in it looked like two squandered years were about to explode in their face.

 


 

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