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 need 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.
There are still problems with the planning system, Pickles admits. Too often, he says, there’s a ‘view that if you can get a thousand signatures that somehow we should turn a planning application down’.
He likes to take on the role of a mystery shopper, plucking out some of the decisions that have been appealed up to his department to see what’s going on further down the chain. He recalls how, soon after taking office, ‘I spent the best part of half a day looking at a development in one of the London boroughs. There was a bit of office there, a bit of social housing, some shops, and actually it was going to revive the area. I thought, wow, that looks pretty damn good.’
He asked why it had been turned down. His officials explained: ‘Secretary of State, you don’t understand the system. This is a very good development, you will see the inspector is very much in favour of it and the council think it’s a wonderful scheme, and they are very much looking forward to it.’ But they wanted central government to take the political heat for approving it. Too many councils are still turning applications down, he says, in the knowledge that ‘in 18 months’ time Pickles will pass it but they won’t blame us. That’s no way to run a planning system.’
When it comes to Europe, Pickles strikes two different notes. On the subject of leaving the European Union, he’s more cautious than many of his Conservative Cabinet colleagues. He stresses that Britain’s ability to prosper outside the EU ‘would require our ability to get at that single market, it would very much depend on that’. He’s also ‘really irritated with people who start to talk to me about how tactical this is, we can deal with Ukip better that way and we can shoot Labour’s fox’. He insists that the matter is too important for party political considerations to intrude upon it.
But Pickles is nowhere near as cautious when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights. He wants to stop individuals from appealing their cases to Strasbourg, and describes as ‘ridiculous’ the fact that they currently can. But to change this, of course, Britain would have to leave the jurisdiction of the Court, which could be done by passing our own Bill of Rights.
This view is shared by a growing number of Conservative Cabinet ministers, but Pickles is the first to articulate it publicly. The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, would almost certainly resign if it became Conservative policy. One senses that this split could become a problem before the next election.
Pickles is also robust on the Leveson report. He’s adamant that ‘it’s not a balance’ between press freedom and privacy that the government should be seeking, but that it should ‘always err on the side of a free press’.
Following Nick Clegg’s Commons statement on Leveson, I ask if there are any subjects on which Pickles would have liked to have given his own view rather than hewing to the prime ministerial line. Pickles admits to four issues which fit into that category. ‘But to misquote P.G. Wodehouse, wild horses on their bended knees at their most eloquent and persuasive could not persuade me to tell you what they are. You’ll have to wait for my memoirs.’ And at that, an official arrives to end the interview, and I begin what I expect will be a rather lengthy wait for the memoirs.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 December 2012