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Yorkshire’s rural axe man

Friday 03 September 2010

Just before this May’s general election, our countryside commentator John Sheard wrote a column worrying about the domination of British politics by public school educated townies with Oxbridge degrees. Yet the star political performer so far has been a roly-poly Yorkshireman born in a Keighley council house

IT IS now just over 100 days since Britain got its first coalition government for almost 100 years and the heavier newspapers and TV news shows were thick with analysis of this quite artificial anniversary.

But, surprise, surprise, the star of the Westminster soap opera has become not a public school educated Oxbridge man but a rather rotund gentleman born in a council house in Keighley on the very southern tip of the Yorkshire Dales: Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (CLG).

Eric Pickles
Axeman Eric Pickles

His impact has been so great that he has won praise from both the national press for his action-man campaign to cut down local government waste and from countryside organisations like the Campaign to Protect Rural England which this week praised his efforts to “de-clutter” rural roads and lanes by ordering councils to take down un-necessary road signs.

The Daily Telegraph, that stout defender of the middle class, dubbed him the Coalition’s outstanding performer in those 100 days. The Independent called him the “Tory heavyweight” and even the Tory-baiting Guardian admitted he was a “bluff diamond.”

In reading such praise from such fully paid-up members of the so-called “Westminster Village “ I could not help but marvel at the incredible career path of a man whose father could not make up his mind whether he was an extreme left wing socialist or an out and out Communist.

What Pickles has done to attract all this attention is to act, rather than make pretty speeches. He has declared war on council waste and non-jobs and his department has become the first in Whitehall to go on-line with public details of every item of spending over £500, a task which no doubt sends shivers of terror down the spines of spendthrift civil servants.

What’s more, he has ordered local councils to make plans to do the same, which will make interesting reading in my part of the Yorkshire Dales, which Pickles knows intimately.

Craven District Council’s borders adjoin those of his birth-place and its recent financial shenanigans are surrounded in mystery, including a mystery £2 million loan which seems to have been misplaced and which the council is not prepared to discuss.

To describe Eric Pickles as a “Dalesman” would be stretching the point, although Keighley is technically in Airedale. But the grammar school he went to – and, of course, long scrapped by local Labour politicians – used to lie in the posher suburbs of that once thriving textile town where the Aire Valley widens out into the Dales proper.

As a child and a young man, he would have pondered on the two different worlds occupied by Keighley, as it sunk into unemployment and welfare dependency with the collapse of the textile industry, and Skipton, ten miles up the road, a prosperous, contented market town set in lush countryside.

He could have moved up the dale but, instead, he moved further into the West Riding heartlands to become a Bradford City councillor and staged a highly controversial coup which gave him leadership of the council, an almost unheard of situation for a Conservative in one of Britain’s most troubled cities. There, he strove to cut the council budget by a staggering £50 million.

He became MP for Brentford and Ongar, a semi-rural, semi-suburban seat in Essex in 1992 and – in a marvellously astute move – David Cameron made him chairman of the Tory party last year. The contrast between the two men – Eton and Oxford, grammar school and Leeds Poly – could not be more marked.

What Pickles has done to attract all this attention is to act, rather than make pretty speeches...

Since getting his cabinet post, Pickles has maintained his bluff, jovial exterior whilst wielding a super-sharp scalpel to the task in hand: slashing England’s profligate local government spending down to size.

But, unlike some of his metropolitan, London-centric colleagues, he also knows what worrying country folk are and what will please them. His latest move is to introduce new laws which will allow councils to quickly remove illegal encampments set up by so-called “travellers” – mostly Irish tinkers driven out of their homeland by constant police harassment.

This will come a huge relief for thousands of Yorkshire Dales residents who, in the past ten years, have seen the annual Romany trek to the Appleby Horse Fair change from a picturesque spectacle of horse-drawn caravans to a monster invasion of trucks and 4 x 4 scrap metal wagons, the unwanted discards of which are dumped in fields and hedgerows in some of the most beautiful scenery in Britain.

I find it greatly reassuring that in those 100-plus days, the Coalition has thrown up people like Eric Pickles and the new Defra secretary Caroline Spelman who seem to know and understand the worries and fears of country folk. Perhaps they can find a way of reducing the £40 a month of my council tax which goes to pay local government pensions!

Feedback received on this subject:

I agree, there are far too many signs and chevrons etc cluttering the roads, supposedly for the benefit of urban motorists. What about all the lights on the roundabouts and motorways, do away with those. What are your car headlights for?. What this country needs is WASTE management.

Brayan Capstick Hellifield

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