Eric Pickles hits back at cuts-hit councils' complaints

Eric Pickles and Anne Western
Image caption Eric Pickles has accused Labour councillors like Derbyshire's Anne Western of "shroud waving"

The battle lines are being drawn. Within the next few months, our large local authorities will outline where the spending axe will fall on local services.

It's become an annual fixture in the political calendar. By the end of this parliament, councils will have seen their budgets squeezed by one third, with the prospect of further cuts after the next general election.

But in the East Midlands, there are two new players. Both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are now Labour controlled; and since the party's victory in May's local elections, hardly a day has passed without a dire warning of the tough choices having to be taken by the new leadership to balance the books.

The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles this week got his retaliation in first. He told MPs that complaining Labour authorities were more interested in "shroud-waving" and cutting front-line services.

He's also been brushing down his "50 Ways to Save", his guide to councils to make the most of their budgets.

It'll be no surprise that the leader of Derbyshire county council, Labour's Anne Western, takes a very different view of the financial challenges facing her authority in the next budget round.

"You can either shrink and shrink your services until there's nothing left, or we can reinvent what we do," she told me.

"In the six months since we took control, we've been talking to partners like the NHS. Our priority is what the people of Derbyshire want."

'This is the future'

That may be music to the ears of the Communities Secretary. He's been encouraging councils to reach out to other organisations to share costs.

"To be frank, this is the future," he said.

"It makes sense to work together on procurement, joint use of offices and shared services."

One key area for Anne Western is the provision of council-run residential care services for the elderly.

Image caption The PM recently dismissed Ms Western's warnings over budget cuts

Derbyshire has 26 such care homes and spends £72m annually on care services, one of the highest of any shire county. Many of its neighbouring authorities have already sold-off or part-privatised the service.

Anne Western said: "People get a huge sense of confidence when the service is council-run because of the quality of the staff and the training. It's also more accountable."

Only a few weeks ago, the prime minister dismissed warnings from Anne Western over the consequences of budget cuts on services and jobs in Derbyshire.

He described additional council cuts following the chancellor's budget as "relatively modest".

"He's just playing with numbers," replied Anne Western.

"It's not just me as a Labour leader. There are Conservative leaders up and down the country arguing the case for a rethink on budgets."

Rethink? From the Communities Secretary? That may look unlikely.

What's more likely is Eric Pickles quoting from a recent BBC/ ICM survey . It indicated that many people believe local council services - rubbish collection, libraries and schools - have actually improved in the past few years.

In the months ahead, watch out for those battle lines being drawn.