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Ministers step up criticism of Labour's Nottingham fortress

John Hess | 09:16 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011

Nottingham Council House meeting room

The war of words between Coalition ministers and Nottingham City Council shows no sign of calming down.

The latest battleground is over transparency. The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles fired a salvo over the Labour-council's reluctance to publish all spending over £500. The council's Leader Jon Collins refused, insisting it was a waste of time and money.

"We are having to deal with some £60m worth of cuts in funding from the government. That's our priority," Councillor Collins told me.

Then the Housing Minister Grant Shapps weighed in, accusing Nottingham of wasting taxpayers' cash and accusing the Labour leadership of acting in a "shameful way".

"People in Nottingham will want to know how much is being spent by their council. Why shouldn't they go online and decide for themselves whether the council is offering value for money," he says.

Eric Pickles

Jon Collins then upped the anti, calling Grant Shapps "a fool" and Eric Pickles "a buffoon".

"There's no question of picking a fight for the sake of it or some kind of ideological basis for this. We are just standing up for Nottingham," he added.

Ministers have already rattled off a list of examples of wasteful spending by Nottingham Labour.

For starters, Grant Shapps singles out the £250,000 spent on lamp post banners, which promote the council's ambitions for the city. There was criticism over sending six officers to Cannes for a Europe-wide property fair.

"It's actually quite arrogant of the city's leadership to say that it's their business and that the people shouldn't know. Perhaps they have something to hide," says the minister.

Collins is dismissive of the attacks, saying the minister has just got his facts wrong. He's responded by showing me examples of the type of spending just over £500 Ministers Pickles and Shapps have in mind.

* Trading Standards photocopying maintenance £547
* Aids and appliances for the Deaf Team £528
* Youth Offending Team postage costs £500
* Cleaning materials Sandfield Centre £592

"We'll publish this type of information if the law demands it. But at the moment, it's hardly a priority. In terms of staffing needed, it's a waste of time and money," says Councillor Collins.

"The kind of thing they've been saying is a misrepresentation of the truth."

Then there's Loxley House, the new smart headquarters of Nottingham City Council. In turn, it's also been the target of critics accusing the council of lavish spending. Two thousand staff from seven buildings scattered across the city are now under one roof.

I've been inside and seen the palm trees that adorn this open-plan, hot desking model of workplace efficiency.

Geoff Hibbert, the council's property director, says the new HQ is already saving £1m a year.

So is that the type of thinking that could take the heat out of the close combat between Nottingham's Labour leadership and Coalition ministers?

Says Jon Collins: "We worked very hard to provide value for money and over the last two years, we've saved £37m in efficiencies."

But Grant Shapps is reserving judgement.

"We are in a different era in which people expect to be able to find out the costs of their council. I've never met Jon Collins, but it sounds as if he's from a past decade."

Liverpool City Council - also wrestling with big spending cuts - has pulled out of co-operation with David Cameron's Big Society initiative. Nottingham may be the next city council in the mood to defy ministers.


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