Friday, 25 June 2010

Could we save some of the cost of local government by scrapping most of it?


Once upon a time local government was a pretty straightforward activity. What happened was that local residents and local business paid a tax based (rather loosely) on property value to a City or Town Hall and, in return received a set of services and amenities. Roads, parks, playgrounds, libraries and public halls were provided, bins were emptied, streets were swept and council housing was there for the less well paid. Big councils – Counties and County Boroughs provided schools and delivered support to the indigent in one way of another. It was all good and fine and, as we know, there wasn’t much poverty or any of that dread deprivation to get in the way.

Most councils saw themselves in a matter-of-fact way – there wasn’t a lot of pointless party political posturing getting in the way of the sound business of providing services to the local community in return for the rates. People who worked at the council were ever so slightly dull – either clerkly sorts in sombre grey suits, chaps in uniforms with napoleon complexes or solid blokes with dirty hands from planting flower beds, shovelling rubbish or digging the roads.

But something changed – not only was poverty rediscovered and less wealthy folks ‘problematised’ (as those sociologists like to say) but central government discovered the deep joy of making up rules and regulation for councils to implement. The first of these – the Local Authority Social Services Act of 1970 – ostensibly pulled together existing services but, in truth, acting to create an engine of endless, self-sustaining social intervention. Each tragic case – from Maria Colwell through Kennedy MacFarlane to Victoria ClimbiĆ© and ‘Baby P’ – resulted in an extension of the rules, a further collection of ‘experts’ and more meetings, more bureaucracy. It is with a degree of tragic inevitability that there will be a future tragedy, a future review of enquiry and future changes, improvements and extensions to supposed ‘child protection’ regulation.

On top of creating the monster of social services came other bureaucratisations masquerading and ‘professionalising’ service. Greater ‘strategic planning’ powers were granted, councils took on a bigger role in the administration of a burgeoning welfare system and given these new powers many councils no longer saw their role as that boring one of serving the local resident and the local business but a much grander role of social engineering. Improvement, betterment – the grandiose process of municipal pseudo-socialism where not a thing happens in the town without the professionals at the – now renamed – civic centre having at least a figure and preferably an arm up to the elbow firmly there embedded.

Where once there was a ‘town clerk’ sprung up a ‘chief executive’. And with such a grand title came other grandly titled roles – the Head of Parks transmuted into ‘Strategic Director, Leisure’ and the ‘City Solicitor’ became ‘Director of Legal Services’. Each of these grand, important people required oppos – folk to carry the bags. And so we found a new generation of ‘Assistant Directors’ – and below them those folk actually doing the work, ‘Heads of Service’. And across all of this came the support roles – each position requires at least on ‘personal assistant’ and every function (no matter how small) requires a policy team.

Something had to be done and, as ever, Tony Blair was up for the job! In a massive change the old system was swept away – and alongside all those important, professional management jobs we now have the professional councillor. Gone were the days when the local solicitor, businessman, retired schoolteacher or trade union steward put themselves forward for the council – aiming to serve not to climb up some career ladder sustained by payment from the public purse. Those old councillors were respected – on occasion admired – for their sense of service. We looked up to them as men and women of substance in the community – people who made decisions. Today the local councillor – paid a stipend from the public purse – is seen as just another little part in the bureaucratic cog. For some – the grand, important leaders of political groups – the pay is pretty good these days (as are the opportunities for trips out, jollies and boondoggles). Such folk are the elite of the new professional councillor – trained, with job descriptions, working to KPIs and penning annual reports.

And, my dear reader, do you think you get a better service from your council as a result of all this professionalisation? Are your local councillors – assuming you’ve the first idea who they are – vastly better than those of times past? And has the result been a more effective, less costly, higher quality set of services? Of course not – we have replaced the delivery of service with the bureaucratisation of efficiency with the result being less good services delivered more expensively and less accountably. Where councillors – plus the ordinary council worker going about his or her ordinary day job - once provided all the community engagement needed we now spend millions scraping at the surface of engagement. And failing.

Local councils are now unwieldy, ineffective, badly focused and over-bureaucratic. They do too much and achieve too little. They cost more than ever before yet are less popular than at any point in history. People no longer make the link between electing a councillor and the local services they receive. Instead they see powerless – even useless – councillors lined up against a vast horde of faceless, badly suited bureaucrats speaking a strange language that almost entirely fails to explain why the streets are swept as well as in the past, why there’s no park keeper and why the council tax spirals ever upwards.

The experiment of municipal vastness has failed – we do not get better services (and they certainly ain’t cheaper) from bigger local councils. Big councils need breaking up – services should be owned, operated and delivered at a human scale again with local folk involved in designing and running them. We don’t need an Assistant Director, Cleansing (or whatever) to organise the sweeping of streets in Cullingworth – just a bloke with a trolley and a broom who knows the area and cares a little. We don’t need a vast anonymous office filled with clerks to run the local primary – treat it like any small business and it will thrive, Above all we don’t need rooms full of planners, policy officers, strategists and professional whatever they are – these are now an intolerable burden on the public who just want ordinary, simple services delivered like they used to be delivered.

The solution? Maybe we should shut down all top tier local authorities, abolish the unnecessary education bureaucracy, hand over social services to health authorities and create small, accountable community councils that can deliver the simple, straightforward services local folk want from their Council?


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