Monday, 19 January 2015

A curious sense of priorities

Hannah Fearn reports that "Citizens will be expected to pick up litter from the street, prune hedges in the local park and grit minor roads in winter, as funding cuts to local government bite. Communities will be forced to start fending for themselves in ways not seen for generations when cuts to front line services leave councils relying on local people to cook for elderly neighbours, start volunteer library services and sort out their own transport for children."

Did someone say "Big Society"? On the face of it I don't have any particular objection citizens taking a more active role in caring for their communities. There are small community based projects in Bristol which really set the example for how larger parks could be run, and doing something as basic as weeding the cracks in the pavements was something you used to be embarrassed not to have done. As big government has gradually taken over the running over everything, citizens have retreated from taking any role in the upkeep of their environment - not least because misanthropic councils have prosecuted on health and safety grounds if any individual has acted in the spirit of community.

But now that money is drying up, councils now have the audacity to suggest that we should do all this work ourselves, but still have to pay the council for the privilege. One might ask if basic functions such as road gritting are to be devolved to the individual, what exactly are councils for? And where does it stop? Will we now be expected to backfill potholes with our own money too? Again this is something I have objection to since it would probably happen faster and cheaper, but we'd need to keep our own money in order to do it.

This is how the rots starts. What we see here is a perversion of mindset in local governance. The whole reason we have local councils is to maintain infrastructure to facilitate everyday life; to manage public spaces, to keep the roads clear, to keep the street lamps on and the street furniture in good order. That is the foundation on which individuals going about their business create prosperity. To abandon the basics to gradually decay creates a negative feedback loop as community pride evaporates and the things that matter most fall into disrepair.

Meanwhile, while councils are prevented from raising council tax and bribed by central government, we all know a council tax rise is inevitable, and if they can find a way to circumvent the referendum lock, they will, be it through extra charges or aggressive use of fines. Last week South Oxfordshire Council was keen to remind residents on Twitter that although their headquarters had been burned to the ground by an arsonist, their council tax payment system remained unaffected. Funny that. The one thing that never fails is revenue collection.

We are are told that councils are making ever more "efficiencies" but what they mean by efficiencies, is the consolidation of bureaucracy into remote and centralised offices, dispensing with any "services" that cannot be run from behind a desk - and while there is no money to keep the roads open in a snowfall, there's enough to pay heads of service £85k and anywhere up to £225k for the "visionary" golden boys in the CEOcracy, while a third of council tax goes into the public sector pensions black hole.

If anything, the system is not being run for "efficiency", but for convenience. Namely their convenience. It's like the health service that gets rid of patients, as a troublesome irritation. Local government would be so much more "efficient" if it did not have to provide any services.

As commenter "Piper7" remarks: "Even through the ubiquitous cuts, everything councils do is still mired in red tape and bureaucracy, which makes every decision much too expensive. The inflation which has happened in local government is ruinous, and there are still too many meetings, too many councillors, and too many highly paid directors and heads of services (when once they would have been section heads and no more than that).

In addition, there are all manner of officers (and their staffs and all the on-costs) dealing with community engagement, diversity, democratic services, and even climate change etc etc. Two tier local government, county and district councils, is unnecessarily complicated and expensive. The problem is that now local government has become fully politicized, none of the parties see any electoral advantage is taking it by the scruff of its neck and giving it the shake down it so desperately needs."

Local government has become a microcosm of the political establishment for the legions of sociology graduates, policy wonks and managers who outnumber road engineers and park wardens by a country mile. Worse still, as it abandons its most fundamental obligations, we routinely see that from Rochdale to Rotherham, those things it prioritises, it manifestly fails at. And the penalty for such failures? Ask Bryn Parry-Jones. Yet Hannah Fearn doesn't see a problem with any of this. I really don't understand this lady.

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