Local government, eh? Guaranteed to raise a yawn – especially at a time when our national politics have taken on the complexion of a cheap melodrama populated with double-dealing villains.
Local government is seen as at best dull and at worst corrupt, and there is no denying that there has been some spectacular graft under the guise of local development. In fact, it amazes me that anyone actually wants to rise through the ranks of local government. Compared to a local authority chief executive, captains of industry have it easy: they only have their shareholders, customers and possibly staff to worry about, and maximising profit while remaining within the law is a direction of travel everyone can sign up to.
As a local authority chief executive, you have a far more unruly bunch to deal with, all pulling in opposite directions: the local electors, many of whom just don’t want to know (average turnout for local elections over the past few years has been hovering around 35%); national government, which does little more than cut their funding, pile more responsibility on them and criticise them; their staff, many of whom spend all day and every day confronting a tide of human misery – and as if that wasn’t enough, they have a gang of squabbling councillors to negotiate.
Interestingly the report Elitist Britain noted that only 9% of local authority chief executives have been privately educated (in contrast to the predominance of public school educated people in the upper echelons of government and the civil service). I wonder why this is? Insufficient glamour to attract those with a sense of entitlement is my guess. You have to have a genuine desire to grapple with the problems that beset your community to accept such a poisoned chalice.
But ‘squabbling councillors’ is a rather glib and unfair description. To be sure, some just like to be a big fish in the small pond of their wards, but thousands of them turn out year after year, on cold February nights, to things like taxi licensing subcommittee meetings, and shoulder the burdens of the most vulnerable society, all for no reward.
I don’t envy them the increasingly difficult choices they have to make: should they withdraw services from the elderly and disabled so they can continue to support children? Should they dispose of property to generate funds? Property decisions have caused widespread uproar and accusations of corruption – Lewisham Council’s plans for the redevelopment of the area around Millwall football ground look decidedly dodgy. (And as for Southwark Council’s offer of mindfulness courses to assuage the anguish of those kicked out of their homes when the Heygate Estate was redeveloped – with every flat in the new development sold to foreign investors . . . )
But we cannot do without even the most incompetent of councils, as the BBC’s The Street That Cut Everything (2011) amply demonstrated. The residents of one street in Preston were reimbursed their council tax for six weeks so they could go it alone. It wasn’t long before rubbish was piled up in black bags in people’s front rooms and neighbours were at loggerheads debating whether a portion of the street’s budget should go on one single mother’s housing benefit or on home care for another’s elderly father.
The whole Big Society idea came to nothing, but its spirit was there all along in those who take on the responsibility on our behalf for making things work as best they can – I take my hat off to them.