Hart of the Matter
I wish I’d had my own personal spin doctor when I was young. If my school report, instead of being issued direct to my parents, could have been filtered through this form of intermediary, I would have been open to less criticism. Laziness could have been interpreted as a desire for further stimulus, and perhaps the pleasing prose with which I disclosed how little I had understood of an experiment in physics might have been given a higher profile.
It would have been even more handy at work, where failure to meet a deadline due to lingering in the pub at lunchtime might have been presented as a conscientious attempt to liaise with the local community and resulted in a commendation rather than a reprimand.
A classic example of spin came before me the other day. You may have seen that the Audit Commission has completed its annual review of what life is like under each of the county councils or unitary authorities in England. Instead of star ratings, they are now handing out flags – green for good and red for bad.
Suffolk County Council immediately trumpeted that it was the only one in the country to get three green flags, for its partnership work with other organisations – particularly highlighted in wind and wave technology, preventing coastal erosion at Bawdsey and reducing street prostitution in Ipswich.
Long comments from the council leader Jeremy Pembroke, and chief executive Andrea Hill (she of the £220,000+ a year, remember?), telling us what fantastic news this was for all Suffolk residents, were woven into the council’s news release, along with other positive contributions from the chief constable, etc.
Now, I’m not knocking this – that is the job of the council’s communications department, and very efficiently they do it.
But you had to look beyond the release, to the little notes at the bottom, to find an independent comment from the Audit Commission’s local representative. After saying Suffolk was a nice place, and pretty safe, which we all know, she went on: “But children and young people are not doing well enough at school. Standards are too low and improving too slowly. As a result not enough young people have the right qualifications or skills and too many of them do not have a job or training to go to. Suffolk needs more 'high value' jobs and needs better transport, more housing and improved communications to attract businesses into the area. Although a lot has been done to improve things in Suffolk, those living in rural areas are missing out.” It turns out Suffolk got two red flags for all that – one of the worst in the country.
Education outcomes not good enough... not the right skills... too few high value jobs... needs better transport... rural areas are missing out. Set against wind and wave technology, coastal erosion and prostitution in Ipswich, these look rather more fundamental problems, at least from the Haverhill perspective.
Wind and wave technology is fine (although the waves are in Lowestoft and we don’t all like wind turbines around here). We all love the Suffolk coast and it’s good that it is being protected. Prostitution in Ipswich? Well, it may be a simplistic view, but I think someone else had a hand in discouraging that.
Don’t get me wrong – Suffolk County Council is a vast enterprise, by far the biggest employer in the county, and by far the biggest employer in the Haverhill area as well. No one could expect it will do everything perfectly. It does a lot of good stuff. We have some excellent schools here for a start.
However, it appears there is room for improvement in some pretty basic areas. The county council says these are already top priorities going forward (as we say). That may be so, but it is also the universal response to any report of this kind.
Last week I was made aware the number of NEETS in Haverhill has nearly doubled in six months. They are not a new form of pest, but the acronym by which it is only too easy to lend anonymity to a seriously disadvantaged section of the population – Not in Employment, Education or Training.
These are the young victims of what the Audit Commission has highlighted. Schools re-organisation may be a step towards improving outcomes. But what, specifically, is Suffolk County Council doing to attract high value jobs to rural areas, or to improve transport systems or communications?
Broadband is horrendously slow in and around Haverhill. The roads are full of unmended potholes. Nobody seems to care about Haverhill’s links to anywhere else in Suffolk. They just took away the only bit of dual carriageway which made the journey to Bury bearable. It’s all down to Cambridgeshire and the A1307, or Cambridgeshire and some imaginary guided bus system – or even Cambridgeshire to provide a kiss and ride. Oh, sorry, Suffolk has given us a new bus station...