Home Page If councils have nothing to do, why would we need them at all? 01/10/10

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

Around a decade ago the leader of a newly-elected council somewhere in England was doing a tour of the departments which provided its various services.

“I intend,” he said, “that by the end of my term as leader none of this will be required. The council will have privatised all these services and it won’t need most of these employees.”

Of course, word got round and within a few months all the employees were jumping ship as fast as they could go. As it happened, it was the leader himself who was tripped up by his own attitudes and behaviour, and he didn’t last the year.

But he was not alone in his doctrinaire opinions. Sir Nicholas Ridley, a local government minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, came back from a trip to some part of mid-west America enormously impressed by a council he had seen in action there.

It met just once a year, to hand out contracts to private companies for all its services.

What defeats me is why it was needed at all. Surely the state assembly there could have done that just as well? Why bother with the cost of elections?

The answer is that, however dogmatic the privatisers may be, they still can’t help trying to clothe their actions in the fig-leaf of democracy. They have to leave a vestige of the idea that someone, somewhere, is accountable for what happens to the people.

I look at what Suffolk County Council is proposing, and I wonder what all those great campaigners for the rights of the people down the years would think about it.

The point is that if I am having a problem of any kind connected with the services I receive, at present I can raise it with my councillor with some hope that it might get addressed – depending on how good my councillor is, of course.

In the brave new world of Suffolk County Council I will probably have to raise it with the provider. Now you may say I have to do that with gas, electricity, water, etc, so why not everything else? Well, apart from the amount of time it would take me to chase up the right person – which is difficult in any area of life nowadays – I will be one person alone against some monolithic business.

I will not even be a customer directly. My councillors, who I will now rarely see, presumably, will be the nearest thing to a customer, but with little direct influence about my particular issue.

In many cases, however, I would not be dealing with a private business, we are told, but with a group of local volunteers – possibly a charity.

Apart from the mystery of where these people are going to materialise from, it presents me with a difficult choice. Either I accept the service failure about which I want to complain, or I put myself into opposition with what is, presumably, supported by my community.

So perhaps here I could enlist my councillor to do the criticising for me? We’ll see.

And what if my complaint is that the service I want is no longer provided in my area? The answer will no doubt be that if I think it is necessary or viable, I should provide it myself.

All these arguments have prevailed in the past to hold councils back from this draconian approach to cutting costs in order to keep council tax down – which is, in the end, what it is all about, or was, until the national deficit hove into view and gave them just the excuse they needed to push it through.

At least, that is the kindest way to look at it. One hopes the members who have agreed to go down this road are doing it because they believe in it.

The less charitable view would be that they just didn’t fancy taking responsibility themselves for the wide-ranging cuts that would be forced on them under this month’s Government Spending Review. That would be a pity.

We elect councillors to take decisions for us, as well as to fight our particular corner when we want it. If they are happy to make the nicer decisions about giving grants to playgroups, they should also be prepared to take the difficult ones when they think it is necessary to take grants away from playgroups.

It is disingenuous to hive off the provision of support for playgroups to a private company or a group of volunteers and leave them to take the flack when they can’t give the same service on the much-reduced budget the council is prepared to pay them for it – much-reduced, because that will be part of the cost-cutting.

And none of this takes account of the number of job losses, or job transfers to companies which will doubtless change terms and conditions in new contracts as soon as they legally can.

The public sector is the last bastion of union power. There is no doubt that the workforce is exploited in numerous new ways in the private sector now – part-time, temporary contracts, etc. It could be a much bleaker future than they had imagined for all public sector workers.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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