Myths about local government abound and I’m sure you have your favourite. But I believe it’s time to seriously debunk those myths. Firstly because they’re not true and, secondly, if they were, the crisis would clearly be even worse than the myth-purveyors would have us believe.
1. Local government is full of fat cats
Let’s start with the one about the dream job for life. In this myth, council managers are paid exorbitantly, clock off by 4.30pm (3pm on a Friday) and sit around counting down the days until they can draw their gold-plated pensions. Of course, if they were any good they’d be working in the private sector anyway.
In fact, if there ever was any fat it was undoubtedly trimmed long ago. In my experience, with the heavy lifting of complex change, constant juggling and routine long hours, the vast majority of council managers don’t need to go on a diet.
If their jobs were really so attractive, surely arrogant City-types would be queuing up outside town halls and pestering recruitment agencies to get them onto interview shortlists pronto? Imagine the damage bankers’ ethics might do in a debate on vulnerable people?
2. The council says ‘no’
Next is the myth of the council enforcers, the local government staff whose sole aim in life is stop you from doing what you want. Apparently health and safety, trading standards and licensing departments around the country are stuffed full of them.
Many people think they should have the right to do anything they like to their own property, but what if an oligarch moves in next door, excavates the basement and adds a few extra storeys, or a concrete factory buys the land opposite?
Rules, including planning regulations, exist for the benefit of the whole community, and when its’ staff enforce them, the council is attempting to balance the needs of everyone. Without them we risk toxic fly-tipping, more pre-loaded teenagers splayed on the pavement outside your local offie and a few dismembered limbs on the factory floor.
3. They just want to take your kids away
In this golden oldie – an exemplary example of demonisation – social workers have no common sense, refuse to see the child is always better off with its own family, and should give over with this PC nonsense.
Without doubt, recent prosecutions and public enquiries into shocking, high-profile cases have shown that the systems need urgent attention. Mistakes are made, sometimes with desperately tragic consequences. Social workers are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t, and of course it would be very helpful if they could develop the supernatural ability to predict who is about to neglect or harm a child, but while we’re waiting for that to happen perhaps we could recognise and debate the pressures they’re under? If we don’t, the human tragedies will continue to mount.
4. Councillors are self-serving fools
Then we come to the widely held but false belief that anyone could do a better job of running our cities than the current crop of councillors, who seem happy, nay keen, to close down libraries, nurseries and swimming pools just as long as they get their photo in the paper.
Well, if that’s all there is to it maybe we could get a celebrity in to tell us how to do it and a few volunteers to run the thing? But the celebrity will only stick around as the cameras flash, expecting a teaching assistant’s annual salary as an appearance fee, while the volunteers do have mortgages to pay, you know, and unfortunately can’t commit the time today.
However much you like the sound of your own voice, being a councillor is a pretty tough – and thankless – role. People stand for election for a whole range of reasons, but at heart all of them must have some notion of public service, otherwise it just doesn’t compute. In reality, councillors up and down the country don’t make such a bad job of it, despite the difficult circumstances, but if you think yours isn’t up to scratch you know what you can do – get involved, vote or even stand against them at the next election.
5. Local government is just unnecessary
Finally, the biggest myth of all is that private sector companies should be delivering council services – only the ones we really need, like rubbish collection, of course – right across the board, because they can do it far more efficiently and cost-effectively. In this scenario, we don’t need local democracy, just someone to hand out and sign off the contracts once every three years.
I believe a mixed economy of service provision can and does work, but there are also many well-documented examples of high-profile (naming no names) companies screwing it up on a grand scale. And with no local accountability, follow this myth to its logical conclusion and you end up in inner-city Detroit, the outskirts of Lagos or rural Turkey – destinations where there is quite simply no functioning state.
And in case you think that idea has something going for it, these are places where you pay for everything yourself, trusting to luck that enough of you have enough money to create a market in which someone is willing to provide transport, education, social care and so on. Forget any sense of building community or rule of law, start building a big wall around your home…
In truth, I’m not interested in romanticising local government and I know all too well that the real stories don’t always have perfect happy endings, but I’m interested in celebrating the many talented people who choose to work in the public sector, telling the tales of what they can and do achieve, and challenging those tired old myths. I believe that our lives and the lives of our communities could depend on it.