I remember the moment when I decided local government would be a career not just a job.
It was a phone call I made while working as “Media Relations Co-ordinator” in a rural District Council (it’s long gone now). I’d received an email (yes we had EMAIL) asking me to write a press release (we still sent those by fax) about the young single homeless persons starter pack. I’d phoned our housing team to find out what was in the pack. I imagined it would be a load of advice leaflets.
I was wrong.
It contained saucepans. And plates. And mugs. And crockery.
Because when you are a young single homeless person you didn’t have those things. And when you managed to get a room in a bedsit or even, because this was a long time ago, a flat you were going to need a mug. Maybe two because you might have a friend.*
And I looked at a PR career stretching ahead of me organising product launches for big brands or promoting boxes of sucepans and thought “I know where I want to work”.
And for the past 20 years I have worked in or around local government. I’ve worked in comms and digital and other roles. I’ve worked on the front line and in an ivory tower. It has frequently been frustrating. It can be hard to drive change in councils. The politics and the Politics can grind you down. And I have certainly had periods where I felt like Kafka was pulling the strings. But more often than that I have seen real changes happen, I have seen services redeveloped, scrapped and replaced because that’s what local people needed. I have seen people work through the night to collect, secure and count ballots and to look after people in floods and snow and other disasters. I’ve seen vulnerable people protected, looked after, respected.
Mostly what happens in local government is dull and unremarked. Often (in social work for example) you simply cannot know the detail, and sometimes you just wouldn’t be interested. But, in the main, the councils I worked for did important, real, human things without which we would be a poorer and more horrid society.
But not for much longer.
The mayor of Liverpool is proposing a council tax increase of 10%. This is just the most public signal of a sector in profound crisis. You probably haven’t noticed. This is partly because local authorities have been good at focusing on keeping the plates spinning in the areas that people really notice but it is mostly because the cuts have fallen mostly upon the poor and the vulnerable in society.
You might imagine that at some point it has to stop, that there is a limit below which we, as the people of the United Kingdom, will not sink. I would argue we passed that point some time ago and the long decline shows no sign of ending.
It seems hyperbolic because those town halls have stood for decades, centuries even and everybody knows that councils are inefficient and stuffed with over-paid lazy managers and the Council Tax just goes up and up and look at the potholes and they don’t even collect the bins every week.
It’s not hyperbole though. It’s happening right now.
This is a profound change to our society. The implications will be felt for generations and yet there has been no real public debate about it. There seems to be no real understanding of what is being done, in the name of austerity, to people and communities across the land.
I’ll carry on working with councils to become more efficient, to use data more effectively, to innovate and try new, radical approaches. And there is, undeniably, money to be saved, new ways of working to be found and innovations to be revealed..
But ultimately you cannot have public services unless you pay for them.
It really is that simple.
*housing nerds will be aware that there were restrictions on the money local government could spend on such things. The pack was actually funded by local churches. The council was using its convening power to get something vitally important sorted. Even back then we could do a bit of innovation now and again.