Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Don't Blame the Council

Documentaries looking at how local authorities are coping with the cuts tend not to end happily. Ask Stoke-on-Trent. I think the same can be said about tonight's featurette, Don't Blame the Council, featuring Wigan Council. Unlike the Stoke experience, this focused on the council's employees in one section: Environmental Services. And, unfortunately, thanks to some ill-judged admissions by some workers and some sharp editing - of which more shortly - a more unsympathetic portrayal is hard to imagine.

Like many local authorities in the outside of the South East, Wigan has been hit disproportionately by cuts to the government block grant. They have to take £100m out of their annual spend over the next two years to balance the books. To this end, and because there has been no municipal movement of resistance to cuts, Wigan have launched an initiative called "The Deal". Its aim is to manage the cuts, find better ways of delivering services for less money, and looking at developing income generation activities. There's nothing unique in this, of course. Most councils of the North and Midlands are in a similar position. Stoke has its 'Mandate for Change'. Wolverhampton it's 'Challenge', and so on.

Nevertheless, Don't Blame the Council was no neutral account of how a local authority is rising to meet the situation. It was to council management what Benefits Street was to social security.

Take the featured staff, of which two received a sympathetic treatment. Terry Dunn (pictured) is the Director of Environmental Services and was tasked with turning his department into a money spinner. Aside from some David Brentish moments - tips on PowerPoint graphics, uplifting logos, management speak about "customer satisfaction", and taking a spin on a sit down mower, he came across as a genuine but clueless bloke. The other was Dave Askby, an operations manager in charge of a council contract to upgrade 7,000 bathrooms. We saw him battling with a workforce seemingly unwilling to pull their weight as he struggled to squeeze a modest profit from the job. This was at some risk to his health too - the stress was giving him high blood pressure, forcing him to take time off.

The others fell into council staff stereotypes. We had the snooping busybody, this time filled by Sue Catterall of the enforcement department. Her job was to issue fixed penalty notices for incorrect storage of refuse. Residents' not sorting their rubbish correctly incurred £100k costs to the council in the previous financial year, but at the same time the issuing of fines saw £125k worth of income. So every cloud ... Sue also had the unenviable task of spying on dog walkers to make sure their furry friends didn't leave unwelcome deposits, and when the owner cleaned up after them she made chase to ... hand them a raffle ticket for a prize draw, in an attempt to incentivise "good behaviour".

Then there was the jobsworth. Tommy Robinson (no, not that one) worked as a 'drainage investigation officer' - a title he was in equal parts bemused by and contemptuous of. He was the "complainer", even if his concerns were genuine. Since the axe chopped down on the council's workforce, his workload was impossible to keep up with. He was being sent out on jobs that required two workers, not one. And he had a few choice words about "The Deal". Of the attempt to get residents to work with the council to clean up their areas, he observed "what chance is there of them cleaning streets if they're knee deep in dog shit?" In the end, he felt that more was being asked of hims without the requisite recognition in his pay packet.

And lastly, we had the idlers, a role on this occasion filled by the bin men. While touching on some of the difficulties of the recycling policies, and the obvious frustrations when they refuse to empty bins not compliant with the rules of what can and can't go in them, the main focus was on their work practices. Often when the wagon returns to the depot there is very little for the workers to do. As they're still on work time management would like them to do more, but in practice we see them playing darts, larking about on the job, having a kip. "It's tiring doing fuck all", one of the workers mused. Viewers were treated to a ringside seat where one was threatened with a disciplinary for going home regularly on work time, and then returning just to clock off.

So, on the one hand we have a well-meaning management and a group of workers unlikely to elicit much sympathy. What else does Don't Blame the Council throw into the mix? How about examples of "overstaffing". For instance, three council employees to meet with the lucky winner of the dog poo raffle? A half hour cleaning job, for which the council charged £15, that required four workers, one (hands-off) supervisor, two vans, and one jet wash? And lastly, was it entirely accidental that the film crew followed the workers onto council estates only. Why, for instance, weren't the refuse collecting scenes filmed in more salubrious parts of Wigan? I'm told they do exist.

What this all adds up to is background chatter for the next round of damaging spending cuts local government are expected to shoulder. What Don't Blame the Council managed was propagate a narrative of the hapless delivering services to the undeserving, the impression being there are large number of inefficiencies and non-jobs waiting to be deleted. And if council tenants have to wait a bit longer for their repairs, who cares cos the all live off the taxpayer anyway. This programme was all about soft soaping the cuts. If the film makers were more honest in their exploration of the council, they might have homed in on the pressures adult social care in Wigan are under. Or children's services. But that was not the aim, they wanted to put the boot in and that is what this apologia for more austerity duly did.


jim mclean said...

Depressing, massive job losses expected in Scotland over the next few months, 3000 in Glasgow, and we know the score, those who have the most knowledge and experience through years of employment with the council will take early retirment leaving the authority with a massive skill black hole. 1000 to go in Edinburgh. Piss myself laughing about the SNP elected reps in Fife running about screaming cuts cuts cuts over the vicous attack on FE, libraries, etc., all devolved matters and much to do with the massive bill of not so hidden subsidies directed by the SNP towards the middle classes, A ten year council tax freeze for god sake. 4000 student places to go at my local college and the rest have been dumbed down over the years as the Scottish Government have one aim, get the neets of the streets. 6 month in college learning car valetting, 1 year on the dole, back to college for 6 months to learn call centre skills, and on and on and on.

BCFG said...

I have said for quite some time that austerity is an ideological project aimed at bringing public sector workers into line with those worst off in the private sector. So no sick pay, lower pensions, easier hire and fire policies.

The Tory right were telling us about lazy council workers and their gold plated benefits long before the 2007 crash and long before this so called documentary. The right had already won the ideological battle against public sector workers even before talk of austerity.

I think we need management put more under the microscope, their knee jerk view is that workers need to be pushed to the utter limit, as we see with the Ambulance service in todays news. Managers don't think of long term consequences, couldn't give a toss if workers health declines, they only see their narrow little world and the next few days. But they are in the ascendancy, people tolerated slavery for centuries. We should be scared by the general idiocy.

There is a disconnect between a local council delivering services and the people who receive them. The people who receive the services are hostile to the service provider. This hints that a different model is needed.

Having said that, people get the services they deserve, which is why ours are shit.

Sue said...

I live on a Wigan Council estate, not the one in the documentory. I work full time, I am studying part time towards a degree and I dont have piles of rubbish outside my property. I dont wear pyjamas whilst walking to school, I dont watch Jeremy Kyle and when I have to report a repair it is genuine and proportionate.
I am disgusted how tenants were portrayed in this programme. Maybe the council should invested some time and money into helping the more vulnerable tenants within the borough.

Standishman said...

I happen to live in one of the "more salubrious" parts of Wigan. Trust me, council services are just as bad here too.
Residents' views of council workers as idle incompetents was hardly contradicted by the programme.
I'm not clear why you regard self confessed wholesale sloping off at taxpayers' expense as "sharp editing".
And here in Wigan, Terry and Dave came across as the biggest plonkers of all.
Tommy the drain man, on the other hand, rather than your description of him as a jobsworth, seemed more like the sort of employee the council needs.
Child and adult social care may well need better funding. Why not try extracting something like a full day's work from "front line" staff first, instead of returning to the poor b****y taxpayer?
Not many sociologists in Wigan, I'm afraid........................