That was the local government week that was


A busy week; no wonder the keys are leaping off the page

It’s been a proper busy news week and with more days and more time we could have written twice as many posts this week. Nonetheless, our Friday post gives us a chance to catch up. We’ll try to do the week some justice and also pick up a few slightly different pieces but goodness knows what we have missed.

It only seems right to start in the East End of London with the London Borough of Newham being accused of social cleansing by trying to find homes for people on their housing waiting list in others parts of the country, namely Stoke. This caused an almighty row but the underlying issue is an important one. As the BBC explained:

Newham’s mayor, Sir Robin Wales, blamed government policies which had left his borough “chasing around the country trying to find ways to deal with people who are in need”.

He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “We have got a waiting list of 32,000 – we’ve got hundreds of people looking for places to stay and the result of government benefit cuts, which are still working through as well, means that many more people from wealthier parts of London are looking for places to live in London and they’re just not there.

“We have written to 1,179 organisations [housing associations] saying could you accommodate some people? We’re not looking to push people all to one place, we’re looking to find the best possible solution for citizens.”

The Government accused Newham of playing politics with the issue but failed to recognise that Newham weren’t the ones who brought it to the presses attention.

More pernicious is the seeming inconsistency in the Government’s position. If it is acceptable to pay people different amounts based on the local economy why is it not ok to recognise the higher costs of living in London and pay higher housing benefit based on that? Similarly, if the Government insist of having some form of cap on the benefits then surely this is because they don’t want people to claim benefits to live in expensive parts of the country.

The coalition can moan all they want about social cleansing but the people on these waiting lists need housing and the fact that local authorities are thinking imaginatively to solve the problem, where they can, should be welcomed.

Thanks to the good chaps at Comms2point0 for linking to this piece by Martin Osler about the importance of communications professionals being able to write well. As he argues:

Effective Writing Underpins Communication

Some of you will read this far and say “ach, here he goes; another ex-hack banging on about poorly drafted news releases.” No, excellent writing skills are much, much more than this. As communications professionals we should be able to write robust, grammatically correct proposals and briefing documents, properly punctuated and a delight to read. We should be creating free flowing articles on behalf of our clients, magical web copy, crafty blogs and exciting competition entries.

It is a mistake to base any sweeping judgement on ones own limited experience but I have come across quite a few communications officers in local authorities who see their inability to write well as part of their ability to communicate effectively. Some wear this lack of skill as a badge of honour or at least don’t see it as a problem.  I agree with Martin; if you can’t write well then I don’t really care how good your messaging or creativity is.

It has often been said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics but in this modern day and age there are also very clever people out there willing to explain those statistics. Kudos then to Chris Game from INLOGOV for breaking down the competing political claims about council tax in councils run by the different parties in the run up to the local elections. Whilst all the parties claim that their tax is lower it’s actually just a little more complex than that:

Band D has thus become a benchmark for comparative purposes, and it is therefore perfectly reasonable that the Conservatives tend to use it – as they could with this year’s Commons Library figures – to claim that average Band D tax rates are normally lower in Conservative than in Labour or most Liberal Democrat areas.

Reasonable, but disingenuous. Not so much because only a small minority of properties (15% in England) are actually in Band D, but because, exacerbated by the absence of any revaluation since 1991, the mix of property bands across authorities and regions nowadays varies starkly. In my own authority of Birmingham 56% of properties are in Bands A and B, and just 14% in Bands E to H combined. Neighbouring Solihull has 19% A and Bs and 41% E to Hs. In the North East there are 56% Band As, in the South East 9%, in London 3%.

All of which obviously means that, to raise a certain tax income in an authority with mainly Band A to C properties requires a significantly higher Band D tax than in one comprising many E to H properties. The average bills paid by tax payers will vary similarly – being generally higher than the Band D figure in affluent and Conservative-inclined areas, and lower in poorer or Labour-inclined ones.

Hence Labour’s equally disingenuous preference for using average tax bill figures as their political comparators.  North East: Average Band D council tax £1,525; average tax bill per household £1,072. South East: Average Band D council tax £1,475; average bill per household £1,381. As the anthropomorphic Russian meercat, Alexsandr Orlov, would confirm: simples!

‘Simples’ indeed and well worth reading the whole piece.

In case anyone missed it the Taxpayers Alliance published their annual Town Hall Rich list 2012 identifying the number of staff receiving total benefits packages over £100,000 per year. In a way I appreciate the work of the TPA; they make as much data as possible public and even tried this year to give it some context:

The average remuneration increase for staff in the Town Hall Rich List from 2009-10 to 2010-11 was 26.85 per cent. But this would have been driven by a number of employees receiving large redundancy payments in 2010-11. To account for this, a more accurate picture would be the median average increase, which is 1.83 per cent.

However, their endless message is that these salaries are always inappropriate which is so patently wrong that it annoys me.

This does not, however, annoy me nearly as much as the response of the various local government organsations. I would have liked them to stand up and say clearly: ‘local government is a complex organisation and we employ good staff on market appropriate salaries throughout the organisation. Some of these are well paid but this simply reflects the work that we expect of them’.

Instead they complained that the data included redundancies and therefore overstated the issue. Talk about missing the wood for the trees!

An interesting point of view from Ken Livingstone got some unexpected support this week from a Lib Dem councillor this week via an LGA Blog, when Cllr Lester Holloway agreed that perhaps there are too many boroughs in London.  After all, do we really relate at all to our borough boundaries?

Aside from job losses the main objection has been loss of local accountability. But preserving town hall fiefdoms in formaldehyde does little for accountability.

As a Liberal Democrat with ‘localism’ sewn on my sleeve, I should be instinctively against big domineering monoliths of the state. But Livingstone has a point: borough-based identities are for bureaucrats and local politicians. Most people identify more locally.

We’re not sure whether this could actually work, but one things for sure; we won’t get to find out any time soon.

As the humble mobile phone morphs into something altogether more sophisticated it continues to open up opportunities to engage digitally with groups who in the past would never have been interested or able to benefit from the digital world.  The Government Digital Service (GDS) has picked up on this fact, and on 16 June will be holding a hack day to take advantage of this.

Westminster City Council, with the help of Go ON UK and GDS are holding a hack day on Saturday 16th June. The request is simple, to build something useful and accessible, either for the homeless themselves, for the professionals who assist them, or for any member of public wanting to help in some way. The platform that this is delivered across is also open, covering web, mobile or other platform. Assistance will be available from experts in this area on the day to help with ideas and on Friday 11th May, results of a pre hack day discussion with homeless charities explaining the needs of the homeless in this area will be published.

We truly look forward to seeing the results of this work, and love the fact that in this case the technology is creating opportunities that otherwise simply wouldn’t exist.

Another digital post here, albeit a short one.  Dave Briggs has pointed us towards a nifty new site which aims to help councillors better understand issues in the complex world of planning.  And there’s no ridiculous flowchart diagram in sight.

The purpose of the site is really to drive traffic to NALC’s e-learning platform (provided by my good chums at Learning Pool) as well as to other online learning resources about planning.

We wanted the site to have a nice and bright, informal feel that perhaps not many websites in this particular sector tend to feature, and are pretty pleased with the results!

Thanks to the Evening Standard for highlighting this bit of local government scandal. A local councillor in the London Borough of Merton was removed from his cabinet post for the crime of…. removing an illegally placed poster from some railings. As the Standard reported:

A senior councillor has been sacked from his role as education chief after being filmed ripping down a teenager’s fundraising poster.

Peter Walker was out jogging this week when he stopped to remove the poster attached to railings at Dundonald Park, Wimbledon.

The Labour councillor was secretly filmed by a local resident and the footage was posted on YouTube — prompting Merton council’s leader to dismiss him from his cabinet education post yesterday.

Yep, Jeremy Hunt can survive leaking information about a Government statement to the owners of one of the world’s premier media empires but Councillor Walker cannot survive removing a poster put up by a local youngster… And don’t even get me started on the secret filming!

I love local government!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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