Time to cut out the ribbon cutting?
During yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions David Cameron announced that the Queen, acting on the advice of the Deputy PM, had conferred the honour of official City Status on three cities across the country – Chelmsford in England, Perth in Scotland and St Asaph in Wales – as well as Northern Ireland’s Armagh becoming only the second place from that particular home nation to have a Lord Mayor. The congratulations of the WLLG team go out to each and every person who put their hard work and effort into these bids, and our commiserations go to those who bid but were not successful.
24 towns from all over the country competed for this rare honour, including places as diverse as Wrexham, Stockport, Reading and Tower Hamlets. Each put together a comprehensive bid document which hopefully haven’t all already disappeared from the internet, as each of these shows exactly why each of these places see themselves as worthy of the title, and therefore a place to be proud of. Having known some of those involved in putting these bids together we are only too aware of the effort that was put into them on tiny or non-existent budgets, along with the investment and time local communities made to support them. Regardless of the outcome, none of the entrants should be too downheartened at the result, as the process may very well be just as valuable as the prize.
But why exactly is this prize so valued? What is it about the addition of two words to stationary and signs – ‘City of …’ – which makes such a difference to so many people? The title itself carries no additional funding, no additional power, no additional authority and no additional rights. Some may say that the added prestige attracts businesses and investment, but really this can only be anecdotal evidence at best.
And city status is not the only ceremonial aspect of local government which we get so worked up about. All over the country sit ceremonial Mayors (not to be confused with their elected counterparts, which are a different ball game altogether), sheriffs, chaplains, Honorary Aldermen, Lord-Lieutenants and more. Many of these roles go back decades or even centuries, and few are the town halls which aren’t adorned with wooden plaques bearing the names of previous incumbents proudly in golden lettering for all to see. Few of these roles actually contribute actively to the ‘real’ work and business of the council, and act merely as honorary posts during symbolic parts of ceremonies and meetings.
Why is it that we invest so much of our attention into these roles, despite their arguable superfluous nature? Surely we don’t actually need someone to formally open a meeting of full council whilst dressed in full regalia or wearing pounds of gold jewellery? These are the duties of a meeting Chair and could more than adequately be carried out without so much pomp and ceremony. Do we really need to use such archaic titles and honorifics to describe simple duties, some of which in this time of austerity might be worth taking the principles of Occam’s Razor to? If something could be simplified then should it be?
Maintaining these duties and roles undoubtedly costs Councils money, which is in woefully short supply. Many of these roles take up valuable officer time, either directly through teams of support staff or indirectly through the additional processes and work which they generate. Mayors are a particular case in point here; often in possession of a secretary or assistant to organise their time and responsibilities, they are called upon to attend school assemblies, head formal dinners and generally ‘represent the authority’. Despite the fact that they are a voted-for councillor they must remain aloof from local politics during their mayoralty, meaning they could be seen as even less use than not being there at all.
All that and more would be the words of a cynic, and all of it would be arguable from a certain point of view. However, even when all that and more is taken into consideration, I’m not sure I’d like to do without them. Sure, these posts and other honorific titles such as city status may not on the face of it achieve much, but they are an intrinsic part of what makes local government local. They hark back to times gone past, and act as a link to our otherwise forgotten history on a local and identifiable scale.
For example, Leicstershire have Honorary Aldermen whilst Dundee have baillies. The Mayor of Southampton has the added duties of being the Admiral of the Port, a grand title if ever there was one. Each of these draws direct lines to what these places are all about, and help define what makes each different from the others. Even when duties are on the face of it similar, the way each local authority goes about putting these into action varies from place to place.
These ceremonial roles act as a very effective and tangible way for local residents to relate to the council. How many school children would go home to excitedly tell their parents that they met the Director of Resources (no offence intended of course to any who are reading this), or in fact any other officer role? I for one have stood in front of school halls with hundreds of children staring blankly at someone they have no recognition of nor care enough to find out about.
Put someone in front of them however who is wearing a long red coat and the Mayoral chains of office and suddenly eyes light up. Parents become more interested to see the signature of the Mayor on a certificate than most others; not because they voted for them necessarily, but because in this country these traditions have been engrained so deeply into our collective psyche that no amount of reasoning can erase this in a generation. We associate the individuals undertaking these duties generally with trust and responsibility, and these preconceptions are then transferred in turn to the councils they are representing.
I doubt very much that were we to start again truly from scratch, with no pressure at all to continue with traditions or manage handover and transitionary arrangements, we would ever come up with these roles and titles. None of these are things which appear overnight for practical purposes, but then again not everything really has to have a practical purpose. We could all survive without cricket, business suits and cups of tea; but would Britain be the same place without them? These things and more are entwined with what it means to be part of this collection of communities which we call our country, and when you drill down into these communities they are just as idiosyncratic and interesting. Stripping out anything superfluous would perhaps make us a tiny bit leaner and easier to understand to the average person, but would make us all a little more bland and boring.
I for one am happy to pay homage to a little tradition and history. After all, I’d rather see a smiling mayor in a red coat, tricorn hat and gold chains of office talking about the honour of receiving official city status than a beige-cardiganed official noting a minuscule increase in efficiency in one defined area of the organisation.
Yes, at times it may seem pompous, and yes, at first glance it may be something to trim away in the name of efficiency, but we would be losing more than we would be gaining. Some things hold greater value than any balance book would ever show.
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