Storm Warning Ignored

To my knowledge, at least one member of West Berkshire Council (WBC) has said he has long been aware a financial axe was about to fall. Despite this prescience, little seems to have been done to prepare for the catastrophe.

WBC cannot be surprised by the outraged public reaction, nor by the number and variety of groups that have been established to try to maintain the threatened services. This is all now being done at breakneck speed by people who unexpectedly have to be in some cases the providers as well as recipients. It’s as if spectators at a Grand Prix were forced to help change the tyres on a car while it was still being driven round the track.

Aren’t large organisations meant to have ‘succession planning’? This is normally for staff roles but I don’t see why, in these uncertain times, it shouldn’t be extended to functions as well. It’s clear some of WBC’s functions will need to be taken over by others if they are to continue. This takes time to do properly if the results are to do justice to the intentions. All governments, local and national, also have plans for dealing with foreseeable catastrophes like hurricanes. WBC foresaw bad weather. Where’s the umbrella?

I’m not saying WBC should even have told us at the time that any such planning was going on. Sometimes it’s worth keeping a secret. Without a tangible threat, few of us would have reacted anyway and those that did might have reacted in the wrong way. Also, overtly preparing for cuts might have been viewed in Westminster as welcoming them. Nor would public consultation have been needed. A useful step would, however, would have been inventories of the services that would be vulnerable were the worst to happen. This would have included costs, compliance issues, legal limitations, possible contractors, possible roles WBC could continue to fulfil, procedures for constituting voluntary bodies, sources of expert advice within WBC and the identification of likely groups or individuals who might wish to take the services on in whole or in part: a succession plan, in short. If any such work has been done I’ve seen no evidence of it.

What do we have instead? Public meetings at which progress is impeded by lack of information. The perception that, by correcting or dismissing any suggestions arising from these, WBC is smug and complacent. An increasing sense that WBC has failed in its responsibilities. A public and often divisive re-airing of old grievances against, and of misjudgements and contentious decisions by, WBC, resulting in an even more antagonistic atmosphere. A good deal of frustration and duplicated effort against the backdrop of a ticking clock. Finally and most insidiously, a loss of confidence in the processes and perhaps even the purpose of local democracy.

All of this could have been avoided were WBC have been able to say ‘for each area of our operation we have a plan to help local groups take over services. We’ve only got weeks to sort it out. We’ve done our bit. Let’s get cracking.’ Might this have been what The Prime Minster meant by ‘The Big Society’ about which he was so ‘passionate’ in 2010 (and about which so little has been heard since)?

The government’s behaviour has exceeded our worst fears. It’s all a bit like the Costa Concordia a few years ago when that crazy captain steered the ship onto the Italian rocks and then scarpered in a lifeboat. This time, though, it’s all being done deliberately: it’s all part of a plan. We’re also being told that we need to make our own lifeboats out of deckchairs and old tablecloths and look sharp about it. ‘Sorry for the lack of warning, chaps,’ the deserting captain’s voice calls across the waves, ‘but if we’d told you about this too far in advance you might have complained. This will be character building, make you realise what’s really important. And remember –’ but by now he is so far away and the sound of popping Champagne corks from the offshore yacht to which he’s headed is so deafening that we can hardly hear him at all ‘– we’re all in this together!

WBC suspected something like this would happen and could have prepared a survival plan. Except, it seems, it didn’t. I’m prepared to be corrected on this or any other point.

A new system of funding local councils is planned for 2019-20. This will almost certainly lead to further cuts although we’re being encouraged to believe the opposite. It seems too much to hope that the government can change its spots. Can WBC – which may have had its spots changed for it, as there are local elections before then – assure us that it will have some lifeboats ready this time, or at least a plan as to how they can be built properly?

PS. I’m not aware of any other councils that have done made such plans, although the need must be just as acute in the many areas where similar situations are being faced. For all I know it may be illegal under the Local Government Act of 1876 or whenever to ‘contemplate or prepare for the reassignment of services provided by the council.’ In this country, anything’s possible.

Brian Quinn
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