South of the River – active citizenship and public service


Compass-SouthComment logo 2Councils up and down the land are re-shaping the way they deliver services. They have to, they’re facing unprecedented cuts to their income.

Newcastle threatened to stop funding any arts programmes in the city, Bristol is try to get residents to look after its parks. Leeds seems to be taking a more careful approach, pruning here and there and looking to be smarter about delivering services.

It’s still painful if you lose a golf course as seems likely in Middleton. They will make some wrong decisions and we need to challenge them when they do, but it also seems to be throwing up some interesting ideas.

You will increasingly see reference to Citizens@Cottingley, Citizens@Hunslet, etc. Along with renaming Area Committees ‘Community Committees, this is more than just rebranding. The Council are trying to strike a new deal with us. They want us to be active citizens – not just to vote more, but to pick up litter in the street and take a bit more responsibility.

This reminds me a classic soul song “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto” by the Philadelphia International All Stars. From its title you would think this might be a song about drugs or crime, but no it’s an early Band Aid type song about litter and garbage. No metaphors here, literally ‘cleaning up’.

I’ve attended a few community clean ups in my time. They are a good thing, but they can only ever supplement a proper Council service, they can’t replace it.

At a meeting recent I was interested to hear the idea of differentiating between self-servers and people who need more help.

Many Councils are taking the cheapest option – closing offices and making the only means of contact by phone or online. Leeds has committed to keeping its One Stop Centres open, it is trying to make them more effective and efficient by turning them into community hubs, offering a range of services. St George’s Centre in Middleton is currently piloting this new approach.

There is talk of being smarter too and putting all the data that the council holds and making better use of it. Spotting residents who call in with three or four different issues in a month as the same person and exploring if they need more help, perhaps for an issue they haven’t raised such as caring for an elderly relative. Technology can make this possible, but I worry that public sector IT contracts don’t have a happy history.

I suppose I am a self-server. At least most of the time. I broadly know my way around the system, if not the Council’s website. At least there is now a (genuinely) helpful pop up that spots that you’re lost and offers help through a webchat. All we need now is decent, and accessible, wi-fi in Council buildings.

I like to think I am an engaged citizen. I vote, I go to meetings, I respond to consultations and I pick up litter on my street. But I still have mixed feelings about all of this.

Learning from the private sector is all well and good, but “Unexpected item in the bagging area” is still one of the most depressing sounds I know. I don’t have a good track record with supermarket self-service tills. I’m sure part of this is belligerence on my part. I don’t believe they’ve been introduced to help speed me on my way – I think they’re a cost (and staff) cutting measure designed to boost the profit going to shareholders.

Public service is something to be proud of. I remember talking to a parks manager about Beeston Festival. I said not to worry, we’d look after his park, but he quickly corrected me. “It’s not my park, it’s your park. I just look after it for you.” I actually want professional public servants providing these services. These are skilled people. Ordinary citizens can help, but we can’t replace them.

If there genuinely wasn’t enough money to go round in this country I would be prepared to make all sorts of sacrifices. I’m afraid this government has used the financial crash as an excuse to slash public services. Not because there isn’t enough money in the system, but because they don’t like public services. These are political decisions, there was no money in 1945, but a government built the welfare state.

Jeremy Morton Aug13Boxing clever and managing the cuts well is OK, but I would have preferred Leeds City Council to be taking on the government more directly. So I am pleased to see that public service workers will be on strike next Thursday. Not because I like to see offices or schools closed, but because I think this is the way to keep them open in the long term.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.

One Reply to “South of the River – active citizenship and public service”

  1. Well said Jeremy. As a public sector worker I will be on strike next week. It’s so important for people to unite and resist this government and it’s ‘austerity’ policy which has hit the low and average earner hard while wealthy people continue to see their assets grow (all in it together?). More and more working people are having to claim benefits to survive on poverty wages (around 1 million working people are having to claim housing benefit) and food-bank handouts.

    I’m sure the press will be full of negative stories as usual about the strikers next week – the inconvenience, how dare they strike, the ‘gold plated pensions’ (as if) – but it’s through Union action that rights for ordinary working people are achieved and kept in the face of the organisations who want us all on zero-hour contracts. If anyone doubts this then look at the amazing events in America as fast food industry workers unite to demand – and get – a decent minimum wage.

    With a general election on the horizon I guess the question is, will Labour (if they get in) be any better for ‘ordinary’ people like us, or will the trend of growing inequalities continue? If they continue with the same economic principles that Thomas Piketty has shown to be false then I suspect it will be the latter.

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