A little local difficulty – turning molehills into mountains

Summary

Passing the ‘who should sort out this issue?’ parcel round local public sector bodies

Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee meeting met yesterday. I rocked up without Puffles on what was a short agenda on a cold November evening. Other than continuing to pester councillors on why they were not using Shape Your Place (that local councils have spent money on launching) and other social media tools, little was on my mind.

Yet there was an interesting exchange between councillors, the police and residents on a number of issues relating to one of the roads that a number of first-time attendees had come to petition committee members over. The way Cambridge area committees tend to work is that they contain representation from city and county councillors in the wards covered. (We’re a two-tier area here, with Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council). Representatives of the emergency services – mainly police and fire services also send officers along regularly. Local residents and councillors get to question them too, in particular on setting local policing priorities. This evening however, something small blew up into something bigger, revealing some dysfunctional partnership working between the various bodies represented.

‘I don’t care which one of you is responsible – just get it sorted!’

In the grand scheme of things, I’d guess that most members of the public don’t really care which tier of local government sorts things out. They probably don’t care whether it’s central or local government or the police.

What came out of the exchanges between residents, councillors and police was a breakdown in problem-solving. Issues were being raised with one organisation who said it was the responsibility of another, and vice-versa. The particular issue concerned turned out to be a long-standing one that was the result of a planning failure when the housing and roads were first built. Residents have had to live with this ever since. Residents were unpleasantly surprised to find how long it takes local government to resolve similar previous issues – one councillor saying it took two years of campaigning to get a council to resolve an issue. I can’t help but feel that the residents didn’t get the best impression of the functioning of local government and of public sector partnership working.

How do you solve problems like this?

I don’t know how many people came away with a sense of how the issues were going to be resolved and by whom. The simple problem was that there wasn’t anyone from any of the institutions concerned who was a decision-maker with the power to commit the institution to do something. For example a head of planning or a head of transport or a senior police officer.

In one sense, bins, pot-holes and grass verges are stereotypically the staple diet of a councillor’s mailbag. Ensuring road and verge repairs get done has been an ever-present feature of the local Labour party leaflets through my letterbox as long as I can remember. Life wouldn’t be the same without a picture of Cllr Jeremy Benstead with a sad/angry face pointing at a hole in the road. It’s clearly not just a Cambridge thing. Councillors all over the country have been doing the same – so much so that someone set up the tumblr account Glum Councillors. Yet the geniuses at My Society came up with Fix My Street. The London Borough of Lewisham set up all of these things up over five years ago – where people can send electronic photos with data tags to the council and get things cleared up in 24 hours.

What do you do if your community is not nearly so internet-literate or is sceptical about using social media?

One resident stated that she had all of the contact details she needed for all of her councillors, so had no need to use social media. Fair point if the conversation or an issue is a straight-forward two-way conversation between a resident and their elected representatives. This is where not just local government, but people like myself need to make the case for how social media can be used to speed up the resolution of problems and to help people improve their communities. Otherwise – as the local resident said, what’s the point?

Part of the problem is the piecemeal nature of street improvements by different agencies and contractors – especially when you have more than one tier of local government. If you are in a village, you might have a parish council responsible for a bus stop, a district council responsible for planning issues around the bus stop, and the county council responsible for the roads. Then you have the police responsible for ensuring road users don’t break the law. How do you resolve such things?

Part of it involves getting all interested people into a room and thrashing out their differences. But I think we can do better than this. This is where you could have a community event where you invite the community to bring in the complaints about which bits of their neighbourhoods need repairing or improving, and have all of the decision-makers within the competent organisations there to work with them. A sort of ‘community problem-solving event’ if you like. You could also bring in the likes of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and even your local MP or MEP (plus caseworkers too) just in case some issues involve having to chase after central government – as some inevitably will do.

Conversations would not need to be two-way conversations. If there are issues with say a road junction and people have different opinions, why not try to solve it as a group rather than having a series of two-way conversations in separate silos? It’s something I’d also like to see in government policy-making too. Let the various interest groups thrash out their differences in front of ministers. In public. Live-streamed on the internet. Shine a big bright light on the lobbyists, pressure groups, professional bodies, campaign groups and the like and see how they get on face-to-face rather than behind the minister’s door.

Community development strategies again?

I’m not going to let this one drop. (My ideas are here). When going around the room questioning the councillors about the Shape Your Place website, only Cllr Amanda Taylor said that she used the website regularly. None of the others did. If so few councillors in the city are prepared to use it, why should the rest of us? I post news and bloglink items up there, but given that all the local (district) councils in Cambridgeshire and the county council have signed up to this, councillors need to set a better example if they expect the wider community to follow.

At the moment, there probably is not a critical mass of local residents using social media for social action to justify some councillors to engage with the platforms/tools available. Other councillors cited concerns about negative press coverage. At the same time, if councils and councillors don’t use social media for social action to help improve communities, what incentive is there for local residents to do the same? Someone’s got to try and break the cycle. Remember too that in a city like Cambridge, the culture here is still one that institutions will only listen to you if you are either within an institution (with the job title of ‘manager’, ‘director’ or similar in your job title) or a holder of public office. One bloke and his dragon fairy (ie me & Puffles) have little impact unless or until we call in the cavalry – normally from Whitehall – to get things changed.

It shouldn’t need to be like that.

We can do better than this.

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