Police or community? Why not both?

As MPs go through the motions in Parliament today, I hope at least a few of them, including those on the Tory benches, take the opportunity to ask David Cameron how, given the events of that last 7 days, he intends to put his Big Society vision in to practice.

Surely, the recent horrifying and depressing events across England, are a confirmation of what David Cameron has been saying since he became Party leader. His biggest problem now, is being seen as all talk and no action. Can he really expect all those people who turned out on the streets of London, armed with brooms and bin bags, to keep on being so community spirited, without something more than words of encouragement from his government? If he does, then his vision is doomed already.

Just like a train needs a track to run on, Big Society needs the right sort of infrastructure to support it. People are demanding no more cuts in police budgets, so that more officers can be put on the streets – that’s one solution. However, the heavy hand of authority is the way regimes such Syria, Lybia and Zimbabwe control their populations. I don’t think any right minded citizen would wish to see the UK go down this route, if only because it fails completely to address the underlying issues. Policing is the answer, but not neccesaraily high police numbers. Policing focussed on and based in the community, in other words, a return to a form of the good old village bobby.

If David Cameron believes that the Big Society can work, he could do worse than start by reintroducing genuine local policing. This could be in the form of a proper community based police officer, complete with office and house – sound familiar? Or, as works in other European countries such as Holland, community wardens living and working in their communities. Recent events in Japan also highlighted their system of community based officials. I also understand that it is common practice to see mini-police offices on many street corners in Japan, providing genuine community based policing. The key to this approach is ensuring that there are enough boots on the ground, as they say in the military – over to you Dave.

Ed Miliband – one trick pony?

Apparently Ed Miliband is being given plaudits for kicking the open goal that is the phone hacking scandal. Surely, unless he actually came out in support of Murdoch, it would be difficult for him not to be heard saying the right things wouldn’t it? Heaven help us if picking easy targets is all it takes to become a political leader.

A credit card non-story and easy street for MPs

Two stories have caught my attention this week. The first one strikes me as something of a non-story once you scratch the surface and is about the amount government depts spend on credit cards. The very terms credit card and government seems to cause Daily Telegraph reports to break out in a hot flush and grab for the nearest keyboard.

Putting aside the claims of 5 star hotel rooms and Michelin star restaurant meals and you see that the majority of the spending is on legitimate items. Using a credit as opposed to the incredibly bureaucratic and expensive claims system I remember from my military days, can only be seen as an improvement. Despite its bureaucracy, that system was open to wide spread abuse, something that is much less likely with a credit card.

The other story that caught my attention is the ongoing storm surrounding public sector pensions. Apparently public sector workers are going to have to pay a lot more in to their pension scheme in order to maintain the levels of payout currently enjoyed. The list of those affected included, doctors, teachers, civil servants and no doubt just about every other public sector worker who gets their pay from the public purse. However, there appears to be one notable exception – Members of Parliament – what a surprise!

Another day, another ‘sell off’?

I see from the latest Planning News that the government now thinks that council planning services are fair game when it comes to competition – is there no limit to what they will try to ‘sell off’, or should I say more accurately, off load?

How do you convert what is currently an impartial process, that is all about achieving the best outcome, into a profit making business, without it becoming biased and open to accusations of corruption?

The big question for me is, what damage will they do to the current system in order to attract these competitors?

Half measures could cost council taxpayers dear!

Whilst I applaud the government’s proposals to make it slightly easier for teachers to do their job by restraining unruly or even violent pupils when needed, I fear this could prove to be yet another piece of bad legislation by a government that, like its predecessor, is often in too much of hurry to please.

To date I have not seen any proposals to prevent the restrained pupil’s parents, who can often be more badly behaved than their off-spring, from reaching for the Yellow Pages and setting the whole no-win, no-fee gravy train in motion.

What’s the point of telling teachers that they now have protection at one level, if in fact the education authority that employs them can still itself be sued by self serving parents?  It’s also worth remembering that it is local taxpayers, through their council tax bills, who will ultimately be picking up the bill for the avalanche of law suits that are likely to follow as newly empowered teachers begin to flex their new found muscles.

Government now needs to finish the job by offering the local taxpayer protection from the often unruly and sometimes ‘violently’ greedy parents and lawyers, who could soon be stalking the corridors of town halls up and down the land.

An expert’s view of the wind farm issue

New laws could boost onshore wind farm approvals, say experts

Borrowed from http://www.planningresource.co.uk article by Susanna Gillman Monday, 09 May 2011 (hope they don’t mind!)

New planning legislation could be used to boost the approval of onshore wind farms under a recommendation from the Government’s climate change committee.

The committee has told the Government that further approvals will be required to deliver the onshore wind ambition in its renewable energy strategy.

The Government has set a target of 15 per cent of energy from renewables by 2020.

But approval rates for onshore wind projects have historically been low, with less than 50 per cent of schemes getting the go ahead and the planning period taking around two years.

In its renewable energy review, the Committee on Climate Change said even with a push for more community-led wind farm projects, there is a “significant risk that onshore wind and transmission investments will not gain local public support, given high levels of resistance from some groups”.

It concludes that achieving higher rates of approval will need central government decisions, “possibly under new planning legislation that explicitly sets this out”.

The committee, which was requested to advise on the scope to increase ambition for green energy, said renewables should make a 30-45 per cent contribution by 2030. More than 6GW could come from onshore wind through the 2020s, it suggests.

Onshore wind is also likely to be one of the cheapest low-carbon options, according to the committee. Offshore wind schemes are still expensive and should not be increased unless there is clear evidence of cost reduction, it warned.

Nuclear power is currently the most cost-effective of the low carbon technologies, and should form part of the mix assuming safety concerns can be addressed, it added.

Nick Medic, spokesman for Renewable UK, trade body for the wind and marine renewables industries, said rather than creating more legislation a better approach would be to make a case for the economic benefits of onshore wind to local communities.

A DECC spokesman said energy secretary Charles Hendry has stressed the need for greater local ownership so communities can see the benefits of wind farms as part of the future energy mix.

I’d like to be in America!

I’d like to be in America, everything’s ‘private’ in America……..

Excuse my shameless abuse of the words of the song, but it seems to be appropriate to the thinking of Bury Borough Council.  See Independent article link below.  It makes very interesting reading for all of us in local government, as do some of the readers’ comments below it.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/bury-privatising-public-services-2255631.html

Hiving everything public off to the private sector and repatriating the business rates to ‘free’ local government from the central grant system, has a very American feel to it – and not in a good way.

I continue to be disappointed that the existing local government machine cannot figure out how to more closely align itself to the way the private sector does business, so as to survive the turmoil that is being imposed on it by central government cuts.

Obviously part of it will be about the terms and conditions that have become so favourable in local government in recent years, compared to the private sector.  It may be that we need to go through this ‘destructive’ phase in local government, in order for those who continue to defend this model to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ as they say. 

However, we also need to consider if it might only possible to recruit people with a public service ethic, when you make the pay and conditions more favourable that they are in the private sector.  I suppose the Holy Grail for this aspect is the volunteer, that extraordinary person who is not only driven by a need to help others, but is also willing to do it for nothing!  The alternative to this ideal, is that you accept the profit driven model and along with it the potential for a somewhat different attitude to public/customer service.  

The problem with culling from local government all those who joined because they saw public service as a noble cause and replacing them with those whose only gaol is the bottom line, is that it is then almost impossible to go back to the good old days.  There has been some talk of the John Lewis model working in local government, but this still requires employee buy-in based on profit sharing and would still need those currently in local government to accept, initially at least, reduced pay and conditions of service.

Even more worrying for local taxpayers, is the spectre of continued and increasing conflict between central and local government, as more councils change colour from blue (and the occasional yellow) to outraged red.

More like the Marx Brothers than Laurel & Hardy

Richard Kemp – a LibDem councillor at the Local Government Assoc, but I try not to hold that against him – has described Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps as Laurel and Hardy and Bob Neil as Minime.  Not to be outdone, I’ve been trying to think of a famous foursome in order to include Gregg Clark, the Decentralisation Minister, as he is helping, if only by default, to kick the stuffing out of local government.

Gregg Clark is not as guilty as the others of banging the Localism drum with one hand, whilst waving the latest ministerial directive to local government with the other, but if you lay down with dogs you are bound to catch fleas.

I suppose if you leave out Gregg for the time being the other three could be collectively grouped as the 3 Stooges, which wouldn’t be a bad description, given their bumbling, slapstick approach to the job. 

However, I also think the Marx Brothers could be quite an accurate description for this government quartet.  They, the Brothers, also seemed particularly good at leaving a trail of chaos in their wake and they had a smart mouth called Groucho, who puts down anybody who challenges his view of the world, with a sarcastic and witty remark (Pickles can manage the sarcasm, but humour seems beyond him). 

I think Gregg Clark would probably be the one who doesn’t speak, in the quartet, because although he does have quite a lot to say, unlike the others, what he says tends to be focussed on his role as a minister and not on taking a swipe at local government whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Pickles’ hypocricy continues

Local government continues to be criticised from various quarters, whilst at the same time battling the worst grant settlement in recent history.  Media criticism is a given these days – there’s no news in good news when it comes to the press.  The other, and more damaging criticism, comes from a man who is now clearly demonstrating a pathological hatred of the institution that gave him his start in politics, but appears to have cause him some form of psychological damage in the process, Eric Pickles.

Although given the job of minister for local government and therefore supposedly an advocate for it within central government, this man appears to be on a one-man crusade, but enthusiastically aided and abetted by Shapps, Clark and Neill at various stages, to undermine his area of responsibility to the point of extinction.

The hypocritical utterances of Pickles since taking office just keep flowing, with his latest referring to senior officers’ salaries.  In keeping with his two-faced approach to the Localism agenda, he has now decreed that all councils will publish details of staff earning over £58,000 a year.  Not a big deal in itself, why shouldn’t the local taxpayer know what those running their local councils are earning.  However, at the same time, this ignores completely the government’s cave-in on a similar proposal for civil servants earning ‘fat cat salaries’ – his words not mine – and the subsequent pathetic requirements for them to publicise details of all those earning more than £150,000 a year.  One rule for them and another for the rest of the pond life, as the lower ranks were sometimes called when I was in the military.

The attack from the media comes in the form of an investigation by the BBC Breakfast News show.  It must have been extremely challenging making all those telephone calls to councils – worthy of a bonus, a party paid for from expenses and at least two self-congratulatory award ceremonies.

Apparently, councils are preying on the vulnerable by increasing the charges made for services such as meals on wheels, burials and cremations.  No councillor gets elected on the promise of cutting services, or of screwing the taxpayer for as much money as possible and given the choice, most of us would prefer to reduce the cost of any service the public values.  However, when confronted with a mad fat man in a hurry, whose only priority is to punish local government and grab media headlines whilst doing so, council’s are left with little choice.

Those with access to any of the local government range of publications and in particular the Local Government Chronicle (LCG), would have read numerous articles, written by all manner of so-called experts and informed commentators, some of them from within the government, encouraging councils to be more innovative in the way they raise revenue, with trading and charges being at the top of the list of must do’s.  Trading takes time and money to set up, but increasing charges for services doesn’t.  Desperate people do desperate things and so do desperate councils.

Health reforms – quality measurement?

As a recent cancer suffer myself, I’ve been listening to the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on Radio 4 this week, with great interest.  Unfortunately, I’m a hopeless patient and consistently fail to remember most of the details regarding my treatment, so I make no claim to any expertise on the subject of the NHS, apart from the fact that they appear to have helped me to live a bit longer!

The reason for my self confessed poorly informed comment today, is to do with Mr Lansley’s repeated use of the words ‘quality’ and ‘outcomes’.  This is in relation to the scrapping of the previous government’s target driven performance indicators and the new government’s belief that it should be all about the two words previous mentioned – quality and outcomes.

The problem I have with this approach, as somebody who has more than a passing interest in both, is what happens when they don’t hit these targets?  Also, what does it actually mean when the targets are not met?  The merit of measuring the numbers of patients seen within a particular time frame, was that the patient was seen by an expert within a certain deadline (unfortunate inclusion of the word dead there!) and could then hopefully start treatment post haste if required.  However, now that we are going to measure ‘quality’ and ‘outcomes’, it would seem that we are going from one end of the telescope to the other.   Whereas before the target was hit by getting you to see the right doctor as quickly as possible, that no longer matters.  Now you will have to survive long enough to get to the doctor, before they start to measure the quality and outcome of your treatment.

If you don’t measure things until the end of the process, as opposed to at the beginning, does that mean that if you drop off the perch before you actually get in to the new health care system, it isn’t actually a quality failure?  And, from their point of view at least, it might not even be a bad outcome!

If I have a quality failure at work, somebody gets their a**e kicked and the job gets redone.  If I have a quality failure in my health care, it may well kill me, or at least cause me to die sooner than I might of.  Which then of course will indeed give Mr Lansley a poor outcome to measure.

As I said, I’m no expert in these things, but measuring quality and outcomes in health care, in the same way you inspect widgets in a factory, doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction to me!  Trouble is, if I’m right (and I am very occasionally) I probably won’t be around to say I told you so!