Last weekend, I had a familiar social encounter with a friend of a friend. As is usual when you meet someone for the first time, after a while I was asked what I did and with the mention of local authorities I braced myself for the almost replicable word-for-word exchange that I have had many times.
“Local authorities?” “Yes.” “Well, mine is rubbish” and then they trot out a story for why that is the case and it is normally to do with parking or bin collection or more recently Christmas tree collection. When I then become impassioned and start to hold forth as to the breadth, depth and worth of the 800 or so services that local councils deliver, the reaction is again the same. “Oh, right..um wow, well yes, I didn’t realise they did that, that is pretty impressive” and then they trot out another story for why their local authority is great – have seen posters for fostering or the rhyme time session that they have taken their toddler to, the cheap gym at the leisure centre, the nearby children’s play ground or the well lit street on their way home from the tube.
In my experience, the predominant gut reaction (well amongst my friends of friends anyway – my friends wouldn’t dare!) when the subject of local authorities comes up is negative. This comes from educated, liberal and interesting people.
This exchange always depresses me ever so slightly, particularly when I know that if councils spent a lot of money on getting their comms right so that this wasn’t my friends of friends’ reaction then they would be lambasted from pillar to post for such extravagance in this age of austerity.
With the future of local government hanging in the balance, when its public services are most hard hit by the economic times in which we find ourselves, this is a call to arms. Start publicising to anyone who will listen the extreme responsibilities that a local authority has and the breadth, depth and worth of all of its services. No private company would ever be mad enough to deliver a tenth of the number of contrasting services that a local authority is statutorily obliged to.
I also feel like banging down the door of Michael Gove and insisting that a module of government studies – how the public sector is funded, which part delivers what services and how our democratic system works – be mandatory in secondary education.