For a long time I have been preaching that Councils can provide a better service to the Electorate than centralised control. Having worked as a consultant engineer, in contracting, for the Admiralty, for a Housing Executive, and also in Local Government and the Northern Ireland Civil Service, in a mid range capacity with large designs, contracts and workforce, I have experienced the difference. Since about the late 60s there has been constant reshaping of government in all areas, and not necessarily to the benefit of the areas served. Local government has had its teeth drawn and been left with little responsibilities for the services that really matter to the individual, other than those like recreation and cleansing.
In the past, small councils, rural or town, have suffered from insufficient expertise in depth, due to their size. They have often been too open to influence from the ‘Old Boy Net’ and vested interest. The larger councils with greater departments, greater staff, used to be able to give departmental staff training, advancement, in-house expertise and loyalty. If you have to import experience, you lose continuity and above all the personal relationship between departments. In good councils, if there is a problem, it usually can be sorted verbally and face to face. I suspect that huge councils like London have to be split up, with the result that they lose the common touch with the electorate. City councils of the size of Belfast retain them. In a good council, the minute an employee steps into the street, while he might not be aware, he is registering council business – the state of the roads, drainage in storms, lighting and so on, and in parks as well – his pride is at stake.
Central Government is remote and impersonal. often it employs consultants for technical work, at considerable cost, as, with the current general promotional policy, it no longer has technicians trained in-house by coal-face experience, to enable them to monitor the consultant. The principles of civil service senior advancement require movement between departments, similar to Ministerial changes, This is not a prescription for continuity, there is no knowledge in depth, or a build up of the ability to refer current problems to past, local history, as there was in councils. Memos replace verbal intercourse, and protocols and decisions small, or even of significant and costly size, can, across the board, be handed down to departments for execution in a memo, without reference to the effect they will have locally in execution. The management of a council is generally housed in one building, and serves the needs of the geographic area. Because of its size, the civil service, is broken up into large separate units, even in any one function, and is a crude, cumbersome, fit-all tool, not always able to adapt to local conditions.
Local government is more adaptable, offers cheaper and simpler opportunities for the trial of a management theory, without affecting many people. If the public, en masse or individually, feel aggrieved, they can see their local representative on the council, or call at the City or Town Hall and speak to someone. Until the changes took place, the local government workforces, from journeyman to manager, were brought up through the system, knew it backwards, knew the history of the areas in which they worked, and could respond quickly and efficiently in any situation. Take a simple example, designs from a kerb line to a road bridge over a river, were conceived, designed, smaller ones even built by the council, with the larger schemes let to contract but supervised by the experienced council employees. This system gave valuable training to those coming up, This was replicated throughout the departments of the councils. In spite of the standing jokes about council workers, most had pride in their work, and those in the community with limited skills were given work and retained their self respect, The problem is it takes decades to build up the knowledge and the skills, and to pass them on.
In our current, divided society, my experiences in Northern Ireland show that in spite of a candidate being clever, even handed and worthy, he may not be elected, because of voting along ethnic lines and tactical voting, This can leave the minority without representation, and is something which will have to be addressed if we are to have a United Kingdom. How it is achieved equably is the problem, but addressed it must be. We should start now to do away with carpet central government, but not go back to the plethora of councils of all sizes, but to councils covering either large areas or large populations, not both, and not gargantuan councils like the LCC.