Yesterday was #OurDay, an annual tweetathon in which council workers across the UK post status updates, photos and videos to show people what really goes on throughout the day in a local authority.
I’ve loved #OurDay since I first took part, when part of a council communications team, a few years ago – as far as I’m concerned, anything that shows people the enormous breadth of services that their taxes pay for, not to mention the faces behind those services, is a good thing.
One thing I consistently struggle to deal with, both in my previous local government jobs and now, working on behalf of local government nationally, is the way in which people talk about council officers. There’s an incredibly stubborn, persistent myth that states people who work for councils are lazy, over-paid, uncaring and very comfortable in their jobs-for-life.
Having worked with a fair few people in councils, nothing could be further from the truth.
That myth might have been borne out of some (limited) truth, many years ago, but things have changed beyond all recognition. Councils have faced funding cuts of more than 40 per cent since 2010 – yet they’ve retained the same responsibilities, and gained some new ones. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that to make the figures add up, salaries have been cut, and the workforce has been slashed. Reorganisations and redundancies are, sadly, pretty normal. Many are now doing jobs that have previously been the responsibility of two or three or four people. When I was working in a council, many worked well over their ‘normal’ hours. Evenings, weekends, holidays. People don’t do that when they’re lazy. They don’t do it when they don’t care. They don’t do it when they’re comfortable.
For anyone who can’t work out where their council tax goes (and I’ll admit that even though I know, as my biggest non-rent expense in my old flat, it hurt when it went out each month!), here are just a few things that it pays for (and this doesn’t come close to covering the hundreds of services councils provide):
- help for older and disabled people to get them dressed and fed, and to provide them with equipment so that they can stay in their own homes for longer, to pay for places in care homes, and to provide other support that people might need
- foster care for children who, for whatever reason, can’t stay in their own homes, along with adoption and child protection
- emergency homes for people who have been made homeless, and support for those at risk
- looking after public parks
- early years and family support
- collecting and getting rid of rubbish (the volumes for this one are enormous – the borough I used to work for emptied more than 20,000 bins a day)
- finding school places for children, and supporting children with special educational needs to make sure they get the best education for their needs
- maintaining local roads
- funerals for people whose family doesn’t come forward or can’t afford to pay for them
- helping local people start up their own businesses, and supporting local businesses
- collecting stray dogs and looking after them
- public health services like help to stop smoking, sexual health and health visitors
- running elections – staffing polling stations, sending out postal votes, registering candidates and electors, arranging the election count and so on.
None of those things are cheap, and none of them are easy – especially as welfare reform continues to bite, and more people are being forced into a position where they’re struggling to pay rent, or struggling to pay for their own care. Demand for the most critical services – children’s and adults social services – goes up every year. Funding from central government is cut every year.
The disdain with which people view council workers needs to change. I remember the roads being blocked when it snowed one time, and on our council twitter feed, we were accused of not caring about residents because “everyone at the council was warm and safe at home”. Of course we weren’t! We were all stuck in that same traffic! Workers and councillors are accused of not caring about the community, when that’s their community too. They aren’t soulless. There’s no benefit for them in making a decision that they don’t honestly believe is the right one for the area.
By all means, hold your local council to account, engage in local politics, speak to the people who represent you – but don’t underestimate how hard the people working at that council are trying to make things work in these incredibly tough times, and don’t underestimate how much people care.