It looks as if weekly refuse collections are no longer on the list of reasonable entitlements that we can come to expect in return for our council tax. Having pledged last year that a once a week service would return under a Conservative government, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles completed something of a U-turn when he conceded that local authorities who are "accountable to their electorate"..."could not be forced" into bringing back weekly collections. It's possibly another unfortunate consequence of coalition, but remains an immense disappointment nonetheless.
It does not surprise me one iota that it is frontline services that are amongst the earliest casualties of the slashes to public expenditure. That is what we were warned by the statists, and they were right, not on grounds of principle or wise judgement, but because they held the levers of power to fulfil their own prophecy. People are now being advised to "reduce waste" and use their bins more carefully, as if we have spent the last decade throwing stuff in there for no apparent reason. It is indeed sad that a great many council taxpayers, some well-intentioned and others just plain stupid, have bought into this notion that we should expect less for more, and adjust our behaviour accordingly to meet reduced provision.
The average council tax bill doubled under the Labour government, and so you have to throw this fact into the argument when trying to understand exactly why the reduction of a basic service like refuse collection from once every seven days to once in fourteen has occurred in more than half of the local authorities in England. Where did all this extra money go? Some research into this subject at the start of 2011 produced some disturbing findings. Local authority payrolls increased by £67 billion between 2002 and 2009, with £14 billion of this accounted for by management pay rises. 15,000 coucil employees now trouser £58,000 or more per annum with the median hourly rate of employees of the taxpayer now sitting at 30% higher than that of their private sector counterparts.
This is clearly something to ponder next time the local council announces cuts to a frontline service. There is of course nothing to stop those in the higher echelons of such bodies from acknowleding that the party and the bonanza are well and truly over, taking a voluntary pay cut across the board and freeing up council taxpayers' money to retain the functions it was supposed to be spent on. Nor is there any viable reason not to conduct an audit of different levels of management within councils themselves - where are there too many fools making too many rules, therefore doing more harm to the operation than good? How much management do we actually need to oversee the provision of the services which people require on a day-to-day basis?
There is of course a very good reason for them not asking these questions of their own organisations, as it remains in their interest to peddle the false choice of 'reduced frontline provision vs the status quo, and the sky-high taxes needed to pay for it'. In a disgusting act of gerrymandering, Labour loaded a further 180,000 people onto local authority payrolls while in office, and took the numbers performing no obviously necessary function up to just a fraction below 750,000. Those employed in such non-jobs are of course highly unlikely to become turkeys voting for a Christmas which closes down their source of income. As a result, this both strengthens the position of the Labour Party, who are of course part-funded by public sector unions, and blunts the teeth of anyone balancing the pursuit of power with an urgent need to clean up the mess.
Three interesting statistics were also disclosed by one of my favourite pressure groups, the Taxpayers' Alliance. They found that in 2010, local authorities had spent £5 million on 141 political advisers, a further £6 million on european officers and a whopping £10 million on agents to fight the war on climate change. Now why is it unsurprising that when we talk about the monumental waste of other people's money, the issue of climate change never fails to appear in close proximity? A 'climate change officer' is of course the ultimate non-job, combining all the local authority traditions of a hefty salary, a prestigious title and a phoney cause. It also follows the long line of nonsense occupations which have appeared on the public payroll in the last decade, more than willingly advertised by the Grauniad in its jobs pages.
Something that is never likely to happen, but would go a long way towards solving the problem, is complete transparency of where our money is going. If you go into a council building, there is sometimes a brochure available to you titled along the lines of "this is what we, your cute and cuddly council, spend your hard-earned money on". All you actually get is a pie chart broken down into areas of expenditure that the local authority has defined for itself - ie 'law and order', 'fire service', 'health', 'education' and 'local services'. Also self-defined is exactly which jobs fall under each heading, so the presentation of openness is pretty useless in reality.
What should replace it, and in fact be a legal requirement of all local authorities is a booklet or online spreadsheet detailing every job title employed by the council (naturally with names removed to protect the individuals concerned) and the basic salary that you as a taxpayer are handing over to that employee. The majority of roles and numbers would be of little consequence, but anything more than a perfunctory scan-read would hopefully flush out a few issues. Firstly, we would see exactly how much the managerial sector of the council is taking, and could form our own judgement as to whether or not this was a fair and proportionate reward for their work. Moreover, the non-jobs, the diversity co-ordinators and suchlike, would be immediately illuminated, and in all likelihood eliminated out of sheer embarrassment.
Birmingham city council spent £1.9 million on diversity enforcement last year, justifying the expenditure by wheeling out a spokesman, "We do not have 'diversity officers...we have officers working within the equality and diversity division who engage with other public agencies and community groups to ensure that everyone has the ability, knowledge and confidence to know how to access services, what help is available and what help they are entitled to." What? If someone legally residing here asks what services they are entitled to then the answer is quite simple - the same as everybody else by law. Discrimination was a criminal offence long before the PC mafia took sole ownership of the public payroll, and I'd love to know how someone, anyone, can justify spending £1.9 million to answer that question in Birmingham, and £20 million for 543 diversity agents to answer it nationwide in 2010? That works out at just shy of £37,000 each on average by the way, assuming my mental arithmetic is correct.
I nipped out for a quick cigarette break halfway through this piece - I know I should probably see one of the council's smoking cessation officers about that. But I'm aware that pieces on here can get quite humourless, so I thought I'd share this brainwave I had while indulging my filthy habit, and see if you smiled at it like I did. Remember that Karel Fialka song, 'Hey Matthew', the rather sweet father and son synthpop effort that cracked the top 10 in 1987? If not then no worries - I've posted the link at the end, but it takes the form of Karel making a series of deep observations while watching television with his son, then posing a similarly meaningful question. Matthew, clearly too young to operate on the same intellectual plane as his father, responds with a string of literal answers as to what he sees or wants to be. Had he written the song two decades later, then it may have sounded somewhat different:-
"Hey Matthew what'll you be? I want to be a bouncy castle attendant, a diversity agent, a cheerleading development officer, a walking officer, an LGBT facilitator, a future shape programme manager, a smoking cessation officer, a street football co-ordinator, a health, safety and wellbeing officer, a putting people first programme manager, a business improvement partner, a political assistant, a community space challenger co-ordinator, a climate change officer - nice work if you can get it".
In the meantime, I'm away on other business tomorrow evening, so in my place will be the quite brilliant Colonel von Houghton, who I'm deligthed to have on board with us at OutspokenRabbit. I'm sure you'll find the second part of his piece on Francis Fukuyama to be of great interest, as the opening instalment was. Take care and I'll catch you again on Thursday.