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The perils of politics

Now, you can figure out from recent posts that we are pre-disposed to be kindly to those who actually sand for election to become local councillors. It’s a conditional kindness – we can also withdraw our support from those who go too far*, but, frankly much of the noise around local government and its performance comes from people who don’t want the responsibility of being councillors, or couldn’t get elected if they did.

There’s a long running row between Sarah Brown, and Richard Taylor dating back to when Sarah was a councillor which highlights this perfectly. It culminated recently in Sarah making a few remarks to which Mr Taylor has taken offence. I would guess that he might  take offence at this blog as well. Such is life.

However, in amongst the pompous and overly long and tedious rants that Taylor publishes there are some gems that illustrate exactly why people like Richard Taylor simply don’t get it. The fact that he doesn’t understand how local government works doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it just means he doesn’t understand.

Take as an example this blog by Taylor which focusses on a row about whether Cambridge City Council should have authorised the use of covert CCTV in someone’s home. Now, I’ve been around local government quite a while, and I can answer Taylor’s key question, which is

Why have we got city council officers playing at being police officers and getting involved in investigating and seeking evidence of a serious crime such as domestic assault? I think this is part of a wider problem of council officers straying into policing territory.

The answer is very simple. Multi agency working. If you want to resolve an issue of domestic violence it’s important to have all the agencies involved in the room considering how best to resolve the problem. There’s a whole lexicon of local government acronyms for such things – LMAPS, or MARAC or some other piece of alphabet soup, but they all come down to the same thing; getting all the people with an interest in resolving the case round a table.

Let’s imagine  a hypothetical case. Let’s say it’s about domestic violence. The housing authority will be there, because they’re the ones who would have to re-house the family if necessary. If there are children involved social services will  be there, and possibly the LEA. The local Primary Care Trust may send a representative if there are health issues, and the police will be there.

So imagine how the conversation goes. The police say they need external corroboration of the victim’s evidence, because she’s terrified, being bullied and is going to struggle in court. There may even be a history of applications to the courts that have foundered on the evidence in what lawyers like to call a ‘he says, she says’ exchange of accusation and counter accusation.

No-one wants to relocate the family, for the children’s sake, and all the other options (building a refuge room in the home, fortifying the home, or excluding the father from the area) have been discounted. Someone asks the police if they could deploy CCTV in the home; the police officer says they’d love to, but they only have a limited amount of kit, and it’s all booked out. The guy from the housing authority says ‘I know our trading standards people have got this kit, which they used on that loan sharking operation, do you want me to go away and sort it out?’ and everyone round the table breathes a sigh of relief that there may be  a way forward.

That is just one scenario where I could envisage a council officer accidentally authorizing an intervention that was unlawful for the council, but which would have been lawful if the police had done it. It’s possible Richard Taylor objects to all covert surveillance, but in my experience overt surveillance simply relocates problems.

Did I mention that councils get involved in stopping loan sharking? Richard Taylor likes to have a jibe at local council officers playing at being police officers, but actually, that’s what the law requires, that local authorities enforce some significant and serious laws, and that means local authorities acquire the resources to do that. They have covert recording equipment for many purposes, all of them legal duties or powers, and all of them subject to review via the legal and democratic process. Either Richard Taylor just doesn’t get that, or he’s being snide for political effect. I suspect the latter.

There’s a similar example in another of Taylor’s blogs where he cites the following as an example

A lot of nonsense bureaucracy has been newly exposed and can rapidly be seen by those browsing through the new system. For example an application from another part of the council to the planning department for new noticeboards on the Guildhall prompted one council officer to write back to another requesting they pay a fee (suggesting a cheque from Cambridge City Council to Cambridge City Council) and requesting plans to a particular specification be provided.

Pointless bureaucacy? Or an appropriate separation of powers that means parts of the council proposing development are subject to the same scrutiny as a member of the public would be? However, that blog nicely illustrates the perils of local politics.

Taylor campaigns remorselessly, and humourlessly for open information. He proposes, in that blog, that a councillor ask on his behalf

Why is the council opposed for example to planning applications being viewed in Google Maps; or for lists of planning applications being provided on third party sites? Could the council release its information, including the detailed geographical location data, in a free and open format?

Now, anyone who wants to can google the terms and conditions for Google Maps. It’s the rest of the question that strikes me as being nakedly self-interested. Taylor describes himself as a journalist for My Society. My Society’s business model includes them acting as a consultant and software provider to local government; whilst they are a not for profit body, the wages and employment of My Society’s staff depend upon them attracting income, grants and contracts from local government. A councilorl who had such interests would need to take great care to get advice from the Monitoring Officer about the definition of Disclosable Pecuniary Interest before speaking on such a topic. When Taylor makes comments about Idox or Modern Government he isn’t just being a well informed member of the public, he’s sniping about potential competitors for My Society’s products.

Taylor is right that there is considerable waste in local government procurement of IT systems for things like document management and Development Control that could be resolved by national standards. The challenge would be to keep it out of the hands of people like Taylor, who appears to know a lot about his various areas of interest and not a lot about anything else. Here’s a fine example from a comment by Taylor on one of his own blogs

it appears crazy to me that we are relying on developers to come up with a design for such a sensitive area and then leaving the councillors to approve it or not,

In fact that’s a fine example where Taylor doesn’t understand development control – it is precisely the council’s job to decide the application before it, not the one they wish they’d received. Officers can advise, if the applicant asks them, but all too often the applicant doesn’t ask.

The peril of local politics is the time taken up by the narrow gaze of individuals who know a lot about a little, and believe that the world should be shaped to address their concerns. It’s easy to become hugely irritated by such people and their constant stream of questions and accusations, especially when responding to those inquiries gets in the way of getting on with the work of the council.

It’s I struggle to contemplate standing for council in my future – I couldn’t be bothered being polite to the likes of Taylor. It’s also why, in my opinion, we have to be politer and kinder to those who do become councillors in the ordinary conduct of council business. Like being polite to the guy who empties your bins, it’s a duty to be nice to the people who do the jobs we wouldn’t.

* Please don’t clog up the comments with examples of councillors who have gone too far in their homophobic or racist or sexist comments -we all know it happens, and that’s why we have a standards code, or rather had one until Eric Pickles decided to destroy it in the name of Localism.


4 comments on “The perils of politics

  1. Richard Taylor
    June 2, 2014

    I’ve responded in detail at:

    In summery:

    * One of the big things I think the public sector in this country gets wrong, and wastes a lot of money on, is duplication of services and activities by multiple public bodies. I do not oppose councils working closely with the police. I do oppose council officers doing work which I think ought be done by the police; and in particular I think it’s problematic when the council encourages people to report crimes to them, rather than the police. This latter point is one I campaigned on, and Cambridge City Council has changed its stance since the articles quoted which are from 2010 and 2011.

    * The quote used to support the erroneous assertion I want to see councils exempted from planning law relates to a specific petty exchange between officers from different parts of the council relating to details of the noticeboards on the Guildhall. I support the council requiring planning permission for developments, and in fact I have raised questions where this has not happened.

    * I am open about what I do; I publish lots of information about my activities on my website; and it is that openness which has enabled the commentary on potential conflicts of interest raised in this article. The question quoted was asked in June 2010 and I did not do any paid work for mySociety until January 2014. I was not seeking any personal financial gain by writing about changes to Cambridge City Council’s online planning system. I simply want to live in a city where civic decisions are made in an open and transparent manner and I want it to be as easy as possible for people to find out about upcoming decisions which could affect them and which they might be interested in commenting on.

    * The quote “it appears crazy to me that we are relying on developers to come up with a design” relates specifically to the design of a road junction; and in that context I stand by my view. It is not reasonable to extrapolate from my simply expressing that view to asserting I do not understand “development control” (planning). I make no claims to be an expert; but I am an interested and engaged citizen; I’ve observed hundred of planning decisions being made, and have commented on many of them on my website. I’ve made comments both on specific applications, and on matters of planning policy, including a representation to the current process of renewing Cambridge’s local plan.


    • cartertheblogger
      June 2, 2014

      1. Spare us the snarky remarks on your blog about your comment vanishing into the ether; you chose to put your URL at the head of the comment which meant it went straight into the spam folder; for a techie that’s an hilariously old school mistake.
      2. Spare me the snarky remarks about being an anonymous blogger. We’re open about the fact that this is an anonymous blog, and why. Your thin veneer of expertise is slipping and reveling a bad tempered, slightly grumpy individual ho’s not good when challenged.
      3. The fact that you think something ought to be done by the police is only your opinion. Some of us disagree with you. Councils can only do that which they;re allowed to do by parliament, and you’ve only identified one occasion when the council exceeded its powers, and then only in a way that was not major or significant. The artificial division you create between regulatory and criminal powers isn’t one that the law fully recognises, since many of the things councils regulate are punishable in the criminal courts.
      4. It’s only your opinion that the exchange between officers was petty or bureaucratic – I suspect it was just the easiest way to deal with a legal requirement. Your bias is showing in the way you characterize so many things.
      5. You parrot the line about the council being open and transparent repeatedly. Openness and transparency standards for councils are decided in parliament and by the DCLG and in all the tedious cant of yours that I’ve read you haven’t actually identified one occasion when Cambridge council or its councillors have breached the rules on openness and transparency. There’s an important point here; you are arguing for the council to do more than legally necessary to keep you happy, diverting money away from other discretionary services. That’s a pretty self-important world view Richard.
      6. Your last point baffles me, and I really don;t know how to respond. The idea that you can assert that you’re right, and trained officers should defer to your opinion, because you’ve watched a few planning meetings is akin to saying you should be allowed to perform emergency medicine because you’ve watched Casualty.


      • Helen
        June 3, 2014

        Well done for articulating so eloquently the frustrations many people feel about Mr Taylor’s approach and their inability to challenge him about it publicly due to the culture of politeness and helpfulness that exists within public service organisations. Often his “little gems” (and I do not dispute he does stumble across some good points) are totally undermined by his fixation on detail for the sake of publicly tripping up well meaning and genuine people, or finding conspiracy and malice where there simply is none. Perhaps he has finally met his match? Just as we must not accept that our public service officials are always right and beyond challenge, neither should we accept that the opinion of one individual with little in depth organisational knowledge is an inalienable truth. I hope that Mr Taylor hears and understands this and adapts his hectoring approach to important matters accordingly. His manner does little more than stifle the transparency and public involvement that he seeks. Rarely will he achieve his goal of having his views taken seriously if he continues to engage with others in an antagonistic and disruptive manner.


        • jemima2013
          June 5, 2014

          Having read some of his blogs I totally agree, I cannot see how transparency is served by such animus


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This entry was posted on June 1, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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