Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Conservative minister's skin-deep localism

Old habits die hard it seems, perhaps especially so for Conservative ministers. Despite the localism bill supposedly signifying the government's intentions to get off local councils' backs, local government minister Bob Neill has still apparently found time to write to council leaders demanding to know how they will provide better refuse collection services over the Easter bank holidays, compared with the recent Christmas period.

The lesser likelihood of heavy snow across the country in late April than in December might help, and I'm not aware that there has been any great problem with Easter refuse services that warrants the time Mr Neill spent writing his email or that council leaders will have to spend replying.

My understanding is that it is a small number of councils that have a refuse backlog, despite the sustained bad weather in December. Far from regarding refuse collection as 'a favour, not a right', councils hate disruption to the bin collection - mainly because councillors and officers alike do realise how important it is to the public. But, leaving the public service ethic argument to one side for a second, no one likes receiving large numbers of complaints about uncollected bins nor having to deal with a large backlog once the bad weather is over. It's far simpler if at all possible just to stick to the schedule.

Where there is disruption, it will be down to combination of just how bad the snow is and for how long combined with the specific challenges of local topography (large refuse trucks in narrow terraced streets covered with ice being a specific problem). Fortunately, here in Watford, we were hit less badly by the weather than other areas, and although the bad weather did pose problems the council managed to maintain a virtually normal service. But last year refuse collectors were injured trying to carry out collections and large trucks pose a real danger in bad weather to pedestrians and other motor vehicles that is more than just 'health and safety gone mad'.

Even if the (Labour) leader of Exeter City Council's comments, which provoked Bob Neill's response, were insensitive, I have no reason to doubt his assertion that: 'Every day the bin lorries could have been out they have been out'. Of course I haven't been down to Exeter, or any of the other councils where there is a backlog, to find out if they could and should have done more, but neither I suspect has Bob Neill. If he did I expect he would find in almost every local authority, councillors, managers and staff alike wanted to maintain as good a service as possible in the face of very difficult circumstances caused by the weather.

None of which is simply to be a councillor defending 'producer interests'. The public depend on our services. All councils should be trying to learn lessons from the recent cold spell and work out what might be done better next time. No doubt some have made mistakes and have much learning and improvement to do. Maybe there are one or two that are complacent and letting their residents down. But localism means that this should be addressed by residents making their views known and holding councillors to account and by councillors speaking up for their residents and making sure they get a decent standard of service. It shouldn't be done by ministers having nothing better to do and sounding off from a position of ignorance.

PS: Nick Barlow is ahead of me on this one and posted earlier in similar vein.

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