Local authorities wanting to control the narrative

In an ideal world our local councils, officers and councillors alike, would see themselves as the servants of all the residents in the areas they cover. An integral part of that ethos would be a culture of transparency, accountability and a willingness to own up to and learn from mistakes. Well, we can all dream can’t we? As most of you are doubtless aware, the truth is a long way from this ideal. Here are just a couple of examples that illustrate how local councils operate on the basis of wanting to control the narrative. One concerns Thurrock Council’s media strategy that stymies local journalists wanting to ask them difficult questions, the other the refusal of Basildon Council to deal with independent resident groups.

In a recent blog post on Your Thurrock, the leader of the Thurrock Independents, Cllr. Luke Spillman, has taken Thurrock Council to task over the chilling impact of their media strategy: Blogpost: Thurrock Independents leader calls for council to “rethink press strategy”. Thurrock Council released this ‘media strategy’ document in the summer of 2017 – it pretty much demands a right of reply to any media coverage it thinks will be damaging to its reputation.

Reading between the lines, it’s as though the council just want the local media outlets to reproduce, word for word, the anodyne contents of their press releases. Given the parlous state of local journalism and the chronic under-staffing that characterises it, that’s pretty much what many local media outlets are reduced to doing anyway. What the council’s media strategy does is to reinforce that trend by discouraging the few journalists left who do ask difficult questions from doing so for fear of being all but ‘blacklisted’. In other words, the council want to control the narrative.

While we welcome the pressure the Thurrock Independents have brought upon the council to agree to editors from the local media being able to speak at the upcoming Corporate Overview & Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday 4th September, with the best will in the world, this may be akin to trying to put a small sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

A community group we’ve been working alongside in Basildon for the last ten months has been told by Basildon Council that if they want to liaise with their officers and councillors, they need to form a properly constituted resident’s association. They have been advised to speak to the Community Involvement Team at the council for advice on how to do this. We’ve spoken to our partners at Basildon & Southend Housing Action to ask them what they think of the Community Involvement Team and to be honest, for the sake of decency we don’t think we could reproduce their response!

Getting away from this particular situation in Basildon, when councils want informally run but nimble community groups to constitute themselves as formal residents associations, it’s about co-opting and ultimately neutering them. Forming a residents association that’s acceptable to a council means adhering to codes of conduct that make it considerably harder for them to act as an independent pressure and direct action group. It also sends out a signal to the community they’re representing that they’re effectively getting into bed with the council. The end result of this is a residents association that’s so constrained by codes of conduct they effectively do the bidding of the council. As a consequence of this, the residents they’re supposed to represent become cynical, disillusioned and start to drop out of the association.

As stated at the start of this piece, ideally as a point of principle, councils, councillors and council officers are supposed to be the servants of the people. It shouldn’t be for them to start dictating terms and conditions to residents as to how they communicate and interact with the council. Residents pay their council tax and rightly expect that the council does the job they’re paid to do. In our view, it’s down to residents to decide how to communicate and interact with the council as they see fit. In an ideal world, this would happen – however, we do not live in an ideal world.

Councils, councillors and council officers do not want to deal with pressure group and direct action tactics from nimble, pushy resident groups. To do so means surrendering control and all too often, councils will do whatever they can to hang onto the power to control us. This is where the flaws of the system of local governance reveal themselves. A system of local governance that has been getting stripped of its powers for decades and has now been co-opted to deliver the government’s austerity agenda is not going to tolerate uppity residents holding them to account. This is why councils think they have the right to dictate the terms of engagement to residents in a bid to control them.

The system of local governance we have is broken. Turnouts of forty percent and often considerably less, are a clear signal that most people can see local government for the sham that it is. Thurrock Council attempting to influence what journalists can write about them merely reinforces the cynicism a lot of people have about their local councils. As for the way Basildon Council wants to deal with their residents, why would any self respecting community group want to accept the terms and conditions of engagement from a council that’s part of this dysfunctional system? Resistance to being sucked into this farce is far from futile and any community group resisting this will get one hundred percent backing from us.

Suffice to say, things cannot go on like this. If we are ever going to have a more just, open and accountable way of running our affairs at a local level, fundamental political, economic and social change will be the only way to achieve this. The question is, how can we persuade people to overcome the inertia brought on by understandable cynicism and motivate them to start thinking about what can be done to change things?

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