All Talk and No Action: The Local Authority Malaise

Prompted by Anne Marie Waters’ recent article, our expatriate English correspondent Peter sends this account of his dystopian experiences British local government bureaucracies during the latter part of the 20th century. His report, originally written not long after the events it describes, has been updated with a new introduction.

All Talk and No Action: The Local Authority Malaise

by Peter

I read most of Anne Marie Waters’ excellent article on the Rotherham grooming case two nights ago and much of what I read was chillingly accurate. I found her comments on the McPherson Inquiry, little more than a Stalinist show trial designed to smear, slander and condemn to execration the whole of UK society for the “crime” of racism, to be very pertinent. After I had returned from my travels in 1998, I found myself working in South London with a team of officers trying to make sense of McPherson’s recommendations and turn them into a workable process. My feelings must have been similar to those of the film director Mike Nichols while he was adapting Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the screen.

Anne Marie was correct about McPherson’s findings being the proximate cause of the UK’s two tier legal system. She was right about a lot of other things, too, particularly the malign influence of political correctness and the fear of being labelled racist. Local Government in the UK is riven from top to bottom with every form of Cultural Marxism imaginable, and those involved in the so-called Care Services are the worst Marxists of all. Anyone who steps even slightly out of line from the Marxist norm is threatened with the charge of gross misconduct. This is an unspecified, catch-all offence, rather like Catch-22 itself. It can mean whatever the accuser wants it to mean and, like all good Marxist concepts, to be accused is to be guilty. It must have been no surprise to anyone connected with Local Government that Social Workers in Rotherham and elsewhere opted to look the other way rather than risk being accused of racism and therefore gross misconduct. This is an accusation that can lead to instant dismissal and loss of pension rights, often resulting in financial and social ruin. Thus the degree of pressure exerted upon Social Services staff by those who had made the long march through the Local Government institutions might well have been considerable.

The analogy with Heller’s Catch-22 does not end there. Anyone who has read the book will know that it is a metaphor for any large administrative organisation whose personnel have become so distracted from the overall objective that they have substituted their own petty obsessions for what they were supposed to be working towards, which, in the case of Catch 22, was winning the war they were supposed to be fighting. There are some Local Authorities in the UK that were reputedly worse than that which I am about to describe, particularly in the days of Margaret Thatcher, but thankfully I never worked for them. The lesson for all of us is that we can become so conditioned to the ridiculous that we are too intimidated to ask the question Why?

But back to the beginning…

One of the main reasons I stopped working, dropped out and went on the road was that I’d had my fill of working for the London Borough of Wavering. Of all the places I should never have gone to, this one should have been top of my list. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t been warned. All my former colleagues expressed the same view, which was that I should avoid Wavering “like the plague” because it paid low wages for long hours and sweated labour. But sometimes things get so bad that something has to be done and even jumping out of the frying pan into the fire can be justified if change is the only priority. There are times when an unbearable situation can prompt you to try anything to get away from it. I had three such instances on the go at the same time, a broken marriage, a lost home and a temporary flat shared with a bunch of drunken louts who took slob culture to new depths. Devil’s Island would have been an improvement on where I was. Unfortunately, Wavering wasn’t.

It was a festering mass of destructive cultures where cheap gimmickry was substituted for good practice, where lies and deceit were the accepted currency and where mismanagement was conducted on a grand scale by some of the most evil people I was ever to encounter. And they were doing it all with other people’s money. I was employed as one of a team to service the Council’s Committee system. In those days we were called Committee Secretaries. We were required to set up meetings of elected Councillors, prepare and despatch agenda papers, attend meetings to advise on procedure and afterwards to produce a written record of what had happened. In all, it sounds like a straightforward uncomplicated existence, and so it should have been, had it not been for the intervention of the biggest collection of cheats, liars, spivs and all-purpose scoundrels ever to remain on the outside of the British penal system. One or two of them finally did get what was coming to them, serving custodial sentences for their excesses, but many, many more not only got clean away with their transgressions but finally retired after a lifetime of dirty deeds with an MBE or an OBE as evidence of their absolution.

My arrival there from seafaring Portsmouth was traumatic. Wavering town centre was a classic study in sepia, being ankle deep in mud. They were in the middle of what was euphemistically described as town centre re-development which involved all the remaining buildings of historical interest and architectural merit being razed on the advice of some jargon-spouting technocrat and replaced by a symmetrical assembly of linear concrete blocks, but they were a long way from reaching that stage. One side of the main street consisted of a crater some forty feet deep while the rest of the area was wall to wall sludge. It looked as though World War Two had ended the day before and they had lost narrowly on points. The bathroom in my flat had penicillin running down the wall but it would have been churlish for me to complain. It was, after all, the only culture to be found in that part of London.

Wavering was under-resourced, that is, the people who had to do the work were pretty thin on the ground, while those who demanded that it be done, instantaneously and without respite, were legion. Many of the demands made of us and deadlines set were unrealistic and downright unachievable but it didn’t make any difference. Whenever anything wasn’t done or could not be completed within the specified timescale, then it was always held to be failure on the part of the individual charged with carrying out this impossible deed and the “culprit” was bawled out by management in a most brutal and vindictive manner. As far as we were concerned, if reports were demanded for a Committee meeting and somebody in another department had not written them, it was deemed to be our fault, even though we had neither control over the actions of the defaulters nor sanctions to impose upon them.

In short, we were whipping boys — and girls. Working conditions such as these were never intended to be gender specific.

Apart from the unrealistic demands that were being made, this was 1974 and office technology was in its infancy. What this meant for us was that nobody had desk top computers and everything had to be produced by a small number of typists using bog standard[1] typewriters. Any typographical errors necessitated a total retype of the entire document, a time-consuming and counterproductive exercise in a time critical situation. The pressure put on typing staff must have been unbearable, and they responded by having inordinate amounts of sick leave. After this brought no improvement to their lot, they would uproot themselves altogether and depart in droves. Of course, no consideration was given to the replacement of anyone who left until several months after their departure, and then there was no guarantee that any action would be taken to actually fill any of the vacant posts.

This entire unsatisfactory situation resulted in three things. Firstly, there was wholesale paranoia and we were permanently at each other’s throats. Normally mild-mannered people felt that they had to transform themselves into loud, aggressive combatants in order to survive, while naturally nasty types thrived and prospered in the atmosphere of animosity they had helped to create. Secondly, fear of being held accountable for the failure of this morally bankrupt system compelled us to work longer and longer hours, even though committee meetings were held in the evenings and went on until the early hours of the morning. The Planning Committee frequently went on until 4am, although staff were still required to be at their desks first thing next morning. There was always pressure from councillors for additional and special meetings, often for no good reason. Thirdly, the more hours we worked, the longer we were expected to work until we reached the stage where you could walk into one of our offices any evening in the week and find just as many people there as you would expect to find during the day. We were frequently working between fifty and sixty hours a week although we were only being paid for thirty-six of them, and not very generously at that.

The shortage of staff was further exacerbated by one of the worst cultures any organisation could ever have. The non-availability syndrome. At Wavering, this was caused by an ever increasing demand for officer meetings. It reached the stage where no simple exercise could be commenced without twenty or so people shutting themselves away for days to discuss all the consequences, implications and ramifications at length and ad nauseum. If that wasn’t bad enough, they wanted us there as well to make a note of proceedings.

It seemed that the whole effective working of the Council was being delayed, obstructed, and eroded by a conspiracy that would have been beyond the combined imaginations of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky to devise. From top to bottom at every level of the organisation, groups of officers sought to conceal themselves within any convenient set of four walls to while away their time on any project they felt might merit such an exercise.

Unfortunately, while those people were away from their offices or their various work stations, there were inevitably those who needed to consult with the absentees before they were able to take executive action, boiling over with frustration at being unable to carry out a task, delayed by deliberations elsewhere and in the certain knowledge they would be screamed at abusively by what passed for management if whatever it was they were prevented from doing was not carried out within a specified period of time.

No matter how urgently the attention of the absentee was required, it was absolutely forbidden to disturb the sanctity of a meeting. Officer meetings were like a religious ritual or a séance, and interrupting such a rite would surely destroy an aura of mysticism and dissipate for ever a spiritual essence that would enable those present to work miracles. Those of us who were required to commit the unforgivable and disturb such hallowed events, often on the instructions of the Chief Executive, were at once struck by the looks of startlement that greeted us. It was as if we had interrupted a funeral or the celebration of a black mass — although in most cases, it was more like awakening them from a deep sleep or a post-alcoholic coma.

There were hundreds of these little groups going on unabated, and multitudes of people would disappear into mysterious voids and time warps hitherto unaccounted for — the original black hole of Wavering. However, this was not my first encounter with officer meetings. We’d had them at Portsmouth and at West Sussex, too but not like this. At those places, our meetings had been a means to an end. They were short and sharp — after all, time was money and we were public servants. After we’d had our meetings and our aims had been identified, we went out and did the business. At Wavering this was never the case. Meetings were regarded as an end in themselves, a self-perpetuating group of mutually interested, intellectually challenged Scheisskopfs whose only motive for living was to provide a life support system for a babbling mouth.

I found very quickly that the same people seemed to turn up at all the Officer working groups I was required to service. It soon became evident that these were professional time wasters, sent specifically by their superiors, either to keep them out of the way or to see if they could be provided with a task that was within their limited capabilities. Of course, they did nothing, produced nothing and achieved nothing, preferring instead to drone on in perpetuity until lunch, tea, darkness or an act of God interrupted their flow. Writing notes for one of these sessions was rather like commentating on a Mogadon[2] Marathon.

But that wasn’t the end of it. After the event, every single one of these people would decide that the record of the meeting would read better if it contained what they thought they’d said or what they wished they’d said rather than the indescribable utterances that they did manage to articulate, and they indulged in all sorts of threats and blackmail to achieve their ends, which were to falsify the records to give the impression that something was being done. But nothing was being done. Anyone who actually wanted to get anything done was regarded with suspicion, branded as a subversive and vilified behind his back so that his reputation was destroyed and his efforts to achieve any sort of objective were devalued and ridiculed.

To add to our misery, someone decreed that committee staff should be the point of first contact for all service level complaints, and, since my area involved engineering, environmental health and consumer protection, I found myself plagued by what could only be described as irritable phone syndrome. I was besieged by half the population of Wavering holding me personally responsible for every possible calamity from the failure of refuse collectors to collect their refuse, the accumulation of litter in the streets, lack of street cleansing, and a hardy perennial, dog fouling. Before I could take action on any of these complaints, there were a number of people I had to contact to find out what remedial action was available and the earliest it could be taken. Unfortunately, these people were never at their desks. They were all in meetings, leaving me to placate an collection of enraged malcontents who were getting madder by the moment because I was unable to give them the answers they wanted to hear.

After five years of this uncontrolled mayhem and progressive purgatory, I was moved to another committee area, social services. If I had felt aggrieved before, then the inactivity and hyper-inertia demonstrated by my newfound colleagues drove me to distraction. While the social services department had a clearly defined set of objectives, nobody actually seemed to be doing anything about achieving them or in fact doing anything at all, preferring instead to follow that time honoured adage, “They also serve who only sit and fart.”

These people were apparently prepared to occupy committee rooms and conference suites for days on end to talk about things like action plans and service strategies, whatever they were. I was forced to conclude that such spurious and nebulous concepts were merely a smokescreen to mask the real object of such exercises, total inactivity. If I found the meetings I had attended before to be tedious, these were much, much worse. For a start, they all had the same characteristics. They were unstructured, undisciplined and, inevitably, unnecessary.

The people who attended them had no conception of time. They meandered through mornings, which became afternoons and, frequently evenings. Whole days would disappear unaccounted for. Often, these gatherings were not so much meetings as group therapy for congenital deviants. There were so many of them that I would be missing from my desk for weeks at a stretch which resulted in vast backlogs of paper impatiently awaiting my return. During one of these episodes, I became so paranoid that I believed I would receive a letter from personnel informing me that if I did not return to work immediately, I would be dismissed for unauthorised absence.

The working time these meetings took up was not my only concern. I also had serious difficulty with what was being said. I have English as a first language and was taught French and German to A-level standard. I can also, with diminishing capability, resurrect a few lines of public school Latin and slightly fewer words in Italian. Occasionally, when it has been necessary, I have also been able to order a beer in Spanish gleaned from a childhood spent watching old John Wayne films. However, none of the words I heard at any of those meetings fitted comfortably into the categories I have just mentioned. What was said just sounded like a long series of interconnected words in a language that has now been classified as Socio-babble. Whatever strange noises these people produced by blowing out hot air from every orifice, the end product could not possibly be called communication. As I sat in these smoke filled rooms, it was like I was a stranger in a foreign country or an alien from another planet in another galaxy. I used to worry about how the hell I was going to produce an accurate record of proceedings when I couldn’t understand what was being said, but that didn’t really matter because whatever I wrote was going to be changed anyway, so what the hell. As I sat there with my mind in free fall, I was reminded of a novel I read when I was younger. Written fluently and compassionately by an American rejoicing in the name of “Philip Roth” and entitled “Portnoy’s Complaint”, it dealt rather sensitively with a principal character who indulged in what could be described delicately as self abuse. I have always regarded such things as recreational activities and, when I read the book, I never dreamed that one day, I would not only meet people who did this for a living, but, if ever this activity were to be made the subject of international competition, then these same people would be near certainties to bring back an Olympic gold medal for the team event.

If the officers were bad, then some of the elected councillors were worse. When I started at Wavering in 1974, we had a labour council, strictly old Labour, so old, in fact that most people who had reached that age were on life support. They had old ideas, too, like having been elected to office, they just wandered aimlessly around the Town Hall for four years until it was time for re-election. The concept of policy formulation and decision-making was totally foreign to them, so they did neither. This, of course, left a void in the management of the Borough’s affairs but like most voids, this was soon filled by a bunch of self seeking Chief Officers who had their own agendas which had little to do with the efficient running of Borough services and nothing whatever to do with the needs and wishes of the electors of Wavering.

Committee meetings were a farce. Councillors would talk and talk until the early hours of the morning on any topic they chose. It mattered not that it might not be on the agenda. They only treated the agenda as an aide memoir, anyway, or as a prompt to cover an embarrassing silence when they had run out of things to say. In spite of this, they were always seeking to hold additional or special meetings. This had little to do with pressure of urgent business, since it was driven by the financial needs of the Councillors concerned and their entitlement to attendance allowance. The more meetings they attended, the more money they received. Yet the only items on the agendas they ever took notice of were the conferences or civic events, which were nothing more than junkets on the rates. Some of these involved weeks away allegedly on Council business although, in reality, they were little more than holidays at plush hotels with all expenses paid.

As my tenure at Wavering drew to an end, we found ourselves encumbered by a so-called New Labour council with a whole lot of old labour baggage. One of these, I shall call him Councillor John Boyd, served his time in the anything-goes days of the fifties, sixties and seventies and he was glad to throw off the cost-conscious practices of the eighties and get back to old labour values. This involved his serving as the council’s delegate on the Association of Direct Labour Organisations. This body would meet regularly at salubrious locations all over the country for a few days at a time as well as holding frequent one day conferences in prime locations. Whether it was necessary for this organisation to meet so often was questionable, but, in response to criticism of his activities by opposition councillors, Boyd took to turning these jaunts into day trips, flying where necessary on the shuttle from Heathrow.

Far from placating his critics, he fell further into disrepute when officers who were compelled to accompany him let the cat out of the bag. It transpired that he would turn up for breakfast, and, as soon as the first session of the conference started, he would fall asleep until lunch time. Having been suitably fortified during the lunch break, he would then snore sonorously until about three thirty, when, apparently unaware that he had been asleep at all, he would participate loudly and aggressively in the open discussions with no knowledge of what might have been said or decided upon previously, thereby making a complete idiot of himself.

However, a politician making an idiot of himself or herself was not confined to any particular political party. When the Tories won control in 1978, things got worse for a whole lot of different reasons but two in particular. Firstly, although the individual Conservative Councillors were quite well off, financially, they gave no indication at all of any talent they might have possessed which would have enabled them to achieve this — or achieve anything at all for that matter. There were about seven hard-core politicos among them who knew the score, but, as far as the rest were concerned, they shouldn’t have been allowed out on their own.

Secondly, the seven who knew what they were doing were on a mission to put as many of us out of work as they could. The object of this exercise was to save money but God only knows what they did with it afterwards. Between 1978 and 1986, Council services were decimated. Residential homes for the Elderly and for children were sold off as were civic offices and council houses. A great many of our colleagues lost their livelihoods although, curiously, very few of those were the slackers and incompetents I mentioned earlier.

I was engaged in what was euphemistically called the council’s depot strategy, which involved the closure of twelve council depots and the sale of the sites for housing development — that is, high priced yuppie kennels for potential Tory voters. The capital receipts brought in for this amounted to nearly £7million. Then they privatised the council’s transport service and put the whole of the vehicle maintenance workforce out of their jobs, but their piece de resistance which really blew up in their faces was their public convenience strategy.

This involved the closure of conventional public conveniences and their replacement by purpose-built French toilets, the universally despised concrete blobs. A party of Councillors and officers went to Paris as the guests of the company that manufactured and installed these “superloos”, and after a weekend of fact finding and discussion, presumably with some corporate hospitality thrown in, they came back with an in-principle decision already in place. They then closed down and sold the sites of seven conventional public conveniences, with the loss of some fifty or so attendants’ jobs. This was hailed by the Tories as a sound business deal, but it wasn’t.

When in 1986 the incoming Labour administration tried to get rid of these concrete monstrosities as part of their manifesto commitment, they found the French company had them by the short hairs. Contrary to what was generally believed, the Council did not own the toilets, they only leased them on expensive fifteen-year leases. The company were happy to remove them but only if the council paid up the contract along with a substantial penalty and removal fee. The Council was, therefore left with a contract they couldn’t get out of and a collection of public conveniences that they had already declared to be unsuitable for many potential users.

Then, when we thought things could get no worse, they got worse. What does every failing organisation do when it is heading for freefall and doesn’t know how to stop? It calls in consultants, and that is what Wavering did. In time, the consultants produced a report, but it didn’t meet any needs. Somehow it got buried and forgotten about — even though it cost a fair amount of charge payers’ money to commission and produce. I came upon it by chance at the end of the eighties. It was called the “Wavering Vision Statement”, and by any standards, it was an eye opener. Unfortunately, it bore no resemblance to reality, which was probably why it was quietly lost. They went gibbering on about visions, but I have always found such things to be very subjective. They can be just as vivid, whether they are the product of brainstorming, divine visitation or the hallucinogenic aftermath of fourteen and a half pints of Newcastle Brown Ale.

The report then went on to address the issue of cultures, and missed the point completely.

An integral part of the traditional Wavering culture was the relentless pursuit of managerial excellence. This has been regarded as a somewhat elusive quality rather like the Holy Grail, which is why a casual observer might be excused for thinking that those responsible for making Chief Officer appointments in Wavering wouldn’t know a manager if one bit them on the backside. All too often, they allowed themselves to be beguiled by some silver-tongued spellbinder who couldn’t organise a sexual encounter in a brothel. As a result, hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money were spent paying off first, second and third tier officers who were found to be either incompetent, unsuitable, dishonest or just complete Portnoys.

In the 1970s they unloaded a Director of Leisure Services, a Director of Operations, a Borough Solicitor and a Director of Housing. They were followed in the 1980s by a Director of Engineering, a Director of Personnel Services, an Assistant Director of Leisure Services, a controller of Direct Labour Building, a Controller of Mechanical Services, an Assistant Director of Administration, and, much to the relief of everybody who dealt with him, another Director of Housing. These were in addition to the normal turnover of chief officers who left to go on to other things or who retired at the proper time. By any standards, the failure rate was abnormally high. By the time I left in 1994, their record in the 1990s was two Chief Executives, two Directors of Finance and a number of other highly paid odds and sods who slipped in on the back of the Political Correctness industry that hit us in the late ’80s. The list of dodgy appointments and duds was by no means exhaustive, but then, neither was the bill.

It is likely that we would have paid off far more of these people had it not been for the skillful manipulation of another well-practised subculture which can be paraphrased as “If anything goes wrong, make sure you have someone handy to blame it on.” When I first started at Wavering, they threw me in at the deep end by teaming me up with the grand master of this technique. I shall call him Ron Harper, and he bore a chilling resemblance to the waxwork effigy of Dr. Crippen in the Chamber of Horrors. There were many who believed the resemblance did not end there. I found his presence to be deeply disturbing, a demonic distillation of fantasy and fiction, a horrific manifestation of Uriah Heap and Charles Manson. His constant dealings in deceit caused serious, often irreparable damage to aspiring careers, but if it ever bothered him, he never showed it. He was clearly of the belief that the world is not made for those of us who are cursed with self-effacement or the need to care for others.

It is said that George Washington never told a lie. There were those who felt that Ron Harper never told the truth, but I think it was worse than that. I don’t think he knew the difference. If ever he was caught out in a lie, he would deny it vehemently, even in the face of the most damning evidence. If ever a mistake could be attributed to him, he would merely deflect the blame onto some distant soul who neither knew of the error nor of his or her part in having committed it. To hear him acknowledge a fault or apologise for anything was about as likely as the Archbishop of Canterbury relinquishing his exalted position, joining a troupe of erotic dancers to gyrate endlessly wearing nothing but a gossamer coating of gold lame paint.

His master stroke came during the 1974 London Weighting strike, which he refused to support, announcing instead his intention to retire from the service the following March. Anyone taking this action is automatically relieved of any trade union obligations as their pension is calculated on their last year of service and any unauthorised time off would adversely effect their entitlement. As soon as the strike ended, he quickly denied having said anything about retiring, even though there must have been about fifty witnesses who heard him and we were stuck with him for another five years before he finally put himself out of our misery. In the middle of all this, he suddenly declared that he’d found God, which was quite a shock to the rest of us who were unaware that the almighty had ever been missing.

Unfortunately, our expectations that this dramatic revelation would spur him to practise what he purported to preach proved to be illusory. If anything, his behaviour became worse, as if falsehood and chicanery had now become a religious crusade. By now you will be wondering how he managed to get away with it. This was simple. He would toady up to those in power or with influence and in so doing make himself virtually untouchable.

Another constituent element in our culture was Wavering’s lemming-like compulsion to thrust itself into the forefront of every trend, fad or folly with which Local Government has allowed itself to become afflicted. In the ’70s it was Corporate Planning, with Councillors and officers spending many hours deliberating long into the night to determine the best way to employ this miracle of modern management, only to see it swept away at a stroke by an incoming adminstration without any tangible benefit having been gained by its adoption nor any significant loss having been incurred by its termination. Our subsequent encounters with decentralisation and non-nuclear activities fared no better while the Wimminz department fell flat on its face because the people who set it up were in so much of a hurry they failed to define its role.

The Council’s Equal Opportunities policy was a joke. Even this most fundamental change to their traditional culture failed to eliminate one of their oldest and most ingrained customs, namely, that, regardless of race, creed, colour or gender, some people were clearly more equal than others and they got all the opportunities. There were a few other attempts at innovation along the way, the most notable being the flirtation with the Political Correctness industry which achieved nothing but the creation of a series of Mickey Mouse jobs for a bunch of Mickey Mouse officers, who managed to produce little more than a gigantic wage bill.

These people tended to make a colossal meal of every little thing they touched, using them as a vehicle to display their own capabilities, whatever they deemed them to be. The needs and objectives of the Council were never an issue to them. The technique is as old as the hills and many practitioners of this philosophy passed through our doors over the twenty years I was there. The most memorable of these was one I will call Lucinda Braintree, who still holds the dubious distinction of being the worst manager I have ever seen — quite an indictment in view of what I have written so far.

She had a pugnacious and confrontational attitude, a gift of hindsight that was almost visionary and an unfortunate appearance that was once compared to Boris Karloff in drag. She could best be described as an early Thatcher prototype with a mouth like a machine gun that could take your head off at twenty paces. Her only management technique was to use her vocal chords incessantly to bludgeon all obstacles into submission. She was capable of babbling for hours like Donald Duck on speed without appearing to pause for breath, drowning all around her in great waterfalls of words thereby proving that nothing succeeds like excess. Unfortunately, as a manager she failed to grasp the fact that “What I say goes” is not negotiation. “Do I have to spell it out for you?” is no explanation and “It’s your fault if you don’t understand me” is no apology. Instead, her solution to every situation was to erupt like a volcano sending all around her scuttling for cover only to emerge when she had been appeased. Her eventual departure was greeted with universal relief, and although she left Wavering for another post elsewhere, her next employer finally grasped the nettle and paid her off.

The Social Services department had a culture all of its own. Ever since it was set up, those who were responsible for running it would always react the same way. If ever they were faced with the need to adopt an inconvenient corporate initiative, they would be quick to invoke the claim that the sensitivity of their service area afforded them special status which absolved them from the need to comply with any instruction they did not wish to go along with. It did not matter at all that they were a Council department funded from the public purse and, presumably, subject to the same form of democratic accountability as any other public service. Although most Council departments used corporate common services, the Social Services department created their own staffing, transport and purchasing sections. Anyone unwise enough to ask why this should be so was informed that, because of the sensitivity of their service area… well, you know the rest.

It just goes to show, if you give people custody of a sacred cow, you shouldn’t be surprised when they start milking it. When I was first offered the opportunity to work on Social Services committee, I was persuaded to accept the post when my management told me I would be working with the most pleasant and most gifted Director in the Council.

They lied.

They had a vacancy they needed to fill, and they knew they couldn’t get anyone remotely suitable by advertising the post externally. They also wanted to save the cost of an advertisement in the “Guardian.” As soon as I met the Director, I knew I was in trouble. Paul Walker, as I will call him, was a lean, reptilian creature. He had a smile on both faces and he looked down his nose at me with the condescension of a man who had just declined the opportunity to trade places with God. As far as the Department was concerned, I had two distinct impressions. Firstly, it was a department in crisis: secondly, it was a crisis of its own making. It was very hard for me to ascertain who was actually doing what, as nobody came out of meetings for long enough to explain. If all the hot air they generated could have been harnessed into an alternative energy source, we could have heated Greater London for the next fifty years.

Again, it might be tempting to ask how these people got away with it. Simple: They interpreted any criticism of the department, or of its staff and the way in which things were carried out, as a criticism of the service as a whole or of the people who had the misfortune to be its clients. Having thus misrepresented any possible censure, they would then blaze back in an orgy of righteous indignation that would normally stun any further source of unfavourable comment into shocked silence.

I have been advised to state at this juncture that what I have written here has nothing to do with the London Borough of Havering. I have never worked for that Borough nor have I ever knowingly strayed within its boundaries. I have certainly never been there intentionally. There is also a borough in the County of Surrey rejoicing in the name of Waverley and the same applies. Indeed I am sure that neither of those places would ever have resorted to the sort of malpractices I have mentioned nor employed the sort of people who would engage in them.

I could not imagine any reputable organisation indulging its management in what became known as the Wavering Awayday. By now this has become a well-established managerial practice, where a group of managers seeking to escape the strictures of their working environment take themselves off, on full pay with the Council picking up the bill, to a five star hotel in some distant and picturesque part of the country to consider in depth whatever management problems they might be persuaded to own up to.

The value of such an exercise became obvious on their return as they were invariably suffering the severe discomfort of a headache — clearly attributable to immense levels of concentration and intellectual stress. In Wavering, the entire concept was originated as something far more modest by officers on a less senior level. It was intended primarily as a social function which could provide an additional learning experience for those who required it. For this reason, it was customary to invite the Director or Chief Officer, who usually accepted.

In those days, such jaunts did not venture far afield, certainly not outside London, with Young’s Brewery in Wandsworth proving to be a preferred venue. The logic of this was clear. If they could get their Director into a brewery, he or she might find out how to organise a booze-up in one.

In 1993, we were informed that there would be another cost-savings exercise that year, and a need to make further staff reductions in 1994. As usual, the strike industry went into overdrive with the Socialist Workers Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Workers Revolutionary Party on a war footing manufacturing banners, shouting slogans and generally fomenting discontent. One or two bone fide union members also got involved. In the meantime, I realised I would be 50 in 1994 and under the terms of the Council’s severance scheme, I would be entitled to ask for voluntary early retirement, which was subsequently granted.

In the summer of 1994 while Councils up and down the country fought the now familiar wars of attrition with their staff, in which employees downed tools and walked out while their employers stopped paying them, leaving residents to do without the services for which they had paid, I let my flat, packed a suitcase and left it all behind.


1.   Bog standard: completely ordinary, no frills, “bare bones” (British slang)
2.   Mogadon: a trade name for Nitrazepam, a sedative.

Peter is an English expatriate who now lives in Thailand.

Previous posts:

2014   Sep   19   Why I Left England’s Mean and Unpleasant Land
    Oct   5   Pakistan I: The Blasphemy Laws
        6   Pakistan II: The Hudood Ordinances
        13   Bradistan: Importing a Culture Gap
        18   “I’m As Mad As Hell and I’m Not Going to Take This Any More”
2015   Feb   9   Iran: Strangled by a Gordian Knot
    Jul   30   Another Leftist Smear Job

8 thoughts on “All Talk and No Action: The Local Authority Malaise

  1. Things have probably gotten even worse in the years since you left.

    It sounds like an insider’s view of what went on in Kafka’s Castle…

    I left social services because it had been corrupted by under-funded federal mandates. I remember one horrible day in which I thought I’d be sleeping on the office floor with one of the more unruly and emotionally disturbed “foster children” who’d been kicked out of yet another placement.

    One state director told me that burn-out was inevitable because I had too many clients with such deep needs and so few resources to provide for them. She was right…the only time I ever left a job without having lined up another job first…but as the B told me, if you leave an oppressive job of your own volition, you’ll find you’ll never be oppressed again by a work situation.

    He was right.

    As I read your essay, I kept wondering what the level of morale at Rotterham social services must have been like. After a while you lose your soul.

  2. I’ve seen and heard far, far too many stories like this, and watched some happening from afar. Although I worked for many years as a public servant, I thank my lucky stars that it was in the Department of Defence and that we generally were there because we wanted to be there and doing the best for our country.

    Other Departments, not so much.

  3. I worked for northern Local Authority for a total of seven years in a training role. All of what Peter has written brought back the memories of that time similar to the ‘flashbacks’ that Post Traumatic Stress sufferers speak of.

    I had returned to this country following a stint abroad and managed, for the first time ever, to gain employment with the Local Authority. While I had been abroad I had read Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ but never imagined I was now taking my first steps into the pages of the book. Without re-phrasing that which Peter has written I seemed to have gone through the looking glass and was in a ‘topsy-turvey’ world where common sense was considered the greatest sin imaginable.

    Suffice it to say after seven years I resigned. My immediate manager asked why I was leaving and seemed genuinely hurt when I replied…”If I stay here any longer I’ll become as mad as the rest of you”.

  4. Peter, I went back to your post on leaving England’s “mean and unpleasant land”. I hope things are still alright in Thailand. I still look back on my days as US Vice Consul in Bangkok with a bit of nostalgia; but I fear I’ve forgotten a lot of the Thai I learned.

    • Kepha, Every day I am here, I give thanks for the weather, the friendly people and the fact that when push came to shove, I had the strength to say “Enough, I’m retiring.”

  5. It must have been a different Borough, in a different Directorate, that I did my one and only stint with Local Government. It was also a decade or so later. Fortunately I was an agency temp, so didn’t need to worry about my pension – there wasn’t any!

    Just imagine all the points made by Peter, but allowed to fester for a decade without any external management control. Now warm them up a bit and season with a little Common Purpose training.

    Having spent my working life until this point with firms that made things for sale, made profits for taxing (to pay for leeches like this!), and generally set about trying to achieve things, the anti-culture in this place came as a phenomenal shock. At the time I needed the money, but when an alternative gig was available I too was glad to get out.

    • PS When Peter first started working for local government, Councillors (Councilmen in translation) represented the wishes of their Constituents and worked together to provide the services the Constituents needed and employed Paid Staff to deliver them as necessary. By the time I left it was quite clear that the Paid Staff ruled the roost. They told the Councillors what they could and should do; in turn the Councillors told their Constituents what they had to put up with.

      Rather like the Soviet era Trades Unions which were not to represent the Worker to the Employer (despite the propaganda to that effect) but instead were to represent the Party to the Worker.

  6. ARRGH! This is all quite terrible – it is frightening to me as I live in America that some people actually want more government!

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