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DIARY - SCENES FROM A MUNICIPAL LIFE

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Tony Elliston, former Hackney LBC managing director and now a consultant, launches his diary page with a thorough l...
Tony Elliston, former Hackney LBC managing director and now a consultant, launches his diary page with a thorough look at the heretical view that local government

is a customer-free zone

One man went to mow

I have recently discovered there are four different types of grass. There is county grass, district grass and parish grass.

County grass is cut once every six weeks to a length of half an inch. District grass is cut once every five weeks to a length of three eighths of an inch. Parish grass is cut monthly to a length of five eighths of an inch.

In one village a single company has been awarded three separate contracts for cutting the grass. One contract was awarded by the county, one by the district and one by the parish.

The company employs a man called Ted who cuts the county grass, the district grass and the parish grass. He is quite often in the village. Ted has calculated that once every four years all the grass in the village is the same length, apart from the fourth category. This is the grass that the county says the district is responsible for, the district claims the parish is responsible for and the parish believes the county is responsible for. This grass does not get cut at all.

The council ran a museum. It was a modest undertaking - a local museum for local people.

Passing through the shabby portico, the curious visitor would be confronted with an amorphous collection of worthless rejectamenta, which confirmed the view that the only interesting feature of the past is its distance from the present. The exhibits included a bicycle, circa 1930, several pieces of chipped crockery which looked suspiciously as though they had once adorned a shelf in British Home Stores, and various civic curios.

Practically the only visitors were groups of local school children dragooned into this memorial to municipal dullness in fulfilment of a misguided interpretation of the National Curriculum. Apart from the occasional anorak or passing vagabond this represented the sum total of the museum's customer base.

Times were hard and it was the time of year when local government folk engage in the mysteries of the budget process. Lists of potential cuts were prepared and the museum was a candidate for the chop. But the curator was a wily old dinosaur and after lobbying several gullible councillors and the discovery of a 'Save our museum' pressure group, he succeeded in getting the closure commuted to a 30% cut in the budget.

A few days after the budget had been agreed, the curator wrote to the director of leisure setting out his views on the cuts.

'There would appear to be two options. First, we could cut the budget for maintaining the exhibits and enhancing the collection. In my professional view this would have a devastating effect on the service. The second option would be to close the museum to the public. Although this would obviously have implications for local schools and other visitors, I believe this course of action is infinitely preferable to the first option - as it would ensure the collection is maintained to its current high standards.'

The depot closed at 4.30pm on Fridays. At 4.20pm the telephone rang.

'This is the area three depot. There's no one here to take your call, but if you'd like to leave a message please speak after the tone.'

'Bob is that you?'

'Mike?'

'Why are you pretending to be an answerphone?'

'I thought it might be a customer.'

The target for repairing broken windows in the communal areas of housing estates is 28 days. The monitoring report shows the housing department is meeting this target 98% of the time. I was therefore rather surprised when a tenant told me two windows on her estate had remained broken for several months despite regular calls to the council.

'It's not as simple as that,' explains the district housing manager.

'We operate a batching system for minor repairs in order to cut down on the amount of time operatives have to travel between jobs. We wait until we receive four separate orders for broken windows on a particular estate and then send someone round to mend them all on a single visit. As far as the targets are concerned, the clock doesn't start ticking until the fourth broken window is reported. It's not unusual for an estate to have a couple of broken windows for over a year but we'll still be able to tell members that we're meeting the repairs targets.'

'Surely the tenants can't be too happy with this system,' I suggest, 'After all, what we're saying is that it's acceptable to have up to three broken windows on an estate at any one time.'

'They don't know about it,' replies the district housing manager. 'And if they ever found out we'd have a real problem- every time a window was broken they'd simply go and break another three so that we'd have to repair them.'

The Meldrew Syndrome

In an early entry for the LGC Customer Initiative of the Year award, Southwark LBC has adopted a policy under which it will refuse to enter into correspondence with persistent and vexatious complainants.

Southwark claims this policy will be targeted at around 12 individuals who contact the council up to 15 times a day to whinge about frivolous and irrelevant matters and are often threatening and offensive to staff.

One wonders how Southwark intends to deal with its other 48 councillors.

If you have any municipal anecdotes that you wish to share, please send them to tony.elliston@lgc.emap.com

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