Will Shropshire Council’s Big Conversation on cuts become the Big Con?

Shropshire Council’s leadership has launched “The Big Conversation”, a five-year long consultation on the future of council services. This is an important survey and it is important that people take part in it. But I have my doubts about how much difference it will make to what the council leadership does. I hope to be proved wrong but the track record of this leadership is not good. It has ignored the outcomes of previous consultations and shown that it neither listens nor learns.

Here in Ludlow, the council conducted two consultations over the Coder Road recycling and waste centre. Both received a unanimous response against the closure so the cabinet closed the facility anyway. The consultation on using converting half of our Youth Centre into offices was a sham. The builders moved in well before the consultation closed and Shropshire Council staff moved just one a day after the consultation formally ended. This pattern has been repeated with consultations across the county.

Shropshire Council’s leaders say the Big Conversation will be different. I hope so. The Big Conversation must be more than a repackaging of what the council has been doing for years. It must be more than a public relations exercise. It must be more than the council seeking a public mandate for decisions that it has already made. It must be more than a council that is acting politically.

I am sorry to say, the early portents for the Big Conversation are not good.

The survey launched on Friday is based on the premise that we must cut £77m from the council budget by 2020/21. As I said in an earlier article, we don’t know yet whether it will be this bad. We may only need to cut half as much.

Council leaders seem fixated on reducing the council to the smallest possible size though cuts and commissioning, regardless of whether that is the best way of delivering public services. I am sure that’s why in the Big Conversation survey they have classified “running the council” as a service. Providing council officers with buildings, personnel, IT and administrative support is not a service in the same sense that supporting vulnerable adults or children is a service. Yet the Big Conversation questionnaire asks us to choose between “running the council” and supporting vulnerable people. Respondents will of course put administration as a lower priority, as would I. But running the council is an overhead without which other the other ten services cannot function. To me, this is looks like an attempt to set up a future political headline for the Conservative leaders:

“Running the council is the bottom of the public’s priorities.”

Keith Barrow has previously talked of a council reduced to 400 staff. Is this question designed to give a veneer of respectability to that political ambition?[1]

Talking of political ambitions, the survey has a number of questions designed to establish the demographic and political profile of respondents. This includes asking for your electoral division. Why? This is a political question. It will provide a rich set of campaigning data if political leaders – or indeed any other councillor – has access to it. I have asked the chief executive to clarify who will have access to the detailed analysis from this survey.

The most difficult task facing Shropshire Council’s leadership is recognising that a conversation is not just an opinion poll. It is not just a way of communicating what the council is planning to do. It is a way of exchanging ideas. Here, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary is the definition of ‘conversation’:

A talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I hope the council leadership will prove me wrong. I hope that it will show that it is listening and learning. If not the Big Conversation will become the Big Con.

Notes

[1]. Of course, administration should be cut back. In my view, service divisions in the council should have their administration costs capped. Some while ago when I headed a division of the scientific civil service, we had an admin cap of 6%. I don’t know what the right figure would be for Shropshire Council but the existence of a cap in the civil service meant that we focused absolutely on frontline delivery, not back office support.