In its original version, this first appeared in the July 2013 edition of the Highley Forum, since when events have overtaken it to exceed even the extent of the break-up that I foresaw back then.
Well, local democracy as we used to know it, anyway? The sort that channelled a collective local voice into the decision making processes of what used to be “the local council”, whether parish, district or county, the last two long defunct in Shropshire since 2009 when unitary and its ‘Strong Leader with Cabinet’ model of governance came in.
Conversion to the unitary council model in 2009 channelled decision-making into the hands of the individuals chosen by the Leader (capital ‘L’), who is voted into place by members of the largest political grouping at Shirehall which in Shropshire’s case is the Conservative Party. The chosen few form a ‘Cabinet’ and assume the authority to make decisions as an executive not answerable, and certainly not accountable, to anyone.
In theory scrutiny committees do exist, with the nominal power to question proposed policy changes but which, in reality, are able only to “recommend” changes which the Cabinet is under no obligation to accept.
If the shift of power started when Shropshire went unitary under Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009, it was when the Conservatives under David Cameron won the May 2010 general election that the consequences of that shift in power really took hold.
Council offices in Ludlow and Bridgnorth were off-loaded and staff offered voluntary redundancy. Only later, with the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2013, would the full implication of the resultant loss of 40% of the authority’s senior, more experienced planning staff begin to manifest itself, and continues to be felt now, in 2020!
We councillors were told (usually via the Shropshire Star) to get ready to come to terms with changes to the way local government would operate in Shropshire because central government was determined that things would change and the Executive at Shirehall were determined to toe their Party’s line.
The ‘For Sale’ signs went up on Shirehall and Shirehall started working to render itself obsolete by moving many of its functions into the council-owned company established by Keith Barrow, ‘ip&e’ (wound up in 2016 after Keith Barrow was forced to stand down at the end of 2015).
The sale of Shirehall was pretty much a foregone conclusion; earlier optimistic talk of a move to the Guildhall in Shrewsbury – retaining at least a semblance of the old way of doing things – was out because it was earmarked for use as part of the ‘campus’ of the University of Shrewsbury.
With Stonehouse in Ludlow and Westgate in Bridgnorth closed down, officers were even then either ‘hot-desking’ or operating from home or from their car, the Executive’s ambition for the wholesale move to a virtual council was only slowed by the poor-to-non-existent broadband coverage over great swathes of the county, particularly in the west.
But as internet connection improved, that impediment was overcome and the way was open to complete the transition to a truly remote council with all the advantages that offered to an Administration intent on cementing itself in place and, moreover, cementing itself in place in perpetuity.
But how to sell that idea?
Well, along came Covid-19 and handed them the solution on a plate.
On Friday 22 May 2020 all elected Members were copied-in to the daily Covid-19 “up-dating” text from one of the interim Chief Executives, Andy Begley. In the middle of the text it said…
Over the past several weeks we have all been working differently. Our new ways of working, specifically the use of technology to deliver services, are foundations for a brighter, better and more sustainable authority.
We have mentioned changes and the new normal many times, but what has perhaps not been as clear is the fact that we will not be returning to the old ways of working. We cannot return to how we worked for many reasons. Covid is an obvious issue, but the reality is we need to make sure that our services and our organisation, as a whole, is fit for purpose going forward, and able to serve our residents as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Funding, advances in technology, changes in service requirements and closer working with the NHS are all fundamental shifts in how we work and Coronavirus has been a huge catalyst to accelerate necessary changes – propelling us into a future we would have strived for over years, but one we can now step into together, as a better, more vibrant, inclusive and innovative Council.
We have discussed the idea of public sector staff being doers and right now we need you to continue doing your jobs, but we also need you to be curious about what could be better and work to truly transform.
There is no more room for inefficiencies, there is no more time to delay – this is here, the need is now.
As a management team, and with the support of several council services, plans are being drawn up as to what Shropshire Council could look like. These plans are being fed by responses from the staff survey, data we have about how we are working now, service requirements and Shropshire’s future needs.
Throughout this process we will work with staff to make sure everyone has a voice and right now we need you to stay strong, keep innovating and to consider the best bits from how we used to work, whilst planning for a new tomorrow – one we’ll shape together to be the best local authority we can be.
A new tomorrow? That’s the first Elected Members had been told of it.
I read through it again.
“…foundations for a brighter, better and more sustainable authority” … A sentence we saw many times during the changes wreaked wrought back in the dark days of 2013.
“… the fact that we will not be returning to the old ways of working” … So no talk of consultation with elected councillors or the thousands of people they were elected to represent, so essentially an unequivocal statement of intent sealed with that one word “fact”.
“… propelling us into a future we would have strived for over years” … Except there has never been a “would” in there since 2013, that bit should more accurately have read: “propelling us into a future we have strived for over years”.
The old-fashioned concept of democratic representation had long ago moved into the cross-hair sights of the Executive, its finger poised over the trigger which, given the opportunity to blow a hole in democracy’s head, just needed a nudge.
And just in case anyone had any doubts about how serious the Executive was about finally realising that ambition…
“There is no more room for inefficiencies, there is no more time to delay – this is here, the need is now.”
“These plans are being fed by responses from the staff survey, data we have about how we are working now, service requirements and Shropshire’s future needs. […] Throughout this process we will work with staff to make sure everyone has a voice”.
And all that achieved without once consulting with elected Members outside of the ten-person Cabinet?
“… everyone has a voice”?
Whilst I’m obviously not happy about the distancing of people from the administration of their affairs through the diminution of local representation as indicated in that email, given the increasing apathy of people towards the machinery of government, local as well as central, I can understand people believing (wanting to believe?) that the profound changes that are happening will not impact directly on them.
Perhaps democracy is increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives?
Ah well, as long as nobody goes looking for a council office door to knock on. Oh, and they pick whatever the right time is to do it, just in case…
Technology, message from ICT:
Some people experienced issues this morning with their technology and we can only apologise. We believe the issue resulted from high demand on the infrastructure. This increase has been seen across the country, potentially as a result of organisations returning to somewhat normal work. Whilst we hope this issue does not recur tomorrow, we cannot guarantee, so please be mindful if there are problems tomorrow and if there are, they will likely ease mid-morning.
We are monitoring this, looking for opportunities to overcome the issues and have developed a plan to overcome the issues. We will keep you posted on your Directorate Teams sites.
02 June 2020. Staff Update Covid-19.
Karen Bradshaw & Andy Begley
Acting Interim Chief Executives