Nottingham: a city we’re all proud of?

It’s been a tumultuous time in politics – the British public have finally realised that placing the inmates in charge of the asylum (including the deeds to the buildings, the keys to the medicine cabinet, and the power to section anybody who happens to walk past whistling in a subversive way) is a system no longer conducive to a transparent democracy. Impact’s Ian Steadman discusses recent events that have revealed massive problems with Nottingham City Council, and asks whether the city is coping during the recession without effective local leadership.

You were never meant to read these words. In June 2006 Nottingham City Council commissioned Hardmoor Associates, a consultancy firm, to assess the effectiveness of the city’s elected officials. Then-Deputy Chief Executive Adrienne Roberts read the report, as did Council Leader Jon Collins, and they decided to bury it instead of releasing it either to others in the Council or to the general public. Freedom of Information Requests for its release were made by both the Nottingham Evening Post and Liberal Democrat Councillor Tony Sutton, but were thoroughly denied; the release of the document was, apparently, “not in the public interest.”

And yet here we are two years later, with the full Hardmoor report finally leaked onto the Internet in all its wondrous, damning glory – and everyone at the top gets hit, hard. There are tales of megalomaniacal councillors obsessed with meddling and micromanaging Council activity, tinkering and interfering with the work of lower officers, and with an opposition that fails to oppose. Councillor Collins, still Leader of the Council, comes out bearing the brunt of the criticism – he often gets, “upset, and shout[s] when things are not done … even though they are unrealistic or outside of the Council’s powers.” He seems to act more like a Mayor than merely a first amongst equals, sticking his nose where it should not be stuck. All councillors, including the Leader, are meant to deal with legislative affairs, but they seem to lack any respect for the administrative civil service (the unelected officers), and drive them like dogs when not undermining their authority.

It’s not that they have bad intentions – the report says councillors are mostly well-meaning – but their aims are all so broad, involving so many areas of policy, that they spend most of their time stepping on each others’ toes. When they do actually manage to finish anything (see the Market Square remodelling, or the tram system) they get so shocked that they almost forget to order the celebratory champagne. The departments that just get on with things do so, “against the odds.” They don’t get tied down with all the ridiculous talk of ‘corporate strategies’.

I contacted the Council several times, but they declined to comment. The statement released to the media on February 27th by Jane Todd, the Council’s Chief Executive, appears to be the extent to which they want to deal with this issue. “Only brave organisations and brave people are prepared to start the private conversations that get to the bottom of these issues,” she said, though where I’m from, spending £35k to repress an embarrassing report isn’t exactly being brave.

Ms Todd’s main problem with the report is that, “the scope of the consultants’ work was always extremely limited, focusing on just one aspect of how the council was operating nearly three years ago, namely how senior officers and councillors worked together.” What she’d rather people focused on is, “what is actually important to people who live in Nottingham – the quality of the services the council provides.” A slight aside, then, as we investigate these ‘services’.

You’ve probably seen UNISON’s new billboard campaign around the city centre, drawing attention to the Council’s plan to cut up to 350 jobs as part of a £12m budget shortfall (spun by Councillor Collins as, “taking a long hard look at how we deliver services and finding more efficient ways to do so”). Also facing closure are three daycares, two libraries, and a museum. Those losing their jobs heard it announced on local radio before being told by their employer, which riled the largest public sector union in the country and did little to endear the council to its staff.

Community centres across the city have been struggling for years now, and with the added problems of recession several are being completely shut down. The Chase Neighbourhood Centre in St Ann’s provides important education and training to local people – it was taken over by the Council after its private management went bankrupt, and it’s been open since October only through the work of a dedicated band of volunteers as the council dithers over funding. In Radford, Tennyson Hall (it’s that beautiful old building on Alfreton Road with the eerie neon sign declaring, “I saw the Angel in the stone and I carved until I set it free”) is up for sale after its owners Nottingham Development Company (NDC) decided that after 20 years as a popular community venue it was too run-down to renovate. NDC itself has been given more than £55m over the past decade to invest in regenerating the mostly rundown Radford area, and yet appears to have spent most of that money on in-fighting and pursuing personal agendas – the entire board was sacked early last year due to incompetence, with little to show for progress with the money invested.

Council house rents were due to increase by 5% this year, but after a £2.5 million grant initiative by central government the rate increase was lowered to 3.1% – and then the Council issued a press release claiming that the higher rate was Whitehall’s idea, and took credit for resisting it. Through 2008, evictions from council houses were up 48% (by comparison, the national average was a mere 7%), whilst at the same time it emerged that the council were denying nearly 60% of applications for Discretionary Housing Payments – these are the funds allocated to local authorities by central government with the purpose of supplementing the income of those who struggle to pay rent with their existing housing benefits. If any local authority fails to spend the full allocation of funds in one year then the amount is reduced for the next year – it’s not difficult to grasp that spending as much of this as possible is in the Council’s interest, but for the sixth year running they’ve massively underspent and lost yet more investment. This isn’t surprising – the funds are barely publicised. The only possible reason for this is that the Council somehow feels this will make them appear tough on benefit fraudsters, but they spend almost as much (£200k by some estimates) on catching fraud as they save.

And this news was completely overshadowed by the huge controversy that came to light earlier this year concerning systematic corruption in Nottingham City Homes (NCH), the non-profit organisation tasked with managing the city’s council-owned properties. The Audit Commission, the watchdog from central government tasked with auditing local government bodies, found that senior officers in NCH had routinely ignored the points-based criteria for allocating housing and appeared to have relied on nothing but gut instinct or self-interest in handing out keys. For a long time it was common knowledge that having friends in the city hall or on the board of NCH helped bump a request to the top of the list, but the sheer audacity of the senior NCH officers demands some grudging, bitter respect – between 2002 and 2005 there were some 700 homes, around 10% of the total, allocated without any attempts at following protocol, and more than double that again misused the points system. The worst cases, however, were those houses allocated to relatives or friends of NCH staff, or even of City Council staff and councillors, with the intention of selling on again for a profit through right-to-buy programs. The head of NCH, Tyron Browne, resigned as soon as the report emerged, but the damage was done – Alison Rigg from the Audit Commission announced that, “the people of Nottingham have been let down by the Council’s housing service.”

How could such a system be allowed to flourish, unchecked, for so long? The Audit Commission laid the blame at the feet of the Council, and a lack of clear ethical guidelines. The Council should, “ensure there are mechanisms in place that require councillors to register any potential conflicts of interest when seeking to advocate on behalf of local constituents,” the auditors said, which is really nothing more than a simple accountability procedure and would prevent any of the shady dealings that have tarred NCH. So, of course, the Council’s Standards Committee completely rejected any need for such a thing, claiming it was liable to, “cause confusion and conflict between it and the Members’ Code of Conduct in the minds of councillors.” It’s a weak excuse to maintain a weak system, and shows that the mindset that caused the problems appears to be firm and intractable. And, similarly, the final recommendation of the 2006 Hardmoor report was that, “a line in the sand needs to be drawn and a new member/officer protocol produced so that respective roles are clearly defined and communicated to all.” The Council meddles where it should not, and resists attempts at change.

In addition to all this rampant incompetency (we haven’t even mentioned losing £42m when Iceland’s banking sector kicked the bucket, or embarrassing episodes such as the head of the Council’s anti-social behaviour program being arrested for assault, or a BNP activist being given the role of vice chairman on Nottingham City Homes’ disability board, or the many, many more delightful examples of shadenfreude over the past few years), a brand new report was commissioned by the Council last year. After a £69k fee, consultancy firm ‘Invigor8’ (seriously y’all, numbers are hip) has only produced a preliminary briefing ahead of the full thing thus far, but the language is already less damning and critical – which will no doubt have pleased the Council. And yet, even with a less rigorous sample method (interviewing far fewer staff), and beneath the truly absurd management-speak (the Council must, “cut through organisational noise,” to, “develop a clear organisational focus,” with an aim to, “align strategy, culture and performance measures”), the criticisms appear to be the same as those raised in the Hardmoor report – its recommendations for a clearer separation of powers between legislators and civil service in order to clear up confusion and end dysfunction is mirrored by the Invigor8 report’s calls for, “a need for stronger, more consistent, more visible leadership,” to resolve, “a lack of clarity about purpose, vision, and relationship boundaries.”

That the Invigor8 report says that the Council’s leadership has, “a developing sense of unity and purpose,” is a moot point – it must be unable to accepts its own flaws if it still stifles criticism, and appears staffed with sycophants. The role of Chief Executive of the Council is second in import only to the Council Leader, being tasked with overseeing the work that the Executive orders, and Nottingham City Council have managed to lose two of them (and one Deputy Chief Executive) in the past six years thanks to the tireless efforts of Councillor Collins to subvert their authority. The latest appointment to the job, our friend Jane Todd, assumed the role this year after working as acting-Chief Executive since the departure of Michael Frater in March 2008; he explicitly blamed the breakdown in his relationship with Collins as his reason for leaving. She appears to have performed so well at deferring to Councillor Collins whilst keeping the chair warm for the next unlucky sap that they decided she might as well get it, instead of going through yet another messy (and expensive – those three departures together cost over £500k) public relations problem.

And so we return now to Ms Todd’s bitter retort to the leaked Hardmoor report, which is supposedly irrelevant because it’s out of date. You can almost hear the haughty smirk when she writes that the Audit Commission’s next audit of the Council, “will reflect the very real and significant progress that we are making.”

This latest audit has now revealed that Nottingham City Council is in the bottom 20% of local authorities in England and Wales for delivering services.

This all begs the fundamental question: What, exactly, is the purpose of local government? Everything is ticking over nicely, they say, despite all these troubles – so don’t worry. This, surely, just means one of two things – that everything’s working in spite of the Council’s work, or that the Council and all its meddling nonsense is an utter irrelevance in making a city’s services work. According to Experian, Nottingham is one of the worst hit regions of the country during this recession – so if the city’s struggling to find effective central leadership from its Council, can it cope?

Forest Fields is as close to a centre of radicalism as Nottingham has. Poor enough to escape being fully gentrified, but not without the cash to spring another few apartments into an old Edwardian four-storey; being off to the side, away from the student bubbles in places like Lenton, Radford and the Arboretum, gives it the laid back shrugging nonchalance that characterises every good coalescence of leftism. Nottingham is not like Bristol, with its lazy lackadaisical acid sunrise dropouts in a near-permanent community of cider-drinkers and dreadlocks; it’s not Manchester, a city with a strong and proud tradition of generating political radicals in both its student and professionally parliamentary classes. Nottingham manages such things in spurts, and right now Forest Fields is where the bicycle classes hang.

It’s also the centre of efforts by the local constabulary (who, it has recently emerged, missed 75% of targets last year, making them the worst-performing UK police force of its size in preventing and solving serious crimes) to install three CCTV masts in the area. The scheme, proposed by the Council but supported by the police, has proven highly unpopular, with local residents forming anti-CCTV leafleting groups and pressuring a reluctant police force into convening a town hall meeting with the local residents. The meeting was widely viewed as a sham, and it’s hard not to agree – the police stance was that CCTV reduces crime and antisocial behaviour, and they patronised those who disagreed; the locals would rather the £9000 for each mast (plus £250k a year to run the damn things) were spent on plants and youth programs to counter the negative impact of crime on the area and help create more communal pride. The police feigned consideration for the alternatives; cameras are never justified because they do work, but because there’s a chance that, someday, they might work. Most available evidence shows that CCTV has a placebo effect on crime at best, and even the Home Office thinks that they’re rubbish, saying as much in a 2005 report, but to no avail – after a suspiciously inadequate referendum was held, it now seems that the masts will go ahead. Past experience shows that once they’re up they rarely get taken down again.

Anyone familiar with Forest Fields shouldn’t be surprised at the group response to the CCTV masts – the place is riddled with communalists in sandals. The Sumac centre is one of the community old guard, being run entirely by volunteers on a non-profit basis with a selection of regular events ranging from the truly hippie (Friends of the Earth meetings, vegan cooking classes) to the more traditional fare of book stalls and daycares. Most of the people involved are from the far- to extreme-left, but even fascists need somewhere to leave their kids whilst at work; there are also local anarchist groups, such as the long-standing Sparrow’s Nest, who tend to congregate in the area. These are the kinds of people who you’d expect to set up such outwardly social things as community centres, but the remarkable thing about this recession is that this attitude appears to be spreading, seeping into other areas of the city, into communities who would normally be expected to distance themselves from such ideas.

“Schools which are being given increasing levels of autonomy from the local authority are succeeding.” This is the view of Sean Rogers, the lead associate on schools for the Co-op – he’s talking about Nottingham getting its first co-operative school, the first in the East Midlands and one of only a handful across the country. If it proves successful, the hope is that the Hadden Park School in Bilborough (until now, poorly performing) will be so successful than other schools in the area will follow suit.

The idea is nothing new – Tory leader David Cameron is a fan of what some call the ‘Swedish model’, where parents from the local community act as school governors and work with the head teacher. Only last year the Education Minister, Ed Balls, announced plans for up to 100 schools to change hands into local ownership. “Elected members of the community will meet regularly and will be consulted on key decisions,” Rogers says, “and it’s a groundbreaking model that’s about putting the ‘community’ back into community schools.” It’s a much more flexible model than any kind of centrally-managed education authority, able to quickly respond to new ideas and react to problems, whilst still being state-funded. The board of the charitable trust that will run Hadden Park will be mostly made up of elected members of the local community, with some seats set aside for advisors from local business and educational groups – New College Nottingham is taking a direct role in helping the transition of Hadden Park to the Co-Op scheme.

It’s easy to understand why this model is so attractive, as it gives parents a more direct role in their kids’ education and creates a vested interest in parents to help the school do well. Where it’s been adapted, it’s proven extremely popular – in Sweden, the vast choice of different schools that the system creates is widely seen as being responsible for their notoriously high educational standards.

Of course, not everyone is happy with taking control of schools out of the hands of local government. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) opposes any plans to allow co-operative schools to become the norm – Ian Hanton of Nottingham’s NUT chapter claims that, “while it all sounds very laudable, involving the community, there are ways for schools under local authority control to do this – you must look at the long-term effect of these models which I believe are detrimental to schools and the community.” They oppose allowing parents and local businesses to effectively control state-owned schools because it could very well lead to greater educational inequality. Unlike in Sweden, we in Britain already have a developed independent sector that has the ability to choose and expel pupils with far greater freedom than any comprehensive has, and this is the main reason for their higher standards – they’ve already weeded out any weaker or unruly pupils in their selection process. With schools run by parents with the ability to choose and reject pupils there is a clear incentive for the selection policy to be tightened up. No parent is going to want their kid sitting next to a serial arsonist, or being held back by another pupil with learning difficulties. The statistics are mixed as to whether it’s this school model that actually improves educational standards, or some other factor, but there is a clear trend in places such as Sweden for middle-class parents to opt for the choice they provide. Children from poorer families are the ones who, arguably, need extra funding, but if the wealthier middle class families begin to move away then it’s possible to see the top of slippery slope to a ghettoised school system. Western liberal democratic governments are, theoretically, neutral; unrestrained capitalism is less so.

Bilborough, where Hadden Park is located, is traditionally a Labour ward and home to people who probably don’t question the integral role of the government in life – but recessions force people to act independently and for their own selves if the welfare state falters. With the situations that council housing, policing, and communal organisation find themselves in currently there’s no shortage of people in Nottingham who are turning to those around them for support. Add in to this the widespread anger with the political classes for their extravagant expense claims and there’s a real possibility of people either looking to other groups for answers to their problems, or setting up their own alternatives.

It can be seen in places like St Ann’s, the area of Nottingham that has suffered so much from gun crime and poverty over the past decades and yet where there’s been a concerted effort by the locals to keep the Chase Neighbourhood Centre open; or, down in Broadmarsh, near the station, where the Art Organisation is expanding from a small two-story café and art space into a vast series of art galleries and rental spaces by renovating the dilapidated buildings on their block, breathing life into an area otherwise being sucked of soul; contrast with Nottingham City Council sinking more money into the new Nottingham Contemporary Gallery in the Lace Market (that bloated shipping container complex, gurning on the edge of the bluff) than the budget shortfall requiring the loss of all those jobs and services.

And yet charities are suffering just as much as local businesses, and there is only so much a community centre can do to feed the homeless. Local groups may be taking buildings and spaces and utilising them for the immediate needs of either themselves or their community, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be the most productive uses of those spaces (and there’s only so much that guerrilla film screenings can do to ‘help’ a society). The Council in Nottingham is rotten and apparently useless, but few things are as capable of organising massive welfare action. There are difficult questions of political philosophy, political science, ethics and sociology to answer when discussing what is ‘correct’ in the relationship between a people and their government, and yet it’s not just anarchists who are starting to contemplate these issues. Whether it’s the beginning of a recovery in a society that has been let down by its leaders… well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Ian Steadman

FeaturesThis Issue

Leave a Reply