Thursday, 14 February 2013

Localism, stumped by a tree

A councillor friend represents a pleasant urban ward, filled with large, Victorian family homes, built along wide, tree-lined roads.  Or, following recent storms and outbreaks of various tree-felling diseases, stump-lined roads.
Residents have been campaigning for years to have the trees replanted, but in times of austerity, with cuts to budgets and council taxes frozen, planting new trees in wealthy suburban roads is not a priority. And rightfully so.

Determined to do his best for his electorate, my colleague visited the local garden centre and asked if, in exchange for a plaque on each tree acknowledging their support, they would donate ten suitable street trees. They readily agreed.
Next stop was the local TA. The Physical Training Instructor agreed to my colleagues request for TA volunteers to dig out the old stumps and replant the new trees, at no charge. The TA was keen to raise their local profile by doing good works in the local community.

 So far, so good.

Next stop was the Council and a meeting with the relevant Environmental Officer. Much sucking of teeth and intakes of breath resulted in a "site meeting" being called. But my colleague was still hopeful. How could anyone complain?

Come the morning of the site meeting, my colleague turned up at the appointed time to find a crowd, all wearing high-vis jackets and carrying clipboards, thronging around a tree stump. There was the Councils insurers, representatives from the main utility companies, Environment Officers, someone from BT to survey the likely future impact on telephone lines, someone from the police, Highways Department, solicitors to advise of Road Traffic Orders and likely impacts of traffic re-routing, horticultural advisors, the Council's Tree Officer, a building surveyor, planning officer.....and and on it went. Twenty three bureaucrats gathered around a tree stump, each and every one of them thinking up reasons why the proposed scheme could not possibly go ahead.

What if the trees were diseased? What if, in thirty years, the roots undermined someone's foundations? What if there was another storm and they blew over and caused damage? What if the roots damaged the water mains or the sewers? Did they TA have suitable training to dig a hole? What if a member of the TA injured himself during the planting? Did the TA have public liability insurance? Did the garden centre who were donating the trees meet the Council's standards for equality and access? If not, could the Council accept a donation from them? What if the tree planting raised people's expectations and more people wanted trees?

One by one they overcame the negativity. Staring defeat in the face, the bureaucrats played their trump card. "What about the company which was awarded the Council's arboriculture contract?  Up stepped the legal officers, clearly briefed and waiting for the question to be asked. "Their contract gives them exclusive control over all tree planting and maintenance in the borough. If the Council permitted a voluntary organisation to undertake work specified in their contract, they could sue the council for the notional value of the lost business." In other words, the two or three thousand pounds they would have charged for each tree planted, would need to be paid to them regardless, as compensation.

"Well" said an Officer scenting victory, "if we are going to have to pay them, we might as well give them the work and thereby reduce or eliminate all the other concerns." Wise nodding all around. Then up piped the Tree Officer, "but as we don't have any allocation in this year's budget, I propose a decision is deferred until next year, when we can review the situation..." Everyone agreed. And no doubt delighted that their professional and dedicated approach to public administration has stopped the potentially catastrophic consequences of a councillor’s enthusiasm, off they sloped back to their desks and their box ticking lives.

I am sure many of the issues raised required careful consideration and attention. I am equally sure that given goodwill and common sense, solutions to all these issues could have been found. Sadly the public sector mentality is not equipped to find solutions, but to use process to avoid innovation. What a disgrace.

As a consequence of this ineptitude and small mindedness

1. A local company willing to donate its goods and services to improve the environment had their generosity rejected

2. The local TA who were willing to give time and effort for the benefit of the community were denied the opportunity to do so

3. The local councillor who had worked so hard to achieve this for local residents was belittled and discouraged

4. The residents who have lost their street trees and have waited years for them to be replanted continue to be disappointed

5. The arboriculture company who might have sued do not receive a penny of additional work as the council has no money to pay them.

No action. No progress. No change.

I know many excellent local government officers who are outstanding and dedicated public servants, but what I have outlined above is a perfect example of the adage that we should thank God for local government as it provides employment for thousands of managers who would never survive in the private sector.

Unless the government finds a way to deal with the box ticking mentality which stifles innovation and progress, Localism and the Big Society will never receive the chance they deserve to transform public service in this country.

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