Yesterday, the Leader of Herefordshire County Council published an apology on this site that is not only welcome but gives some encouragement to all those campaigning for better local government.
Councillor Phillips was apologising to a local resident, Mr Hubbard, who had been sent a threatening letter ordering him to stop cutting the grass verge outside his home. His public-spirited behaviour, the letter suggested, was harming the appearance of the street by showing up the poor maintenance of the other verges, which the council had allowed to become overgrown, and he was ordered to stop.
Mr Hubbard’s experience is unfortunately not an uncommon one. All too often council officials become too fond of throwing their weight around and find it easiest to throw it at law-abiding soft targets rather than at truly problematic residents. He should have been congratulated and thanked for his efforts to make the street a nicer place, not threatened.
The outcome of this case is a pleasing one, though – and Councillor Phillips is to be congratulated for having the good sense to set this right and the decency to apologise. There is a lesson for all of us, too: if you stand up and object to poor service, high taxes or waste in your council, it is possible to win.
Local Government works in such a way that, as has apparently happened in this case, your councillor might well not be aware that the policy affecting you is in place at all. In policy terms, large amounts of the aims councils pursue are decided at regional level, in Westminster or even in Brussels. Culturally, regrettable numbers of officials view councillors and indeed the electorate as a hassle rather than as people they are meant to serve, and there are countless councillors who will tell you of the wall of silence and non-cooperation they have come up against when trying to improve, change or even just learn about the way the council functions.
It might seem obvious, but there’s no harm in writing to your councillor – at a minimum, you’ll find out where they stand even if they reject your request. If they do, you need to ramp things up. Your councillor might not be bothered about you when there’s just one of you, but the more people you have speaking out, the more of a concern your issue will become. If it’s a blanket council policy, like bin collections, that you object to, then your neighbours will be affected in the same way – get them to speak out too.
If you alone have been unjustly treated, it’s still of concern to other people in the area. If Mr Hubbard was treated so shoddily just for voluntarily mowing a lawn, his neighbours would be justified in worrying about how the council might treat them in similar circumstances.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance also lend our support in cases like thus, regularly organising letter-writing campaigns in support of people who have had poor service from their councils. In the Hubbard case, we were able to send Councillor Phillips’ email address out to our whole mailing list, and many of our supporters emailed him to support Mr Hubbard.
This case also demonstrates the huge power of your other option – the media. There is an undeniable public and media interest in cases where councils are behaving badly, and it is a great way to shine a spotlight on your council. If they don’t care about you as a taxpayer or a voter, they’ll certainly care when their poor service is in the paper, on the radio or on the television.
A lot of people find that their council bills go up and up, and that the service they get in return seems to remain stagnant or be cut back. Far too often, councils assume that they can ignore local concerns, particularly when it comes to individuals who have a dispute with their local authority. Mr Hubbard’s case is a reminder that if you stand up and speak out, you can make them listen. If ordinary taxpayers start to wield that power more often and more effectively, very soon the easiest option for even the most intransigent council is to do the right thing in the first place.