There is a song in the iconic show, Cabaret, which reflects a growing imbalance in our communities, and an insidious greed which, in turn, breeds a certain arrogance. ‘Money, money, money makes the world go round, makes the world go round and round…’
Indeed, as the Chancellor has emphasised, a strong economy means that funds can be invested in our prized public services, as well as to support industry and innovation. This is what we pay our taxes for.
Nevertheless, there are times when I’m being beaten up by a young man or woman driving a brand new Range Rover in Sainsbury’s car park who stop for nothing and no-one, when I wonder if money is always in the right hands. Given their obvious arrogance, I doubt if they’d waste time helping anyone in a crisis!
And that’s the point isn’t it?
Like it or not, we are on this earth to help each other, and when I was recently struggling to load a bag of compost into my car, wizened old men were the ones to rush to my aid. On another occasion, a young motorcyclist (going too fast as they do) had a serious accident in an urban road, and immediately several people stopped their vehicles to help, including a surgeon whom, ironically, I had only minutes before stopped to allow out of a junction. In London, a cyclist was recently seriously injured by a van which trapped his legs; passers-by rushed to his aid and lifted the van up, so he could be pulled free… they must have spent a lot of time in the gym to be able to do that. As we remembered the 7/7 bombings, we were also reminded of the amazing bravery of fellow travellers who nurtured the seriously injured for hours before help got to them.
This is the stuff of real life. What politicians like to call ‘ordinary people’ behaving selflessly, then quietly disappearing from the scene.
But, whilst readily responding in emergencies, those ordinary people don’t always want to do organised volunteering, nor do they have the time; instead, they quietly help others, their neighbours and friends – looking after children and pets, listening to problems (best over a bottle of wine, in my experience) cutting grass and hedges for older or disabled people, watering plants when people are away, clearing snow and offering people lifts. Unfortunately, being ‘organised’ means intrusive personal checks which are, of course, necessary if working with vulnerable groups and children, but nevertheless, some people regard this as offensive when they lead honourable lives and you can barely leave your own home without appearing on a security camera.
It is this unobtrusive support network which local authorities should be encouraging because they are such a valuable resource, bringing commonsense and practical help to carers and the bereaved. They don’t intrude on grief or privacy, but offer small gifts by cooking a nice meal, or a special cake to take round to someone’s home, and being available on the phone for that all-important chat; in their neighbours’ kindness, people feel less alone and lonely (two very different things) knowing that there is understanding and support on tap when needed. This saves lives, when loneliness can turn to desperation and suicide, which no-one ever suspected could happen.
These hidden caring communities are far from rich, and they don’t usually even ask for what they may be entitled to – sometimes because they don’t know how to, or what they may be eligible for, but more usually because they take responsibility for themselves. In sharp contrast to the many who milk the state for every penny they can get.
So, what’s my point?
Local councillors have a leadership role in getting to know their wards and working with their Safer Neighbourhood Teams to identify people in need; during weekly walks you can spot things and talking to residents keeps you informed about local issues which you’d never otherwise know about. My community police officers used to give me a call if they spotted something which they thought I could resolve: things like home adaptations to make life easier, or a disabled parent whose child had been allocated a school place on the other side of town instead of just down the road (I had the decision reversed). Formal ‘surgeries’ aren’t the answer; it is the informal which really works. You can get things done, when people didn’t know what to do.
You are your MP’s eyes and ears, and by publishing a monthly diary of what you are doing, the meetings attended, and the advice/support you’ve been able to provide, residents know you should be the first port of call. And publishing the dates and times you will be in their neighbourhood, they will become familiar with you, not fearful of stopping you for that all-important chat or giving you a call. This also puts the opposition under pressure; in my own ward, they never did anything until a couple of months before an election, when they’d create a high profile issue and milk it for all its worth, even if the council had no control over it.
Setting your own example of how to engage helps to encourage social responsibility across the wider community, however modest. And employers want people who don’t just think of themselves and how much money they can make; we all need people who make a contribution to society. This is what councillors actually do, although few residents even know who they are or what they’re for.
We have wonderful unsung heroes in public service, but there are also too many people on excessive salaries whose only job appears to be overseeing endless meaningless report writing and pontificating on things they know nothing about. It’s overdue for councillors and their local authorities, and other public sector employers, to cull their management and focus on those who do the work; in my experience, they know what they’re doing, and don’t need interference from someone with a clipboard who never leaves their office.