How local councils are surprised by things which seem obvious to the rest of us

By Martin Vogel

Perrin’s Court, Hampstead, where cobbles were covered over with tarmac

Close to where I live in north London, Camden Council’s road maintenance team have upset residents by resurfacing part of an 18th century cobbled street with tarmac.  Perrin’s Court in Hampstead is a quiet, semi-pedestrianised alley with pavement cafés.  People while away a pleasant hour here in what’s something of an oasis from the heavy traffic which cuts through the rest of the neighbourhood.  It’s no surprise then that they should turn apoplectic at the desecration of a charming environment.

No surprise, that is, except to the bureaucrats in Camden town hall whose sense of empathy failed them.

According to the local freesheet, the Camden New Journal, they authorised a botched job because the materials to repair a road constructed three hundred years ago were not easily to hand – and they now find themselves having to rectify the damage because of the local outcry:

A council spokeswoman said: “Wear and tear over the years meant that some of the cobbles that run along the channels at the side of the road were missing, so part of the work meant moving some to replace these.”   The spokeswoman added that they would now remove the tarmac and restore the cobbles to their former glory.  (The) work would start later this month after additional new cobbles had been ordered from a specialist quarry.

Now if the specialist cobble stones are so readily available that the work to restore the street can begin within a month, one wonders why the local authority didn’t authorise this solution in the first place and save local taxpayers the cost of having to fund the work twice.

This isn’t a purely local problem.  In various parts of the country, people are finding that the dead hand of town hall bureaucracy is a poor steward of the local environment – and militant action is needed to make councils see sense.

In the St Andrews area of Bristol, residents woke up to find workmen removing their Victorian lamp-posts in order to put them in another part of the city designated as a conservation area.  The council claimed it needed to install more modern, brighter lights in St Andrews to deter car crime.  The compromising of local character in order to prevent crime was not something residents had been consulted on, still less bought into.  But the council compounded the error by issuing an unconvincing apology regarding procedure, while refusing to back down on the removal of lamp-posts.  As the Daily Telegraph reported:

The council acknowledged it had not followed agreed procedures for informing residents ahead of the work starting.

“We wrote to residents to apologise for that oversight and to explain what the work was and why we were doing it,” the statement added.

“That said; we are clear that this work is essential; will make the area safer for all, and offers good value to all tax payers across the city.”

The council agreed to suspend the lamp-post removals only after a resident chained himself to one of the lamps, thereby bringing the work to a halt.

Local democracy, it seems, is not used to being held to account.  It’s easy to imagine hard-pressed officials taking decisions which seem rational from the perspective of remote council offices, only to find – as in the Hampstead case – that they have to think again when they see the emotional impact in the community.  But harder to understand the aloofness which attempted to brush aside people’s legitimate concerns about their neighbourhood in Bristol even after they’d been brought to the council’s attention.  What is a local authority’s purpose if it’s not to take account of local concerns – ideally before acting but, at least, post hoc?

What strikes me as interesting about these cases is that it’s increasingly hard for councils to get away with aloof behaviour.  People expect good service from the organisations they deal with and, on the whole, they get it.  They know how to get redress when they feel they’re not treated with respect.  The culture of local government is ill-equipped to deal with people on these terms.  It is attuned to administering trade-offs between competing interests across quite large communities.  But these have little relevance at the very local level of the neighbourhood.

Down there on the street, people get on with their lives and generally don’t ask much of their local council.  But the official from the town hall is the last person they expect to chip away at the artifacts which give an area its distinctive character.  People’s sense of well-being where they live is closely related to preservation of that local character.  Mess around with that and you’re asking for trouble.