The Vampires at City Hall, by Jean Calder

When a government takes into public ownership something that was previously privately owned, it’s called nationalisation. Privatisation is the opposite process, whereby something that was previously publicly owned, is sold off into private hands. I’ve been struggling to define a rather different concept, somewhere between the two.

I’m looking for a word to describe how local authorities have come to use the work of charities and some statutory organisations as a means of income generation – not for the charities and other organisations, but for the local authorities themselves. Perhaps ‘vampirism’ might describe it best.

Once upon a time, local authorities did what they did – ran libraries, maintained parks, built and let out houses etc – and charities performed good works councils couldn’t do. The only substantial area of overlap between the two was in education, children’s and homelessness services and that was of longstanding. Both ran valuable services, but they did it separately. Councils employed one or two grants officers. Charities went to them for funding and either did or didn’t get it.

Some time around the early 1990s, everything began to change. Charities were told they had to compete for contracts, as if they were private sector companies, and be accountable to local authorities to ensure ‘value for money’. You might think this fair enough – except that many good charities went to the wall and the costs to the public purse increased – especially when central government funding was in the frame. Councils made bids for government funding, which, if successful, delivered some limited benefits to charities and community groups, but at the same time brought  additional layers of bureaucracy to councils – and a demand for liaison and ‘partnership’ with other statutory agencies, such as the police and health services, which was hugely expensive of time and money. 

Over a period in which many vital manual jobs disappeared, there was an eye-watering increase in white collar posts. Dedicated council officials and grants-officers were replaced by an army  of commissioners, development officers, co-ordinators, strategy and policy officers and financial administrators – all much better paid than the charity workers they were very often there to fund and monitor and, in many cases, with not enough to do. The result was interference and duplication – not just in the work of the charities, but increasingly, also in the mainstream work of other agencies and even departments of the council itself – and meetings, lots and lots and lots of meetings. Forums were set up to progress the work which, of course, needed ‘coordinators’ and if there were equalities implications – and inevitably there often were – yet more staff were employed. Every passing fad would be seized as an opportunity for ‘innovation’ and to employ more staff, set up more groups and hold more meetings. Partnership and community groups and local action teams provided a rich seam of opportunities for ‘liaison’ – and time-wasting – with councillors, colleagues, police officers and community leaders. 

The result has been that in many areas of endeavour, there has developed a parasitic ‘shadow’ structure, which delivers nothing, but, giving the appearance of expertise and authority, interferes, commentates and even investigates, while writing policies and attending meetings. Instead of supporting the real expertise of specialist organisations – and, in the case of charities, paying them properly for it – these grey shadows cannibalise other agencies’ work to justify their continued existence.

When cuts come, who can touch them, these well-paid, clean-fingered professionals? Productive  lower-paid posts may be lost, but not their jobs – for are they not engaged in vital work? They write the strategies that say as much.  Well no, they’re not, and it’s about time councillors realised this. If the money that has been spent on liberal fads and worthless posts had been used to fund real service delivery by traditional council departments and established specialist agencies, the city’s people – especially the very young or old, the sick, the vulnerable and the victimised – would have been far better off.