Sutton Council made it to the venerable pages of Private Eye, in the Rotten Boroughs section as a result of changes in their communications department. The service was outsourced to Westminster Communications after they had been brought in to write a report on the in-house provision. LibDem Lead Councillor Tony Brett Young said at the time that the new arrangement would not cost 'more than we spend at the moment.' In fact, according to the magazine, costs have increased by around 51% from £379k to a massive £573,600.
I am not an advocate for slashing communication budgets. It is important that residents do know the good things that the Council does. The Council also needs to act as a central repository of information and to share bad news. Many people are unsure how to access council services, or indeed do not know much about what their council do, despite paying through the nose for the privilege.
The biggest failure of this Council with regard to communications is understanding that it is a two-way process. Whereas there will always be messages that the Council wishes to get across, it is even more important to be able to receive, digest and act upon messages that members of the public want to pass on. After all, the Council is only an extension of the residents in Sutton, acting as the provider of collective services paid for by them, when it is most convenient to have a community-based service rather than everyone fending for themselves. Imagine the number of dustcarts that would be driving around if it was a free-for-all.
The unpopular green garden waste charge is but one illustration of this failure. Logic dictates that the Council should consult before introducing a policy, not six months into the service. The LibDem Executive knew that it would be an unpopular policy, therefore they knew that they wouldn't like the answer that was likely to come back. This was failure no. 1. Secondly, they did not clearly articulate the changes. Many people were not aware of the changes until their old clear bags were left uncollected. Others were not aware that the £35 was per bag and not the total charge. Few people knew that the £35 got them a bag that was half the size of the original.
Finally, the consultation that has just ended was strictly controlled to exclude debate. Colin Hall made the mistake of walking into the Carshalton Local Committee where an open Q&A session raised some interesting points, with some shall we say animated residents. None of the other Local Committees allowed this, instead having Colin Hall and or officers standing to the side whilst residents quietly filled in a form. The communications team contacted 1000 residents to gain the views of a statistically relevant sample, which is to be commended. Unfortunately, the LibDems held a meeting on Friday night, before the cross-party group charged to suggest changes had seen the results. Therefore, either the decision has been made behind closed doors without worrying about what residents actually said, or the results are back and are being 'analysed' before general release. Either way, it's not the transparent U-turn that we might have been expecting after the grief that the LibDems got for making the original decision in such an intransigent fashion. The cross-party meeting is next Friday, so we won't have long to wait.