Friday, July 23, 2010

Life, Death, And Virtual Councils


How may I help?
Well, for a start, you can stop wasting my friggin' money

I expect you saw the story of the bonkers council that spent £36 grand of real life taxpayers' money on contructing a fantasy life town hall in the internet game Second Life (pic above).
"The cost has been revealed following a Freedom of Information request, including £3,250 for initial workshops and almost £17,000 to an IT company to develop the 'island'.
The council also handed over almost £10,000 to the company for rental and management of the project, £6,000 for a virtual museum and £400 for a statue."
What an outrage. A classic example of a council wasting our hard-earned cash on half-baked rubbish that nobody asked for and nobody ever used (they refuse to divulge how many people used "the facility"). Who do they think they are?

But what really caught Tyler's eye about this story was the name of the council responsible - Tameside Council in Greater Manchester. Because once in another lifetime, Tyler had regular dealings with the officers and councillors at Tameside Council. They were clients of his.

More than that, for reasons we needn't go into, the corporate relationship ended on an extraordinarily sour note. Tyler can still vividly recall being publicly flogged by the Big-I-Am council leader in front of a packed meeting of councillors, officers, and third parties. How Tyler was a disgrace and ought to be ashamed of himself. And later being told by that same leader that he never ever wanted to see Tyler in Tameside again. Literally run out of town.
 
Well, that's showbiz, and it doesn't help to dwell on such things. So Tyler got on with his life.
 
But now, years later, this little story has brought it all back. And this time, the boot would seem to be on the other foot. How delicious. Time for a bit of Googling.
 
For those who don't know, Tameside is a classic Northern council - a rock-solid Labour fiefdom. No fewer than 46 of its 55 councillors are Labour, and it has been Labour controlled ever since it was established in 1974. It is good old North Korean style one-party rule.
 
In fact, Tameside turns out to be even closer to North Korea than that. Because not only has it been ruled for ever by one party, its leader has been the same individual for 30 years. Yes, that very same individual who publicly flogged Tyler all those years ago. He went on to became the longest serving council leader in the entire country - not quite as long as Kim Il-sung, but getting there.
 
Of course, just like in North Korea, there has been some dissent among the populace. In fact, there now seem to be several Tameside blogs dedicated to the antics of the leader and his colleagues. Tameside Mafia is one, which among other things has kept a close eye on the number of chauffeur-driven Jags provided for him. Another blog, Tameside Eye (sadly open to invited readers only) posted the leader's very own Downfall vid. Yes, there has been dissent, and it seems to have grown.

So what's this leader's name?

Well, actually we're not going to name him. You'll have to Google it yourself.

Why? Because by an amazing and sad coincidence, at the very moment Tyler - after all these years - decided to get reacquainted down there in the second life cyberspace town hall, it turns out that in real life, the leader has just died. His funeral was yesterday.

Tyler isn't normally one for spooky coincidences. But this, this is spooky. And frankly, rather a shock. After all, despite the flogging, he was a fellow flesh and blood, all too mortal man, earning a crust, and doing what he believed was his duty to his community. Besides, whatever may have happened in the past, it isn't right to bad mouth someone who's barely cold in his grave. We're not going there.

Instead, let's focus on Tameside Council itself. Whatever people like Tyler may say, we're not North Korea. People can vote for their councillors. So how can it be that one party can stay in power like that for ever? Especially when it's quite clear that a lot of the locals have serious misgivings.

Well, part of it has to be that old tribal thing. Most people in places like Tameside just don't vote Tory. End of. Lib Dems? Talk sense will you?

But there's something else going on. The reality is that in real life as well as cyberspace, our councils have become virtual. They are little more than figments of our imagination.

As we've blogged since the start, councils today are essentially an arm of central government. They may still have town halls, and it may say "Council" on the big brass plate, but in truth they have to do not what their local electors want, but what their paymasters in Whitehall tell them to. It's a simple case of follow the money.

In Tameside's case, its gross expenditure this year is budgeted at just under £600m. But less than £100m of that will come from local Council Tax payers. The rest will largely come from Whitehall, in one way or another.

Which means two things. First, the local electors don't get terribly excited about their local elections - they understand that the council is not where the real power lies. And second, the council itself is mainly in the game of ticking Whitehall's boxes.

And fair play to Tameside - they've done a fabulous job on the ticking. The Audit Commission is incredibly pleased, rating them a 4 star council - the very best - which is "improving well", and delivering top notch value for money.

So while you, me, and everyone else out here in the real world thinks spending £36 grand on a virtual town hall is a crap waste of our cash (and in a similar vein, check out their TV station - Tameside TV), in the virtual world of fantasy councils, Tameside is doing a cracking job.

Of course, going forward, it will get a tad more difficult. Gone is the largesse of Labour, spraying Southern tax revenue all over its Northern fiefdoms like Tameside (an estimated £1.2bn was spent there in 2008-09). Instead, they'll face George's squeeze, alongside a Tory determination to rebalance such grossly unfair spending regional spending biases.

But this whole saga underlines once again that we really do need real fiscal decentralisation. Councils should have to raise most of their own cash from their own local taxpayers. Councillors who think it's OK to spend taxpayers' money on computer games should be forced to explain and justify themselves to their own local electors, not some cosseted quangocrat sitting miles away.

In the real world, you can bet nobody outside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea would stay in power for 30 years.

PS Was everyone Tyler encountered at Tameside Council a dope? By no means. In fact, there were some very good quality people there. But most seemed understandably scared of upsetting the leader, and all were locked into a local government system that is fundamentally dysfunctional.

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