OPINION: Tell people what their council does

The interesting and timely LGCommunications conference in Birmingham last week provided a useful backdrop to discussions about the new government buzz words of ‘placemaking’ and ‘partnership’.

The conference came as research from the Audit Commission showed that satisfaction with most council services continues to rise, but satisfaction with councils themselves is continuing to drop.

From this vantage point, local government minister Phil Woolas urged that councils should not look to branding services with the word ‘council’ but instead, with the new powers in the Local Government Bill, focus on branding the ‘place’. This led to one dry-witted audience member to ask Mr Woolas whether council tax should now be renamed ‘place tax’.

For all the cynicism that question also had a point. The LGA Reputation campaign, backed by MORI and signed up to by all major political parties, asks local authorities to brand every service they provide with the word ‘council’. It remains a potent argument for democracy and the standing of councils in the eyes of local people.

Councils are already struggling to get across to their local residents that they are the providers of scores of vital services. This will be made worse if, for example, ‘Lancaster City Council’ is re-branded as ‘Lancaster partnership’ – people would end up having less idea of who it is that provides the service they value.

This desire to remove council branding from an area and replace it with ‘place’ or ‘partner’ raises two serious issues. First, councils are already seen by many as charging £1,300 in council tax for very few services. Under ‘placemaking’ branding this would get worse as no one would know what councils delivered.

Second, with this lack of council visibility comes the danger of undermining democracy. If people do not know which services are delivered by the council then what incentive would they have to stand as a councillor or bother voting?

Phil Woolas is right, but only when people can match what councils do with the services they provide. Once that happens, perhaps we can look at branding services under the ‘placemaking’ or ‘partnership’, rather than the ‘council’ banner.

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