Gangrene risk for snooping councils

A soldier shoots himself in the foot and staggers into the medical tent bleeding profusely. The doctors have to decide whether to treat the wound by removing the bullet or leave it to fester and perhaps become gangrenous.

It is an unpleasant decision; the operation to remove the bullet is not without risk and will be excruciatingly painful for the soldier in the short term, but it is probably necessary to save his leg and life.

An unpleasant image, but one that springs to mind in relation to some recent crisis management. Over the past few months, negative story after negative story has appeared in the press about councils using so-called 'snooping powers' to 'spy on people' littering or letting their dogs foul the streets.

The vast majority of councils have been using their surveillance powers proportionately to catch rogue traders, benefit cheats and con-men. But a tiny number have used them for more minor offences - leading to headlines with 'Town Hall Taliban' or 'Town Hall Big Brother' taglines.

As the body that represents councils, we have had to decide whether this issue could, using the foot analogy, turn gangrenous. We arrived at the uncomfortable conclusion that it had to be addressed head-on, even though to do so risked affronting some of our member councils, leaving them feeling cut off from the help and support we offer.

We moved to take the bullet out last week - writing an open letter to council leaders urging them to review their use of surveillance powers. We said that using them for some issues was 'inappropriate'.

The consequent media coverage started a big debate on the appropriate use of these powers. We at the LGA hope this unpleasant operation will ensure that the patient, our member councils, will now recover and lead a healthier life than would have been the case had we sat back and let the issue fester for months on end.

If councils are to lead rather than be dictated to by government, we must do all we can to enhance and protect our reputation. That means keeping foot-shooting casualties to a minimum - and operating decisively when soldiers come staggering in.

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