One fine day in 1973 found me driving through the centre of town in the works JCB towing a trailer load of fresh sewage sludge. I was heading for the local allotment. Not my job but the driver was off sick and I fancied the trip. Or perhaps I was making up for inadvertently driving the Allen Scythe through a rose bed. That wasn’t my job either, but I was young and interested in everything.
The other day, an old work colleague and I were walking through Dovedale asking ourselves when our bit of environmental science went wrong. We both came to the conclusion that the rot set in after local government reorganisation in 1974.
One should not see that trailer load of sewage sludge through rose-tinted spectacles, but for a short time I was working at the local sewage works and I enjoyed it. Effectively we were all working for the Borough Engineer and via him for local people. We knew why we were there, why we did what we did and for whom. By modern standards it may not have been an efficient arrangement but after 1974 a sense of working for people slowly evolved into a sense of working for a salary.
It did not happen quickly but bit by bit small offices, laboratories, depots and workshops were closed and merged into bigger units. Headquarters became bigger, more stratified, more remote and inward looking. The range of work became much wider and the technology much more sophisticated, but in 1973 we did what was thought necessary and if it wasn’t necessary we didn’t do it. That changed too.
Over the following decades regional bureaucracies spawned by 1974 became entangled with national bureaucracies or became national bureaucracies themselves. Later they became entangled with international bureaucracies. From what I saw, doing real work for real people became sidelined in a sense highlighted by that load of sewage sludge.
A degree of local transparency was lost in 1974. As bureaucracies grew they became less visible and less transparent. That is a key word here – transparent. By merely avoiding scandal or political disfavour they could settle down and wallow around forever behind their internal processes. So they did and still do.