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Thursday, 28 July 2016

Local sludge for local people

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.

4 comments:

Demetrius said...

Indeed indeed. I was there and went through it all and a right sanguinary shambles it was. Weird things happened, too many to talk about. For those at the top and in the middle of it all from 1973 to the late 1970's it was all about sorting out, revising all the basic material, God the time spent on conditions of service; and self preservation in the nasty politics. Worse was to come. We then got the 1975 Employment Act and other major legislation to implement while we were still sorting out the reorg'. What really got up my nose was smug Civil Servants coming up from London to tell us what to do who were clueless about what was happening and for whom I always had to explain that that their lack of expertise in basic statistics meant most of their advice was utter rubbish.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - looking back I find it hard to believe that anything useful was achieved. It was what tidy-minded meddlers at the top wanted and as usual nobody was going to carry the can if it didn't work out as the flip-charts said it would.

Roger said...

Think 'salami slice', not in the sense of cut thinly but in cutting a strategy into thin (departmental) slices and then reassembling the slices - separated by departmental barriers. Each slice can then be given procedures and processes that in themselves look honest and useful and serve the people, but the overall assembled slices+barriers structure obeys a more unpleasant overall strategy. This technique can also be seen in expensive legal cases.

A K Haart said...

Roger - yes, the overall strategy seems to have been very expensive central control, gold-plating mundane functions and activities to create empires largely hidden from public view and therefore of little political interest. Very remunerative for those in control, much more so than in the heyday of the Borough Engineer.