East Riding report exposes Town Hall tactics to hide the truth – David Behrens

The late Sir Ken Morrison was never one to suffer fools. So woe betide the junior executive who tried to put one over on him.
Sir Ken MorrisonSir Ken Morrison
Sir Ken Morrison

His successor as boss of the supermarket that bore his name took the full force of his scorn in 2014 when he was told to his face, in front of a room full of shareholders, that his business strategy was – in Sir Ken’s words – a load of bull.

It was a shame then that his short-tempered but shrewd presence was missing from the recent meeting of Leeds Council at which a report setting out its ambition to be Britain’s “best city” was presented to councillors.

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Leaving aside the obvious futility of even trying to measure such a benchmark, the report appeared to have been written by tossing random words into a tombola drum and pasting them together in whatever order they fell out.

Thus, the authors spoke of tackling the city’s problems by concentrating on “three pillars of health” and on harnessing “team Leeds accelerators” to speed up progress.

In Sir Ken’s absence, it fell to Barry Anderson, chair of one of the council’s scrutiny boards, to point out that it was poppycock.

People would not understand the messages, he feared.

Actually, I think most of us would grasp immediately what was going on: our Town Hall officials were trying to disguise their lack of imagination by mixing well-known facts with ideas that are as old as the hills and passing them off as pseudo-science. Why would we think otherwise? It’s what public servants always do.

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This month’s White Paper on levelling-up the North was a case in point, invoking twaddle about a “contemporary Medici model” that would “harness an array of interventions and catalyse a range of sectors”, without supplying any detail.

The public sector is not alone in using puffed-up parlance to make the mundane seem marvellous. Our local Sainsbury’s used to have a large window decoration advertising “oven baked bread”, as if there were any other sort. The signwriters at Morrisons wouldn’t have got away with that.

But it’s not a laughing matter, because the fondness within officialdom for using English to obfuscate, rather than enlighten, can have insidious consequences – as in my new neck of the woods, the relative backwater of Yorkshire’s East Riding.

A critical report this week from the Local Government Association accuses officials at County Hall in Beverley of bulldozing elected councillors and exerting “undue control” over their decision-making by being untransparent and feeding them information only when it suited their purpose. The result is that important public issues may have been settled outside of the democratic process.

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The report – which, it’s worth noting, was itself couched in jargon, with references to “critical friends” and “peer challenges” – found a culture of bullying by some “unusually controlling” senior managers and a general sense of “inward looking”. When decisions were challenged by those supposed to scrutinise them, concerns were too often dismissed.

This is what happens when the culture of obfuscation becomes the dominant one; when no-one dares challenge the bunkum that is put in front of them because they’re embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand the terminology. It’s why Barry Anderson was right to call it out in Leeds before it got out of hand.

And if you want proof of just how selectively the rules are applied in our public sector, you need look no further than the East Riding Council’s own policy on staff bullying. It’s 13 pages long and so complete that it makes it a disciplinary offence even to suggest someone is “wet behind the ears”.

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Yet the council places responsibility for enforcing it at the feet of its senior officers – the very people now accused of ignoring it.

So it’s as Shakespearean as that “best city” document in Leeds: told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Two things can change this: a realisation amongst Town Hall types that they are there to serve us and not vice versa; and a return to judging their efforts in the kind of Anglo-Saxon English favoured by Ken Morrison. He had a word for people like that – but it’s not one we can print.

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