David Behrens: Sheffield Council needs lessons in common sense '“ not mindfulness

IT'S no secret that local authorities these days are strapped for cash, especially in the provision of social care for a population whose average age is increasing by the month. However the reality check one might have expected to accompany years of belt tightening has yet to happen.

A tree-felling protest on Rustlings Road in Sheffield.

There is a parallel universe in which our region’s town and city halls seem to exist; a world of euphemism, of spurious political correctness and – even in penury – of indulgence.

Sheffield Council, whose policy of cutting down mature roadside trees to suit the purposes of an over-compensated contractor has made it as many enemies in Westminster as at home, ought to be going out of its way to convince its taxpayers that it is, after all, capable of giving them value for their money.

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But its focus this week appears to have been fixed on a more ethereal plane. It had, it said, set up a cross-party “mindfulness” group for councillors, in the hope that they might “disagree better” and make better decisions. Mindfulness, its members were told, should be included in their “strategy outcomes”.

Honestly, what does that mean? With so few resources now at its disposal, was it really worth someone’s time and effort to write a report whose entire contents could have been summed up with the words, “just use your common sense”?

My dictionary defines mindfulness as “the state of being conscious of something”. On an individual level, 
this approach has merit and has benefited many people, and I’m pleased for them.

But – and you can call me a Philistine if you like – taking a basic understanding of human behaviour that is innate in all of us, and then passing it off as corporate strategy is obfuscation pure and simple.

Unfortunately, though, that is pretty much the lingua franca in our city halls, where absolutely nothing is called by a sensible name.

The same council issued a press release the other week, drawing attention to a programme of upgrades to its parks, which it termed “multi-use games areas”.

Elsewhere in our region, there are several “cabinet members for place shaping”, which sounds like a job you’d give to a toddler when you want the toys putting back in the cupboard. Yet few within the sector appear to appreciate the scope for ridicule: holding the brief for “place” has become an accepted council role.

It’s the tip of an iceberg. In Norfolk, they have appointed “public open space operatives” – parkkeepers by any other name – and an announcement in my inbox just last week referred to soil as “growing media”.

In Bradford, there is evidently so much mumbo-jumbo that the council has had to put a “jargon buster” on its website, an exercise that would have been unnecessary had they got into the habit of just speaking in terms that others could understand.

But the problem is endemic. Some 15 years ago, I was hired to create a web presence for the Government’s programme of improving roads – by which it meant coning off whole sections of them for months on end to accommodate the 15 hours of actual digging scheduled to take place there.

The various projects, I was told, would have to be listed according to their category: TPI, RMS or DBFO. But who, I asked, would know, or care, that TPI stood for Targeted Programme of Improvements, or DBFO for Design, Build, Finance and Operate? If you’re stuck in traffic on the M62, one set of roadworks is very much like another.

My suggestion – an obvious one, I thought – that such internal designations had no place on a public website was met with a collective throwing of hands in the air. The department was organised in teams based on those classifications; how could they continue to operate if their own website did not recognise them?

The Highways Agency, by the way, had an acronym for everything. Even the staff library had to be called HALIS, because it was deemed a “library and information service”.

There is – and this ironic, given Sheffield’s public relations problems – a culture of not seeing the wood for the trees. Mindfulness in city halls is all very well, but only if it is applied literally. That means being mindful at last of the wishes of those who provide what little money they have left.