Subversive Sites

by Jad Adams

A shortened version of this article appeared in "The Guardian" on Wednesday April 26th. 2006.

As the campaign for the town halls slips up a gear, another battle for local government is taking place in the foothills of the world wide web.

Subversive sites with names such as ‘Rotten Borough’ and ‘Arrogant Councils’ have been set up over the past three years not for single issue campaigns, but to challenge the whole culture of local government.

If they have a collective view it is that the ballot box is not the solution to local government problems: it is not the political complexion, but the set-up and behaviour of the town halls which is offensive and expensive.

Rotten Borough was set up in 2003 by Ian Johnston, 38, a self-employed gardener from Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire who became disenchanted with local politics after serving as an independent borough councillor. He said, ‘I had hoped to represent the interests of the people who elected me; instead I became an insignificant part of a bloated system designed to serve the personal interest of its employees and their cronies.’ Completely cynical about the possibility of reform, he says ‘I expect this extortion will continue until civil disobedience persuades those complacent politicians to do something about it. Disobedience might as well start here.’

If this sounds like a single embittered man, it is a bitterness widely repeated, as his site is replete with named examples of council misconduct posted by ‘victims of the establishment.’

Alan Murray, 54, a public relations consultant from Storrington, West Sussex started Arrogant Councils this year based on a previous site he set up as a protest against what he saw as a disastrous parking scheme in Horsham, where he has an office. He was so impressed with the reception of www.welcometohorsham-not that he created Arrogant Councils to duplicate the protest nationally and the site already has more than 100 hits a day.

A typical example from his site is of the £1360 allegedly spent by a county council leader on attending an award ceremony. The council had entered a road scheme for recognition there – a scheme that was more than £6 million over-budget. ‘In a private company £6 million of waste would cost someone their job,’ says Murray.

While the waste of public money is often mentioned, it is the behaviour of councils in disregarding the wishes of the local people that recurs in complaints. Particular outrage is caused by fake ‘consultations’ over big schemes designed to manipulate public responses to produce the result councillors and officers had already decided upon.

The website creators are the sort of people who at other times would be pillars of the community - middle-aged, professional people who speak as if they have seen enough to know that things could be better. All were motivated initially by a negative encounter with local government that they failed to have resolved through the normal channels, such as Gary Powell who helped a family who were illegally evicted, then took the council involved to the Local Government Ombudsman, to find their response anything but satisfactory, ‘It seems to be an organisation to whitewash cases of local authority maladministration by refusing to report it, ’he says.

Powell, 43, a school teacher now living in Croydon, set up Ombudsmanwatch in 2003 ‘to respond to a deep sense of injustice at the behaviour of this government institution that seemed to me to be entirely unaccountable.’ He posts information about cases taken to the Ombudsman’s office, which he says is staffed by former local government officers who are steeped in the culture of the local authorities they are supposed to be investigating.

‘I hope consciousness of this injustice is going to be raised so that the political establishment have to take notice,’ he says. He argues for the establishment of an independent local authority complaints commission.

There have always been local campaigns and since the internet existed there have been campaigning sites. Two things seem to have come together to create the recent proliferation of national protest sites over local government. One is the ease of setting up and maintaining sites; the other is the behaviour of councils themselves, with new powers and structures given to them by such legislation as the Local Government Act 2000.

Neil Herron of The People’s No Campaign says that since the new Act came into effect ‘there has been a greater remoteness and a greater degree of arrogance. They fail to respond to the needs of the public. There is a lack of respect for the public. They have forgotten that the dog should wag the tail and not the other way around.’

Herron, 42, a property developer from Sunderland, set up the site in 2004 to oppose the European Constitution ‘then it expanded into all forms of unaccountable and unacceptable government.’ They successfully campaigned against the setting up of John Prescott’s dream of an elected North East Assembly and are active in opposing the assumption by councils of legalistic powers to impose such penalties as parking fines over which the accused has no recourse to law.

Subversive activity can be very cheap. Alan Murray says Arrogant Councils cost £30 for a whole year – ‘I heartily recommend it, for £30 a year you can make an impact.’

Gary Powell says he spends an additional £10 a month on LGOwatch to have a Google ad that comes up every time anyone searches for the Ombudsman, 10,000 people a year click on it and ‘realise there is serious doubt about the Ombudsman’s impartiality.’

Meanwhile, local government is fighting back, the Local Government Association commissioned a Mori poll which concluded that public satisfaction with council services is improving, but public approval of local government is not. The councils accept they are in trouble, but they see it as an image problem. Ben Dudley, project manager of the Local Government Association’s Reputation campaign says, ‘People are generally happy with the services their council delivers but when you ask them about their own council they think of it as a body of tea-swilling wasters. There is a mis-match that we have to tackle.

‘A lot of councils in the past haven’t done enough to inform the public what their council tax goes to. Quality is going up and services are perceived to be going up but people don’t connect that it is their council that is delivering that service.’

The Reputation campaign urges councils to deliver twelve core actions around the themes of the environment and communications: to improve the appearance of the visible environment and to improve communication with the public.

This is unlikely to impress hard core detractors. Critics of local government have traditionally come from the right wing, in the mould of Poujadistes – little people who do not understand how the system works and just want lower taxes.

When asked, the owners of the new subversive sites were genuinely surprised that there might be any party political context for their work; the councils whose behaviour initiated their protests are of all political colours, as are they.

The absence of any suggestion of racism also differentiates these groups from right wing protest parties. The new subversives do not demonise a single group, unless it is the entire political class.

Ian Johnston remarks, ‘People of all political persuasions dislike corruption, fraud, theft, greed, incompetence and waste. We all want good quality services at a reasonable price. We are not getting them.’

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