Sunday 10 January 2010
Happy New Year although for many in public services it may feel as if there isn't a lot to be happy about.
Facing up to some of the largest challenges to public finances in a generation coupled with the impact of severe weather on the public image of local authority services may make many feel that they want to curl up in a ball and hide.
Unfortunately as has been proven in recent days if public servants don't deliver, the country and it's economy very quickly grind to a standstill. Over the holiday's and beyond, the fairly unique weather we have experienced, over an extended period, has meant grit stocks running low and whilst main roads have in the vast majority of cases kept functioning, minor roads and housing estates have remained snowbound.
Many schools have stayed closed after the holidays, some bins have not been emptied for weeks, as taking refuse lorries onto the streets in these conditions would be like releasing an uncontrollable lethal weapon, and many facilities such as leisure centres are unreachable except on foot.
The heroic struggle to respond to the worst weather in 30 years has been pilloried by some newspapers and yet these are the very same media organs who ignore the excellent work public servants do day in, day out all year long to keep the infrastructure of the country flowing freely. It's so much easier to criticise than be constructive. It's that thing about not knowing or appreciating what you have until it's gone.
So what has gone wrong. Well firstly the prolonged current weather front has been unparalleled in recent decades and the financial constraints local authorities operate under mean that they are unable to carry the levels of stock, staff or gritters on the off chance that something like this will happen once in a generation. If they did the same journalists would attack them for being inefficient.
Having said that I have not seen the massive levels of investment that some areas of the public sector have seen over the past decade or so flowing into some of the frontline blue collar services such as highways maintenance, indeed the opposite has often been true. With Government priorities focusing on health, education and social care some frontline services have been squeezed by the double whammy of corporate focus being on these inspected priorities and funding ringfenced to these areas.
With funding tight in these areas local authorities have whittled down the amount of stock they hold operating on a just in time supply basis. Suppliers have also geared up their operations to meet demand rather than hold massive supply levels above ground and hey presto we run into a sustained period of severe weather, rationing commences and everyone struggles to cope.
Of course it will be public servants that get the country moving again but don't hold your breath whilst waiting for any thanks.