Neighbourhood Services

Following the example of Islington Council, Manchester’s Labour Group aimed to devolve decision-making and delivery of services to a local neighbourhood level. This chapter outlines the steps taken to do this, creating new committee and staff structures, finding suitable sites for building new offices, the consultations with the public and the negotiations with the chief officers and trade unions.
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Local Services Decided on by Local People
One of the six priorities listed at the beginning of the 1984 Manifesto was the commitment to open government and decentralising Council services:

“Labour will open up the Town Hall and genuinely include residents and Trade Unions in deciding how services should be run. We will develop area-based services to assist communities in making local decisions.”

A longer, more detailed statement occurred later in the document (see Appendix 6A at the bottom of this page).

The discussions on decentralising services began in 1982 within the City Party’s General Policy Working Party and there were two views on the Left on what decentralising services would really entail.

One view was that by breaking down services to a smaller geographical level, major improvements in service delivery could be achieved. This was Frances Done’s view and she felt that the severely bureaucratic, departmentalised structure of local government was an ineffective way to organise and deliver good services to the public. This view was shared by other members of the General Policy Working Party, which included councillors and Party members who worked for the Council and knew at first hand how poor the services often were. Although individual local government officers might be well-meaning and helpful, and sometimes even friendly, this did not necessarily lead to an efficient service to the local resident or council tenant. It was also felt that many senior managers hid behind their professional background, which often provided a barrier to good service delivery.

The other view (espoused by John Shiers amongst others) came from a Community Development perspective. As most local residents were alienated from the political process and the local authority, many Labour Party activists felt that the way to combat this was by devolving power down from the highly centralised council, with all significant decisions being made at local level by local councillors (who would of course be Labour). It was believed that the quality of decisions would improve with the involvement of local people with local knowledge and experience of the actual delivery (or not) of local services. This was somewhat ironic given that the Labour Party was not renowned for its participatory practices. However, those Left activists working in voluntary and community organisations believed that local people would feel a sense of ownership and involvement if power was devolved to them and that this would also be a crucial training ground for future councillors who would hopefully have a commitment to spreading out the ‘neighbourhood’ approach.

These two views were not completely polarised as there was a lot of common ground between them. What was universally agreed was that council services had to change and that the status quo was not an option. There was also a general feeling that public ownership per se was not necessarily the answer, as it was difficult to argue that big nationalised industries were providing sensitive services at local level. Whilst one of the slogans of the Hard Left, who strongly supported nationalisation, was ‘nationalise the commanding heights of the economy!’, the mainstream Left was much more sceptical. However, with the benefit of our more recent national experiences of privatised public services (eg railways), it could be argued that the nationalised industries were not all that bad!

John Shiers, who was Vice-chair of the City Party in 1984, was heavily influenced by his experience of working in the London Borough of Islington, which had adopted a comprehensive Neighbourhood Services approach to service delivery.

Islington had set up 48 neighbourhood offices for a population of 160,000, i.e. an office for neighbourhoods of between 3,000 and 4,000 people. The services provided were far-reaching, including, controversially, child protection[1]. The composition of the Labour Group and Labour Party in Islington was dominated by highly educated, ‘new urban’ left-wingers – more so than was the case in Manchester. The Neighbourhood Services initiative there was led by a man called Maurice Barnes, who had experienced the implementation of radical political change when living in the USA and with the ANC in South Africa, finally having had to be smuggled out of the latter country.

Introducing Neighbourhood Services in Islington seems to have been relatively simple, at least compared to Manchester, as the policy was backed by a united Labour Group who had decided it was their number one priority. This unanimity was not the case in Manchester with the left-wing activists all having a variety of top priorities.

A number of other councils were also introducing decentralisation at the time (including Hackney and Walsall)[2] but none of these authorities went as far as Islington. Thus Islington seemed to be the best model from which Manchester could learn.

The Committee and Neighbourhood Services Unit
Frances Done took on the lead role for implementing the Neighbourhood Services policy and she worked with Penny Boothman (as mentioned in the previous chapter) to set up the appropriate committee and staffing structures. At the first Policy Committee meeting in July 1984, the formal committee was established, with Frances as Chair and Neil Warren as Deputy, and it held its first meeting in September 1984.

By October 1984, the staffing structure for the Neighbourhood Services Unit was agreed (a unit head plus eight officers) and it was also agreed that service departments would set up Neighbourhood Services working parties to plan their role in the new approach to service delivery. Soon after this, the Head of the Unit was appointed – Ann Seex. Ann’s management style was very similar to that of Terry Day (see chapter 5) but although she was seen as a ‘tyrant’ she achieved a great deal in a short space of time and didn’t arouse quite the same amount of hostility as Terry and she didn’t alienate the councillors.

A series of area-based meetings were held for council staff from different departments and Frances went to all them to explain what the policy was about and how it was hoped that staff from different departments would work together to deliver better services to local residents.

One of the officers working in the Housing Department at the time (Mal Benyon) attended one of the area staff meetings and was very impressed with Frances’ presentation and thought “this policy is great, it’s exactly what’s needed”. She also considered it was very brave of Frances to speak directly to so many staff from different council departments in this way. When the jobs in the Neighbourhood Services Unit were advertised, Mal applied for, and got, one of them.

One of the posts within the Neighbourhood Services Unit was designated Participation Officer and was specifically intended for developing community participation. This was the post that John Shiers applied for, and got. Some of the Liberal councillors complained that this appointment smacked of favouritism since John was known to be a Labour activist, but one of their own councillors (Audrey Jones) was on the interview panel and re-assured them that the appointment was done purely on merit and that John was the best candidate.

Consultation Meetings
After all the appointments had been made to the Unit[3], a series of Neighbourhood Services consultation meetings across the city were planned. There was a mass circulation of letters via the GPO, inviting local residents to attend and posters were put up in Libraries and other public buildings. Around 330 public meetings were held – the largest consultation ever carried out by the Council, before or since, and went on for over three months. This was a massive undertaking and took a lot of time and commitment from the team in the unit. Some of the meetings had a large number of residents attending, but some had only a few. The responses were very positive with people saying things like “we’ve waited years for this”. The only bad response the team had (but funny in retrospect) was in the Brooklands ward at which two men came up to the two female officers and asked – “Why are you ‘draped’ round this presentation?” as if they were female models trying to add glamour to a car showroom. It is hard to imagine anyone less like those models than the strongly feminist employees in the unit.

There were also sessions specifically targeted at ethnic minorities who didn’t normally attend meetings. One of these in Longsight was attended by a large number of Asian men, who sat very politely through the slide show, which had been translated into Urdu, and then said that the main thing they wanted was for local Asian people to be employed in the neighbourhood offices. However, there was a concern that there had been no Asian women at any of these meetings, so, with the assistance of a local worker from the Longsight and Moss Side Community project (Mohina Puri) who ran skills classes for Asian women, a presentation was arranged for a large group of them at a sewing class in Longsight.

During the slide show, the women started giggling and not in the places where it might have been amusing, and it turned out that the man who was doing the voice-over translation was using the equivalent of ‘Shakespearian’ Urdu. A really high-brow form of language that no-one really spoke any more, which the men hadn’t pointed out. The other thing the women said was that they didn’t want local Asian people employed at the offices because that would mean their private business would get transmitted back to the Imam or to others in the Asian community. They didn’t want people they might sit next to at the Mosque knowing their private business. So, for the council officers involved, these community meetings were a real education in the kind of conflicts and sensitivities that would have to be taken into consideration.

One thing that surprised Mal Benyon was that at every single meeting, the top complaints were about the Environment, and not about Housing as she’d expected (from her background in the Housing Department), although this was no surprise to Pip Cotterill from her Social Services background. People complained about there being litter and dumped rubbish everywhere and no garden fences on estates to keep out dogs and rubbish. In every area people felt they were ‘the forgotten area’.

At the local meetings, after the presentations, people were put into groups with large-scale maps of their ward and encouraged to discuss where they thought the boundaries of their neighbourhoods were. The result of these deliberations was that the neighbourhoods were much smaller than had been anticipated, and around 50 were identified across the city, with an average population of about 9,000.

Finding or Building Neighbourhood Offices
By February 1985, five potential office locations had been selected as the first phase of the programme – in Cheetham, Benchill, Gorton North, Gorton South and Ardwick – but this choice had been heavily constrained by the lack of availability of council land. The initial searches for potential sites included those where the council had existing buildings, but the Trade Unions and the Chief Officers objected to most of these as unsuitable and wanted them to be new buildings with high quality facilities.

As the councillors also wanted high quality buildings, purpose-built Neighbourhood Offices were deemed to be the way forward – dubbed as ‘mini-town-halls’ by the Tories and the press.

The right-wing of the Labour Group (and the opposition political parties) was opposed to the whole Neighbourhood Services programme. They saw it as an expensive and unnecessary endeavour and took every opportunity to impede the progress of its implementation. During the Council budget process in 1985, supported by opposition councillors, they proposed a 60% cut in the programme, but as they didn’t have sufficient numbers to win a vote, this proposal didn’t succeed.

In December 1985, the Council formally granted approval for the first three neighbourhood offices in Cheetham, Benchill and Gorton North at a total cost of £2.3 million. It had taken 15 months from the establishment of the committee to approval of the first three offices and although this seemed like a long time to local activists, by traditional local government standards, it was an impressive achievement (even though the building work still had to be carried out). The progress was in no small way due to the dynamism of Frances Done and the pressure exerted by Anne Seex, who tyrannised the Architect’s Department and would not accept any excuses.

Staffing the Neighbourhood Offices
The work on establishing the appropriate staffing structures (and grades) for the offices was much slower and more problematic, but, in late 1985, when the policy statements for the following year had been drawn up, there was still great optimism about what could be achieved.

The 1986 Manifesto section on Neighbourhood Services was much more succinct than before.

“The Labour party in Manchester sees the development of ‘Neighbourhood Services’ as an essential part of a socialist approach to planning and organising local services. We believe that people must be able to play their own part in making decisions for their local communities and that it is necessary to break down the Town Hall bureaucracy and take the services and resources out to the community.

“Five locations have been selected for the first neighbourhood offices and the first priority of these offices will be to provide an accessible and friendly service. An area team of employees will be based at each office and will work in the community, providing the services needed, without unnecessary, artificial, departmental divisions. Local people will be able to pay rent and rates at these offices and to get welfare rights information and advice.”

But, in the full 1986 policy document (as opposed to the Manifesto summary), the progress made between 1984 and 1986 was described more fully and more detail was included about future plans. The provision of high quality reception services in neighbourhood offices and the need for flexible working such as evenings and Saturdays were emphasised. The services that were to be provided from the new offices included house repairs, improvement grants, road maintenance, benefit advice and home helps. They were also to be a focal point for community activity.

It was recognised that the Council’s committee and departmental structures would need to be regularly reviewed in the light of the development of neighbourhood services. But, significantly, what was not included was a repeat of the section in the 1984 manifesto that gave a commitment to establishing local committees (consisting of councillors, council workers and representatives from local groups) with their own budgets to control.

With hindsight, this had been a hopelessly idealistic aim. The task of changing the bureaucratic structure of the service departments was proving to be so enormously difficult, it would have been impossible to contemplate devolving budgets down to local levels as well. I also believe that the council leadership (specifically Graham Stringer, who wasn’t totally committed to Neighbourhood Services in the first place) would have been reluctant to contemplate the devolving of power to local committees – some of which would be dominated by local councillors from other political parties.

The 1986 policy statement was also tinged with more realism than was present in the early days of the General Policy Working Party. Although there was a proposal to reduce wage ‘differentials’ which did not go down well with the Trade Union representatives in the party, and was hardly a practical proposition or a sensible way to get the essential support needed from the people working within the Council.

Finally (perhaps in anticipation of an accusation of social manipulation) it was asserted that:

“any change in the social order [will] arise out of the activities and responses of the public and cannot be imposed by the Labour Party”.

Negotiating Devolution in Practice
Whilst the City Party’s Policy Working Party was wrestling with the task of reconciling the political philosophy with the realities on the ground and attempting to explain the rationale in terms that the general population would understand, the councillors were struggling with the task of persuading senior council officers and trade unionists of the need to make changes in attitudes and methods of service delivery.

The councillors had a huge number of negotiations with council officers and trade unionists about which services would be included in the neighbourhood offices and what the role of the centre managers would be. In order to tackle the rivalries and suspicions between the service departments, it was eventually decided that the managers and the reception teams in the neighbourhood offices would have to be part of the Chief Executive’s Department, rather than part of one of the service departments, but this proved to be problematic (see chapter 16).

The trade unions were concerned about the proposed changes in working conditions of their members (particular Saturday morning working), but staff in departments, such as Social Services, also found it difficult to envisage how devolution would work in practice. In terms of the percentage of the population served, Social Services provision was too specific and specialised to split easily into neighbourhoods – there might be only four or five service users in a particular neighbourhood, with perhaps only one having (say) learning disabilities – and they felt they didn’t have enough staff to devolve them down to neighbourhood level.

Further progress on identifying suitable areas and offices was made throughout 1986[4] and work was begun on building the first three offices. Later in 1986 the Council approved the commencement of work at the identified sites in Gorton South and Ardwick, but, in the light of the forthcoming budget crisis, it was agreed that the revenue costs of the move to neighbourhood offices would have to be maintained within existing departmental budgets. Another attempt was made by the right-wingers, supported by the opposition parties, to cut the programme, but this failed, although by only a small margin (43 votes for and 50 against).

Despite the looming financial crisis, the councillors were optimistic that, with the election of a Labour Government in 1987, the Neighbourhood Services programme could be rolled out across the city and would prove to be a real improvement in the delivery of council services.

In addition to the re-organisation work involved in devolution, the Council determined in October of that year that all council services would be re-organised on a three district basis in order to correspond to the organisation of the Health Service in Manchester. In retrospect, it seems incredible that taking on this additional work at that particular time was even contemplated.

The Open Town Hall as an Information Centre
A huge amount of effort was also put into making all committee and council meetings open to the public, rather than being held in closed session. The City Solicitor had been extremely concerned about sensitive information being disclosed in public reports, but eventually a system was devised whereby reports with sensitive commercial information, or references to employees by name, were considered in private session (called part B) and the rest in open session (called part A).

Another strand of the policy on open government was about making the Town Hall more accessible to local residents and improving the information and advice services provided centrally. The Town Hall was ‘opened up’ to visitors and tourists and many local residents were, for the first time, able to wander freely around the building and admire Alfred Waterhouse’s architectural masterpiece. Implementing this policy fell to John Shiers in his role as Participation Officer.

In addition to developing a high quality signage system for the Town Hall so that visitors could find their way about, and the publication an ‘A -Z of Council Services’- an idea plagiarised from Bradford City Council which went to every household in the city – John Shiers’ top priority was the development of a central Information Centre in the Town Hall. Residents had consistently complained in surveys about the difficulty in obtaining information about council services – particularly where to go and who to talk to about a particular problem. The aim of the Information Centre was to provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ for enquiries and for it to be easily accessible and with a friendly atmosphere.

The idea was that this would be a central resource base for the neighbourhood offices as well as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for local residents. It was established in the old Rates Hall of the Town Hall extension. This was a very intimidating room, unchanged since 1938 when the Town Hall extension was built, with what was said to be the longest rates counter in Europe – built from one single piece of wood. Although today, great efforts would be made to preserve or re-use such a priceless piece of historical architecture, no use could be found for it, and so it had to go, along with all the other dusty and unused store rooms and offices, to create a modern, welcoming, family-friendly centre.

Despite the long drawn-out discussions with architects and the difficulties of cutting through bureaucratic red-tape, it took just 17 months from John’s appointment to the opening of the Information Centre to the public in April 1986. Frances Done regarded this service as one of the most enduring successes of the Left administration, although the changes in 1993 (see chapter 16) meant that its original purpose ceased to be paramount.

Appendix 6A: Extract from 1984 Manifesto: Open Government
The new council will be in every way more responsive, open and accountable. We need to develop new attitudes to the community, to council employees and to councillors.

  • People must be able to obtain the information they need, easily find out what is going on, and participate in decision-making.
  • We will maintain our commitment to the Trade Unions. This will involve consultation and access to information. Council employees will be represented through their unions at all committees and the Unions’ views on policy matters will be sought. Non-statutory organisations, especially those dependent on council funding will be similarly represented through their Unions.
  • Like most big cities, the council in Manchester is often felt to be remote from the public. We will move towards integration of services on a local basis. Each area will have a local committee representing local groups, council workers and councillors. Eventually these committees will have their own budgets to control services in their own areas. We recognise that we will learn both from implementing our programme and from observing similar programmes in other councils. The working practices of our workforce will not, and should not, change without due consultation.
  • Manchester residents and community organisations must be given a greater say in how council services are planned and delivered. We are committed to making council departments more responsive to local people. We will therefore set up a Central Participation Unit which will ensure individuals and groups are supported in informing and organising themselves and that our service departments become more community oriented. Each council committee will produce an easy-to-understand annual report to show where it spends its money. Attention will be given to consumers’ feelings about the quality of service they receive.
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Editor’s Comments

This is a relatively short chapter. I’ve added the sub-headings and opted to include the Appendix as a section rather than making as another page. The only other editing has been typographical. There were a couple of sentences that I wanted to take out but have left them as Kath’s voice.


[1] The child protection disasters in Islington left an indelible impression on Margaret Hodge who is currently an MP and was the leader of Islington Council at the time.

[2] In Tower Hamlets in 1986, a neighbourhood services initiative was introduced by an incoming Liberal Democrat administration within six months of taking control. But it was on a much more modest scale than Islington with a much smaller number of neighbourhoods.

[3] The members of the team were – Ann Seex (Head of Unit), Mal Benyon, Pip Cotterill, Chris Duncan, Dave Power and John Shiers, plus an admin officer and a research officer.

[4] A sixth site was identified in the Dam Head area of Blackley.

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