Establishing Neighbourhood Services Offices

This relatively short chapter documents the process of setting up offices to allow Manchester City Council services to be delivered at a local level, which was a priority of the Left administration that came to power in 1984, as explained in chapter 6. The initial target of 50 Neighbourhood Services offices was not achievable, because of the high capital cost of the desired new buildings and the number had to be scaled down. Once the first new buildings were complete, it was the staffing, and more to the point the negotiations with the trade union, that delayed opening by many months. When the first set of offices were finally opened in 1989, it took a year or so for ways of working to settle down smoothly, by which time there was a change of political priority for the overall plan.
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The Initial Plan
Continuing with the Neighbourhood Services initiative (detailed in chapter 6) was the most problematic of the new policy developments, because of the budget crisis and the enormous cost of each neighbourhood office (almost £1 million apiece, including furniture and equipment). The initial plan for 50 offices[1], one in every ‘neighbourhood’, was reduced to 36 and then to 24, but there was still a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism for the programme.

In March 1988 Frances Done[2] resigned from the Council and in May 1988 Dave Lunts took over as Chair of the Neighbourhood Services Sub-committee. In the same month it was agreed that future neighbourhood offices should be provided by converting existing housing offices rather than building new ones, and a programme of conversions costing £6.6 million was proposed for 1989/90 and 1990/91. However, this programme was never implemented.

In addition to the difficulties in continuing with the expensive building programme, there were also enormous problems posed by the attempts to establish different working arrangements for the staff. One of the factors in the difficult negotiations was the influence of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the Housing and Social Services departments. The SWP saw that its strength, particularly in the Housing Department, would be weakened if its members were dispersed across the city in neighbourhood offices and so its members used their positions within NUPE and NALGO to oppose the implementation of the policy.

Recruitment and Training of Staff
When the five Neighbourhood Officer posts (ie centre managers) were advertised, in June 1988, NUPE and NALGO imposed a boycott on their members applying and scheduled a vote on strike action for the day after the interviews were due to take place.

The posts were advertised at stage 3 (ie concurrent external and internal advertising) although priority for interviews was to be given to existing employees ‘at risk’[3].

A number of NALGO members who were committed to the Neighbourhood Services philosophy ignored the boycott, however, and applied for the posts. One of these was Mal Benyon, who was working within the Neighbourhood Services Unit at the time. An active member of the NALGO Committee, she argued strongly that a boycott would lead to the offices being staffed by non-union labour, but the union policy wasn’t changed. The strike didn’t go ahead, but the Neighbourhood Officer posts were still boycotted, and the SWP produced a leaflet calling Mal Benyon a ‘scab’.

The staff team in the Neighbourhood Services Unit pushed ahead with recruiting people for the core teams in each of the offices. These were to be front-of-house staff, managed by the Neighbourhood Officer, who would deal with every kind of office enquiry and provide the support services for the individual service department teams in the offices. They would also be responsible for collecting money, including poll tax and council house rents.

There were more than 2,000 applications for the posts, around 350 of whom lived within the Manchester boundary. Recruitment was carried out using the new Equal Opportunities policy and procedures and all those involved were convinced that this had enabled them to appoint the best people.

The team spent days working out the questions to ask at the interviews – ones that applicants wouldn’t have been asked before. They were looking for people who could use initiative. One question put to applicants asked them to “tell us about a time when you’ve seen a colleague maybe do something wrong and what action you took.” One of the best (and funniest) responses was from a woman who worked at a chemist’s shop, who overheard a colleague dealing with a deaf lady who had a prescription for suppositories and didn’t understand what they were. The colleague was shouting over the counter: “Put them up your bottom.” She had to rush over and suggest to her colleague that perhaps she should write it down for the customer. This was the kind of person the Neighbourhood Services team were looking for – someone who could intervene, but tactfully.

It was this question that unintentionally prevented SWP supporters from getting through the interview process, because their stock response to the question was that “if staff are doing anything wrong, it’s because of poor management.”

Once people had been appointed to the core teams, they went through an innovative team-building and training programme. For example, they were sent into town to call into banks, hotels and shops with a list of things to look at in order to evaluate the quality of the services offered. They were also given aggression-awareness and self-defence training by a black-belt karate trainer in anticipation of the problems they might face in some of the areas.

Unions Delayed Opening
Alongside this work going on within the Neighbourhood Services Unit, councillors were continuing to work on the necessary departmental changes. This included negotiating with the trade unions, who proved so implacable in their opposition that the opening of the first neighbourhood offices was very much delayed. The negotiations to get agreement for Saturday morning working were also very contentious and drawn out, and having been so hard won the practice was then soon discontinued in October 1991.

The first four neighbourhood buildings were completed towards the end of 1988, but the dispute with the unions had not been resolved and the buildings could not be opened. On 18 February 1989, under the headline “£2 million ‘town halls’ wait for workers!”, the Manchester Evening News wrote:

“Four pioneer ‘mini town halls’ are still empty and unstaffed, months after being built at a cost of £0.5 million each. The first of a string of 30 neighbourhood centres planned for Manchester, they have been boycotted by the clerical union NALGO. It is understood that bills for thousands of pounds a week are being borne by ratepayers for security and other costs while the situation continues. And NALGO warned today that progress towards settling the dispute is slow… [A] suggested opening date of September is a ‘guess’.”

NALGO official Lynne Evans was quoted as saying that an “impasse in negotiations” had been reached because the Council had proceeded with interviews for the Neighbourhood Officer posts, which were the subject of a union boycott. The Neighbourhood Services Chair, Dave Lunts, claimed that “the Council has come a long way in its discussions with NALGO.”

In addition to his role on the Neighbourhood Services Sub-committee, Dave Lunts had been elected as Chair of Housing in January 1989 (see chapter 12), while the Deputy Chair of Neighbourhood Services was David Black, who was also Deputy of the Social Services Committee. These two were skilful and experienced politicians, who had considerable experience in negotiating with trade union officials. David Black says now that he was amazed and impressed at Dave Lunts’ patience, but that he himself had a much shorter fuse and so they were often in the situation of playing ‘good cop, bad cop’ in their negotiations. Despite all the skill, time and effort they put into resolving the dispute, it took another eight months before the first office opened.

In the face of all these delays and tricky negotiations, plans for the sixth neighbourhood office in Blackley (Dam Head) still progressed through the committee system and in July 1989 the plans and estimated costs of £1.658 million were agreed. At the same time, a new concept of ‘area co-ordination’ was agreed as a means of improving council services in local areas without neighbourhood offices. It was also decided that the Neighbourhood Services Unit should merge with the Community Safety Unit (see chapter 7) and the Tenant Participation Unit in the Housing Department. This was in recognition of the complementary role that the staff in these units played in improving service delivery and the quality of life for tenants and residents in Manchester’s council estates.

Finally Opening the Offices
The official opening of the first neighbourhood office, in Benchill, was performed by the lord mayor and celebrated with great fanfare. The Manchester Evening News covered this on 2 November 1989 under the headline ‘Open house at last for new ‘town halls’’:

“The first of Manchester’s controversial mini town halls will be opened officially on Monday. Empty for more than a year because of a union dispute, the Benchill neighbourhood office will be in business after a ceremony by the lord mayor, Councillor Yomi Mambu… one of five that have been hit by a wrangle over staffing. Others will open soon at Cheetham Hill, Ardwick and two in Gorton, but long term plans for 25 more have been hit by cuts.”

Graham Stringer was quoted as saying that the workers would be able to access most of the council’s computerised systems from one terminal (which turned out to be untrue since the systems were all incompatible with each other), and that the centres would be open for six days a week and have rooms for local community groups to use.

Around six months after the first five offices opened, the sixth (and last) office opened at Dam Head in 1990.

Having succeeded in getting the offices staffed and opened, things were still not plain sailing. Many of the service department officers located in the neighbourhood offices, particularly those from housing and direct works, continually challenged the role of the Neighbourhood Officers.

The Neighbourhood Officer posts were established at a relatively low grade. They had management responsibility for the admin-istration/information and cash/keyboard staff, but not for the specialist staff from existing departments, such as housing officers, who cont-inued to be managed within their departments. The Neighbourhood Officers therefore had the task of trying to co-ordinate all the services within the neighbourhood office, but without full staff management responsibility for them.

Not only was there not enough commitment to the programme within departmental senior management teams to delegate their powers to the Neighbourhood Officer, but in some cases the neighbourhood way of working was actually undermined. For example, a Neighbourhood Officer might suggest something to the housing team leader, who would then telephone the town hall for advice from the relevant senior officer, who would say “Take no notice of them – they work for Chief Executive’s Department. I’m your boss.” This experience was typical of Direct Works as well as Housing.

Another problem that came to light in relation to the Direct Works repairs system was that at the end of the month, if the operatives had outstanding repairs that hadn’t been completed or visited, they were penalised. So for all outstanding repairs they would record “visited, carded, no one home” and delete the jobs from the computer system. The front-of-house neighbourhood office staff then had irate tenants saying “I was never visited; I was home all day; no one left a card” and so on. The Direct Works staff didn’t need to worry about this, because they weren’t the ones dealing with the irate tenants, and anyway they believed that the front-line staff were better trained to deal with irate tenants than they were.

Other councils experienced problems in implementing decentral-ised services. One example quoted by a Hackney councillor concerned their system for ordering repairs to council properties. The direct labour and housing department clerical officers were seated next to each other in the new neighbourhood office. The repair request from the tenant was typed up by the housing clerical officer. The request form was then passed to the district housing office and then up to the central housing office, then to the central direct labour office, then down to the district direct labour office and finally to the direct labour clerical officer sitting next to the person who had received the original request!

In addition to trying to resolve the departmental conflicts and the incompatibility between the different department’s computer systems, the Neighbourhood Officers spent a great deal of time on lettings for the community rooms (which were used seven days a week and in the evenings) and liaising with community groups. A huge range of community activities took place in the neighbourhood offices, even including distribution of the EC butter surplus and setting up credit unions.

Despite these many difficulties, the Neighbourhood Officers I spoke to all felt that after about a year of ironing out the teething problems, things began to work well – just as the political commitment for the programme began to wane.

Change of Political Priorities
The declining political commitment to the programme for the Neighbourhood Services offices was partly a result of the lack of money for new buildings and partly because of the difficulty in dealing with the conflicts between the existing management hierarchies and systems within the service departments. This ought not to have been an insurmountable problem, given that the key supporters of the Neighbourhood Services approach were all in important strategic positions in 1989/90 – Dave Lunts as Chair of Housing, David Black as Chair of Social Services and Richard Leese as Chair of Finance. But it is not surprising in the light of the splits within the Labour Group and the difficulty in keeping the administration together (see chapter 12).

Even before the conflicts with the ‘rebels’, there was a wide range of personal political priorities and commitments among the left of the Labour Group and not everyone was signed up for the Neighbourhood Services programme. If resources were under pressure, Equal Opportunities were seen as a higher priority.

David Black had attended a political management seminar held by the Institute of Local Government (Inlogov) in the late 1980s and was very impressed by an account from Stirling Council about how quickly they had implemented a new policy. However, it transpired that there were 11 Labour councillors on a council of 20 members and the Labour Group was able to make an important decision one day, pass it through the Council the next day and start implementing on the following day. In Manchester, with nearly 80 Labour councillors split into three factions, with all sorts of special interests in the majority faction, a lot of energy was needed just to hold the Labour Group together and retain control.

The Neighbourhood Services Sub-committee was abolished in May 1990. The abolition was proposed by three of its foremost supporters, David Black, Dave Lunts and Richard Leese, who could see the writing on the wall. Ironically, its abolition was opposed by some of the councillors who had voted for the drastic budget cuts to the programme in 1985. but had since been converted to the principles of Neighbourhood Services.

The issue of decentralising council services was still very much a live issue, however, and was taken up by the service review sub-committee (see chapter 19) in July 1991. A report on ‘Organisational and Managerial Change’ resulted in a long and detailed minute to council, heavily criticising council officers:

[We] confirm the Council’s commitment to delivering good quality services within the resources available and further confirm the view that many of these services will best be delivered within the context of overall council policies and service plans in a more local and co-ordinated way than at present. It is intended to build on the developments already started in the authority, such as the opening of the neighbourhood centres, the introduction of more local management in housing and leisure services, and local initiatives in Hulme/Moss Side and Monsall.

“A members’ steering group has been set up [consisting of] chair and deputy of service review sub, chairs of social services, housing, direct works, environment and consumer services, and the committee with responsibility for delivery of grounds maintenance, plus [relevant] officers.

“The next phase is to co-ordinate the local delivery of housing management and repairs, grounds maintenance and street cleansing by April 1992.

“Local ‘forums’ will be set up, covering groups of neighbourhoods, over the next three to four months involving councillors, managers and staff for the services under discussion. Possibly, future visits to other local authorities.

[We] express [our] concern at the lack of officer support received over the last year, which has manifested itself in the inadequacy of reports received; the failure to consult front-line staff in the compilation of reports or to review existing initiatives thoroughly or propose options for the future as requested by the majority party.”

In my view the last paragraph above is an unacceptable way to officially record an insult to officers.

Although the original plan of building 50 new neighbourhood offices had been abandoned, the Council at that stage was still aiming to reorganise services on the basis of the 50 identified neighbourhood areas. However by November 1991, this was felt to be too administratively complex and so a fewer number of areas was considered. Trying to resolve this issue was easier said than done. The closer the service delivery to the local communities served, the more areas there needed to be and the greater were the premises costs. The fewer areas, the more remote the management was from local communities. Nick Harris, Chair of the Service Review Sub-committee at the time (see chapter 19) identified the possibility of seven or eight areas within the available budgets. But the difficulty in trying to reorganise services along geographic lines, together with the constraints of the client/contractor splits and the budget shortfalls, made the whole exercise too complicated and so the 50 identified neighbourhood areas remained the basis for re-organising services.

In February 1992, the Housing Department was reorganised on the basis of the 50 neighbourhood areas, with 424 generic neighbourhood housing officer posts, each with responsibility for all aspects of estate management for around 300 properties, including cleansing, grounds maintenance, lettings and repairs processing. Each of the neighbourhood areas had a neighbourhood team leader overseeing the workers and the co-ordination of services at local level.

In 1993, responsibility for the six neighbourhood offices was officially transferred to the Director of Housing and they became much more focused on council housing issues.

The responsibility for the information and enquiry service passed to the Director of Social Services. The nature of its work changed almost entirely to welfare rights and benefits advice, which was a complete reversal of its original purpose, much to the chagrin of John Shiers.

The responsibility for monitoring and improving the quality and delivery of all council services passed to the Service Review Sub-committee. The term ‘performance review’ replaced ‘neighbourhood services’ and the introduction of service plans became the mechanism for monitoring performance (see chapter 19).

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Editor’s Comments

The sub-headings were not in the original. There have been minor typographical and layout changes. I expanded the title of the chapter from just Neighbourhood Services. I took 2 bits of text out of the body and into footnotes.

Footnotes

[1] 17 in the north of the city, 18 in the south, 14 in the central area and a separate one for the city centre.

[2] Frances Done later became Chief Executive of Rochdale Council, where, by coincidence, John Shiers was also employed. So some of the lessons of Manchester’s approach were used in Rochdale’s service, including the establishment of an information and advice centre.

[3] The re-structuring of departments resulted in a reduction of posts and, since there was a ‘no redundancy’ policy, the staff without substantive posts in the new structures were designated as ‘at risk’, and had to be considered for any vacant posts arising anywhere in the Council, before those posts could be advertised externally.

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