It isn’t often councils get a great press. Some see them as bureaucratic, faceless, and in the eyes of many they just empty the bins, right?
I recently left my role in local government communications after 17 years and it’s time this perception was changed.
I worked in unitary councils, which are responsible for delivering 400 different services to the communities they serve, and which look after people from cradle to grave. They are there when you register the birth of your child and they will bury your loved ones with dignity and reverence.
It is not necessarily appreciated or understood how councils are quietly and diligently working away in the background making sure that every aspect of your local area and the lives of its residents are cared for and maintained.
Whether it is social care for your granny, planning new development, keeping your local park landscaped or even inspecting your favourite restaurant to ensure it is safe and hygienic to eat, the council is responsible.
They look after absolutely everyone in their communities and that means having to adapt their message, service or approach to ensure they are able to meet everyone’s needs.
This could include outreach work to encourage the homeless to seek support and help into long-term housing solutions, providing domiciliary care for the elderly and infirm or just ensuring those whose first language is not English are able to access the help and support they are entitled to.
During recent times, with the pandemic and lockdown, it has never been more important, through informing and working with those on low incomes, to show where they can access a range of support services from food banks and free school meals to applying for grants to keep their homes warm and children’s services.
Councils plan for the everyday and prepare for the unexpected. They are there to ensure society runs in a safe and effective way and they provide a leadership role in times of crisis.
Over the years I worked in council communications where we dealt with large fires, bomb threats, a hostage siege, extreme weather events and a fatal plane crash during a major event.
I recall the rest centres which had to be set up at any time of day or night following civil emergencies. After mass flooding of homes on Christmas Day, I witnessed council staff rallying around to ensure affected residents still got a warm, festive lunch in the community centre, despite their ordeal.
I remember a huge storm on Valentine’s Day, when more than 400 beach huts on the seafront were damaged and dozens of trees had to be cleared from roads, meaning council staff worked round the clock. And there were the snow events which saw colleagues bedding down for the night in offices to ensure the careline helplines for the elderly and disabled could continue to be manned while others arrived by a park’s service tractor, rolled up their sleeves and cooked hot lunches for care home residents when their chef couldn’t get in.
The stories of council workers going above and beyond are too numerous to mention in my experience and it didn’t just happen during times of crisis.
All too often in the daily routine, colleagues were staying late to ensure they were able to get support in place for those in need. So many caring colleagues working in councils have that strong public service ethic ingrained into them and I was proud to be associated with them.
I feel disappointed with those members of the public who become frustrated and retaliate with the old adage of ‘I pay your wages’ – spoiler alert, council staff pay tax too.
Councils do all of this with ever-decreasing resources and have had to become more innovative, creative and commercial to do so, while remaining resolute in meeting their statutory responsibilities.
They have had to develop strong partnerships with business and the voluntary third sector and develop their digital agendas as they continue to adapt to the financial challenges, new Government policies and even more pressing issues of modern times.
They have to champion climate change and greener travel choices, meet the challenge of growing mental health crises and the cost of social care with an ageing population, plus support pandemic recovery to safeguard jobs and the local economy – all of which are in addition to key services.
There is no organisation as diverse as local government in my view, and the people working within it are very special indeed. It has been a difficult decision on my part to leave council life for a new role and I don’t for a minute rule out returning in the future.
It is a chapter in my life that I am immensely proud of and I will continue to lead a rallying cry of support for the humble local authority.
Rachael Mills spent 17 years working in communications roles within councils on the south coast, most recently as media and communications manager at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council until leaving in December 2021. She has now taken on a head of communications role within the civil service