On Being Chained To A Tree
The latest local issue to have lit up Facebook is a Wisbech Standard exclusive, that the Town Council may intend to dig up some trees. I know, it’s not the stuff of a Daily Mail headline, but it has nevertheless got some people into a royal rage.
On the thread, John Elworthy, who lit the fuse in the first place, asks why “other Councillors” haven’t commented. He means Samantha Hoy and I, of course, since we are the only ones who frequent that particular site. I don’t mind though, because the whole thing lets me blog about the two issues that really bug the hell out of me. In fact, these issues are framed beautifully by the tree story.
One issue I have said over and over again, to my colleagues, on this blog and to anybody who will listen is that all of our local Councils suffer from the same core problem. That core problem is communication. Regular readers will have heard me mention it in recent blog posts. Over and over and over again we find ourselves amidst a media, or a social media, storm. When this happens the opposition clap their hands with glee and immediately start concocting some load of old guff to make best use of the chaos. Petitions, dramatic photo shoots, declarations of “incompetence” and “corruption” and all the other “go to” buzzwords to put a hate on the local Council. And it is so damn easy to avoid. That’s what irritates me.
Communication fails at every level. Officers don’t properly brief Councillors. Lead Members don’t properly brief their group and the wider Council. Cabinet don’t properly talk to backbenchers*. People get into positions of special responsibility and seem to immediately lose any knowledge of when and how to communicate what they are doing. So when stories come out, it is quite often in some colourful piece in the local newspaper, which immediately gets shared around two dozen social media groups. Before you know it everybody has an opinion, people begin spouting “facts” that have no bearing on reality, other people take those facts and have an opinion on them. And so on, like some twisted Council version of Chinese Whispers.
Social Media is the reason for all of this. The world has moved on, people communicate instantly, ideas are shared, stories are told, actions and reactions reverberate outwards in every direction. Meanwhile our local Councils, and many Councillors, are still sitting by their old telephone and thinking “well, it’s not ringing, so everything must be fine.” All of our Councils, and most of our Governmental institutions around the country, are hopelessly out of date. By the time some of them have learnt to Tweet, Twitter will be in the history books and we’ll be Whooping, or Snarking, or whatever the new thing is. Yes, of course, many people don’t use Twitter, Facebook and the like. But a solid thirty or forty percent do and that’s growing every day – and even the ones who don’t will often be talking to somebody who does.
This is a big problem for local Councils and the tree issue is a good example. Now I am not on the Markets Committee who have authority over this stuff and I don’t know the full scope of the plans for the Market, but Cllr David Oliver is a clever guy who often has good ideas and it may well be that the trees have to come down due to structural damage, or because they are sickly. But at the moment the story reads: “Evil Council chopping trees to make concrete wasteland.” That’s probably abject nonsense, but if nobody is responding to questions being asked then the story grows and grows out of all connection to reality. Before you know it, you have what we have today, which is what should have been a positive story about the Town Council doing exactly what people always ask for and improving the Market Place into people threatening to chain themselves to trees. All because of a complete lack of proper communication.
Which brings me on to the second thing that irritates me, and the reason I have recently taken some time out of Facebook. You see, I am sick to the back teeth of being the visible face of every ill-thought, poorly judged or just badly communicated story. The only Wisbech Councillors you regularly see on Facebook are Samantha Hoy and I. So every time anything happens, regardless of whether I am anything to do with it, often even if I don’t support it, I am the person who gets all the questions, the name-calling and the abuse. I don’t mind a bit of abuse, but what I resent is being the punchball for other people’s failure to communicate.
The reason for this is that so many Councillors think Social Media doesn’t matter. They stay off of it, usually saying they “don’t understand it” or “aren’t interested.” I think they wish it did not exist. That’s all very well, but wishing something doesn’t exist does not stop it from doing so. It is there, people are on it, if you don’t come up with some way to address that then you will always be playing “catch up” on every issue, every story, even media fanfare. Which doesn’t work, because by the time you’ve gotten involved, most people have already made up their minds and moved on. This is what happened with Estover, with the Hudson name change, with many other issues. But we never seem to learn.
So I was asked what I thought about the possible plan to cut down the trees as part of the market place redesign. I don’t know, I haven’t seen all the details. The idea to streamline the market for future events isn’t terrible. I love the idea of a bandstand or performing area in the middle and in order to do that some stuff probably does need to go. Sometimes, if trees are growing and doing damage to structures around them they do need to be cut down. But to be completely honest, I’ve not been involved. This is Cllr David Oliver’s baby, which has not yet come to full Council. So David Oliver should be the one on Facebook and elsewhere answering questions about it.
If there are no answers forthcoming, or if the answers aren’t good ones, then I will ask my Medworth constituents what they think. And if what they think is that we shouldn’t cut those trees down then maybe I’ll be right there alongside Pam “Greywitch” Thompson chained to a tree. Which will be a new experience, if nothing else.
*And before anybody says: “Oh what you need is the Committee System” – no it is not. The Committee System is equally susceptible to poor communication, as can be seen by the broken authority that was Cambridgeshire County Council. The Committee System would take all of this and add more bad things to the mixing pot. What is needed is for people to properly consult and communicate, in advance of taking decisions that will bug the hell out of everybody involved. And for them to be sufficiently foresighted to recognise what those issues are.