What does a 'head of street scene' actually do?

No wonder council tax has risen. Dispensing with one of these posts would pay for three junior nurses
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The Independent Online

Rat-catcher, dog-catcher, town-crier, bobby on the beat... It all sounds so quaint, but those were the days when people knew who did what in their parishes and towns and, more to the point, what they were paying for. Job titles, like functions, were unambiguous and neither party to the arrangement needed anything as formal - or malleable - as performance targets.

Rat-catcher, dog-catcher, town-crier, bobby on the beat... It all sounds so quaint, but those were the days when people knew who did what in their parishes and towns and, more to the point, what they were paying for. Job titles, like functions, were unambiguous and neither party to the arrangement needed anything as formal - or malleable - as performance targets.

Now, scan the lists of local council appointments in any newspaper and you will find the most opaque job descriptions above what many would consider rather generous salaries. "Be a conductor" says one advert (with a drawing of a baton) for someone to "lead a team of project leaders working with a range of people across the service". This is Knowsley Council wanting someone to head its "department of education and lifelong learning" - for up to £50,000 a year.

How about "head of education access" for Hertfordshire, similar salary, "to develop policies and procedures"; or assistant director of housing, financial improvement, for Hackney, at up to 70K? Hackney is also looking for a "head of street scene" and a "streetscene strategy manager" for up to 57K and 42K respectively. An executive director of community services for Waltham Forest will command £111,000. If you want to know why council tax rates have risen so much faster than general inflation, look no further.

What on earth do these people do all day? What did the people who drew up these job descriptions expect them to do? How is it that such nebulous functions attract such substantial rewards? Dispensing with one of these posts would buy the services of three junior nurses, two recently qualified teachers, or top-up the pay of many more.

Remember, this is not national government. These people do not have our nearly 60-million strong population to worry about. Their responsibilities are confined to sub-sections of one council's jurisdiction. These may, of course, be districts with special problems, high crime rates, above-average poverty rates, poor schools. But if the successful applicant is required to tackle real problems, bringing experience of the real world to bear, the advert should say so. Otherwise it is hard not to conclude other that some local government priorities have been skewed.

In one respect, though, we complaining council tax-payers must bear some of the blame. Westminster, my own council, regularly comes close to the top of the list for cost-effectiveness and resident-satisfaction. It holds regular consultation evenings (area forums) to present plans, report back on issues raised at previous meetings and exchange views. These forums, held in halls centrally located in each ward, are usually packed. They are structured, with an agenda, a pre-meeting "surgery" for one-to-one queries, and with time allowed for questions (and answers from the officials responsible). It is all laudable: a big conversation that was going on well before Tony Blair started his, and a model of local accountability.

The councillors and their staff who attended the last south ward meeting in Westminster, however, could be forgiven for some puzzlement about what we residents really wanted. An experimental project in pursuit of the central government's anti-social behaviour initiative (on-the-spot fines for dropping litter or urinating in public, for instance) was received with enthusiasm and a host of helpful and very specific suggestions for the application of "zero tolerance". Someone wanted a 24-hour graffiti watch. Someone else wanted young people who habitually gather at a particular public phone box to be dispersed. A couple wanted adolescents who smoked cannabis in a particular hallway of a particular housing block to be stopped forthwith. Councillors said that they were clamping down on drinking in public places and warning off-licences that they risked losing their licences if they served regular or known offenders. There were murmurs of approval in the hall.

But the mood changed abruptly when someone brought up cars and parking. The same residents so exercised about anti-social behaviour were up in arms about "overzealous" ticketing of their parked cars. One man proposed a standard 20-minute period of grace. Most fearsome of all were the residents of a particularly choice set of streets who objected to receiving parking tickets timed 08:31 - one minute after legitimate parking ends. This, they said indignantly, was not playing fair.

To his credit, the councillor concerned resisted stating too ruthlessly that zero tolerance in one area (cannabis-smoking in hallways or street drinking) might not be inconsistent with zero tolerance in another (clear bus lanes, for instance). He did point out, however, that the money from parking and other traffic fines helped to pay for law enforcement. Would that there were the same transparency about how the likes of Hackney's "streetscene strategy managers" earn their pay.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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