Opinion - Incredibly embarrassing for the council

James Illingworth - reporter
James Illingworth - reporter

THERE is a scene in The Office - the masterpiece of a comedy series - that aptly sums up what Wigan Council officers may have been thinking a fortnight ago.

It’s in the first part of the Christmas Special when David Brent, having been relieved of his office manager role, is reflecting on the documentary format that covered his demise.

“Stitch up,” Ricky Gervais’ character says. “They filmed hours of material and most of it is a good bloke doing good work. And the one time I headbutt an interviewee makes it into the programme. You headbutt a girl on telly and you’re labelled a prat. And that’s the game.”

The reaction to Don’t Blame the Council was off the scale, not all bad, it has to be stressed. But a lot of it was bad, incredibly embarrassing in fact, and that cannot be ignored.

At best the decision to take part was naive. There have been conflicting reports as to how many hours the ITV crews captured and therefore differing accounts of how many mundane scenes were sifted through to find 44 minutes of “entertaining” scenarios.

Senior officers’ hearts must have sunk when they learned what time the programme was going to be shown, prime-time on ITV is not the place for an in-depth discussion on how local authorities are coping with budget cuts.

But by the time the run-time was known, contracts will have long been signed; no backing out now. (This is probably a good time to clear up one question, no, the council did not get paid to take part.)

This is not meant as a criticism of the programme makers, though. Far from it. A production company is a commercial enterprise and with a prime-time slot on offer, of course they were going to edit an episode that meets requirements.

The council’s following day statement about “provocative editing” therefore sounded a bit weak, like Brent’s accusations of a “stitch-up”.

Scenes of successful litter-picks, community events and workers going about their jobs in a professional manner were never going to make the grade for that time of the evening but the council entered into the agreement with their eyes wide open.

Thankfully no-one was head-butted by the Brentmeister General but we can safely assume there were a handful of staff coming into work with red-faces on Wednesday, and rightly so.

Council bosses can point toward the editing of scenes, the posing of leading questions and the 70s comedy soundtrack but their workers showing contempt for residents, slacking off during working hours and ridiculing the Deal leaves no-where to hide.

Camera crews who follow workers around all day know full well their subjects are not used to the situation. But keep rolling long enough and that person will feel obliged to fill the silence and that does not always have flattering consequences.

The few workers who we saw cause the most controversy certainly let their guard down and are now, hopefully, regretting their actions.

If a film crew followed me throughout a working day, I admit I may face some questions at the end of it about how often I check the cricket scores, for example.

But, like 99.9 per cent of the population, I would not think it was a good idea to tell my bosses I was going home early and then coming back to clock off.

After the dust settles, it is the reputation of the Deal - the council’s scheme to reduce the impact of budget cuts by encouraging volunteers, helping community projects and championing recycling - that will have taken the biggest hit.

It was always going to be an uphill task to convince everybody of its merits and the documentary picked out a few residents who were certainly not its biggest fans.

But there must be something to it, plenty of other councils are using it as an example to follow to cope with their own falling amount of government handouts.

It’s true that services previously run by the council have been closed or passed over to community groups. But other local authorities who have not had the same foresight as Wigan are now reaching crisis point.

It was only given a fleeting mention in DBTC that council tax has been frozen in Wigan borough for two years. Residents don’t have to look too far afield to realise that other areas have not been handed the same treatment.

And we should not get too carried away by the numbers said to have “signed up” to the Deal. To suggest it has not gone down well because 400-odd out of 300,000 residents have signed the forms is misleading.

Everyone is part of the Deal, regardless of whether you have signed the sheet of paper. Recycling more efficiently and volunteering in the community occasionally are things we should be doing anyway.

DBTC has been an embarrassment; a decision that some senior officers will no doubt regret for years.

But the success of the Deal will not be determined by that 60 minutes. It will be decided in years to come when we see how the borough’s services have shaped-up as the country comes out of its period of austerity and beyond.

And to date it has enabled the council to invest in apprenticeships, support community groups and keep some services running it may not have been able to if it had just carried on without changing.