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Daily Mail’s right about local government’s C-word – why make it so easy for them?

Daily Mail’s right about local government’s C-word – why make it so easy for them?

🕔19.Mar 2018

With the dust settled on MIPIM in Cannes, Chris Game reflects on why the C-word causes so much trouble in local government circles. 

It can sometimes be tricky nowadays working out instantly what a mention of ‘the C-word’ is actually referring to. From Chaucer’s 14th Century Canterbury Tales until about Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch in the 1970s it was pretty obvious: either, to quote one popular definition, “the bottom half of a woman or a very despicable person”.

But then we had the growth of ethnic Chinese immigration, takeaway restaurants, and remembering not to say the C-word rhyming with twinky. And then came cancer, and the Big-C, terminal Cancer.

Local government, meanwhile, had its own subset of C-nasties: Council Tax Capping, Compulsory Competitive Tendering – indeed, Compulsory anything – Comprehensive Performance Review.

Around this time of year, though, while officers are calculating when sub-zero temperatures become life-threatening and SWEP becomes part of daily conversation (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, stupid!), the unmentionable C-word in the upper reaches of at least upper-tier councils is Cannes.

You know – the French Riviera resort town, with the Mediterranean climate, huge yachts, sandy beaches, flash hotels and gourmet restaurants. And host of both a famous international film festival and an annual March gathering of the global property elite known as MIPIM.

Commonwealth celebration on Côte d’Azur

The acronym is important for several reasons. First, because, if you can’t drop it apparently knowingly into casual conversation – “Have you seen the MIPIM programme yet?”, “Will you be at MIPIM on the Wednesday evening?” – you’ve immediately signalled your ‘nobody’ status.

Secondly, because it’s actually a lengthy French acronym, and you can have fun flustering even delegates by asking what it stands for. Since you didn’t ask, it’s ‘Le marché international des professionnels de l’immobilier’, which distresses my spellcheck, which doesn’t understand about the French aversion to capital letters, but translates roughly as the international market of property professionals.

But thirdly, and especially if you’re even a potential delegate, it saves your ever having to utter the C-word within possible earshot of an envious backbench councillor, council tax-paying voter, or Daily Mail reader.

For MIPIM has a special place in the Mail’s calendar, along with the announcement of any – and I mean any – council tax rise, increase in councillor allowances, or senior officer earning over, say, £120,000, or 1/20th the pay of Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.

And property in the Mail’s world is a kind of inversion of Snowball’s condensation of animalism in Animal Farm: four legs good, two legs bad; private property good, public property bad.

So there’s nothing intrinsically questionable for the Mail about a property jamboree on the Riviera – if, for instance, you’re a large private sector business who wants to attract some of the global investment swilling around to boost your planned expansion in the West Midlands. That’s really enterprising, and the best of luck to you. Have a great conference.

If, however, you’re a leader or senior officer of a desperately struggling city council, part of a local government sector that’s already drawing on reserves to plug a sectoral funding gap heading for £7 billion by 2020, and you’re additionally apprehensive of the economic consequences of the Brexit that the Mail campaigns for daily and passionately, then it’s different.

£10Bn prospectus for UK’s new ‘growth capital’

You may claim you want to attract inward investment to boost local industry, employment, and your council’s business rate income, but self-evidently you’re a sponger, out only for a “taxpayer-funded, alcohol-soaked jolly” in “sunny Cannes”.

Oh yes, and you’re doing all this sponsored “schmoozing” just “as householders across the country are receiving council tax bills showing the steepest rises for 14 years, which are being blamed on Government cuts.”

Nice touch, that last blame bit. The nearly £16 billion less central government funding councils will have in 2020 than in 2010 isn’t really a Government cut, because the real problems are council inefficiency and councillor schmoozing, or even that we have councillors at all.

Anyway, the ‘research’ underpinning this year’s Mail MIPIM revelations was some kind of questionnaire to an apparently random set of councils asking whether they sent delegates to “spend three days in the sunshine at the MIPIM conference in Cannes”, how many, who, and how they were funded.

“Councils spent tens of thousands of pounds”, apparently, sending “dozens of town hall officials, including some from Britain’s most deprived boroughs” (they’re a touch vague on detail). And, while “some councils were sponsored to attend, at least nine used public money to send officials – prompting accusations [from the Daily Mail] that they were enjoying a ‘taxpayer-funded jolly’”.

Moreover, “the real number could be much higher, as 34 bodies failed to respond to the Daily Mail’s requests for information” – possibly because they were concerned about not wasting taxpayers’ money.

Then followed the juicy details. Labour-run Croydon Council spent £14,488 to send CE Jo Negrini and two officials to this week’s event, including flights, accommodation and passes. What extravagance – they could have slept on the beach, saved on the passes, and done their lobbying perfectly well through the chicken wire netting.

But it gets worse. Having used their passes, they then “manned a beachfront stall” (apart from Jo, who presumably staffed it) “alongside other boroughs dedicated to luring investment to London”. That’s a direct quote: if you’re a Labour borough, the only hope you’ve got of attracting investment is by ‘luring’ it.

There’s loads more like this, but I’ve wasted enough of your time already. Let me just mention, therefore, the two West Midlands authorities from whom the Mail elicited replies.

“Conservative-held Solihull sent its leader and deputy leader at a cost of £9,000 to the public purse. The trip comes after Solihull announced a 3.9 per cent council tax rise from April, blaming adult social care costs and other pressures”. And “Wychavon District Council used £850 of taxpayers’ money to send a council officer, plus unspecified accommodation costs”.

From Hub to Centre – Solihull showcased at MIPIM

So why am I bothering you with this tripe? Two linked reasons. The first is the C-word business. The fact is that councils and other public bodies play into the hands of the Mail and its like by behaving as if, by promoting their cities and towns, doing their utmost to raise their profile and attract investment, and doing it at an international gathering, they’re engaged in something to be embarrassed about.

The Birmingham Post and Coventry Telegraph produced a 12-page MIPIM supplement, with explanations from all the main public and private sector bodies attending MIPIM – from WMCA Mayor Andy Street, through the region’s councils and LEPs to Birmingham Airport and our universities – of why they’re going and what they hoped the benefits would be.

But, for all the information it contained about where all this exciting stuff was happening, it might as well have been down the road at Molineux. Hundreds of references to going to and being at MIPIM, even to “the annual show”, but I’m pretty sure not a single mention of the Cannes word.

Even the centre spread, detailing the nearly three dozen different events at which the multi-tasking delegates were doing their various things, specified only Pavilion C16D, as if we could all pop along to Edgbaston and take a look for ourselves.

The second reason for raising it is precisely that if the delegates themselves don’t make a positive noise about what they’re hoping to achieve or even have achieved, the Mail and its kind will fill the vacuum – with pictures like those included here, which frankly look awful, in every respect.

I’m happy to be corrected, but I reckon the dining picture contains roughly 122 overwhelming white males and, after some very generous guesswork, a maximum of 16 non-serving women. In short, the silence suggests embarrassment, and unanswered accusations, allegations and smears fill the vacuum.

I can’t help thinking it would be good if there were some Birmingham-focused blog (ahem, Ed.), in which one or two of those who were furiously multi-tasking last week could report back on their experience and impressions – City Council Leader Ian Ward; Waheed Nazir, Corporate Director, Economy; WMCA Mayor and Chief Executive, Andy Street and Deborah Cadman, etc.

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