It is possible that your view of the officers of Oxfordshire Highways differs from mine. You may think of them as intelligent, cultured people, selflessly dedicated to bringing you public services of the highest quality, and acutely conscious of the need to contain public expenditure by focusing only on those things which matter to ensure the safety and convenience of Oxfordshire’s businesses and individuals. If I think otherwise, it is probably because I have lived here for a long time and seen generations of very stupid people pouring public money down the drain in schemes apparently designed to screw up the traffic flow, to make the city of Oxford as ugly and as unattractive as possible, and to ensure that there is always work for them to do.
Let me see if I can convert you to my point of view in a way which jumps over the legitimate debate as to how much of the road mending is either necessary or competently executed.
It is 2011. Nearly a year has passed since Gordon Brown was ejected, his 13 years of trashing the economy coinciding with a worldwide recession. His commitment to improving public services amounted to little more than throwing money at them, as if the mere spending were enough. An expansion of the role of government included a mass of new roles and regulation, most of them quite unnecessary, requiring the recruitment of additional staff. The number of publicly-employed people rose from 5.2 million to 6.1 million in 13 years, increasing the wage bill by 29% to £157.7 billion. In the decade after Labour’s election, town hall spending rose by 53% in real terms to £164 billion per year. Few discernible benefits resulted, beyond Labour’s re-election at the hands of those grateful for the largesse and willing to suspend belief in the normal forces of economics in return for the barrow-loads of money which kept on coming their way.
As an aside (well, almost an aside) it is not clear where all these new state employees came from. The civil service proper has always attracted some high-calibre people, but few people emerge with a good degree from Russell Group universities with their ambitions set on joining the paper-shufflers in local authorities down at the bottom of the public services pond. We used to pay peanuts and get monkeys; we now have a lot of extremely well paid monkeys.
The consequence of Brown’s extravagance was that there was no slack in the system when the economy crashed. As always, the private sector was first hit, with businesses going under or reducing their wage bill. Public sector workers have had more than a year’s grace before the government axe falls on them. Whilst real businesses have slashed their expenses and recast their budgets, local authorities seem to have carried on literally as if there were no tomorrow.
Tomorrow has now come, but you would not know it to look at Oxfordshire Highways. Consistent with my opening remarks, I will avoid the question whether any of the recent works were actually necessary, and will merely observe neutrally that major roadworks at Headington continued unhindered by the recession; there are now confirmed plans to apply the same loving care to the Iffley Road. I may think them a waste of money, but I acknowledge that there are Keynesian arguments in favour of keeping in work people who would otherwise be unemployable. I have a much clearer target in sight.
A report appeared in the local news on 12th of March with the heading Council pays for plush resort for meeting and overnight stay instead of choosing its own HQ. It appeared from the article that more than £4,500 was spent on sending seven highways officers to a two-day workshop at a luxury resort out in the country – 15 miles from County Hall. Facilities include a swimming pool, health spa and golf course. This took place in January, the same month as the county council agreed £119 million of cuts, including £13 million taken from the transport budget.
Challenged on this, the highways department apparently said that “an important part of building integration, rapport, trust and joint understanding, is to have time away from the day-to-day interruptions of the office”.
Well, whilst I doubt that anyone employed by Oxfordshire Highways is capable of “understanding” in any meaningful sense, I can see that the other skills have a value. It is interesting that they do not “trust” each other – do they nick each others’ wallets perhaps, or fear that their colleagues might run off with their wives? How will that be fixed by a couple of days away? “Integration”, in local highways terms seems to mean screwing up the traffic flow equally all round, so perhaps some chat in the spa pool will help there. “Rapport”, what’s that do you think? Learning to laugh at each others’ jokes perhaps: “Did you hear the one about the perfectly good underpass we filled up at Headington shops?” – that sort of thing could keep them in stitches for hours.
Most companies in the private sector stopped going on jolly outings like this two years ago. Only those with a lot of spare money would now be able to justify sending its people out when they had perfectly good offices of their own, unless there was a geographical reason for bringing people together from a wide area. These are wasteful people with absolutely no idea of the responsibilities which come with control of public money. The Leader of the Council says it will not happen again.
There is some fun, nevertheless in imagining people of this type at a luxury hotel. I picture it like Attila’s hordes gaping at the splendours of Rome before they wrecked it – an apt metaphor, in fact, for a department whose mission seems to include the ruin of every street and view in Oxford.
You can imagine them caught out when asked to sign their names at reception: “No Darren, you spell your surname D-Y-M-M”; or puzzling over the possible uses for the “bidette” in the “on sweet”; or putting the caviar on bread and complaining that the blackcurrant jam tastes of fish; or whining when the smoked salmon is not coated in batter and served with chips in newspaper like the fish they are used to.
Unfair? I don’t think so. It is some time since I actually heard a highways officer speak and, as I have recorded elsewhere (see Go and Play in the Traffic), I decided to keep away in future lest I do myself or them harm at the idea that low-grade people like that could simultaneously waste so much money, vandalise the streets and deliberately impede the traffic. Those who would spend £2.5 million tarting up the Iffley Road whilst libraries are threatened and youth activities closed down AND who then take themselves off for an expensive jaunt at the tax-payers expense deserve all they get in the way of opprobrium.