Article written in short story format and first published in the ACES ‘The Terrier’ Magazine in Autumn 2005. This is the second episode of three in ‘ The Holy Grail of Local Government’ series.
The Holy Grail of Local Government II
The phone rang in my office and awoke me from my afternoon slumber. I remembered the slip of paper lying on the desk in front of me. It had arrived only the day before, anonymously, in an envelope bearing the crest of Wigan MBC. Its words had sent a chill running down my spine. I knew that it was the cryptogram from the keystone holding the final clues to the location of the Holy Grail of Local Government:
‘Follow Delia and the Partridge too,
Near land where Bernard plucks a few.
Seek an ACE with the dog’s award
And welcome release be your reward.’
Never mind ‘The Da Vinci Code’[i], this was real life. I had spent the entire day trying to decipher its meaning and eventually I had cracked it. Like most codes it was blindingly obvious once it had started to unravel. The first lines were easy enough – leading me straight to the land of the divine St Delia Smith. This was re-enforced by the capital P that could only refer to the grotesque Alan Partridge and confirmed by the reference to Bernard Matthews’ turkeys. But ‘Near’ meant that it was not exactly Norfolk. Who to seek was harder to discover. The reference to an ACE, possibly an award-winning member of ACES, led me to the back issues of the ‘dog’ – the Terrier – where page 18 of the winter 2004 issue revealed his identity.
I picked up the phone. It was Ian, the Design Services Manager and my fellow seeker. The sleep immediately fell away as I took in his terse instructions:
‘I’ve located him through t’Internet. We’re booked on a flight from Blackpool to Stansted to travel to Mid-Suffolk. The Council is paying. Bring some appropriate ID or they won’t let you on the plane.’
Local Government was very much like the Church – with its problems of child-abusing priests, falling congregations and influence from extreme secret societies. Events had followed a parallel course of box-ticking auditors, a disinterested and cynical electorate and interference from the dead hand of numerous, anonymous Government Departments and political organisations increasingly out of touch with the public. Like the Church, Local Government was based upon its own fundamentally flawed and increasingly unbelievable concept – that more and better services could be provided from less and less money. Unlike the Church, absolute faith in a divine ODPM was no longer enough to sustain it. Local Government was reaching its ‘End of Days’ and seekers of the truth were now clamouring for the revelation of the long-suppressed secrets of the Grail. Whispered rumours of a better way had gathered momentum over recent decades. Successive Governments had seized on symbolic references to the three Es, CCT and BV from ancient actuarial roots in vain attempts to harness the movement – but what did Governments know? It had been hinted at in that article in the winter Terrier. A better way based on an overall objective ‘to combine the public service ethos with private sector working practices in order to provide cost-effective and innovative property services in partnership with public bodies.’ Was this the secret of the Grail and if it was, then who held the answers? There had been many false trails. Ian and I had settled on the long road of examining all the options:
- Status quo
- Outsourcing to a wholly owned Local Government company
- Outsourcing to a privately owned company
- Entering into a partnership with another Local Authority
- Dispensing with the services and simply buying them in from the private sector when needed.
The first and last options had been quickly discarded as the ramblings of extremists. The way of the truth must please everybody. So we had resolved to concentrate on the middle three. And like all respected code-breakers, we fell back upon the tried and trusted methods; researching, following up every clue, gathering the evidence, forming a conclusion and then testing that conclusion against all the options. To show consistency we had developed a set of standard questions (see Appendix) and had embarked upon a series of interviews with a client and a contractor from each option to form a comprehensive and comparative view. Painstakingly, we had sifted and analysed the answers over many hours in darkened rooms until we had tracked down the keystone. Wigan had found it before us.
It is not possible to publish those answers from the contributors as, in all cases, we had sworn a blood oath not to reveal their secrets. However, we had resolved that when we reached our ‘End of Days’ we would reveal the Holy Grail of Local Government to an awaiting world.
Early morning in late March found us boarding that Ryannair flight from Blackpool to Stansted, followed by a meandering journey across Mid-Suffolk in a hire car to a secret destination. There was no need to blindfold us, particularly as one of us had to drive, because the entire county seemed to comprise of a series of identical, flat fields with no discerning landmarks, linked only by a main road on which every roundabout looked exactly like the previous one. We had no idea where we were except that it was deep within the land of Albon, reputedly where the mythical Scribbler was unleashed at night. I silently resolved that if I could ever find my way out again that I would never return there, although I could probably never find it again anyway. We stopped for directions in a town that made Kendal seem like a city and finally located our destination, an office converted from the old station building adjacent to the main railway line. The Manager, Dennis Norman (a Knights Templar alias if ever I’ve heard one), welcomed us inside and escorted us across an ancient well, capped with a perspex cover, set in the middle of the ground floor to a wrought iron spiral staircase leading to an upper room. I could imagine the circle of that well being the focus of many secret religious ceremonies in that remote and outlandish location where the turkey was still heavily promoted as a potent Christian symbol, along with sage and onion stuffing. Awaiting us in that upper room was the Grand Master of the organisation that held the secret of the Grail.
No one knew what the Holy Grail of Local Government might be. Ian and I had often speculated upon it during our long hours of research.
Could it be the lipstick-marked chalice that the mighty Maggie (note the symbolic mix of the Magi combined with the revered Masonic skills of the ancient lodge of the Thatchers) had supped from on the night before she had introduced the Poll Tax? Her Right wing supporters had long sought to obtain it for use as a focus to rally support for the re-introduction of the dreaded tax, convinced in their madness that it would, once again, restore the lost fortunes of Local Government.
Could it be the fabled but missing third alternative to the already split Radcliffe–Maude Report that brought about Local Government Reorganisation in 1974? Such a document had long been sought, both by the County Revivalists from Cumberland and Westmorland and the old Lancashire and Yorkshire Postcode Abolitionists, as the projected remedy for all that was wrong with Local Government. It was rumoured to begin with the sacred words ‘Let’s leave everything as it is because….’
Could it be the MI5-suppressed but date-stamped surveillance video of a prominent Cabinet Member allegedly caught ‘badgering’ under the Millennium Wheel on the first night after the abolition of hunting with dogs? Surely such a possibility, in the hands of the Countryside Alliance (or Gay Pride for reasons of their own), would bring down the Government and gift the opportunity to introduce a new era of Local Government Reform to a resurgent UKIP, recently freed from the shackles of the Kilroy sect.
Such speculation was irrelevant now that we were face to face with the Grand Master in that upper room in Mid-Suffolk.
I recognised Mike Britch from that photograph in the Terrier article. He had travelled down from Norwich and now sat opposite us as we opened our question papers. He was surprisingly normal looking and dressed in conventional business attire. Disarmingly, he removed his jacket and adopted a friendly demeanour. I had been expecting something more dramatic. Nevertheless the atmosphere was charged with electricity as he proceeded to lay the secrets of the Grail before us. When he had finished we sat back and marvelled at the simple and beautiful truths. Why had no one revealed these to us before? However, I had saved one question until last. It didn’t appear in the prepared questionnaire. This would have the element of surprise and test the absolute truth of what he was telling us – the final determining factor. My lips trembled as I dared to taste the forbidden fruit:
‘If we transfer the services to you, will you restore the anticipated salary cuts likely to be imposed by the Council’s Job Evaluation cock-up?’
The water at the bottom of the ancient well stirred. The wrought iron spiral staircase began to vibrate, gently at first and then more violently as if moved by the unseen hand of some almighty and malevolent presence. The look of fear and expectation that I saw in Ian’s eyes must have been showing in mine. This was the one answer that we had travelled across the full width of the country, from coast to coast, to hear. We were so near to the truth. We had to know. I gripped the table and held on. A willing voice inside my head was screaming, ‘I’ve tasted the future and it’s turkey flavoured.’[ii]
The Grand Master leaned forward and smiled. The vibrations subsided as quickly as they had come. We relaxed again. I learnt later that it was the London express roaring through the station.
For those who still believe in traditional Local Government it will make no difference. If you have that absolute faith then you have nothing to fear from the revelations of the Holy Grail of Local Government. Go on believing as you always have. Remember – the way of the truth must please everyone.
The Holy Grail of Local Government is the Norfolk way. An outsourcing method that achieves savings for the Council without reducing the quality of the service and without adversely affecting the staff, yet still remains viable. Sounds impossible? Well South Lakeland District Council now believes in it. On 12 July 2005 the Council accepted the principle and resolved to enter into direct detailed negotiations with NPS Property Consultants Ltd.
As for the Grand Master’s answer to my final question? Sorry but a blood oath is a blood oath.
For myself, as a seeker of the truth, it means that, if invited, I might just postpone my long anticipated retirement at 60 (now only 27 months away) so that I can help to establish the new order. After a lifetime of devoted public service and before I finally lose my marbles entirely, I yearn to experience a professional life in which ‘corporate crap’ is reduced to a minimum and in which I can again do the things that I was trained to do, freed from many of the restrictions of bureaucracy. My quest is almost over.
It is written that you do not need to seek the Grail. The Grail will find you. But you still need to put in a lot of work to get others to recognise it when it arrives.
[i] ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown. Transworld Publishers Ltd. International Best-selling Novel 2005
[ii] Artistic licence – with apologies to Peter Kay. Everyone knows that the future is garlic bread.
©David Lewis Pogson 2005
Now read ‘The Holy Grail of Local Government III‘