Short story published in ACES ‘The Terrier’ magazine in the Summer 2018 edition.
The Selwyn series is written specifically for the Terrier. Each story is a self-contained episode in the life of an early-retired Council Property Manager from 2003 to the present day and beyond as he continues to maintain occasional contact with his former colleagues from the fictional Herdwick District Council. The characters often present controversial and outspoken opinions on local and central government policy and practice. Please accept that those stories, all names, characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and are views expressed by the author, not those of ACES. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. Also, occasional historical background details may have been changed to fit the chronology. Enjoyment of these stories will be enhanced if they are read in order from the beginning. The first two are available by clicking on these links – ‘The Final Vote’ and ‘Lost Sheep’.
Weapon of Choice (Summer 2007)
‘I need your advice please … but we haven’t had this conversation … right?’ was how she had started their last meeting some 3 months earlier.
Now, at the end of summer she was saying,
‘Things have moved on quite significantly, in a surprising direction, and I want to tell you all about it.’
Selwyn leaned back against his chair, took a sip of his wine and smiled at Farah. She was drinking water but that wasn’t unusual. She never drank alcohol because of her religion. It was quiet and private in his back garden; the sun was shining and they had all afternoon to talk. She had been a good choice to succeed him as property manager for Herdwick District Council when he’d taken early retirement. She’d become his trainee after leaving university and now in her mid-30s she was a skilled surveyor and manager and he’d recommended her for the promotion when the time had come for him to leave.
‘I hope that you’ll be pleased with my decision.’
Selwyn thought back to that previous meeting. She’d continued that earlier conversation with:
‘Remember years ago when you had a similar problem when you were the manager? You disappeared for a week and then the problem was magically resolved. You never said anything about it to anyone. Now I appear to have an almost identical situation.’
‘I’m happy to help. I can only tell you what I did then. You’ll have to judge what use that you can make of the advice. All the top brass has changed over time so it’s not likely that there’s anyone left who will remember any of the details of what happened with me.
‘So what did you do?’
‘It was a few years before I took early retirement. The Council had to make savings on its overheads. Staff salaries were the preferred target. The maintenance budget had been enhanced to deal with the backlog and the minor works programme had actually been increased, so Property Services had more work to handle than in any previous year on record, so I needed all the staff that I could get.
The Estates section was fully staffed. However, in the Building Surveying section, the Senior Building Surveyor had left and another Building Surveyor was working his notice so that section would soon be down to 50% of its staffing levels just as the workload was expanding. Normally by then I’d have been advertising but there was a blanket freeze on recruitment across the whole Council, regardless of need. I couldn’t swap Estates Surveyors onto Building Surveying work as it was a different skill-set. So, in a nutshell, I needed to recruit at least one full-time replacement Building Surveyor even to limp along for 12 months.
At that time the Property Group was part of Central Services so there was no Director above me. I answered directly to the Chief Executive. He was not really up to the job. He’d been appointed when the old Chief Executive had been allowed to take early retirement, as they all seem to do in my experience. The Members were bent on ringing the changes, so they asked Human Resources to commission a set of headhunters to identify candidates with fresh ideas from outside the industry. You know the theory – that a manager doesn’t need to have any kind of specialist qualification and that anyone with an MBA can manage professionals. It’s madness I know, but that was the thinking at the time.
Anyway, that had been when the national economy had been doing well so they only received applications from second rate candidates because, at that time, salaries outside local government were so much better. In short, they ended up picking a guy who, even if I’m being generous, could only be described as the best of a bad bunch. Common sense should have told them that anyone coming from a high salary in industry to a backwater Council in the North West was running away from something rather than bettering himself. He was bound to be a failure.
We soon found out why he was running. In my experience most Chief Executives, especially the Solicitors, were clever and ruthless; that’s how they got the top job. This guy wasn’t either. He wanted to be everyone’s friend and went out of his way to avoid confrontation. So every decision that he made was a fudge.
I don’t know why it is but, in my lengthy career, I’d noticed that every time we got a new Chief Executive, the first thing they did was to reorganise the Council structure, whether it needed it or not. It’s like they can’t leave well alone and have to change things just to be seen to be doing something. Anyway, he’d taken out a few volunteers for redundancy or early retirement. That way he didn’t have to face the difficult decision about compulsory redundancies.
But that hadn’t produced enough savings and it all came to a head when he had to respond to the Members’ call for more reductions to the salary bill as the Government squeeze tightened. He couldn’t do another reorganisation or it would look like his first one was a failure. So, again to avoid upsetting anyone, he persuaded the Members that a blanket freeze on recruitment regardless of need – natural wastage as people left and were not replaced – would be the most effective policy. That suited the existing staff and the unions but turned out to be completely insane as it failed to take into account the particular needs of any service group.
The Chief Executive wouldn’t listen to me when I raised the problem of staff resources. His answer was that I should prioritise the work, deal only with what was important and let the rest slide. That was all very well for him to say, but it was going to be me that would have to answer to the Councillors for the failure to maintain the properties. Any surveyor will tell you that if you neglect maintenance it only increases the work and stacks up the cost for the future.
He thought that surveyors within the Property Group could be swapped around from Estates to Building Surveying as and when the need arose to meet workload pressures. I needed to get him to make an exception for me and I needed a weapon to use against him: I had to exploit his weakness.
As his policy applied equally across the whole of the Council regardless of circumstances, I couldn’t claim discrimination by race, gender or religion, nor disability or harassment. The only option open to me seemed to be health, more particularly, stress. You may want to examine if any of the other options better apply to your particular circumstances.
I knew that the last step of his Council-wide reorganisation was about to be implemented and that involved changes within the Direct Works Department. The volunteers would go as planned so there was more than a possibility of staff with a construction-related background being considered as surplus to requirements. I had to find a way of putting the Chief Executive under enough personal pressure that he might decide to steer one of them into Property Services instead of letting them go. Of course, he wouldn’t hear of it.
I’d already put my request to recruit in writing. I’d explained the problems and the risks and laid it on thick – public safety, danger to staff and contractors, closure of public buildings and escalating costs for the future if we didn’t carry out the maintenance. Then I followed it up with a memo directly to him but copied to Human Resources and with a printed copy that I took home with me for safe-keeping. That memo would ensure that I had a defence if it all went wrong.
The memo set out the situation, repeated my request, spelt out the risks again and then became much more personal – it was a formal notice of complaint directed at him as my line manager. I pointed out that the situation was having an adverse effect on my health. In effect I was putting forward an allegation of stress caused by his personal failure to provide me with the resources necessary to do my job and thus protect my health. It was a gamble and it required me to put on a convincing act.
He called me to his office for a meeting and I made sure that Human Resources and the Union were represented as I needed witnesses for the record. He was clearly shocked but he didn’t want to fall out with me. He’d never had a memo like mine in his entire career. He said he wasn’t aware things had got so bad. He asked why I hadn’t said anything before now. I kept my answers as short as possible – ‘I have told you before’; ‘You don’t listen’ etc. I was arguing that a blanket ban on recruitment regardless of circumstances was discriminatory on health grounds because it couldn’t apply equally in practice unless every group had the same number of vacancies.
At the end of the meeting he said that if it was affecting my health then I’d better take some time off and seek some medical help. That was fine by me. I pointed out that my absence would only make things worse for the others, so he should expect them to suffer too. I immediately went home on sick leave. I know it sounds cynical but stress is the new backache – it’s easy to fake, very hard to disprove and I was pretty sure that I could convince a doctor that I was suffering from it in a serious way. I didn’t feel good about it or proud of myself but it was a necessary means to an end and I had run out of alternatives. He had all the power and all I had was the choice of weapon.
I sat at home for a week and during that time he must have discussed it with the other Directors, and Human Resources and the Council’s Solicitor and decided that he was in a weak position legally if it all ended up in a tribunal. I knew that he would feel bad about me personally as he wanted to be everybody’s friend. In the event, as you know, you were the one that delivered his message to call me back in for another chat. He asked me if it would help if he was to arrange to transfer a surveyor from the Direct Works Department to Property Services. The individual had a building qualification, experience of the ordering system, estimating, supervising of contractors and signing off work. He was a specialist on roadworks so could easily manage our car park repairs, re-linings and resurfacings and manage simpler buildings like the public conveniences and parks structures, until we trained him up for the more complex structures like the swimming pools and the office buildings.
I knew that I wasn’t going to get a better offer – there was a limit even to what the Chief Executive could do – but I could limp along with 3 out of 4 staff. Anyway, it worked. However, I don’t recommend that you do this, or anything like it, without studying the problem, weighing up the risks and calculating the odds of success. I was fed up with being messed about by a manager who couldn’t do his job well but thought that he knew how to do mine better than me. Maybe I was a bit stressed, at least enough to consider desperate measures, but, let’s face it, my actions carried the least risk of any option for me. I could sit at home, perfectly justified on sick leave for 6 months on full pay, let him worry about the consequences and come back no worse off whenever I’d played my hand to its limit. After all, if I was ill, any disasters that arose in the meantime would have been his responsibility to explain to the Councillors. He only lasted another 12 months. His next initiative was also a cock-up and a package was arranged to encourage him to move on.
You do have one other option. You can always look for another surveying job and cite the policy in your exit interview. It might help your successor.’
She’d thanked me for my advice and had left looking like I’d given her plenty to think about.
‘After our last meeting I did everything that you said. I studied the problem, compared our situations and then talked it over with my husband. However, an alternative presented itself that you’d not mentioned and that became the best option for me.’
‘Has it worked out?’
‘Well it seems to be going according to plan.’
Selwyn took another sip of his wine while she continued.
‘You know that Sadiq, my husband, is an IT specialist and works for himself, mostly from home? His business is doing so well that he needs to take on staff. I’m going to work with him. Also, we’d put off having a family when we were younger until we got sorted financially. Well, now I’m pregnant. I didn’t know it when I last saw you. So, I can take on his admin, accounts, invoicing and marketing, run his diary and look after the baby from home while he keeps the clients happy. I’m taking the basic maternity leave but I won’t be returning afterwards. No-one else knows about it apart from him.’
‘Congratulations. I’m really pleased for you. By the way, I know you. You can be a bit too honest for your own good sometimes. Maybe you should ignore my advice about the exit interview. You never know, you might want to work for the Council again when the baby is older. The way things are going nationally with the shortage of Valuers, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are regular vacancies again in the future.’
‘That’s a good point. Anyway, I hope that you don’t think that I’m being disloyal by jumping ship. You’ve done so much for me and my career. You’ve always promoted public service as a worthwhile occupation to your staff, giving something back to the community, defending the public against grasping free enterprise, getting the best out of the property assets for the public good.’
‘Are you crazy? While I still believe in those values, local government has changed beyond all recognition since I came into public service. Loyalty has to work both ways. We’ve always had lower salaries, no company cars, poorer expenses than the private sector but the reasonable hours and the pension scheme made up for some of it. Now we have constant reorganisations where you have to keep reapplying for your own job, too much work, not enough staff, pay freezes, attacks on expenses and chipping away at the pension scheme. Constant cuts make it almost impossible to do the job and, anyway, the government believes that the private sector can do it better, even though we know that they’re wrong. If it doesn’t work out, you can come back in the future if you want to, when your family circumstances allow it.’
Selwyn noted the smile of relief on her face. Farah had obviously been concerned about telling him. ‘And if she doesn’t come back then once again it will be local government’s loss. When will they ever learn?’ he thought.
©David Lewis Pogson 2018
Further stories in the ‘Selwyn’ series will appear following publication in the Terrier.