At midnight, after 49 years, Copeland Borough Council will cease to exist. In the grand scheme of things, it’s no age. But given a week is a long time in politics, it feels like a lifetime. It is a lifetime.
I started my career at Copeland Borough Council, back in 2003. I was a graduate trainee earning £12,720 per year (of course I remember, it was my first salaried job). My first pay cheque – received a week after starting, felt like an extraordinary amount of money given I’d been there a matter of days. I’d not found the coffee machine by that point – though I could smell the smoking room.
While I started as a graduate trainee, I quickly received a promotion to become the sole communications officer. This was a stroke of luck really – I sat opposite the incumbent and we shared a phone line. When she wasn’t there, I picked up the phone and as a result media enquiries.
I’ve always been pleasant yet inquisitive. So that meant some people preferred speaking to me than my phone line partner. So when they left, mid-local government restructuring, I was asked to fill the role temporarily. That temporary role led to a passion for, and career in, communications. During my ten years at Copeland, I moved from temporary communications officer, to communications officer, to interm senior communications officer, to senior communications officer, and finally communications manager – reporting directly to the chief executive.
It was an action-packed decade. I really did learn on the job, and experienced more in those years than many do in a lifetime. We had huge highs and the very lowest of lows. I won’t recount these here. Those who live in the area will know most of them, and those who don’t can Google. But they covered everything from events to crisis management, media relations to employee engagement, marketing to consultation, nuclear to housing, regen to museums. And bins.
What I will say is that those working in local government are, in my mind, heroes. I know lots of people won’t agree, but I saw people giving their all despite huge frustrations, working harder despite the challenges and setbacks. These range from the aforementioned (and endless) restructures to consistent efficiency drives (long before they were trendy). There was out- and in-sourcing, shared services, partnership working and many similarly inventively named initiatives that made job security a laughing matter.
On top of the lack of job security, local government staff are also subject to the attacks, criticism and politically motivated sniping from elected members. They’re also hard working and committed, but their pay masters are the electorate, and most think that scoring a political point and gaining a handful of votes is worth any negative HR related consequences.
And despite all this, despite the lower wages than the other big employer in the area, despite the political jibes, people stayed and gave their all.
Last week I joined my former colleagues for an evening to remember Copeland Council. Having left nine years ago, I assumed I’d know few people. How wrong I was. There were so many friendly (if battle scarred) faces. I saw colleagues who had risen from entry level roles to lead huge teams dealing with complex issues and friends managing services that were previously the responsibility of two or three people in different times.
Everyone had a smile on their face, and everyone was proud of their role in Copeland’s story.
No council is perfect. They do get things wrong. I’d suggest that these things are rarely the fault of officers. The policy is certainly never set by officers, but they bear the brunt if it’s unpopular or goes wrong.
So I know some people won’t mourn Copeland’s passing. They’ll smile at the thought that the organisation serving the southern part of West Cumbria is disappearing. I get that, but it was local. The collection of councillors serving the borough all cared about this coastal, rural and isolated patch of land. They wanted the best for its residents.
In the future, the borough will be part of a much larger council, covering the huge geographical area from the Scottish border down to the Duddon. Whatever, your views, it won’t be as local, even if it does save a few quid.
It’s time to say goodbye to Copeland, and hello, again, to Cumberland.
I’d like to wish all my friends and former colleagues working for any of the departing councils, good luck.
And finally, I’ll end the blog by dedicating it to colleagues we have lost in recent years. I can think of many that played a huge part in Copeland’s story. While you can’t see it, I’ve raised a glass to them all.
To the next 49.