Lazy councils are plumbing new depths of entitlement

Oxford Town Hall
And answer came there none: Don't expect a reply from Oxford City Council - Mark Williamson

Back when the government still had some control of our borders, the Home Office tried to make the UK a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants via an aggressive advertising campaign. The vans warning asylum seekers to “go home or face arrest” were a disaster, primarily because the message was too unsubtle.

If you want to make a place really unpleasant for people, there are quieter ways to do it – as Oxford City Council seems determined to demonstrate.

Not content with carving the City of Dreaming Spires into bossy little boxes designed to kettle the population into so-called “15-minute” zones around their own homes, the bearded Brompton bike obsessives who control the city now have an official policy of not dealing with people who annoy them.

The new powers might sound like a bad joke, but the city council’s recently announced “vexatious behaviour” guidance for town hall staff is all too real. Targeted at residents who ask one too many questions or complain in a way that officials consider “manifestly unjustified,” “inappropriate” or “intimidating,” it sets out consequences for behaviour that is “deemed unacceptable” (a phrase that allows alarming scope for discretion, going well beyond actual abuse or threats, which nobody should be expected to tolerate.)

In short, it seems that, if members of the public refuse to be fobbed off with the usual platitudes meted out to those who complain about shoddy services, they risk Oxford City Council refusing all contact with them. And that’s that: up goes the drawbridge, so they can plod along unchallenged until the clock strikes 5pm (when phone lines close) and it’s time to go home.

Naturally, council leader Susan Brown laments “having” to take such a drastic step. It is, she sighs, “one of those policies that you wish you didn’t have to have”. Seeking to justify the move, the council’s finance chief Ed Turner argues that getting calls from frustrated taxpayers “can be very distressing” for his colleagues. Poor lambs! Here’s an idea: how about running the city in such a way that doesn’t drive taxpayers to distraction?

The good burghers of Oxford aren’t the only people sick to the back teeth of lazy customer service types bleating that they will not “tolerate” being held to account. The policy is representative of a deeply unpleasant wider cultural trend, which supposes that workers are entitled to be saved from any interaction with people who are frustrated, frightened, or simply fed up of being ripped off.

No prizes for guessing who is to blame for the air of entitlement that now hangs around so many folk with name badges: the trade unions, who have sought to empower their members via passive-aggressive signs advertising a “zero tolerance” approach to “abuse of staff” (which, again, seems to include not just actual, unacceptable abuse, but any behaviour staff don’t like).

Once largely confined to airports, train stations and the NHS – all settings in which customers regularly have very good reason to be exasperated – these nasty little notices are now cropping up everywhere, including in shops and restaurants.

The old-fashioned notion that “the customer is always right” has given way to a grievance culture that discourages staff from saying sorry and identifying ways to make things better. All too often, the response to being challenged is switching on a bodycam, and radio-ing for “back up”.

In this particular case, I’ll hazard a guess that Oxford City Council is feeling the wrath of people who can’t or won’t do what the council wants them to do, and abandon their cars to walk or get on a bike. Navigating the city is now such an ordeal that even the mildest mannered motorist could be forgiven for morphing into Martha from Baby Reindeer. No wonder the switchboard is jammed.

From a council whose headline efforts on behalf of local taxpayers include boasting about being “trans inclusive” and becoming the first town hall in the country to introduce vegan-only platters at official functions, little comes as a surprise. Those of us who live in the area should probably consider ourselves lucky that there is still a mechanism for getting in touch with the council at all.

Doubtless one or two rude callers deserve to be cut off. The very least the rest deserve is the common courtesy of a listening ear in what is an increasingly hostile environment.