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Local service champions the people who make our lives better, from dawn to dusk

UNISON calls them the UK’s “local service champions”, the people at the frontline of vital council services who take care of so many aspects of our lives – from the routine to the lifesaving.

Local government members collect our rubbish and keep the streets and parks clean, they are the heartbeat of public libraries, they look after us in our homes when we’re vulnerable, and ensure that we have an actual roof over our heads when the very idea of a home seems impossible.

They help parents provide a positive environment for their children, strive to give our teenagers a future and make sure that when a loved one dies, their funeral takes place with dignity.

They protect us from unscrupulous businesses, and they are behind the scenes ensuring that the emergency services are fit for purpose in keeping everyone safe.

These are our members. It’s time to celebrate them.

Chris Jobson, refuse driver, Barnet Borough Council

Chris is one of those council workers who people can see outside their window in the morning. He’s been what is affectionately known as a ‘binman’ for 26 years, 20 of them in Barnet.

He starts work at 5.30 in the morning, arriving at the depot and preparing the lorry for the day. Then he and the two loaders set off on their rounds in north London. The amount of rubbish they collect – two 20-tonne loads a day – and the distances they cover are mind-boggling.

“The loaders walk about 25 to 30 miles a day now,” says Chris. “It's like doing a marathon every day. If you don’t become fit, you’re not going to last.

“It’s a very physical job. You're working in the rain, the snow, the wind, the sun. Then you're dealing with rats, diseases. It's not easy, but you get hardened to it.”

Chris recalls a time before wheelie bins and also a time before recycling. “I remember the recycling pilot we did 20 years ago. Now you have the blue bin for recycling, which is another crew, a black bin for refuse, and a green bin for garden waste. You might have three, four different lorries going down the one road at one time.”

To accommodate his union duties as Barnet’s ‘street scene’ convenor (covering refuse and recycling, parks and green spaces, street cleansing), Chris is currently working as a spare driver, across most of the rounds.

But for many years he had the same route, getting to know the families whose rubbish he was collecting.

“You can get to know the father, the mother, the daughter, the son, the grandchildren – you see them grow up. I’ve even been invited to weddings!” he laughs.

So he’s not surprised when the public is appreciative. “Britain’s bin workers are the fourth emergency service. If we’re not here, it’s rubbish.”

Angela Thomas, Better Start worker, Lambeth Borough Council

Angela is based at the Tree House Children’s Centre in South London. As a senior Better Start worker she engages with parents of children from birth to four-years-old, with the aim of early intervention – engaging with issues before they impact on the child.

Those she helps include teenage parents, parents with financial difficulties or new to London and feeling isolated, women who are suffering domestic violence, or experiencing post-natal depression.

“We work multi-agency. So, if there’s a health visitor, or a midwife who feels a parent is in need of additional support, they would get in touch with me and I would contact the parent and maybe do a home visit or meet somewhere else.

“My job is about engaging with the parents, building a rapport so that we learn to trust each other. Then, if an issue is identified, I can refer them to an agency that can help with that. There are many agencies and charitable organisations that offer support with domestic violence, debt issues and post-natal depression.

“Or it could just be about them coming into the centre and engaging with other parents. We have lots of different courses about healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, positive parenting.”

Angela is sure that the experience of being a parent herself – she has three grown-up children – is the reason she’s doing what she does. “I was pregnant at 16. I was a teenage parent, I then had a child with a disability. I’m a parent who’s been through these things.

“As a society we're quick to judge, to make assumptions about people, when actually we don't know where they're coming from. I understand that parent.

“That's why I'm quite passionate about my role, because I think that a lot of the time people may feel intimidated or inferior about things, so just having somebody to stop and listen and understand can make a difference and help people make the changes.

“Being a parent is one of the trickiest jobs ever. Years ago, you'd have your mum and your gran next door. Now we have families who come to London from other countries, or from up North, who don't have family or friends close by. Who can they turn to for support? So they come to us.”

Bobby McKillop, youth worker, North Lanarkshire Council

Bobby specialises in community learning and development in Motherwell, supporting young people between 16 and 19-years-old who have left school without what is deemed a ‘destination’ - they're not in employment, training, or education. His role is to help them move their lives forward.

“Youth work changes lives,” he says. “These kids come from very disadvantaged areas. A lot of them have no qualifications, maybe low confidence, family problems, some come from backgrounds with drug and alcohol misuse.

“We establish their learning needs, look at what’s holding them back in life, the barriers they face, and try to take those barriers away.”

Every youngster receives a tailored programme, helping them prepare for the job market, or independent living, or further education. Some need help with core skills – literacy, numeracy and computer skills, and others with health issues.

Bobby is part of a multi-agency approach that also involves social workers, housing officers and others, with a high success rate.

“You have to be a people person,” Bobby says of his role. “And you have to be in it for the right reason. It's all about empowering young people who need a wee leg up in life.”

Our campaign

UNISON has launched its Local Services Champions campaign to ensure its members get the attention they deserve.

“We are determined to celebrate our members in local government,” says UNISON deputy head of local government Mike Short.

“They are the unsung heroes of the public sector, too often not getting the credit they deserve for their work helping vulnerable people, working in our communities, providing vital local services.

“We’ve launched our campaign to help show the public the difference our members make every day.”

The campaign will include a Celebration Day on 17 October, which will be a social media and branch-based event, and joint work with the Labour Party to call for more funding for vital local government jobs.

Wendy Vaughn, toning adviser, Herefordshire

Wendy works at the Halo Leisure Centre in Hereford, which is operated in partnership with Herefordshire Council. She’s had a variety of roles, but for the past three years has been based in the centre’s toning suite.

Here she gives an induction to people who are returning to a fitness regime, perhaps after a long period away from the gym, or from a recent operation. She prepares a bespoke fitness activity plan and introduces them to the suite’s equipment.

“Each programme is tailored to the person’s needs, building them up to different levels of fitness,” she says. “It’s satisfying to know that you’ve personally helped that person get to where they want to be. We have a quote on the wall: ‘The best project you will work on is you’.”

Tracey Sutton Postlethwaite, Gateway Officer, Wrexham Council

“Our remit is to try to prevent homelessness,” says Tracey, citing a task that in today’s society is becoming increasingly urgent.

As a Gateway Officer, she receives referrals from the council’s homelessness team and others, of vulnerable people who are either homeless or in danger of becoming so.

These could be people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental health issues, who have suffered domestic abuse, are young mothers – anybody who's struggling within their tenancy or trying to obtain one.

Tracey assesses that person for what is known as supported accommodation, which is any type of accommodation that has some kind of related support attached – such as a young people’s hostel or a mother and baby hostel, with support workers on hand to lend assistance – and which represent a vital first step in eventually managing a tenancy.

She will consider their means and risk factors, then decide which agency can best help each individual, as quickly as possible. She’ll deal with around 40-50 referrals each week.

Tracey has been working with the council for eight years. Before that she was the national housing coordinator for Welsh Women's Aid, and before that she worked for several years as a homeless officer for Flintshire Council.

“It’s been a while,” she laughs. “I get an opportunity to help change people's lives, every day. If you can do that, then you're making a difference.”

Helen Astley, library assistant, Herefordshire County Council

Helen has worked in the same library, in Hereford, for her whole 20-year-career. It’s hardly surprising when she calls her job “my passion.”

Library assistants are the visible staff of the library, the people who serve the customers – way beyond checking out and receiving books.

They help customers to use the computers and work online. They offer directions and tourist information. They signpost to local activities for the elderly and isolated, to support for rough sleepers (especially in winter) and translation services. And Helen and her colleagues are responsible for the library’s children’s area and its many activities, which promote the development of literacy and communication skills in babies and young children.

“As a library assistant everybody thinks you know everything. We don't know everything, but we know where to find everything,” she says proudly. “And that is a real skill that you build up over time."

An average day will see up to 800 people come through their doors, across all ages – from children and their parents, to students, job seekers, the homeless, to the elderly and retired.

“We’ve known pre-school kids who came for the ‘bounce and rhyme’ sessions who are still coming in now they're teenagers,” she says. “It's a real achievement that people just want to keep coming back.”

Helen’s mother was also a library assistant for many years, eventually running a small library on the edge of the town. She retired just over two years ago.

“She used to work until about 7pm on a Friday night, so my dad would drive me and my brother over there to pick her up, and I'd spend time in the library.

“I suppose I got the sense then that it was a really worthwhile job. It’s in the blood!”

“The main thing is protecting vulnerable consumers who can't do things for themselves”

Andy Langford, trading standards officer, Northamptonshire County Council

“Trading standards is one of those services which no-one really thinks about until they need us,” says Andy Langford. And that turns out to be often.

The role touches on countless aspects of day-to-day life, including animal health, food composition (just how much fat and salt are in your burger?), letting fees, the safety of manufactured goods and internet and postal scams. Trading standards officers enforce over 1,000 pieces of legislation.

Over the years he’s covered the spectrum of roles. But now Andy is on the rogue trader team, protecting vulnerable members of the public from so-called businesses who knock at the door offering low-quality home improvements, roofing, tarmacking, then conning or bullying them out of their money – ¬ sometimes thousands of pounds.

“These people are knocking on doors unannounced. They might also be selling goods – mobility products to old people, a bed or a chair. They make claims about them being bespoke, but they're not at all. You could probably buy them from a shop for three or four hundred pounds and they're charging three or four thousand pounds.

“Some of these rogue traders are very nasty people. Some are linked to organised crime, and some of the people doing the work for them are the victims of human trafficking.”

If Andy is alerted soon enough, he may be able to investigate a rogue trader, catch them in the act with the police and have them prosecuted (presenting the case in court himself). Otherwise, his work is preventative ¬– warning others.

“The main thing is protecting vulnerable consumers who can't do things for themselves.”

A lifetime of local services...

"It's nice to know that when complaints come in, we can go out and sort it"

Karen Hodgson, assistant contracts officer, Eden District Council, Penrith

Karen is one of three assistant contracts officers in a huge, mostly rural area of the Lake District. Since the council sub-contracts its refuse and recycling, street cleaning, grounds maintenance and cemetery services, Karen and her colleagues manage the contracts to ensure that the work is being carried out as it should be.

She estimates that she travels 680 miles each month, checking that grass is being cut, refuse and recycling collected, streets and play areas are cleaned.

“These are frontline services and the ones people complain about more often, because they’re more visible. It's nice to know that when complaints come in, we can go out and sort it,” she says.

Sometimes if there’s a missed recycling collection, Karen and her colleagues will even pick it up, in their own cars, and take it to a recycling centre. “I’ve got a bit of recycling on me now,” she laughs.

Her most unusual tasks relate to the council’s ownership of five cemeteries. Not only does she delve into the burial records to help people search their family histories, but she gives essential assistance to funerals – determining whether families already own plots or require a new one, ensuring new graves are dug to the correct specifications, then ensuring that the burial goes to plan on the day.

There’s a fair bit of troubleshooting behind the scenes. “In the Lake District when it rains it pours. And graves can get flooded. So we get the gravediggers there, pumping it out.”

They handle up to 100 funerals a year. “When I first started, I used to dread it. With a funeral you only get the one chance. If it's not done right, you've ruined that family's day.”

Her fears disappeared when she tragically lost her own 16-year-old son and had to go through the funeral experience herself. “It gave me the knowledge and strength to help others.”

Carol Richardson, homecare worker, Gateshead Council

Carol works with Gateshead’s domiciliary care service Prime (People Regaining Independence by Means of Enablement), which offers short-term support for people who need to regain the confidence and skills to live an independent life.

“We look after anybody from the age of 18 to 100,” she says. “It’s quite a diverse range of people. It might be somebody with a learning disability, or a physical disability, or with dementia. Maybe they're coming out of a hospital after breaking a hip, or they’ve had a stroke.

“Our work is really about helping them to regain their independence, to get back to where they were before their injury or illness.”

The Prime carers might help clients with medication, in taking a shower, with kitchen skills, or with finding new skills that fit with their rehabilitation. They work alongside other health professionals, including physiotherapists, district nurses, social workers and stroke nurses.

“Every client has a ‘care together folder’, for everybody to write in, so you're all working together. The package of care that's set out is tailored to the client's needs. So you wouldn't get two care packages that are the same because everybody's individual.”

Carol has worked for the council for 21 years, starting as a weekend worker then increasing her hours as her family grew up. She currently works 25 hours a week.

“There’s a lot of job satisfaction, because you see people at their most vulnerable, and then after you've worked with them for a few weeks you can see them making progress and regaining their self-esteem.”

Davey Drummond, transport technician, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service

Davey is one of a team of transport technicians based in a Gateshead depot who keep Tyne and Wear’s fire and rescue services in tip-top condition for their dangerous and often life-saving work.

“Our job is predominantly to keep the vehicles on the road, but we cover everything – fire pumps, aerial ladder platforms, foam systems, all the associated equipment to go with a fire engine. We’re also responsible for a boat on the Tyne, for riverside fires and rescues – people jumping off bridges.

“I’m a Jack of all trades and master of none,” he jokes. “Panel beating, welding, fabrication, electrical work, hydraulics, pneumatics. You name it, we do it.”

He also happens to be a North Tyneside councillor – rounding out an extraordinary skill set.

He has a fire service background – while running a fish and chip shop, his dad was also a retained firefighter, one of the many on call and summoned to emergencies by pager. And soon after Davey left school, at 17, he applied for an apprenticeship with the fire service ‘workshop’, as it was then called.

Davey is one of 10 technicians in the depot, half covering Tyne and Wear, half Northumberland. One week in five he will be on call 24/7 (as well as Christmas and New Year's Eve) to take care of urgent repairs to a vehicle or piece of equipment, which means sometimes attending emergencies himself.

He recalls one fire, of a shop front in Newcastle city centre, which involved a fatality, another when he witnessed the aftermath of a car crash. He doesn’t give details, but observes that Tyne and Wear have a “marvellous” psychiatrist to help staff deal with trauma.

“I think it’s great what the fire service does," he says. "And it isn’t just about fire fighters. If it wasn't for us, and the cooks, the cleaners, some of the staff at headquarters, the fire service just wouldn't run.

“There is a lot of pride in the job,” he adds. “I was taught from the beginning that it didn't matter how long it took, when the vehicle went out of the garage it was right – because lives depend on it.”

Champions

Words and design: Demetrios Matheou

Photographs: Jess Hurd, Mark Pinder, Jon Super and Ross Gilmore

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