Some Tories think Barnet’s “Easycouncil” is worth emulating – here’s why they’re wrong

7th February, 2013 12:44 pm

Anyone watching last week’s Brighton and Hove City Council meeting would have been horrified to hear Conservative councillors say that Tory-run Barnet council is one we should look to emulate. Tory councillors loudly criticised Labour councillors like me for not even looking at the scheme, so I did.

Conservative-run Barnet has become known as the “easyCouncil” offering no-frills local government along the lines of budget airlines, with a bare minimum of services provided by the council and responsibility for the running of social care, building control, planning, highways and transport, the crematorium and cemetery, trading standards, licensing and environmental health all handed over to the private sector.

Over 200 council staff will lose their jobs, and Barnet borough residents will have to phone a call centre in Blackburn to access local services, seventy per cent of which will be delivered by private companies. Even if the projected savings from the “One Barnet” programme, as it is officially called, are achieved, it is planning to cut £18m from adult social services, £9m from children’s services, and £4m from environmental services.

The savings Barnet has made in the first two years of the programme are less that the costs of implementing it. External auditors warned Barnet Council that their project lacked an adequate analysis of the costs and benefits of cutting and privatising key services, and said that two years after implementing it, the council still had no business plan.

Eight thousand Barnet residents have signed a petition against the wholesale privatisation of their local services, and one local resident has won a judicial review against the handing over of the social care services she relies on to a private company.

Even some Tories in the borough have criticised the policy saying they had “no mandate” to give contracts worth between £600 million and £1 billion to private companies, with contracts lasting ten years. A senior Conservative figure in London called the policy “nuts”. In December Barnet’s Chief Executive, who had been charged with delivering the programme, quit to take up a post in neighbouring Haringey, where there are no Conservative councillors.

It’s a policy Brighton and Hove Tories say could save the council taxpayer millions, but of course once handed over to private companies, many of these basic local services will only be available to residents who can afford to pay the private company’s fees. As we have seen too often recently, private companies can and do fail, leaving the public sector having to step in and bail out the private contractor, or provide the service themselves. Thousands of troops had to provide security at the Olympics when private firm G4S failed to deliver.

Bringing services back in-house carries huge costs, and lost staff experience and expertise cannot be replaced. As the resident who won the judicial review commented in her court submission, “the council will be so reliant on the private companies it will no longer possess the knowledge and competence to act as a local authority”

Brighton and Hove Conservatives hope that after four years of a Green administration which many view as having spent money on unaffordable priorities and wish-list projects, there will be an appetite for this kind of sell-off of council services to whoever wants to profit from them. The view of Labour and Co-operative councillors in the city is that local services should be accountable to residents not shareholders, with local people at the heart of decision making on how they are run, not simply customers. Quality, not profit, should be the principle behind the services a council delivers to residents.

Warren Morgan is Labour & Co-operative Councillor for East Brighton, Deputy Leader of the Labour & Co-operative Group, Brighton & Hove City Council.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    Seems like another example of ideology over sense, the Tories in Barnett simply believing that anything that is private is automatically better simply because it is private. The bit about the cost of implementation being greater or equal to savings also is a dead giveaway. Sounds like national Tory politics. In other words the present economic situation is an excuse for toxic policies.
    The key worry is that contract being awarded for 10 years i.e. well beyond the term of office, must be beyond the councillors remit.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/david.sylvester.963 David Sylvester

    From the early days of Competitive compulsary tendering (CCT), introduced by Thatcher (need one say any more about the direction of such a measure !!) the Private sector has held Government and Local Authority IT managers to ransom.

    It was introduced against a backdrop of these Government and Local Authorities being forced to put their IT services up for tender against Private companies who were particularly well versed in keeping their bids extremely low and then count upon the fact that any extra was ‘not in the contract’ and were therefore chargable. In the main this worked because of the lack of particular good contract managers many who were recruited from within the organisation, or ‘promoted ‘ sideways to a position that ws not deemed to be as important as it was. (I know because I was contracted in,at a stage when many of these tendering organisations became fed up with being fleeced by the ‘extras’, to advise them upon writing contracts certainly much better than the existing one and almost watertight such that I was ‘offered’ positions by the external organisation on a number of occasions because of the money ‘my’contracts were costing them.

    As was later pointed out by persons such as Chris Chant, who has recently retired from the higher echelons of IT, there were many ‘traps’ that still existed in more recent days such as :

    paying £50,000, yes £50,000 to change one line of code in one application.

    taking up to 12 weeks to commission a server. He compared it, sarcastically, with Amazon where the most critical path was that of entering your details from your credit card

    Issuing contracts for a period of greater than 12 months when, with the rapid changes taking place in IT it was impossible to predict the state of the industry in the coming period
    Not knowing how many staff were employed on the client side of IT and therefore not having a breakdown of what the client side staff were actually doing for you

    Not knowing what part of the systems were owned by whom, what they cost and how much,if ever they were used

    Having immaculate online systems that sent out reminders by post

    Not having the choice in what devices the tendering organisation could use although a better service could be delivered using more efficient devices being in use for some time within other organisations

    The list is almost endless and each adds to the cost.

    Of the initial competing organisations, whom I will not name, many were found to be extremely costly once the tendering company tightened up their act, and it was found, particularly in LAs Housing Benefits systems that it was cheaper to bring these services back ‘in-house’ sometime following on from the tendering company passing the service unto another external company who, in turn were not outdown in the hash that could be made. In fact in 2009 an investigation by the Global Chief Procurement survey found that numerous IT systems, in the hands of an external supplier had ‘failed to deliver’.

    So my advice, based on a number of years in this particular sector of the IT industry is that there is little or nothing being delivered by external organisations that is worth emulating !!

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