Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Broken Barnet: Contract City

Who is Dexter Whitfield?

Well, he is not, as his name might suggest, a jazz trumpeter, or a spin bowler, or a character in a Raymond Chandler thriller. He is, in fact, a bespectacled and amiable academic, an expert in the economics of local government, and tonight he came to give a timely lecture to the Barnet Alliance anti-cuts campaign, on the implications for our borough as we are dragged, kicking and screaming, into the brave new world of One Barnet.

In the easyshaped dystopia that is our benighted borough, our corporate services will shortly be organised through the increasing adoption of 'outsourcing'.

This is a policy of privatisation which, according to the old lie of easybolics, will guarantee the council and the tax payer millions and millions of pounds in savings. In order to pretend that one day this load of shite will actually make millions and millions of pounds of savings, it is apparently necessary to pass millions and millions of pounds of council revenue to consultants who are advising us how to make millions and millions of pounds of savings. Have I got that right, Dexter?

In the States, this sort of local government is referred to as 'Contract City': here in Barnet we are more of a Contract Suburb, but what has failed our American cousins will fail us just as well on a British suburban scale, it would appear.

In Contract City, the only ones to benefit are the companies, of course.

Professor Whitfield painted an all too credible picture of a state where community needs are ignored in favour of the commercial ambitions of the private sector. It is a high risk strategy, with accountability and transparency trodden on by the overriding demands of commercial confidentiality and secrecy surrounding the procurement of contracts (as if that could ever happen here in Barnet, eh, Mr Reasonable?) Scrutiny of contracts is made almost impossible, because of the collusion created by the vested interests of clients and contractors, and this provides the perfect breeding place for corrupt practices and maladministration.

In short, all evidence shows clearly that while the companies who provide contracts profit nicely from the arrangement, the much vaunted promise of savings simply does not materialise. Worse still, the net cost to society, due to effects such as an increase in unemployment, is far huger than any money that might be made on apparently cost cutting deals. The idea that such schemes can create jobs is belied by experience, such as in Middlesborough, where over a ten year period, only 100 jobs were created - and how many lost?

But what can be done to avert the disasters that will ensue if Barnet is given a free reign to outsource as many services as possible? At the moment, only some services are being put out to tender: why? Because of course commercial contractors are only interested in services that are already successful and are obviously desirable. All the awkward, unattractive services, of course, are left unmolested, like a bunch of Tory councillors at a One Barnet Christmas party.

We need desperately to look for alternatives to outsourcing: we need to compel the authority to hold the needs of our community as the most important consideration, not regarded as some 'nice to have' frivolous extra. To do this, the community itself has to take action and assert itself as a force for resistence.

Local union representatives and residents joined in a debate about the implications of Dexter Whitfield's talk here in Barnet. The union leaders recognised the need for unions to become rooted once more in the communities they serve, and residents talked about the ways in which they can work together to find a way to influence the local democratic process, a process which has become alienated from the very people it is supposed to represent.

Remember the risible claim by Lynne Hillan's leadership - that the council wants to forge a new relationship with citizens? As one local man observed, he thought the nature of this relationship was perhaps perfectly expressed by the reception greeting residents at the infamous recent council meeting, where a bullying council, an excess of police officers, and, most intimidating of all, a private security company whose terms of employment remain shrouded in mystery, allowed quasi military bouncers to keep ordinary residents, and, I believe, Professor Whitfield himself, from witnessing the proceedings from the half empty public gallery.

If by a new relationship Hillan meant one in which we have reached new depths of mutual contempt, then I suppose she has certainly acheived this objective.

In Cameron's Britain, Whitfield suggested, the core strategy is financialisation: the charging for services, the destabilisation of the public sector and the 'marketisation' of our society. Along with this we have the bogus personalisation of the - yawn - Big Society, yet another Tory lie, one that tells us that we ourselves can carry the weight of all the social responsibilites we have always looked to the state to bear.

As I went home, and thought about the debate, and the events of the last few months, I reflected that in many ways, Cameron's Big Society was becoming a reality - although not in the way he intended. As Stan Davison, a veteran campaigner for pensioners' rights - and another resident obstructed from attending the council meeting - commented tonight, what is different about the current political crisis is that we are now living in a new world, and we must use the new tools to our advantage. I guess he meant the world of new media, the netroots approach. As he said, we now have "a different kind of basis for a broad unity". Both nationally and locally, people of all backgrounds are coming together to put up resistence to the Tory agenda. It wasn't quite what posh boy originally had in mind, a spot of good works and a ready supply of free labour to fill in the gaps of mass redundancies and cuts in service. This is a groundswell movement, and a very British revolution. Everyone can do their bit, in their own way. Here's my contribution, anyway.

1 comment:

Moaneybat said...

The Union man deserves a Knighthood!