Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Trouble in Truro: another Tory outsourcing disaster

The people of Cornwall, as Mrs Angry remarked in a post earlier this year, here -
http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/mrs-angrys-return-and-view-from-wild.html have a long history of obstinate non conformity, and a commendable tradition of independently minded political debate. 

The tradition of independent political engagement and open debate is, alas,  not one we are used to, here in Broken Barnet, where our current Tory administration rules without any need for the free exchange of views, or consultation, or indeed any form of engagement within what is now a deeply dysfunctional relationship with its electorate.

On Mrs Angry's last visit to Cornwall, in May, the local media was reporting stories about the enormous dissatisfaction felt by residents in regard to the privatised out of hours doctors' service, an outsourced arrangement run by the ubiquitous giant company Serco. 

The serious difficulties encountered with this running of this vital service serve as a dire warning to us all, not simply as a taste of things to come with the opening up of the NHS to new commercial opportunities, but as yet another example to local authorities considering the outsourcing of council services to the private sector. 

Or at least it would serve as a warning to any local authority prepared to take the fingers out of its ears, and start listening: so no, not the London Borough of Barnet.

And now here comes another warning from the county of Cornwall for the London Borough of Barnet. 

At County Hall in Truro today, a dramatic council meeting, puncuated with accusations of back stabbing, and allegations of death threats, saw the Tory council leader Alec Robertson lose a vote of no confidence,and thereby his position, in a move that followed the resignation, last week, by the deputy leader Jim Currie in protest over the council's plans to outsource services in the form of a joint venture. 

As he wrote in his letter of resignation:

"I am resigning from the Cabinet today as I feel that I have pushed the cause of retaining Council control over Joint Ventures as far as I can with the Cabinet. The financial risks involved with the rush into the new Joint Venture proposals are unacceptable. The JV is basically too large to control ...  I could not leave local government with billions of pounds of Cornish Taxpayers money at risk and on my conscience."

Mr Currie is now the new leader of Cornwall County Council. 

The proposals which have proved the undoing of Alec Robertson were for contracts worth around £300 million a year, including the part privatisation of libraries and revenues and benefits. 

Yet again, as here in Barnet, a threat to libraries has served to inflame local opposition to council policy: it seems that an almost totemic significance has become attached to the ideal of the public library system, more powerful and meaningful than the practicalities of the issue itself, but symbolic of something far more threatening: the loss of something precious, something as emotive, in its way, as our threatened NHS.

In September concerns by councillors in Cornwall led to a vote to postpone their outsourcing  project plans, but, rather astonishingly, the Tory led cabinet decided to carry on anyway. 

It is remarkable, is it not, the determination of those who promote these massive private sector friendly policies to see them signed, whatever the opposition, even from their own party colleagues, and even at the risk of endangering their own political futures?

The debate today was streamed live from County Hall, and proved to be unmissable viewing. It was difficult for someone used to the entrenched positions of this north London borough to grasp the uncertainties of a political body comprised of a completely different mix of parties: There are 48 Tories, 37 Libdems, 29 Independents, six members of Mebyon Kernow, and a couple of non affiliated members. Oh and ... one Labour councillor. The council is run by a Conservative/Independent coalition. 

How refreshing it was to listen to councillors speak, to the point, in strictly limited three minute speeches, from a complex variety of viewpoints. Except, to be honest, in the case of the Tories who defended their leader, rather than the policies he had endorsed. 

Libdem councillor Ruth Lewarne perfectly described the approach of private enterprise as 'a weevil at the heart of local government'-  a view she has formed by studying the facts about similar arrangements with authorities all around the UK. What a shame that our own councillors do not take the trouble to inform themselves as well - but they prefer to ignore all opportunities to do so, and turn their backs to stare at the wall, while the rest of us try to communicate the dangers and the urgency of the situation to anyone who will listen.

In the Guardian today Patrick Butler has written an interesting report -


This traces the ancestry of the privatisation models for local government to the 'municipal fantasy' of the eighties' Thatcherite minister Nicholas Ridley: and yet, a generation later, here in innocent, sleepy headed Barnet, we fell for the myth of the easycouncil concept, promulgated by the heir to Thatcher's constituency in Finchley, Mike Freer, succumbing with shameful ease to the suggestion that it was his own creation, a work of genius from the man who has an MBA from BT, don't you know. It was no such thing, merely a bastardized version of an old idea, bandied about and reworked by potential clients in the private sector, sold like a prewritten online essay to willing students in the public sector.

Eric Pickles has distanced himself from any enthusiasm for the largescale outsourcing of council services, as more and more catastrophic examples of failure have emerged, and the bitter realities of the recession make market forces cut even more savagely at the legs supporting these unworkable models. 

And here in Barnet, of course, our local authority refuses to admit that the doomed One Barnet project is, as we must keep reminding everyone, a £1 billion gamble, set against an unprecedentedly level of risk which they will not open to independent assessment.

During the debate in Truro, councillor after councillor repeated the same thing: whatever their political allegiance, whatever their own views on the issues at stake, ultimately they had to listen to the concerns of their constituents. Yes: imagine that, here in Broken Barnet ... listening to their consituents?

An independent councillor, John Pollard, referred to the rejection of the outsourcing proposals at this late stage as 'withdrawing from the precipice'.

Here in Broken Barnet we are still teetering on the precipice. 

Here we are, balanced on the edge, wobbling like that coach at the end of 'The Italian Job'. 

Will our bungling bunch of ne'er do well councillors manage to crawl out of the back and leave the potential profits of their caper? Or will the coach, the crew, and all of the plunder from the One Barnet heist end up at the bottom of a deep ravine? 

It's a real cliff hanger, this one, isn't it? 


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