Friday 2 November 2012

One Barnet: and so it goes on ... a postscript to the Barnet bloggers' letter

Updated: see below

The joint letter sent this afternoon to Barnet's Tory councillors (see previous post), in regard to suspended member Brian Coleman's extraordinary attack on the One Barnet privatisation scheme, has appeared in this timely and well observed Guardian online piece here -in Patrick Butler's Cuts Blog:

£1bn council privatisation plan 'fundamentally un-Conservative,' says top Tory

"And so it goes on. After the recent political bloodletting over mega-outsourcing of public services in Cornwall, the spotlight has shifted back to the biggest proposed local government privatisation of them all: the £1bn One Barnet scheme.

Next Tuesday Richard Cornelius, the leader of Barnet, the London council, faces a vote of no-confidence over One Barnet. Just as in Cornwall, the outsourcing plan is publicly unpopular. As in Cornwall, where the deputy leader quit in protest at the scheme, a senior Tory councillor has come out calling for the scheme to be scrapped.

In a scathing piece published in the Barnet Press this week, councillor Brian Coleman, the chair of the council's budget and overview committee, describes One Barnet as "a flawed scheme" and a "turkey".

Coleman writes:
Many Conservative councillors feel they are powerless to stop this officer-driven juggernaut or as one senior Conservative put it - we are lemmings heading for the cliff.
The council needs to dump this flawed scheme and introduce a proper strategy which assesses where services belong, whether that is the private sector, shared services with other boroughs, the voluntary sector or indeed occasionally in-house - a mixed economy is what is needed. For example, I don't know any councillors who agree we should privatise the planning department.

Conservatives are pragmatic and anyway the concept of One Barnet is fundamentally un-Conservative and ignores localism. It is totally New Labour, in fact.

The time has come to dump One Barnet and return to core local government values and make sure this particular turkey does not see Christmas!
Close observers of Barnet politics may see this as self-serving, rather disingenuous exercise in buck-passing. Coleman blames council officials, trade unions and even the last Labour government for a scheme that he, as a senior Tory, appears not to have seen fit to question, at least in public, for the past three years, despite a series of controversies.
As a joint post published today by five local campaigning Barnet bloggers points out:
Notwithstanding ...our very many differences with Cllr Coleman over the years, there is an indisputable truth in much of what he is now saying about One Barnet: it is only a pity that someone did not speak out publicly before.
Whether Coleman, a colourful and controversial character who oversaw London Fire Authority on behalf of mayor Boris Johnson for four years, will inspire others to rebel rebellion is open to question. This week he was suspended from the Conservative Party after being charged with assault. He will appear in court on Monday, the day before the no confidence vote.

But his suggestion that "many" fellow Tory councillors share his views on One Barnet is interesting. Although this is a Labour motion, which would not normally hold much weight, a simple majority vote could topple Cornelius. Of the 63 councillors, 25 are Labour and Liberal Democrats, so a handful of rebel Tories could trigger a crisis.

Cornelius will have much to do to assure potential rebels that their concerns are being met. In Cornwall, it was as much the stubborn refusal of the ill-fated leader Alec Robertson to contemplate any other possible course of action, as the controversial Joint Venture strategy itself, that led to his downfall.

Cornelius was regarded as a One Barnet-sceptic when he became leader. But as recently as July he was dismissing criticisms of One Barnet as "a lot of froth". He wrote in a blog post:
There has been opposition to this modernisation, but then I took some time to come to terms with it myself.
So, will potential Tory rebels consider that Cornelius is the man to rein in One Barnet? Compare Coleman's description of One Barnet as "fundamentally un-Conservative" with the leader's view of One Barnet expressed just three months ago, that there was, in effect No Alternative:
We do need to change the way we do things just for the sake of improvement. No organisation can ever stay the way it has always been. Nostalgia is fine but the world has moved on.
This week Barnet announced that it would not, after all, outsource its waste and street scene services, and would take back under council control its recycling service, currently delivered by a private firm. This decision that means 700 staff will remain "in house." This signalled, perhaps a softening in the council's position. On the other hand, also this week, the council re-affirmed that One Barnet would still be the main driver of cost savings in the era of huge funding cuts.

So what is Barnet? A pragmatic, mixed economy council, or a ideologically-driven commissioning organisation? Even if Cornelius survives the Tuesday vote, the full council must still decide whether to press ahead with two mega-contracts valued collectively at £1bn that would see 70% of council services offloaded in one fell swoop.

The lesson of the last two years is that road to mega-outsourcing is littered with political corpses. Privatising everything in the municipal landscape is a long-held Tory dream, but recent experience tells us that voters don't care much for the idea, and many Tory councils (if they survive the public backlash) turn back before they reach the promised land.

Local politicians across the political spectrum wonder if such schemes work: they fear the political and financial risks, and the loss of accountability and democratic oversight. They are sceptical that such schemes can deliver the promised savings.

Changing what local government does and how it delivers it is inevitable, given the financial climate. But "grandiose re-organisation" as Cllr Coleman describes One Barnet, is rapidly falling out of favour. Grassroots Tory confidence in huge schemes is draining away. There are limits, it seems, to the market, and no simple privatised silver bullet solution to the financial woes of councils."
What will happen next, in Broken Barnet? After an extraordinary few days, the week to follow promises to be even more entertaining. 

On Monday morning, former Tory member Councillor Coleman must attend Uxbridge Magistrates to respond to charges of assault by beating, and a driving offence. 

The next evening will see Barnet's full council meeting, where presumably Coleman, now suspended by the central Conservative party, will face a vote removing him from his last position of any note in Barnet, as a committee chair, but more importantly the Tory leader Cornelius will be the subject of a vote of no confidence. 

As explained in Patrick's post, in a situation similiar to the coup in Cornwall just recently, and again in reaction to an unpopular privatisation plan, a few rebel Tories will be enough to push him out of his position. 

The danger then is that one of the more ambitious and ideologically extreme Tories like deputy leader Daniel Thomas may attempt to replace him. 

Mrs Angry would suggest to the dopey Tory councillors of Broken Barnet that arrangements should be made now to have an alternative candidate standing by, one who has the courage to pull the plug on One Barnet, and seek to rebuild a relationship of mutual respect between the residents of this borough, and their elected representatives.

* Update - Postscript to this postscript: 

This is the absolute end, the ultimate irony - outsourcing is eating itself, according to a story in the City Spy section of the Standard tonight:

"Watch out, outsourcing companies. Telecoms giant BT says it is cutting costs and saving money by — wait for it — stopping outsourcing and getting its own staff to do these tasks instead.

“We think we can run a number of things more efficiently ourselves,” says chief executive Ian Livingston.

An example is that BT has brought its “facilities management capability” in-house, which requires about 1500 staff. That step has removed about 10% of the cost base. Might that be the margin that the outsourcing company was taking before?"

There are no words, are there?


baarnett said...

Oh, Mrs A, brilliant posting. I cried twice. You and Brian will love "working together".

As he says, you are so fast, unpredictable, and hard to control, but fun.

Mrs Angry said...

Mmmm. I must invite you round for a country supper, baarnett. LOL.