John Harris

Journalist & Author

Outsource to easyCouncil? Not in our name, says Barnet | John Harris

Suffolk and Cornwall have held out against running councils like budget airlines. Now the fight’s on to stop it in London

I once sat in a radio studio and watched, with some horror, a well-known current affairs presenter field a call about the last government’s reckless use of the private finance initiative. The person at the other end of the line sounded very well-informed, but he was cut off within five seconds. “Sorry, you’re sending me to sleep,” said the host, and that was that. The implication was clear: this stuff was the preserve of anoraks, and best left that way.

The same applied to privatisation writ large, and an agenda so mired in acronyms and general tedium that, circa 2006-7, it almost disappeared from debate. But now, with G4S having so bungled their Olympics contract and the cutting edge of outsourcing reaching the police, this most crucial of issues is back. Moreover, in one corner of London, there is a full-scale citizens’ revolt against a huge switch from public to private that defies rational belief.

In 2009, the local Tory council expressed its enthusiasm for a notion known as “easyCouncil“, which referred to a simple if hair-raising principle: that in straitened times, local authorities should be like budget airlines, offering a basic set of services and charging for optional extras. Now, the big idea is officially called “One Barnet“. This denotes 70% of the council’s functions – first supposed “back office” services, and then such core functions as environmental health, planning, transport, even crematoriums – being handed to the private sector, on the basis of two 10-year contracts, together worth over £1bn.

Similar plans have been floated in Suffolk, only to be halted by Tory dissent. In Cornwall, last month saw the ousting of the county council’s Conservative leadership, and the suspension of an £800m privatisation programme. But in Barnet, the first contract will be signed on 6 December, with a second to follow in the New Year (the frontrunners are BT, Capita and EC Harris, a self-styled “global built asset consultancy”). Those in charge claim that in the face of swingeing cuts from Whitehall, the scheme will eventually lead to savings of £111m over the contracts’ duration; the project’s opponents reckon such figures have been pulled from the sky.

Piloting such a radical plan takes a certain kind of pioneering zeal, and the ability to keep your head while all about are losing theirs.

The council’s chief executive quit in early October, and a high-profile local Tory named Brian Coleman turned on the plans two weeks ago, claiming that ”the concept of One Barnet is fundamentally un-Conservative and ignores localism. It is totally New Labour, in fact.” Recently, there was an unexpected decision to keep waste services in-house. But on the really big stuff, the ruling Tory group – led by Richard Cornelius, who survived a vote of confidence last week – are holding their nerve.

Last Thursday, I spent the evening at a community centre in North Finchley, watching a 150-strong crowd make impassioned arguments against all this, to a panel that included Cornelius. The event had been organised by an umbrella group called the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, and the questions came thick and fast.

Why 10-year contracts? To make it worth the companies’ while, said Cornelius. What would happen if either of the successful bidders hit the buffers? No need to worry: they had been “checked” for all such eventualities. Shouldn’t the public have been consulted before such a drastic change? 2010’s election was effectively a consultation, he said, rather passing over the fact that the Tories never mentioned anything remotely resembling One Barnet in the course of the campaign. Why had no financial case for keeping services in-house been worked out, at least as a comparator? There was no answer.

The Barnet rebellion’s tribunes are five forensic, workaholic bloggers who go by the names of Citizen Barnet, Barnet Eye, Mr Mustard, Mrs Angry (aka Broken Barnet) and Mr Reasonable. The de facto HQ of the revolt is Friern Barnet public library, squatted since September and turned into a “people’s library”, in opposition to the council’s plan to close it, and sell the land to a property developer. And the local upsurge includes many people beyond the usual suspects – not least, irate ex-Tory voters, who cannot quite believe their council is doing something so mind-boggling.

Barnet already has a questionable record on outsourced contracts, and the downgrading of services. The great British headache that is parking is a good example: in such areas as North Finchley, where coin-in-the-slot machines have all been removed, the service has been handed to a company called NSL, and signs advise you to pay using your mobile phone (I tried this, and having encountered inexplicable difficulties, was put on hold for 40 minutes, before giving up; local traders say business has dropped by 40%).

There is also plenty of noise about even more vital services that have been fragmented and refashioned out of all recognition: day care for adults with disabilities, for instance, is now handled by a new “local authority trading company”, and has been taken out of purpose-built centres into local church halls. When I asked Cornelius’s office about this, their reply ran thus: “the council with its partners has been modernising and improving day opportunities to move away from a buildings-based service to supporting people to get involved in their community and use mainstream resources in line with each individual’s needs and preferences. This is in line with best practice.”

Reasssuring, that.

What’s happening in Barnet goes back to the absolute fundamentals. This is a local story with terrifying national significance. People here are fighting for their most basic of rights. Once One Barnet is rolled out, so-called commercial confidentiality will smother service delivery, and contracts will have to remain in place for a decade, irrespective of which party wins elections. Put simply, democracy is close to being snuffed out. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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