Southampton City Council planning wholesale privatisation of public services, local MP claims

Posted on November 12, 2011 by


The leaders of Southampton City Council are planning a “wholesale privatisation” of local services in order to become an infamous ‘Virtual Council’, which local MP Alan Whitehead claims will be “a disaster for Southampton”.

The accusation comes following the publishing of the Council’s “Change Agenda” written by Council Leader Royston Smith and Chief Executive Alastair Neill and due to be voted on later this month by Councillors, in which they state that:

By 2015, we expect to be primarily, a commissioning council with a strong focus on key priorities, statutory services and prevention. This requires us to stop doing activities and delivering services that do not support this and to recalibrate the way in which we meet customer needs and set realistic achievable outcomes.” [our emphasis]

Alan Whitehead MP claims this means that if passed over the next few years the Council is planning to no longer provide services in-house and instead will contract these services out to private providers.

This has been mooted by some other councils since the coalition government came to power as a way of cutting costs and theoretically delivering ‘localism’, described by the infamous term ‘Virtual Council’ as a Council whose only job is to commission contracts with little to no in-house services.

Whilst the report states that by doing this they are aiming “to be a modern, efficient organisation focussed on and valued by its customers, an ambitious, innovative and leading employer setting high standards” and stating that due to an expected cut of central Government funding of £76 million by 2015 changes in how they operate are inevitable, Alan has slammed the plan as a threat to local jobs, service quality and a blackhole for taxpayers money in consultancy costs (which he says for such a restructuring would be “sky-high”).

Responding to the plans Alan has said:

Even with the dire state that the Tories have placed Southampton’s finances in over the last four years, there is no business case for a wholesale privatisation of the Council’s functions. There may well be a case for sharing services with other Councils on a case by case basis, but that is very different from an arbitrary
declaration that all Council services will be outsourced, regardless of their efficiency or how many people rely on them…

…I’ll be writing immediately to the Conservative Leader of the City Council asking him to reassure staff that any future outsourcing under his administration would be based on clear cost-benefit analysis and a clear understanding that it will not impact on the vital work the Council does to support the most vulnerable people in our city.

However, the report justifies the changes financially, stating that:

The financial challenges faced by the Council makes it imperative for the Council to adopt radical and different approaches to meeting customer needs, service delivery models and maximising the potential of our employees. The Change Programme will help us do this and shape the Council for the future. In doing so, the Change Programme will help us become more ‘customerfocussed’, ‘efficient’ and ‘business-like’.

The report also states that “no customer will be placed at risk as a result of changes that we make to our organisation of services”.

The plans are definitely Big Societyesque, with voluntary and community organisations taking a big role:

To achieve this, we want to bring services together with other councils and public bodies as well as  commission services through the private sector and voluntary sector to reduce costs and improve service
standards. We also want to encourage and support local communities to play a more active role in taking initiatives within their own neighbourhoods. This will lead to a less visible role in direct service delivery and a greater role in understanding customer needs and requirements, specifying services that are needed and monitoring quality of delivery.

However, critics we spoke to point out that from the proposed agenda of the meeting proposing this plan that no other plans will be put forward or considered as an alternative to large-scale outsourcing.

The phrase “Not be afraid to stop doing things” under “How could we respond?” has also worried some about what services may be lost or changed suddenly, whilst the constant referring to of residents as ‘customers’ has caused concern as to whether residents’ future relationship with the Council will become primarily on the basis of commercial transactions rather than of public service.

It’s also likely that Southampton’s already militant Council workers would not be particularly happy with the plans either, as many will either be transferred to private contractors – which Alan predicts will lead to job losses but would also potentially lose remaining workers many beneficial features of their contracts –  or be subjected to a new tougher regime of quality control and a customer-focused approach in which they have to “focus on ‘keeping it real’ by… imagining that the customer is present in their meetings, in discussing future plans, in considering change, in assessing where they can reduce bureaucracy – and what they would make of what we are doing”.

Some union members have claimed that the Council’s motivation may be more about limiting the number of redundancies they have to directly make by passing them on to the private sector, saying that “By contracting out the Tories will pass on the responsibility of sacking employees to the private contractors”.

Unite, who represent many of the Council’s workers, have made clear an extra concern in their press release on the issue concerning the involvement of Capita with the Council and the ‘Change Agenda’:

The report said that the controversial outsourcing firm, Capita, which has a chequered history in delivering services, is invited to meetings of the council’s Leadership Group.

Ian Woodland said: ”The involvement of Capita does not augur well for the provision of services for the public, many of them vulnerable; and the future employment conditions and pensions of the council’s staff.

“We are already in consultations with the council about a proposed loss of 147 jobs, which are not even mentioned in the Change Programme document which is a disgraceful sleight of hand.“

With the current set of strikes only just possibly at an end and union members still pretty pissed-off it seems likely that these plans will not go down easily if they are passed at the 16th and 21st November Council meetings.  Will Southampton easily swallow the Big Society pill in the way local government works, or will unrest once again break out in protest?

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