Barnet trade unionists got a nasty shock on the morning of Friday 28 August, finding our borough was front page news in the Guardian newspaper: “Tories adopt budget airline service model — London borough’s radical no-frills approach could drive Cameron policy”.
The reason it was a shock was because we felt we were successfully heading off the Tory administration’s mass privatisation plan, “Future Shape”. Future Shape was floated initially as a grandiose scheme that would see the council reduced to a “strategic hub”, while the vast bulk of services would be outsourced as part of a pan-public-sector comprising the council, NHS, Barnet College, Middlesex University, local Jobcentres, etc. Future Shape was nurtured by secondees from British Telecom, who probably hoped that their company would get the contract to deliver the IT for this new “place shaping” alliance.
In spite of the hype and the tens of thousands of pounds spent on consultancy fees, Future Shape has run up against reality: few companies can deliver most of the services that the council needs or provides. The council has little expertise in the contract culture that Future Shape implies.
The council unions, Barnet trades council, and disgruntled residents pulled off two large public meetings and two large lobbies of council Cabinet meetings against the scheme. The scale of savings likely to be achieved is unclear and could be small for the amount of political effort expended selling it to the public and council staff, just at the time that the banking crisis calls into question the sense of putting the private sector in charge of vital areas of the economy.
In short, Future Shape looks like it is about to be kicked into the long grass, as Barnet trade unions and many residents hope.
So the Guardian articles that talked about how Barnet might model its service delivery on budget airlines such as Ryanair, where only the most minimal service is provided and customers pay for “extras”, and dubbing Barnet “easyCouncil”, did come as a shock. Barnet Unison secretary John Burgess, responding in the Guardian, said: “We don't need any ideas which will promote inequality.” In its negotiations with the council unions over Future Shape, such ideas have only been mooted in the margins.
Barnet’s Tory administration, led by Mike Freer, considered a right-winger, portrays itself as a trailblazer.
It has a reputation for successfully pioneering the use of social networking media as innovative new ways to engage with politically apathetic residents. The reputation is out of all proportion to the achievement. Likewise, Future Shape was meant to be a new way of doing things, and other councils were watching to see how it developed.
Is Conservative leader David Cameron allowing the supposedly maverick Barnet to test the water for some radical and unpalatable ideas that could become widespread under the next Conservative government?
Barnet public sector trade unions and supporters have begun to meet regularly, in addition to Barnet trades council, and a loose network of concerned residents called Barnet Community Campaign. Our thinking is that, since leaders of the public sector bodies in Barnet have been meeting to discuss how to save money — or implement cuts — the public sector unions should be meeting as well. We are planning a lobby of the cabinet on 26 October that is due to reveal the latest incarnation of the Future Shape plan.
At our last meeting we discussed the significance of the Guardian articles. Opinion divided as to whether the council’s chief executive Nick Walkley has shot himself in the foot, with a careless soundbite about Ryanair — an idea he had mentioned in roadshows he has been holding with staff — or whether Walkley and council leader Mike Freer really are acting as sounding boards for the Conservative’s deeper plans for public services.
Cameron has distanced himself mildly from what Freer has said, but that surely isn’t decisive. Freer is the parliamentary candidate for Golders Green and Finchley, so not all that maverick.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that most local authorities in the land, run by whichever party, are going to face brutal spending cuts, along with the rest of the public sector, and are looking for ways to save money. Who would follow Freer’s Ryanair model and how on earth would it work?
In the Guardian Freer says: “Some things will be cheap and cheerful and in other areas we will provide complete services. This is not about rolling back the frontiers of the state, but about targeting our interventions.” Freer wants “a new relationship with citizens”, which, as the Guardian puts it: “will include the understanding that, as with budget airlines, the council will not automatically provide blanket coverage of services as they tried to do before... He denied service standards will fall under the reform programme and said by careful targeting of resources, standards could be maintained.”
I doubt anyone but a hardline Tory buys that. For starters, the council is busily drawing up a list of things it is obliged by law to provide, and cutting the rest, such things as the Welfare Rights Unit that provides a vital service to adults with severe disabilities or illness.
The council has recently found itself repeatedly in the news for its decision to cut the wardens from sheltered housing schemes for the elderly and replace them with a “floating support” service. This measure is happening all over the country, thanks to a decision by the Labour government to remove ring-fencing from the sheltered housing budget, but Tory Barnet has suffered a particular blow to its reputation through the dogged campaigning of local residents. If the sheltered housing scenario is what Freer means by “targeting”, it is deeply unpopular and will be fiercely resisted.
At the end of the day, budget airlines offer a bargain basement experience, with many hidden costs, and they ruthlessly exploit their staff. To equate this in any way to the delivery of vital public services in local government has been deeply insulting to employees and residents alike. If Mike Freer and even David Cameron think that people will willingly vote for that, or accept it without a fight, they are surely fooling themselves.