Conservative-run Northamptonshire (Northants) County Council is planning to transfer its 4,000 workers to four semi-private “community interest companies” in a bid to save money. Only 150 staff will remain directly employed by the council, to commission and administer the contracts for services with these new semi-privatised companies, or with fully private companies.
Already, private company Balfour Beatty runs the street lighting and, another, Kier the roads.
The community interest companies will be able to make surpluses and it is planned they will sell services to other “customers” as well as to the council.
Northants charges a relatively low council tax but like other councils around the country has to find huge savings as central government has cut funding. The semi-privatisation is supposed to save £148 million over four years.
The reality is that savings will most likely be made by cutting the level of service, and by worsening workers’ pay and conditions.
Yet so far the local Unison branch seems not to be opposing the moves. Steven Bennett, branch secretary, is reported in the Financial Times saying that the terms and conditions for those moving to the new enterprises will be better than for those remaining on the council payroll, and that consumers are happier with those services that have already been outsourced.
A fight is necessary and possible. Privatised services are worse for workers providing those services, and for service users, a waste of public money, and a disastrous blow to local democratic control.
The Northants plan is one of several devised mainly – although not exclusively – by Conservative administrations around the country, egged on by big outsourcing companies such as Capita who stand to profit.
In the London Borough of Barnet, the local trade unions, Unison in particular, alongside a lively political campaign by local residents, succeeded in delaying a similarly large mass outsourcing plan called “One Barnet”. The local Tories are paying a political price for their attacks on workers’ conditions and on the quality of public services, although the battle is still raging.
Trade unionists and anti-privatisation campaigners in Northants can build a significant campaign, but an important part of it will be finding ways to support those in the council unions who want to fight.