Wednesday, 4 May 2011
Outsourcing: Tory flagship council Suffolk bottles it
I've just heard some news that should be rattling the nerves of even the most the dimwitted of our grasping, dopey Tory councillors here in Broken Barnet: on the eve of local elections, the Conservative run Suffolk County Council has taken fright, and decided to announce a dramatic u turn in its plans to implement a hugely controversial agenda of massive service outsourcing.
According to an online story in the Guardian by Patrick Butler, http://m.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/may/04/suffolk-virtual-council-plan?cat=society&type=article - a political revolt by Tory backbench councillors was triggered by public opposition to cuts and a collapse in staff morale.
Last month, in fact, the former Tory leader, Jeremy Pembroke, stepped down during a period of increasing concern and new leader Mark Bee has taken over. He has promised ' a period of reflection' and to put the issue of staff morale as a priority in a new approach by his administration, following a whistle blowing letter sent to all councillors by someone believed to be an employee, in which references were made to the 'poisonous atmosphere that exists at present' within the council.
Suffolk County Council is run by the much written about Andrea Hill, one of the country's highest paid Chief Executives, paid £218, 000 a year in a county where the average salary is £23,000, and according to some reports, where half of the county's council workers earn less than £17,000 a year. She has presided over the rush to implement what is officially labelled 'the new strategic direction', and slashed budgets, even to the point of dumping all £35 a week lollipop ladies, whilst being accused of sanctioning ludicrious training courses for senior staff, including a £6,ooo splurge on a team building exercise for senior officers which included, oh dear: chocolate making, drumming and singing exercises ...
Now you may be forgiven, citizens of Broken Barnet, for thinking this is all too familiar. A Chief Executive paid more than the Prime Minister, public money wasted on self indulgent 'training' for senior staff, and all in the name of a council ideologically obsessed with outsourcing on a massive scale, endangering the safe delivery of frontline services to local residents. Hmm. I note the reference to a poisonous atmosphere: this almost exactly echoes the remark made to me by a senior officer from Barnet, who spoke of the appalling pressures, intense anxiety about redundancies and 'toxic' working environment in his department. Speak to any Barnet union representative about the state of morale throughout the whole authority, and you will understand just how bad things are here now.
Call it 'the new strategic direction', or One Barnet: it's the same stinking mess, and now, under pressure from central government fretting about an election, in the former Tory flagship council in Suffolk, it's being swept right out of the door.
In the Guardian article, shadow communities and local government secretary Caroline Flint is quoted as saying:
"I'm all in favour of innovation and efficiency in local government, but the Conservatives running Suffolk county council have decided to put party political ideology ahead of running effective local services – and it's backfired.
"There is also a lesson for David Cameron and [the communities secretary] Eric Pickles here. Pushing through half-baked Tory experiments and ignoring the wishes of local people is more likely to put frontline services at risk than improve them."
A note to the backbench Tory councillors of Barnet: is any of this striking a chord? No? Thought not.
Andrea Hill wrote an article in a council magazine in which she defended the now abandoned strategy. Referring to the reaction to the plans she wrote:
"It's not an easy or comfortable place to be because we are challenging the old ways of doing things. We are developing a new model that will unsettle the status quo and, as we all know, any change makes ordinary people uncertain. Changing the system challenges vested interests and will therefore be attacked ..."
Ah: and therein lies the difference between Suffolk and Barnet. The vested interests in One Barnet are all on the side of those pushing for outsourcing: politicians and private contractors. You don't have to look very far to see who benefits from the extension of private contracting in this borough,and anyone who has followed the development of recent stories in our local blogs knows what I'm talking about.
It really does stink, doesn't it?