Public services for sale

Alan Clawley comments on the growing trend for private companies to run council services.

What Sir Albert Bore meant when he predicted the end of local government as he knew it was that most of it will be sold to the private sector. In fact, so much of the council has already been privatised that he must feel like the administrator of a closing down sale in a bankrupt department store.

You only have to look at the names on the vans and lorries on the city’s roads to see who now runs council services – national and international companies such as Carillion – 40,000 employees and £4 billion revenue; Amey – 21,000 employees; Quadron – £183 million in contracts; Mitie – £2 billion revenue; Willmott Dixon – 3,400 employees and £1 billion revenue; Capita – 65,000 employees and £3.8 billion revenue. Together they have the spending power and income to match the council’s annual budget which is still over £3 billion. They are in effect, a private sector city council without the bother of democratic accountability.

It will soon be futile to complain to your local councillor that a street light doesn’t come on as there is no-one in the council who has the authority to get it fixed. Councillors can’t interfere with contracts once they have been signed. They can only use the privately run call centre just like you and me and get the same fob-off answers.

Private companies market themselves as ‘partners’ of the city council whereas we know that they are no more than private contractors. To tell the truth they should write on the side of their vans that they exist mainly to make profits for their shareholders by over-charging for their services. If that’s too much they could at least say that they are simply contractors employed by the council. But I suspect that they enjoy the kudos they get from playing up their links with the city council just as the maker of the best jam likes to flaunt the royal coat of arms when appointed Royal Jam Makers to the Queen. But no-one imagines that they are partners of Her Majesty or are doing the Queen a service. They exist to make profits.

The people who run the private sector are much smarter than the people who run local government. They know how to make profits whilst most councillors don’t. It would even the balance if councillors – before or after they are elected – spent some time working in one of these companies to learn what they are up against when they hand out contracts.

The flow of information and people between private and public sectors normally works the other way round, with ex- civil servants and cabinet ministers landing well-paid permanent jobs in the private sector where their government experience is put to commercial and personal advantage. This phenomenon, known as the Revolving Door, could be reversed to good effect at local level but scrutinised to rule out corruption and personal enrichment.

You and I have no direct call on these companies as we are not their customers. They are only accountable to their shareholders and to the officers in the city council who gave them the contract. However, a clause could be written into their contracts that requires them to treat us as if we were their customers. In the 1980s when firms such as Wimpey and Tarmac won multi-million pound contracts for Envelope Schemes in the inner city they had to employ liaison staff to deal directly with the people who lived in the houses.

When the roof had been take off a house and it leaked during the Christmas holidays a householder desperately needed someone at hand. This level of contact is not to be confused with soothing spin which customer relations people like to hand out. All contracts for front-line council services which affect us individually, such as housing maintenance, should include legally enforceable customer care clauses.

The council’s use of the private sector is nothing new and is not necessarily bad, but indiscriminate wholesale privatisation has crept up on us over the last five years or so. Some public services should never be privatised but those which are must not be run exclusively for profit. The trick is to work out which is which so as to get a good outcome for the council tax payers as well as the shareholders

2 thoughts on “Public services for sale

  1. Alan seems to have missed the fact that the Call Centre has been taken back “in house” by the City Council!

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