Beware of the community man!

If if looks too good to be true…

Today’s news is that the Government wants to sell community assets like swimming pools and libraries to “the community” for the nominal price of £1.

A report by our local Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, Barry Quirk, delivered to the Cabinet Minister for Communities (Saint) Ruth Kelly MP argues that “handing public assets to communities leads to better services”.

Is he really saying that just about anybody can do his job better than himself? Such an honest approach would be indeed refreshing but I don’t think that that’s really his point.

I’m rather suspicious that what this is leading up to is a huge dismissal of public services, the enrolment of well-wishing volunteers as “partners” that are given the “community” badge so that they can run the services previously run by the Council on the cheap and, on occasion, can be made to fail if supporting them is not anymore convenient without being held responsible.

Last year at Lewisham Town Hall I attended an event entitled “Consultation Day”. A consultant was being paid to run a one day workshop about well…consultations.

Interestingly to start his one day event (after paying hugely professional lip service to the Mayor, the Government and whoever gives him the bacon to bring home) he called the attention of this audience made of politicians and Council officers from various London Borough and “partners” (like me) to the basic activity of Local Government: budget cuts.

“Who can tell me what’s the Gershon formula?” he asked. A forest of arms raised up and he chose a dandy gentleman in the first row that explained that this chap Gershon had identified the way forward for local councils in a 2.5% cuts in the revenue budget year after year for the reason that there are savings on inefficiencies to be made.

So, like everybody else, year after year Lewisham Council comes out with its 2.5% cut in its budget and there goes one service or two and a few people lose their job. Much of it doesn’t really stand up as ‘efficiency saving’ but we’re always told that that’s what they are.

Now that all the possible efficiency savings have been made (but wait for the next round) and all that could be outsourced to the private sector has been outsourced, Councils are left with the problem of trying to outsource even what nobody wants. Mainly these are services that are quite expensive to run and don’t make enough money to sustain themselves. So here’s the proposal to ‘give’ libraries and swimming pools to “the community”.

I’m left wondering what does this word means? Isn’t the Council a cornerstone of the community?

We elect people to represent us and they hire professionals to run the services. What’s so wrong with it?

Why is it that they don’t want to run services anymore? If your local services are handed out to people that can’t run them and the Council is not anymore responsible for those services then we all lose and there’s nobody left to hold to account.

Barry Quirk knows this as he explained to the people at IDeA when asked to draw a parallel between basketball and local politics:

“As a five-on-five game it involves competition that is ‘up close and personal’. Local government involves larger teams, but it has the character of a contact sport – the public with the politicians, the politicians with the managers, the managers with the staff and staff with the public!”

It takes a lot of expertise and professionalism to run community services and well wishing community members may not have those qualities.

There are examples of successful not-for-profit enterprises delivering public services, but they are professional set-ups, take Greenwich Leisure for example, that started as a management buy-out of the leisure services of Greenwich Council, not a bunch of amateurs wanting to run their swimming pool.

Greenwich Leisure, as a not-for-profit company has to reinvest all surplus in the service and this gives it an edge in delivery of service when compared with for-profit companies that always look forward to creaming the profits.

If you have been a reader of this blog for a while you may remember my not-for-profit pfi petition. Well that’s pretty much the point.
I don’t know why when 2 years ago Lewisham Council had to hand out a pfi contract for Downham pool it didn’t use Greenwich Leisure but went instead for a for-profit company with a poor record in delivery of public service. Has Barry Quick changed his views since that contract?

Quirk was already Chief Executive when Lewisham Council decided to opt out of delivering sport and leisure and take on “an enabling role in seeking both public provision to the private sector, and public access to private facilities” and this new idea of giving service-loaded buildings away for one pound pretty much fits that idea too, only that it’s not private companies but “communities”.


Update: read here a different perspective on the initiative that Andrew Brown posted at almost exactly the same moment when I posted this.


6 Responses to “Beware of the community man!”

  1. andrewkbrown Says:

    I’m not sure if you’ve deliberately misunderstood the Gershon agenda or whether the person who explained it did so badly. The point about Gershon is that the public sector spends large amounts of money, a lot of it on things that aren’t frontline services (think accountants, communication officers and human resource people). Gershon suggested that there may be more efficient ways of providing these useful, but not frontline, services for example by joining up with the council next door, or with the police or PCT, or using purchasing power more effectively.

    He – because Gershon is more than an agenda or a formula, he’s a person too – then went on to say that public services should use the resulting efficiency savings to reinvest in frontline services.

    It was this last point that was the main difference between Labour and the Tories at the general election. With Labour saying public services should reinvest and the Tories saying lets use the savings as tax cuts.

    As you may have noticed the budgeting process that local government – like every other organisation – goes through includes savings and growth items, you can’t have one without the other; a little simplistic but still true.

    You also misunderstand Barry’s role on the council. He’s Chief Executive not Mayor. The decision on who gets the contract is one that is taken by the Mayor and Cabinet, not by officers.

  2. Max Says:

    You surely are the authority on Gershon here. I take what you say on board, I didn’t read his writings but only had that exposure to his theories and I don’t recall the part about reinvesting, the man there did focus on identifying wasteful practice and cutting it.
    You’ll excuse me for finding it hard sometimes to distinguish between the Mayor and the Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, you’ll agree that they work in a very tight partnership.

  3. Robert Says:

    Max, the finer points of Gershon-ing notwhitstanding, I think this is a very interesting argument.

    I saw the headline too and wondered about it. On the one hand, if there is value in the property or the service why should it be “given away”. Whilst on the other hand, if it is so difficult to make money from it that it is effectively worth nothing, then how will “the community” make it work? By running it on a voluntary basis only I presume, which often means it is fine whilst energetic, committed and trustworthy individuals are involved, but prone to expensive and disappointing collapse if not.

    I think your point about the Council being able to hold up their hands when it fails and say “not my problem, mate!” is a good one, and a worrying one.

    The key disconnect here is between “the community” and “the council”. If we all trusted and backed our council, councillors and mayor then there wouldn’t be much of a difference and the council could run better services in proper partnership with the community. Instead, despite this apparently generous offer, it underscores a real “us” and “them” mentality.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Max Says:

    Thanks Robert, you’re right, the “us and them” mentality is one of the issues here and it seems like they call themselves out of “the community”.

  5. andrewkbrown Says:

    I’d read the report – not just the press coverage – before passing judgement.

    There are plenty of good examples of community ownership and I’d suggest they can and do provide things that the council or other public bodies can’t. Not least because of the flexibility that social enterprise can bring.

    It isn’t going to work on every occasion and it won’t be right for every asset, but it offers a different view of what could be possible and a way of keeping public spaces available to the public, something I’ve heard Max complain about often enough.

  6. Max Says:

    I agree, the content has wider remit than the headlines.

    There are some good examples and if there are groups that need a space and a space that needs a use then it’s only right to work to put the two together.

    Case study 2 and 8 are probably my favorite.
    Where I am uneasy is when assets are shifted in ownership but not in use as in case study 5 of the paper. That is a classic example of how budget cuts have not been hitting inefficiencies but starving repair and maintenance budget for existing community assets well in use.

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