Monday, 17 November 2008

Future shape of your Council Tax bill

Were you a Railtrack shareholder? Depending on whether you sold at their height or when they went bust, you either did very well or lost a potful of money.

Do you commute to work on the railway. If you do, is it a pleasant experience? Has it got better or worse since the demise of BR.

What about your gas bill? Have you noticed that it has gone up recently? Did Sid tell you that it was going up?

What about your electricity bill? What about your water bill? Did you travel through Terminal 5 in the spring (or not as the case may be)?

Well whatever your answer to any of the questions above, there is a common theme running through them. Every question is related to an industry that used to be publicly owned. All of these industries were denationalised in a huge fanfare of publicity. We were told that lean, mean companies would deliver huge cost savings. Prices would tumble, service levels would improve, we'd all become shareholders, we'd all become rich. Well it hasn't really worked out like that has it. As I read that we may have power cuts this winter (see this article in The Daily Mail - click HERE) I wonder whether we've all been had. Our energy companies are in foreign hands, old Power stations are being closed and new ones are not being built, in short the assets are being stripped and the profits not reinvested. As supplies run short, prices go up. The foreign owners make more money for less expenditure. WE PAY. Has privatisation delivered? Lets be charitable and say the jury is still out (29 years after Mrs Thatcher first got elected and started the process). We've actually had to Nationalise banks this year to save the Country. Oh and before I get all of the "Swivel eyed Trotskyite" comments, the Tories nationalised broken banks themselves during the 1979-1997 period.

I'm not anti private companies. If it wasn't for the likes of Freddie Laker and Richard Branson, I'd not have had the great holidays I've had. Lord help us if we'd had nationalised record labels (see what that did to the music scene in the USSR). A nationalised car company would never have created my favourite car, The Corvette. Having shopped in GUM in Moscow in the Soviet years, I can safely say Marks and Spencers certainly do know what they're doing. It is blatantly obvious that the private owners are doing a far better job with The Dome (now the O2) centre, than the Government ever did. It's just that whilst private enterprise does some things well, it's not a universal answer. There are some things where Profit should never be the primary reason for making decisions.

You may wonder what point I'm trying to make? Well Barnet Council are in the process of putting together a new strategy for council services. This is called "Future Shape of the Council". This strategy is based on outsourcing every possible Council service to Private Contractors. My family has had personal experience of Outsourcing of the meals on wheels service for my dear, departed Mum's lunches. This used to be provided by a volountry service, but the Council "outsourced" it to Sodexho (a multinational company). My mum was 82 at the time and disabled. She relied on the meals to allow her to live independently. When the service changed, Lunch didn't come on the first day. The second day it came at 5pm and was inedible. This went on for a week. Because our family made a massive fuss (I'm a stroppy sod and my sister is a Barrister), they made my mum the first drop off. That sorted her out, but what about the poor old dears who had no one to make a fuss for them? I've often wondered just how many were killed by the stress. Not only that but she got a letter 8 months later, just before Christmas, saying they had not taken the direct debit and she owed hundreds of pounds.

So what does this tell us about Barnet council's ability to manage outsourced contracts? To me it says they don't have the expertise. The most important issue when you outsource a contract is to have it properly drawn up. What sort of track record has Barnet got with matters legal? Well they sold Underhill to Barnet football club Holdings. They made such a hash of the sale that various investigations and court cases ensued and they spent over £1 million pounds. All of that for a contract of sale for £15,000!!! They spent hundreds of thousands on legal bills reopening Partingdale Lane. This legal department, with it's truly awful track record, will now become the lynchpin of the council. Every drafting error in every contract will have the potential to cost millions.

If you are a Council Tax payer in Barnet, ask yourself these questions.

a) Do you believe that Privatisation delivers better services?

b) Do you believe Privatisation is guaranteed to cut tax bills?

c) Do you trust Barnet Council's legal service to not make a single error in any contract it drafts?

If you can honestly answer YES to all of the above questions, then you must know something that has passed me by.

If, like me you don't, then you'd better do something about it. I'd suggest that the best way is to make your presence known to your councillors. You can either go to the Council website and get their email address (listed under Councillors) or even better, turn up to the relevant Council cabinet meeting and let them see the strength of opposition to this mad policy. I personally think that Barnet Council have taken quite enough risks recently.

details :-

Wednesday 3 December 2008
Lobby of the Cabinet Committee discussing Barnet Council's future
Rally: 6pm; meeting: 7pm
Barnet House, 1255 High Road, Whetstone, London N20 0EJ (nearest tube: Totteridge & Whetstone/Northern Line)
Directions: Barnet council site

Just remember that we, the voters of Barnet can sack Mike Freer, Brian Coleman, Lynne Hillan and all their chums who seem to think this is a good idea at the next election. The more people turn up, the more emails they get telling them it's a bad idea, the more likely they are to change their minds. If you are a Conservative and you think the policy is risky, they are even more likely to listen to an email from you, telling them in a nice way to think again. You'll be doing them a favour in the long run. As to our councillors, I know a few of you read this from time to time. Why not put this policy to one side and concentrate on managing the council properly and cutting costs in ways which do not entail huge risks.

Hope to see you there !


do call me dave said...

Look forward to seeing you there! Although it is worth pointing out that my alter ego did cause the spend of £1million on Barnet FC and what did he get for it? Not the answer he was hoping for!

Don't Call Me Dave said...


As you would expect, I am generally supportive of privatisation. The last Conservative government was quite right to sell off British Telecom, British Airways, British Rail and the like. Governments have no business running these types of organisations. The fact that the railways privatisation was very badly handled does not mean it should not have gone ahead.

I would question some of the privatisations. For example, I do not think that our water companies should have been sold. Water is the basic building block of life and should not be exploited commercially.

At council level, the same principle applies. Some services should be contracted out, others not. The legal department is ripe for disposal. Not so, social services. One of the key issues will be maintaining accountability.

To answer your three questions:

a) Yes, privatisation can deliver better services - but not every service is suitable for privatisation.

b) If the council carefully selects the services to be privatised, then I would expect financial savings to be made which would hopefully be passed on to us in the form of tax cuts.

c) I would not trust the council’s legal department to make a cup of tea! However, if the legal department is the first to be privatised, then future privatisation contracts would be given to an external firm who can be sued for negligence if they make any drafting errors!

Rog T said...


I wouldn't disagree that BA and BT were services which run better in the private sector (they are competative sectors).

As to BR, the privatisation has been a nightmare. It may well be that there was a way this could have been done successfully, but the Major Government blew it. It was done for ideological reasons and to my mind has failed in every way.

I suspect that Barnet will repeat the mistake. You may be right about outsourcing the legal service, as this will ensure that proper specialists are assigned and there is some comeback. The only problem is I don't trust Barnet to draw up a proper deal which will hold the outsourced lawyers to account.