First, lets consider the next general election, likely to be held in 2015. The London Borough of Barnet has three Parliamentary constituencies. Two are mrginals. Hendon is one of the most marginal seats in the country. Matthew Offord MP won in 2010 with a majority of 105, taking the seat from Labours Andrew Dismore. Mike Freer MP in Finchley had a slightly easier run in Finchley. The incumbent Labour MP, Rudy Vaz was unwell and standing down. If the Conservatives are to triumph in 2015, they need to retain both seats. If they don't, the chances are, they will not form part of the next Government. Prior to the election, both MP's were influential members of the Council. Mike Freer was the man who brought in the consultants and initiated the One Barnet program four years ago. Matthew Offord was the deputy leader. Until recently, Matthew Offords support for the project was ambiguous, but he came off the fence recently to try and bully Mill Hill Councillor, Sury Khatri into supporting the project. Khatri had stated that One Barnet had no democratic mandate as not a single word was mentioned of it in the Conservative manifesto. Offords unequivocable support (in private) for the project cannot be in doubt. So what have Freer and Offord unleashed? The sad truth is that nobody really knows, because we are denied any democratic scrutiny. The One Barnet project talks of a new relationship with residents. This is true, the relationship is one where we are allowed to see nothing at all and all decisions are made behind closed doors, all the key discussions are had in private and woe betide anyone who asks. Friendly Tory Councillors have told me that the leadership of the Party hit the roof when Khatri's email was leaked to the press. Why? Because it exposed the truth. So who is worried about One Barnet and why?
There are many very reasonable people in the London Borough of Barnet who have doubts about the One Barnet program. If you are a reasonable, open minded person, then I ask you to consider the following facts.
You may not like me, this blog, the Trades Unions, the Labour Party or even the way Barnet Council runs its services at the moment. You may think the Council could be far more efficient and needs shaking up. You may have voted Conservative at the last Council election, because you bought into their promise to keep council tax low. If some of these statements apply to you, then you are likely to be one of the people who Mike Freer and Matthew Offord need to support them to ensure they retain the seat. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you should support people who have lobbied, behind closed doors, for a process which is of huge benefit to multi national companies, but exposes you to huge financial risk.
You may wonder how getting private companies to supply services exposes you to financial risk? Well the answer is actually quite simple. At present, the Council runs the departments. If the council identifies ways to make those departments more efficient, then the taxpayer sees the benefits. If the departments don't perform, then democratically elected councillors can be contacted and the council can be held to account. If the government cuts the grants to the council, then the council can trim staff and close services. Once One Barnet comes into force, contracts are signed and all of the rules change. If the contractor sacks staff and pays new staff less, the savings do not come to the council, they become profits for the company and are paid to shareholders. If the company does not perform, councillors can do nothing, because the contract governs management of the agreement. Then the biggest risk. If the government chops budgets, the council still has to pay the contractors what the contract says. Not only that, but the contracts are for ten years. We may be paying for services which are wholly redundant. Think how much the world has changed in ten years. In 2002, there was no Facebook or Twitter. The first iPhone wouldn't be launched for another five years. The iPad hadn't been thought of. Gordon Brown was the "Iron Chancellor" declaring his love for prudence. Ken Bates was running Chelsea and Manchester City were languishing in the doldrums, dreaming of "mid table mediocrity" as an aspiration. The point is a lot changes in ten years, especially in service provision and IT. In short we are signing up companies for years on end, knowing nothing of what will actually be happening in five years, let alone ten. The contracts are worth between £500 million and a billion pounds.
What is likely to happen? Well Barnet has a reputation for mismanaging contractors. Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of all manner of problems. Barnet council claimed all of these problems were historic, but the first big One Barnet outsourcing project was parking control and that has gone completely pear shaped. On a £15 million project there is currently a reported £1 million deficit. A similar 7.5% variance on budget is £75 million on a billion pounds. That money will have to be found from Barnet taxpayers. We only have figures since April for NSL. If we look at the first big "Mike Freer" It project, it was the SAP purchasing system. It was meant to cost £6 million and ended up costing four times that. If One Barnet goes that way, we could be faced having to find between £2-£4 Billion which is between £6-£13,000 per person in Barnet.
The Leader of the Council claimed at a recent meeting that "people were speculating" about the scale of the risk. The reason we are speculating is because the Council refuses to share any of the documents. Their mantra is "trust us". Whilst One Barnet contracts will be signed, sealed and delivered by 2015, when the next election takes place, the fallout from the project will not be. Whatever happens, I have seen before my own eyes how the One Barnet project has energised the people of Barnet into action. When I started blogging in 2008, nobody was talking about outsourcing and One Barnet. Now everyone is. Mike Freer and Matthew Offord have a strategy for winning in 2015. If One Barnet works, they will take the credit and if it fails they will say "nothing to do with us guv'nor" even though they were the people who initiated the project.
Whatever happens, I believe that One Barnet is a reckless gamble. If Mike Freer and Matthew Offord had invested £1 billion at Ladbrokes on Norwich to beat Manchester United on Saturday, they would have made a five billion pound profit. They would have, at a stroke, solved all of Barnets financial problems. That would not make it wise, prudent or sensible.
I do not believe local authorities should gamble with taxpaers money. I don't believe the Conservative voters of Barnet would either (if the Council trusted them with the truth). That is why I believe that Freer and Offord will be kicked out in 2015. If the election of 2015 is as tight as I expect it to be, David Cameron may well rue the day he chose to let Barnet run riot with our money. Eric Pickles take note. Looney leftie councils did for Labour in the 1970's and 1980's. Barnet is the rabid right, be warned.