Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Barnet Council Business Leaders Breakfast at Hendon Town Hall - The dawn of Capita

Photo Courtesy of Barnet Rebel
At 7:30 this morning, the business leaders of Barnet were invited to the Town Hall for a presentation from Barnet Council and Capita to learn about the new, exciting developments in Barnet Council and to help Capita design the new way Barnet will procure local services. As the managing Director of Mill Hill Music Complex, which is one of Londons leading independent studio complexes, I received an invitation. I arrived to be greeted by the Council Leader, Richard Cornelius, who informed me that there was plenty of food. Indeed there was, danish pastries, fruit salads and a nice big pile of tasty bacon rolls ( I must remind Richard that for many of the audience, I think smoked Salmon bagels may have been more warmly received, although I heartily tucked in).

After a quick chat with a couple of other business owners, we adjourned to the main room for the presentations. First up was Andrew Travers, the CEO. He took a fairly minimalist approach to his address, welcoming people, giving us a few brief facts about Barnet and explaining the format of the event and why we were here.

Next up was Council Leader Richard Cornelius. Over the course of the two and a bit years Richard has been in charge, he has grown into the role and is more relaxed. Any presentation by Richard is a bloggers delight. He has a way of talking which mixes humour with irony. Those of us in the blogging community who have had a row with the other half or have had a parking ticket recently,  frequently use these statements in such a way as to represent them as terrible gaffes. For instance, Richard started by explaining his role as Leader. He said "The role of leader of the council gives me powers, which if I chose to use them, would make North Korea look sane and democratic". He then explained that the council was abandoning the cabinet system, to return to the committee system, giving all councillors a full role to play in local democracy and returning the role of leader to "first amongst equals". Richard spoke about his regimes failures, which "have not helped the High Street". He told us that if Barnet could keep all of the business rates, these could be significantly cut. He explained the successes, with youth unemployment at 1/2 the London average. Barnet also has the third highest number of VAT registered businesses in London and the highest number of company formations. Richard feels that it is grotesquely unfair that Barnet businesses subsidise other parts of London.

He explained that the council are very pragmatic. They have taken 35% out of the council costs, and virtually no one who lives in the Borough have noticed ( I would contend that the users of Your Choice Barnet have, but as Richard would point out, the disabled and those with special needs are a small percentage of the population and sadly few of them own or run businesses, which was todays audience). He tells us that the treasury will expect cuts of another 20-30% after the next election. Richard explained that the Council have been making savings for the "last 10 or 11 years". This was a veiled dig at the previous Labour/LibDem Coalition in Barnet which left office in 2002.

Richard explained that the council had a responsibility to help people. He said there was two reasons for this. One is because it is the right thing to do and the other because it is good to make people go to work. He then said "I am a very right wing Conservative and I believe people should go to work if they can". (One day I will have to buy Richard a beer and explain to him that full employment is a "very left wing" aspiration. Countries with very right wing administrations invariably have high unemployment. It is necessary to have high unemployment to allow unfetted Capitalism to function. In centrally controlled Communist societies, being out of work was called "parasitism" and was a criminal offence). Richard quoted his favourite right wing ideologist, who subscribes to the theory that "if the state controls everything it collapses" (again a reading of the history books show this isn't necessarily true, as the USSR and China saw periods of huge economic development under communism. The USSR only collapsed when the state loosened the reigns, wheras in China which is still undemocratic, we've seen a massively successful economy - not that I am advocating such things in Barnet as the clearly wouldn't work here). Richard explained the huge growth in population his adminstration has planned for Barnet, with 20,000 new homes in the West of the Borough. As he explained that is like the population of Canterbury being relocated to Hendon, Mill Hill East and Burnt Oak. (As Richard said this, I thought back to his comments about North Korean style powers, I imagined the population of Canterbury being forcebly repatriated, Soviet style to Burnt Oak and Mill Hill East - Lead by Archbishop Welsby. My friends at the the Brent Cross Light Railway scheme would love to see the old railway line reopened from Finsbury Park to Burnt oak/Edgware. With the advent of the Thameslink extension, this would make such a journey quite feasable, but I digress).

Richard then explained that he had to leave early as he had an important meeting at the North West London Waste Authority and that he had to make sure Barnet didn't get stitched up.

Next up we had Cath Shaw, who will manage commissioning in Barnet as the lead on enterprise and regenerataion. Cath seems like a pleasant enough lady. She gave us a few facts, such as that 9 out of 10 Barnet Council suppliers have less than ten employees. She talked about the £72 million which has been saved and spoke about the opportunities for small business in the new world, where Capita run the show. As she said this I checked my Twitter account on my phone. Barnet_Rebel had just tweeted the picture shown above.

How Ironic as Chris Dawson of Capita stood up to explain the way the Capita takeover of Barnet Services would affect the Barnet Business Leaders. Mr Dawson explained that Capita were committed to enhancing business services for local business. They intended to remove barriers to doing business in Barnet and explained what a few of these currently were

- Not being aware of Tenders.
- Small business don't understand the process
- Small businesses were not encouraged to participate in co-operative bids.

Capita were committed to addressing the following issues.

- Understanding how the "local market" operates
- Making sure that there was an appropriate channel for small business to interact with the Council
- Removing unnecessary "boiler plate requirements" (ie excessive red tape, insurance requirements, etc)

He then explained the Capita model and how they develop it

- Involve local business in service design
- Appoint a "supply chain champion" who is a one stop shop for enquiries from small business
- Cut red tape
- Invest in the local community

He then put up a grandly titled slide called "Capita customer centered co design process". This is a process of engagement with local stakeholders, where meetings are held to enable Capita to understand the "local market" and design their processes and services accordingly.

They have set up a "community development fund" which will do things such as fund office space for local community groups and businesses so they "don't have to meet in local coffee shops" ( He was lucky Helen Michael from Cafe Buzz was not present as he may have been told where to put his fund!). This fund was set at half a million pounds over ten years. I was keen to ask whether this money was provided by the Barnet Taxpayer, or whether it had come from the funds of Capita shareholders as a "goodwill gift".

We then had Q&A's. I asked if contributors to the "co design" process would be paid by Capita. Mr Dawson looked rather shocked that I should think a private company should pay local business to help them develop their systems. He responded in the negative. His efforts to give me a feeling of how much time contributors to the process would have to donate were not clear. He initially said "a day a week", but this morphed into "a couple of hours" when I explained this was a huge commitment for an SME. Mr Dawson explained that anyone wanting to contribute to the Co-designed service can get in touch by emailing Barnetpartnership-SMT@capita.co.uk  and their input would be invaluable.

He finally gave us a few other pointers to things Capita will do which will be an improvement on the old system, such as changing supplier baselines to be more flexible and publishing future plans.

Finally we had a presentation from a chap who's name I missed. He talked about the forthcoming Barnet Means Business Expo later in the year. This is designed to promote local business. More on that later.

The event rounded off with a networking event. I had a pleasant chat with a couple of other local business owners, an executive from Middlesex University and finally a chat with the Deputy Leader of Barnet Council, Dan Thomas. Dan asked for my view of the event. I explained that I thought it was a very good event and the Council should do more of this with people from all sectors of Barnet. I explained that I felt Barnet was historically bad at engagement with local business. I explained that historically I have always found Harrow far easier to deal with. I expressed a hope that with Capita this would improve. Now people who have followed this blog, may be surprised at these comments. The point is that I answered the question Dan asked me, not the one I would like to have answered. He didn't ask me if I thought "One Barnet" and the Capita outsourcing was the correct way to go or whether I felt that it would work. Barnet AKA Capitaville is a fact of life now. We may not like it, but just as I rather preferred a dog track to the Brent Cross shopping centre that replaced it, we have to face up to the realities of what has happened. For residents and taxpayers, it would be far better if Capita prove us wrong and do a good job. If like me, you are highly sceptical that this will happen, then it is vital to know as much about what they are doing, how they are doing it and what is happening on the ground. It is important to do this so that we can monitor their progress and flag up issues early. I also mentioned to Dan that there was rather a lot of management speak from the Capita man. Dan agreed with me. He expressed a hope that things would become clearer as things progressed.

The Barnet Eye blog vigorously opposed the signing of the One Barnet contracts. Now they are signed, the focus changes to one of scrutiny of Capita and doing our best to ensure that the people of Barnet are not taken for a ride. I sincerely hope that the likes of John Dix and Mr Mustard email Capita and give input into the "Capita customer centered co designed process". I will be putting my name forward and I suggest that as many other Barnet stakeholders as possible do. The readership of this blog encourages me that people are interested and do want the best for their community.

So to sum up, Capita have arrived, they will not go away. When local businesses want to provide services to the Council in future, they will not be dealing with Barnet, they will be dealing with Capita PLC. If they want to have any say at all in how this relationship works, they will have to give up their own time, free of charge, to help Capita design the process. In the networking session afterwards, Mr Dawson from Capita explained to me that this was what Capita have done for Southampton Council. On returning I read this article about how Barnet manage procurement in Southampton - http://spendmatters.co.uk/southampton-run-procurement-conflict-interest-issues/ - this is a theme we will be developing over the coming weeks and months as the way the contract works becomes more apparent.

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