Thursday 29 January 2015

Capitaville - History is not your friend

There is nothing I like better than to sit on the Millfield in Mill Hill, crack open a can of pineapple chunks, and watch a frosty sunset over the London Borough of Barnet on a clear January day. This may to you seem like a rather bizarre pleasure. When I was a young kid, I didn't have a sweet tooth, but I loved tinned pineapple chunks. I also used to enjoy my own company. I'd often sneak up to the Millfield and crack open a tin. It gave me an enormous sense of wellbeing, which has persisted to this day.

You are probably thinking by now "what on earth is he on about? What has this got to do with the London Borough of Barnet and Capita?" Well I recently did this, it is what I do to destress when the hassle of family and work are weighing heavily on my mind. It is cheaper than getting bladdered at the pub and much healthier to boot. As the sun sank below St Josephs College, dwarfed by cranes as it is transformed into luxury flats, I got to thinking about what is happening in Barnet. The running of the Borough has been sold off to Capita. They run procurement for the council now. Soon, rumour has it, they will run everything. As soon as they took over procurement, out went the bailiffs the council had previously used and in came Equita, Capitas on service. I recently attended a small business meeting with a lady from the council, who was seeking to improve council engagement with local business, except she wasn't from the Council, she was from Capita. When you phone the council to report a broken pavement or a query with your tax, you don't speak to the council, you speak to Capita. The person on the other end of the phone is not in the London Borough of Barnet.

The local Conservatives call all of this progress. They tell us that it saves money to outsource the council and you get to keep more of your cash, as you pay less in tax. Local bloggers, including myself, have often asked a few questions of the council, none of which have ever been answered.

1) How can it be good for the Barnet economy to export jobs and the associated economic activity, to other parts of the country?
2) When services are in house, no shareholders need profits and no expensive lawyers are needed to monitor contracts. How can outsourcing really be cheaper when all the "hidden costs" are totted up?
3) We are told that outsourcing the switchboard is progress. How many local residents enjoy having to navigate through endless switchboard menu's to try and make a straightforward enquiry?
4) We were told that the Council needed to get Capita in, because they would invest and modernise the services and IT infrastructure. Within weeks of Capita ataking over, bloggers uncovered the truth. Barnet Taxpayers were funding this investment. We gave the cash to Capita to invest. Surely this means we were mislead by the Conservative administration?
5) The so called new services are proving a nightmare. Even Conservative Councillors are tweeting that they don't work properly and expressing their sympathy with residents, many of whom have no choice but to suffer poor service.
6) There have been cases reported in the press, where Capita are using their own bailiff service to enforce debt collections without bailiffs having the correct paperwork to hand. Capita pick up a hefty commission for this. Surely this is a conflict of interest?

There are many other questions which have come up over the period since the One Barnet contracts were signed. As I watched the sunset, I was struck by the fact that every day, the sun rises and the sun sets. One day the sun will set on the current, highly ideological hard right Conservative regime. I don't know whether it will be replaced by a more pragmatic Tory regime who will simply work to get good value and good services for Barnet residents and will not be interested in signing monolithic ten year contracts with mega suppliers. I don't know whether it will be a Labour Council, who will review the whole caboodle and inhouse the whole thing, as they did previously when they took over in 1992. When Labour and the Lib Dems took over in 1992, they brought back in house refuse collection. The previous Conservative regime had outsourced it and this had been a nightmare. Cowboy contractors had run a terrible service. Collections were sporadic and many residents cars were damaged by refuse carts, who didn't bother stopping to leave details for insurance. When the service was brought in house, even the local Tories were relieved. Strangely this is one service that they've baulked at ooutsourcing.

Who knows how One Barnet will turn out? From what I've heard and observed, there are all manner of issues, more coming to light every day. As it all starts to fall apart, let us not forget who the architects of all this were. The local Conservatives. I suspect that history will not be their friends?

Just remember that if Mike Freer or Matthew Offord are your local MP's they were the men who started off the whole One Barnet Outsourcing project, when they were leader and deputy leader of the Council.

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