It is easy to see why politicians, from all political parties, are uneasy about privatising local government functions. By admitting that the private sector can often provide better public services efficiently and at a lower cost, councillors and council officials are effectively talking themselves out of a job.
No matter how you dress it up, though, and “outsourcing” is the polite way of putting it in the country’s town halls, Birmingham City Council is, step by step, privatising or handing over to the voluntary sector much of its service provision.
Contracts such as those being offered to engineers Amey to improve and manage the city’s roads for 25 years contain plenty of clauses setting out what the council expects, but there is no getting away from the fact that, soon, direct control of Birmingham’s roads and pavements will pass from the public to private sector for the first time in almost 200 years.
Adult social services, meanwhile, is busily divesting itself of responsibility for meals on wheels, day centres and other services for elderly people, having recognised that the council cannot hope to meet the huge financial burden of an ageing population. People requiring help will be “signposted” to independent providers, assuming of course that there are sufficient providers in the independent sector willing and able to offer the required services.
The next council service to be offered up to the private sector would appear to be planning and regeneration, where the likes of Capita can expect to reap serious financial rewards.
The drip-drip effect of outsourcing makes the shift from public to private control less easy to detect and has enabled the city council to proceed without any serious opposition. Whether that will continue when the more politically sensitive areas such as refuse collection and street sweeping are earmarked for privatisation remains to be seen.
It would be ludicrous to assume that councils are always the right vehicle for the delivery of public services.
Private companies can and do make a difference, and Birmingham City Council’s ambitious business transformation project would not have got off the ground without the financial clout of Capita.
It is even more important than ever, though, for the council to scrutinise in public the performance of its outsourced services. Capita-led Service Birmingham has been in place for more than three years and has been at the heart of controversy over the installation of the Voyager computer system, but scrutiny councillors have shown no appetite for probing the company’s directors about their performance.
Scrutiny must make a more determined effort to be the eyes and ears of the public in the age of outsourcing.