The open services white paper, launched by David Cameron, promises ‘more freedom, more choice and more local control’. At its heart is the notion that the state, with its ‘one size fits all’ concept of service delivery has failed. The government wants more social enterprise and private sector providers to stimulate innovation and find new ways of responding to need. The default position will be to diversify and councils will, in future, have to justify why they wish to retain a ‘monopoly’ on service provision.
Sounds familiar? Yes, it echoes much of the language of New Labour at its most strident. Yet in many respects this is a sterile debate, rehashing the hold arguments about ‘in house’ provision versus outsourcing. New Labour looked to the creativity of the private sector to modernise services, but failed to understand that the needs and aspirations of communities and individuals change over time. As a result, the private sector often ended up as the enemy of innovation, rather than its champion.
Remember the outrage when Jamie Oliver started highlighting the poor quality of school meals, and that our children were being fed turkey twizzlers and other unhealthy, fatty dinners? A national campaign was launched to improve food in schools. But because many councils had privatised their school meals services, they found themselves locked into long-term contracts that could not be broken or changed. The drawing up of service specifications and awarding tenders to the highest bidder may have realised short-term savings, but destroyed the key factor that makes public services public – accountability to their users, through engagement and participation.
A group of Labour councils have come together to define a fresh approach to public service delivery, one which promotes the involvement and empowerment of local communities. We have formed the Cooperative Councils Network, and are openly exploring models of delivery that enhance community ownership of services, improve responsiveness and allow for changing needs over time. In doing so, we hope to unlock the creativity and expertise in our neighbourhoods, promoting a new agenda for services within a not-for-profit, ethical framework. This is very different to the outsourcing of services to the highest bidder, and the handing over of large amounts of public money to remote organisations which suck profits and economic value out of the local area.
For example, cooperative schools could find new ways of engaging parents in not only supporting their child’s learning, but in developing their own skills. Cooperative neighbourhoods could promote social responsibility towards the environment, and use savings made in traditional street cleansing services to improve the area. And housing co-ops could solve the problem that many young people have in finding a decent, affordable home as well as giving them a long-term stake in their local community.
There are pitfalls to the cooperative approach: there is no guarantee of success and there are risks associated with such genuine devolution of responsibility. Many trade unions are sceptical, questioning whether mutualisation is a step on the road to privatisation. But if we can capture the energy and enthusiasm of staff and local residents, we can genuinely find new ways of delivering modern, fit for purpose public services that deliver efficiencies and re-engage citizens. This is a far more positive vision for society than the regressive, individualistic agenda of the Tory led coalition, and shows that Labour is leading the way in civic and social renewal.
Nick Forbes is leader of Newcastle city council
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