Much like Colin Firth’s character in the film the King’s Speech, it has taken David Cameron some time to find his voice on his true intentions for the future of public services.
In his recent Daily Telegraph article, he stopped hiding behind Big Society and Localism rhetoric and spoke clearly about something a number of us had long suspected – that he wants a much greater role for the private sector in the delivery of public services.
The Prime Minister’s White Paper outlining his thinking on this is imminent. Local authorities of all political colours may wonder how helpful his plans will be however, at a time when they are struggling so desperately to cope with unprecedented budget cuts that threaten services upon which local communities rely.
It appears that Mr Cameron believes the only way to improve services and make them more efficient is by making markets and competition the default position for delivery, with current provision mechanisms confined to history.
Those who have been responsible for running council service for many years may be surprised by the tone of his comments as it appeared to infer that public services are a closed shop on delivery at present. The review of the ‘public services industry’ by economist DeAnne Julius in 2008 found it was worth £79bn to the private sector and growing. Anyone involved in local government knows that the Prime Minister’s portrayal of some sort of monolith dinosaur is inaccurate when all the evidence shows councils have modernised, services have improved and pluralism of provision has prevailed.
Implementing any new approach takes up vast amounts of time, energy and, indeed, resources; none of which are in great supply in local government at present. Do we really have the capacity for this type of experiment amid the current carnage that local authorities are facing?
For those with long memories, his observations may smack of a return to the failed policy of Compulsory Competitive Tendering, which was imposed upon local government in the eighties and nineties. Indeed I made this prediction myself in the first MJ of the new year, when announcements were made regarding the intention to remove the two tier workforce code.
Commentators who have championed greater involvement of third sector organisations in public services may cling to the hope that this is about divestment of services. But the fact that this has never really been about them is now loud and clear.