Wednesday 26 November 2008
Spend a couple of days in London speaking at two different housing conferences and meeting up with some colleagues.
My first stop was the Association of Retained Council Housing conference were I followed the DCLG and Audit Commission speakers. I gave an overview of where I believe the Housing market is at present. Firstly there is huge demand for affordable housing, fanned by the economic downturn and the failure of the wider sector to provide new affordable options since local authorities hands have been tied on the matter. When times are tough people always look to their local councils for help and I believe that local authorities should be part of the solution by being encouraged to build stock that gives security of tenancy, is of a quality standard, is affordable and is democratically accountable. Another issue that needs resolved in the current review of the National Housing Revenue Account is to finally ensure that local authorities who have retained their stock are treated no less favourably than those who have transferred to ALMO's or RSL's.
On returning to my hotel I bump into APSE's National Chair, Cllr Arwyn Woolcock who is on his way to meet with Peter Hain MP at the House of Commons, he tells me that Peter has also got him tickets for the public gallery for the Chancellors Pre Budget Report. Following a quick discussion and a few telephone calls I also gain tickets and get across to the commons in time to capture Alistair Darling's speech. £21b of investment in the economy is a lot of money in anyone's book and the £3b of public sector infrastructure investment brought forward is welcome. However I can't help but think how difficult it will be to pay back the additional £5b of efficiency savings now required by 2011 and to absorb the projected £37b less of public sector investment, following the next general election.
I end my trip by attending the Guardian Public Sector Awards in Old Billingsgate Market on the edge of the Thames and it cheers me up to see so many excellent initiatives and good news stories happening across the public sector sphere.
Thursday 20 November 2008
Had a busy few days of meetings with colleagues based in the North East and North West of England, in order to keep in touch with what is happening on the ground in these troubled times.
Firstly met up with a Director of Environmental Services from one of the Lancashire authorities and he was in the midst of this years budget cuts. He explained to me how the triple whammy of a tight financial settlement from central Government along with falling revenues from charged for services and the implementation of concessionary travel schemes added up to some of the severest cuts he had seen in years.
Followed this up with lunch with one of the team from the Government Office of the North West and we discussed how difficult the financial issues is for many authorities. At a time when we are looking for local councils to play an ever more active role in local economic regeneration, the financial crisis is making this difficult. It's a real catch 22 situation but I suspect that local authorities have a massive role to play in helping their communities recover from the current downturn.
Another day another meeting this time with a colleague who is going through the local government reorganisation process in the North East. From my personal experience in Scotland I know how difficult this is for the vast majority of staff involved. Despite reassurances that it will not have a major impact on their organisational roles, uncertainty, speculation, culture clashes and favouritism all add up to make it a really unsettling period. My only advice is to try and stay positive and focused, those that do tend to come through any major change process intact.
Having been out and about and assessed the situation on the ground, I guess local government is just the same as it always is full of challenges, continuously changing and scarce on resources.
Thursday 13 November 2008
There has been a lot of trade journal speculation recently about the state of the outsourcing market in public services and I have been asked to give several press comments on this, therefore hopefully it's worthwhile posting these views here.
Firstly, it's hardly surprising that given the current economic circumstances and the high profile market failures that have occurred, that procurers are backing off, at a fast rate of knots, from what are high risk deals. On the other side of this suppliers in the market are trying to minimise their own risk amongst their portfolio's and are reducing their exposure to any new risk in order to consolidate in many cases their already overstretched position.
Having sat on the Office of the Deputy Prime Ministers, Strategic Partnership Taskforce from 2002, it was even then widely recognised that the market had limited capacity to deliver, barriers to entry were high and some who were filling their boots were stretching themselves to the limit.
I guess what has happened in the last few months has exposed the myth about plurality of provision - the supposed move away from 'monolithic' state provision has just really seen a whole variety of public sector providers transfer services to a handful of companies with a vice like grip on their own preferred segments of the public services market.
One of the biggest ironies of this situation is that in a time when local authorities are evermore required to find efficiency savings they are locked into contracts for 10, 15 or even 25 years duration and it is now extremely difficult to renegotiate with contractors who were probably brought in on the myth of achieving value for money in the first place. The pain will then fall once again on the in-house providers within the Council to create savings.
I have already mentioned in previous posts about the APSE research work in Swindon that demonstrated that for every £1 spent on direct services £1.64 is guaranteed to circulate in the local economy, surely it is time for this work to be closely examined and future procurement decisions taken on the basis of what is best for the local economy in the long term.
Already many in the public sector are seriously reevaluating the faith that has been placed in the market and starting to come to the conclusion that if you deliver services directly at least you have a degree of control over your own destiny!
Saturday 08 November 2008
Made a mad dash across to Sheffield tonight to present APSE's apprentice awards for Housing and Building Maintenance. It's always an event I look forward too, as this is the area I started out in when I joined local government 25 years ago.
The awards ceremony is packed and it's a great opportunity for the young people to gain some recognition for their outstanding achievements over the past year. APSE have been working with the Construction Youth Trust over the past 18 months to encourage and support women within the industry. This resulted in us passing grants to local authorities of some £60,000 to establish mentoring schemes for young females.
Back to the awards and the winners were:
Female Buiding Skills: Heidi Spivey, Kirklees Council
Female Mechanical and Electrical: Rae Crown, Nottingham City Homes
Male Building Skills: Mitchel Barguss, Neath Port Talbot Council
Male Mechanical and Electrical: David Hunter, Falkirk Council
A great time was had by all 16 who were shortlisted, they were all winners in their own right as over 50 who submitted didn't make it that far.