Saturday 28 March 2009
Chaired an APSE / ARCH debate today at Parliament on Councils being allowed to once again build a significant level of council housing directly themselves.
It is amazing how quickly political theory changes, if you had talked about Councils being able to build council housing a year or two back you would have been laughed at and branded a Neanderthal. Now everyone recognises that it would make a good start to getting the economy moving again and provide much needed affordable housing.
With over 60 senior elected members and officers from local authorities present along with MPs, ministerial advisers and the press it was an interesting debate.
What we all agreed on was that Government would need to make some or all of the following changes if progress is to be made on this agenda.
• Secure receipts from Right to Buy sales for investment in new homes
• Enable borrowing against future rental income to take place outside of the public sector borrowing regime, within a robust fiscal framework, in line with other European countries
• Apply a broader scope, less bureaucracy and greater freedoms to current proposals for changes to revenue and capital rules
• Provide pump-priming resources from the Homes and Communities Agency
• Provide a level playing filed with other social landlords in terms of access to Social Housing Grant
• Reform the Housing Revenue Account subsidy system, which is currently under review, to enable council building to take place
• Allow historic debts - which have been repaid several times over - to be kept separate from new debts incurred to build new homes
• Enable councils to own and manage developments directly rather than having to use complex special purpose vehicles
It should be interesting to see what the Chancellor announces in the budget in a couple of weeks time.
Friday 27 March 2009
At the Queen Elizabeth II centre opposite Parliament today for a Local Authority Caterers Event debating school meals. It's a good turnout and a lot of friends and colleagues are present at the high profile event.
Basically the thrust of the issue is that new nutrient standards are due to be implemented in secondary schools in England in September this year and it is anticipated that this will result in a significant reduction in school meal take up.
The debate receives quite a lot of press coverage but I can't help but wonder if it could end up a slight own goal - it could be spun as caterers putting their own interests before the health of the nations kids - when really it should be invest in our service and work with us and we will improve kids health.
Hopefully the Ladies and Gentlemen of the press will put their moral obligations before an easy target!
Wednesday 18 March 2009
'Streamlining the Public Sector' is the title of the Guardian Seminar I have been asked to speak at today. They have asked me to speak in a section of the conference billed as a debate on 'insourcing versus outsourcing'.
I am asked to speak first and give my views as to why market failures have demonstrated that the private sector doesn't always deliver effectively in public sector markets. I also give a summary of the recently announced CPA results which shows that local government has improved rapidly between 2002 and 2008. I use APSE's insourcing research to show the benefits of inhouse provision and suggest that an approach built around continuous performance improvement is the only guaranteed way to deliver excellent public services more efficiently. I conclude by pointing to public sector partnerships as a strong option for allowing innovation within such a framework.
Two other speakers then give their viewpoints and we get into a debate with the audience. The audience are broadly supportive of the position I have taken, in my view this is because my case is built on the tangible rather than anecdotal evidence.
Enfield Chief Executive, Rob Leak, then gives a really thought provoking presentation on how Local Government and Public Services in London are looking at joint working. Rob says that it takes five years to get the type of changes they are proposing correct and it's definitely this type of thinking we need if we are going to deal with the issues we are facing at present, as opposed to the knee jerk reactions proposed by some.
Friday 13 March 2009
The 'Great Salt' debate takes place today at APSE's annual Highways and Street Lighting conference in Newcastle. With the worst conditions for 18 years this winter has been extremely demanding for those charged with keeping the country's roads moving, with the media debate raging about how close the nation came to running out of salt and grit and who was to blame for this.
I open the debate by contextualising what had taken place and Bob Ray of Cleveland Potash then follows on behalf of the suppliers. He had been at the Transport Select Committee at Westminster the day before and brought us up to speed with the thoughts of Ministers, Parliamentarians and National Agencies.
He is then followed by Derek Heap of Lancashire County Council who outlines what things had been like from a local authority perspective. Derek talked about how close they had come to running down their stock and what had been learned by this episode.
It's then time for a bit of audience participation and despite the fact it is late in the day, there is no holding them back, everyone wants to have their say.
In summary the debate concluded by identifying a number of lessons which should be considered by suppliers, Councils and Government departments and agencies to better address similar conditions in future.
These include -
• Better two way communication between councils and Local Resilience Teams / Government Regional Offices
• Customers ordering smaller amounts but more regularly
• Promote willingness to share supplies between councils
• Utilise APSE brokerage service
• Suppliers to prioritise communication with customers
• Guidance on mixing salt with grit, potash, re
fined salt and other additives and impacts of such mixing.
Thursday 12 March 2009
Early start today to catch a flight to Inverness to take part in a debate on the future of local authority waste management services in Scotland at the Chartered Institute of Waste Management's conference. The question was whether they should be outsourced or stay inhouse?
Upon getting there my first move was to look at the attendance list and it appeared a bit ominous with 50 of the 75 or so delegates being from the private sector. I was first up on the debate and gave ten minutes on why all the tangible evidence demonstrates that inhouse services are more guaranteed to deliver excellent services over time. My opponent in the debate, George Neblock, the senior figure for the CIWM in Scotland and former Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council makes the case for outsourcing services. We then spend the next hour or so in debate with the audience before moving to the vote. Much to my surprise, given the audience make up, two thirds of them side with my argument.
Basically I pushed the numerous recent private sector failures in the public sector market, local governments proven track record of delivery, the findings of APSE's insourcing research, the lack of evidence base to support outsourcing and the case for continuous performance improvement. The audience obviously agreed that the case for outsourcing Scotland's Waste Management Services was not proven.
Monday 02 March 2009
Douglas Sinclair the Chairperson of Consumer Focus Scotland is guest speaker at a function I attended tonight.
APSE's Citizen Engagement, Governance and Service Delivery, Strategic Forum, takes place in Motherwell Civic Centre. The Strategic Forums are a great opportunity to discuss a highly topical issue with a small group of senior elected members and officers from the world of local government. This type of focused debate helps inform the policy development process of APSE.
Douglas outlines the work of the new coordinated organisation that has taken over from previously separate consumer interest bodies. His talk sparks a healthy discussion about how citizens access public services generally and local authority services in particular.
A main strand of thinking is around how increasingly difficult it can be for the technologically excluded to gain access to the services they need. Douglas cites a statistic about 40% of consumers in Scotland not having access to computers and this sets me thinking that there are swathes of the population that are forgotten when we drive forwards on the egovernment agenda. Very often these can be the very people who need access to services the most. Call centres were also a bugbear for those present and it was identified how difficult and confusing these generally are for most people and therefore how difficult they must be for some of our more senior citizens. The answer of course is to have multiple methods of access but sometimes this can be overlooked when the pressures of the efficiency agenda are applied.
One final area of discussion was around the ongoing move towards converging rents between council and housing association tenants. Is it most beneficial for consumers for council rents to be uplifted to the same level as housing associations? To me this appears to be producer driven, so much then for RSLs being more accountable and giving greater levels of participation to tenants.