Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Greens pull plug on Brighton Council privatisations

Yesterday's budget was, largely, a pointless exercise in austerity which will see almost everyone worse off - and living in a city with fewer, and underfunded, public services.

Child benefit and public sector pay have both been frozen - representing after-interest cuts, VAT will rise to 20% - a tax hike that will affect the least able to afford it most - corporation tax is down, tax-setting powers have been removed from councils, and so on.

In short, it will see unemployment worsen, prices and the cost of living rise, benefits cut, taxes increase and the wide-scale privatisation of public services.

Almost everyone (except, perhaps, the beneficiaries of a new 'millionaire's allowance' which will see the first £5,000,000 in profits from share speculation taxed at a lower rate - yes, really - you couldn't make this up) will be worse off today than they were yesterday.

For different reasons perhaps, two people waking up with a bit of a headache today will be Brighton and Hove's very own privatisation champion, Tory City Council leader Mary Mears, and the man charged with delivering her vision, council chief executive John Barradell.

The Green Party councillors have refused to take part in the recruitment of four new directors (to be paid £125,00 a year each) to oversee the privatisation of council services across the city.

The truth is the 'intelligent commissioning' model of running the council - under which the council would stop directly doing anything, instead running a tender process for a private company or charity to take on the job instead.

Let's be clear. 'Intelligent Commissioning' isn't very intelligent - and 'privatisation' is a much clearer word to describe it than 'commissioning'.

It will end up wasting money (you've only got to look at the £600,000 a year its bosses will receive just for managing the process), removing democratic accountability from the delivery of public services - and collecting the taxes needed to pay for them - see pay and conditions for those working in the public sector fall, worsen services, especially in the care sector.

But perhaps the biggest problems facing Mary's vision is that's it's completely unviable anyway. Recruitment professional say there just aren't enough people out there who know how to actually do 'commissioning' - and third sector and voluntary groups say they are too busy working out the impacts of cuts on their budgets and workloads to take part in tendering process at the moment.

And as for the timing! To spend more than half a million pounds a year on fat-cat salaries for new 'blue skies thinking' directors (they won't, after all, have and departments to run - they'll all have been 'outsourced') as public sector workers demonstrate after being told they'll have their par frozen is just rubbing it in.

It reminds me of last time Mary Mears made the headlines for her unsympathetic approach to cutting pay: her cartoon depiction in Private Eye after she announced budget cuts while on a cruise.

The process will happen - with the support of the Tory, Labour and Lib-Dem councillors our refusal to endorse the vision - or the recruitment - won't come off the rails.

But the council constitution means we aren't allowed to discuss even changes of this significance in a council meeting (it's just a matter for the Tory cabinet and the Chief Executive) - so at least this gives us an opportunity to make our position clear.

You never know - if the Labour councillors find some bottle - the whole thing could come crashing down quite quickly.And if not, at least when it all goes wrong, we'll have done what we could to protect public jobs and services here in Brighton and Hove. In large measure, I think that's our job as councillors.

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