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Analysis: Councils face dilemma on outsourcing services

Selby District Council sign
Image caption The Conservative-controlled Selby District Council has just 14 employees left

Selby has all the local services you might expect: waste collection, a leisure centre, pest control, licensing and planning.

But the difference here is that Selby District Council no longer provides any of these things directly any more.

Facing pressure to find savings, last year councillors were presented with a choice: close services, or commit to radical restructuring.

Under the resulting plan, the council would be stripped of its role as a provider. Instead it would become simply a commissioner of services.

Local authorities across the country are facing similar dilemmas. With central government grant money being cut substantially, councils are exploring ideas that in the past might have been unthinkable.

'Arm's-length'

Some areas are more dependent on grants than others, because they are perceived to lack the ability to generate sufficient funding locally. Conservative-controlled Selby is one example.

What is left of the district council is now simply called the "core". Just 14 employees remain. Most of the other members of staff have been transferred to a separate new organisation called "Access Selby".

The chief executive Martin Connor explains: "Essentially what we've done is to move the democratic process - the specification of service - away from the delivery.

"We've created an arm's-length company that will deliver services on behalf of the council, leaving the council to control the level and type of services provided for the public."

So councillors decide, then Access Selby provides. That's the idea anyway.

Contracts are signed with the arm's-length body to deliver what the council says the community needs. The new body itself often then signs contracts with other organisations, including some private companies.

Access Selby and the democratic "core" are still in the same building. But Mr Connor says this is not an artificial separation. A third of the workforce has been cut.

Those now employed by the new "company" are expected to work in a more flexible way.

Multi-tasking staff

Suzanne Collins, a community officer, says that brings more variety to her day.

"(Different tasks) all come under one officer," she says. "Now we do a lot of the outside work… and a lot of different types of work."

Image caption Chief executive Martin Connor says democracy remains at the council

For instance, the officers who take a call about reported fly-tipping, are soon the ones actually clearing up the mess. The same team then goes round to another address, to inspect council tax.

Those whom I spoke to didn't seem to mind the new arrangements. But the unions oppose the council's move to a more streamlined, more commercial operation.

Mark Harrison is a regional organiser for Unison.

"My members are public servants," he says. "They are in the job to provide public service. They think the system will detract from a long-standing tradition of what has been a good relationship between the council here and the general public."

The unions fear that the move to create an "arm's-length" body is just another step down the road of privatisation. They say it commercialises the work of council employees and threatens the ethos of public service.

Democracy?

What about democracy? Does the separation of commissioning and delivery challenge the very nature of what a council should be - a locally-elected body providing local services?

"No," says Mr Connor. "Democracy remains. The level of services is still in the control of the locally-elected body."

Although contracts are signed between the council and Access Selby, the chief executive insists they can be altered if the councillors so choose. Of course, there may be a significant cost attached.

What's happening in Selby may be at the radical end of the scale. But lots of councils are exploring the extent to which they can become commissioners rather than providers of services.

That may be quite efficient. But it certainly raises some questions about the meaning of public service and local democracy.

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