12 December 2008
By Tash Shifrin
The London Borough of Barnet is developing plans to reduce itself to a tiny strategic core and set up a joint venture company to commission local services.
The scheme could include services traditionally provided by other public bodies, such as jobcentres and the NHS. Barnet's move follows Essex County Council's £5.4bn scheme to outsource 'any or all' of its services.
The Conservative-run borough has launched a £250,000 feasibility study into a more complex three-tier structure, in which chiefs would become 'senior officers of the whole borough' working across different public sector bodies.
The pan-public sector commissioning role was 'the key element in the future shape of the council', a report to the council's Cabinet said. Under the plans, the shrunken council would be 'strategic rather than operational'.
A special purpose vehicle – set up as a joint venture with a private firm – would then 'take the outcomes defined by the council and its partners and develop them into programmes for implementation'. A number of service delivery vehicles would also be set up.
The joint venture would have 'the capacity and expertise' to reconfigure services across organisational boundaries, the report said. 'So instead of the council, the [primary care trust] and Jobcentre Plus all having customer access functions, there could be a single public service access organisation.'
Barnet council leader Mike Freer said financial pressure had forced the authority to reconsider its role. Barnet had already 'squeezed the bulk of the efficiency savings' from its expenditure, he said. 'The salami slicing can't continue.'
Creating a joint venture company would avoid restrictions on establishing trading organisations and would give it the option of 'doing work for other councils', he added.
Freer also outlined just how far the local service shake-up could go, arguing that merging the council and the local PCT under a single chief executive was 'something we'd be mad not to consider', although this was not an immediate plan.
Trade unions have opposed the scheme. A report produced by the European Services Strategy Unit for four Barnet union branches said the council had 'not provided any evidence to demonstrate that this model is viable, practical or desirable'.
Unison branch secretary John Burgess said: 'This looks like fragmenting services even more. It looks like mass privatisation.' The council should have explored other options including in-house service delivery, he argued.