Joint UNISON response with Lambeth branch to easyCouncil v John Lewis Council


Thursday 18th February 2010

“EasyCouncil or John Lewis – Are You Being Served?”

You report that our employers, Tory Barnet Council and Labour Lambeth are to be rival flagships in a battle between “EasyCouncil” and the “John Lewis local authority” (The future for local authorities: is it John Lewis or easyCouncil?” 18 February).

Setting aside the spin-doctors’ soundbites, Tony Travers describes this in your pages as “an ideological war fought by proxy” – will local government jobs and services be the “collateral damage” in this ideological war?

UNISON has made clear our reservations about the Tory “EasyCouncil” model – the judgment of the court, which you report, that Barnet could not lawfully remove sheltered housing wardens reinforces our concern that the Council is rushing to give up its responsibilities to the vulnerable.

Robert Booth is also right to report that behind the “EasyCouncil” gloss much of what is being proposed in Barnet is simply “old fashioned privatisation” – and as you have also recently reported, the Audit Commission has cast doubt on whether local authorities really manage to get value for money from the outsourcing that is now endemic across the public sector (Boom times for outsourcing firms as public sector cuts bite, 17 February).

If “EasyCouncil” seems to offer little to our members, the ideas behind Lambeth’s co-operative “John Lewis” model might have more to offer the workforce and local people if it became a means to unlock the enthusiasm and imagination of the multi-skilled multi-talented local government workforce – and engage with the local community about what they want from public services.

However, alarm bells ring for trade unionists when Council Leader Steve Reed, advocates, as you report “handing over some of the council’s more simple tasks to the voters to sort out for themselves.” There is a danger that this could lead to the same attempts to offload responsibility which we see in Barnet.

Similarly, the suggestion that local primary schools should become mutually owned organisations echoes the experimentation with forms of ownership which has fragmented public service provision and is one of the most poisonous elements of New Labour’s legacy.

You report correctly that Lambeth already has more tenant-run estates than any other borough – but do not mention the problems which have led to the closure and enforced merger of some tenant managed organisations in the borough.

You report further that Greenwich Leisure Ltd, which runs Lambeth’s leisure management contract is “employee-owned” – but not that it is currently making redundancies affecting many of its workers in the borough.

Mutualism and cooperation are, of course, a strong part of the history and ethos of the trade unions – but so is a strong commitment to the public provision of public services.

You report Tessa Jowell stating that “the mutual movement is one that will be grassroots-led, not Whitehall-imposed” – in that case we expect options to improve public services within the public sector to be given full and fair consideration.

We want to encourage our members – in Barnet as much as in Lambeth – to engage with plans to improve public service provision. But we will also be prepared to resist cutbacks in, or privatisation of, essential services.

Our message to Council Leaders – Tory or Labour – is clear. Sack the expensive consultants and listen to your workforce and we can work together to defend and improve public services.

John Burgess, Branch Secretary, Barnet UNISON

Jon Rogers and Nick Venedi, Branch Secretaries, Lambeth UNISON