It has been reported today that Essex County Council are thinking of privatising their public services. They estimate that the plan they are considering (remember that word, it will come in handy later) could save taxpayers up to £200 million.
So far, so good.
But Unison are screaming blue murder over the natural consequence of this: that some public sector workers will have to be made redundant. "If (Essex County Council leader) Lord Hanningfield persists in pushing through the fire sale of century in the midst of the current financial chaos, then we will see him in court,” said Kumar Sandy, the regional Unison officer. Fighting talk indeed.
Firstly, it is a good thing that Essex Council (or any council) is looking at ways to make things cheaper and better for taxpayers. People have seen their council tax double in the last ten years, with no discernible improvement in public services. Council tax has consistently increased above inflation, and it’s time this was brought to an end. Any method of bringing this trend to a halt is worth a look.
Secondly, as the council themselves have stated, they are only considering this proposal. Right now, they don’t know if they will implement total, partial or no privatisation of public services. So the figures of potential job losses that Unison have been suggesting are based on guesswork, at best. Until the council tell us exactly what they are planning to do, there is no intellectually sound way of calculating the potential redundancies.
And, if people in the council do lose their jobs, perhaps this is not the worst thing that could happen in the long run. With the above trend in mind, i.e. council tax increasing and public services staying the same, there is one thing that comes to mind: waste. As we see in our work every day at the TPA, there is a large culture of waste in the public sector ranging from bad procurement practices to council staff sick leave. There is no way that taxpayers can be expected to continue footing the bill for a bloated public sector when they are themselves facing redundancy and pay cuts. It’s time councils started waking up to what is happening in the wider economy and, if a private company can deliver services more efficiently, they must bite the bullet and explore that option. Everyone is feeling the pinch, and council workers must understand that when the taxpayers who pay their wages are suffering, they will too.
Ultimately, the buck will still stop with the council. While they may decide that some services could be done better by private companies, it is the council that receive the council tax revenue and therefore the council that will have to answer to taxpayers if they are unhappy with the level of services provided. So, despite all the kicking and screaming, the council will be no more or less accountable than they have ever been. This proposal simply means they might receive slightly better services, slightly cheaper.