easyTories?

Today, both the Guardian and the Telegraph reported on Barnet Borough Council’s plans to change the provision of local services, and the council’s description of the idea as being like that of the budget airlines EasyJet or Ryan Air.

I’ve not been a customer of Ryan Air, and given the way that the operate (cheap up front prices, hiding a host of ‘extras’ on flights to airports miles from the listed destination and advertised using some of the crassest copy possible) I doubt I will. I was recently a passenger with EasyJet, and I didn’t get great service – the planes in both directions went ‘tech’, leading to delays which were nervously fibbed about by staff as we waited to get going.

So telling the world that council services should be provided in a similar fashion is not really going to endear the concept to many. But what are some of the ideas?

Barnet wants householders to pay extra to jump the queue for planning consents, in the way budget airlines charge extra for priority boarding. And as budget airline passengers choose to spend their budget on either flying at peaktime or having an in-flight meal, recipients of adult social care in Barnet will choose to spend a limited budget on whether to have a cleaner or a respite carer or even a holiday to Eastbourne. Other examples of proposed reforms include reducing the size of waste bins to minimise the cost of council rubbish collections. (from lined Guardian article)

I’ll take these in reverse order:

1. What does reducing the size of waste bins mean? More fines for people who can’t fit all their rubbish into the bin. Barnet has already pioneered some of the ‘nanny’ waste ideas that get Daily Mail readers into fits of apoplexy.

2. The choices seem a bit limited, and the pot would appear to be limited. Perhaps people need both respite care and a cleaner? Perhaps forgoing those in order to take a trip isn’t really going to help someone in need. What we do know about Barnet is that they are, like many councils, taken wardens out of sheltered housing projects and replacing them with emergency buttons that link to a smaller number of roaming responders.

3. This is not particularly good. Who will pay for fast-tracking planning applications?

Before we get to that one, what is it that takes most of the time for planning applications to be processed? From my experience it was in officers checking all the details, and the allowance of public consultation and elected member deliberation. So which of those would be curtailed for the people who pay a little extra? Do their applications not get as much scrutiny, or do nearby residents get less time to view any objections?

Clearly, the applicants who would want to do this are those with contentious designs, and who would want to make it less likely that they get a refusal. After all, if you are confident of approval, you can legally make changes before an application is approved (indeed before submission), so if there’s no possible reason to reject, there’s no real time pressure.

And why are Barnet really doing this?

The council plans to make savings of up to £15m a year by outsourcing services and reducing the size of its 3,500-strong directly employed workforce. Private sector organisations and charities could take on contracts for services looking after streets and parking, planning and the environment, residential care, housing, refuse and recycling. (from Guardian)

One reason that Barnet desperately need to save money is that the financial geniuses running the authority have lost nearly £30m in investments held in failing Icelandic banks. Council leader and promoter of the plans, Mike Freer, is clearly someone we can trust with public money and services. After all, he’s worked for a bank in the past.

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