Monday 22 December 2014

Stile Council: Where Are We Heading For?

I read an article today – someone sent me a link to it, knowing it would be of interest in my line of work. At first glance, you may be wondering where the walking connection is – but bear with me, and all will be revealed.

In it was described a council that have outsourced or intend to outsource so many of their services – not just the usual suspects such as parking, highways and so forth, but planning, regeneration, HR, IT, procurement, finance, legal services, trading standards, council housing, environmental health, rubbish collection, libraries, care of the vulnerable and the disabled, and even, would you believe it, cemeteries and crematoriums – that in the space of just a couple of years, the council will have shrunk from just over 3,000 staff to just over 300. 

To save their embarrassment, I won’t name them.

According to the article, there appears to be three main concerns about a state of affairs such as this. Firstly, all of these services are being farmed out to a very limited number of massive, privately-owned infrastructure and business services companies that have little knowledge of local issues and concerns, whose contracts are such that the details are often shrouded by “commercial sensitivity” and who can, in a worst-case scenario, go bust. Where would that leave us?

Secondly, these contracts are typically let over lengthy timespans, often as much as 10 years at a time, so the entire democratic process is lost to the local community – whoever you vote for, you get the contracted infrastructure company, like it or not.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, local expertise is lost. At the end of these lengthy contracts there will be so little experience, expertise and infrastructure remaining locally within councils that it would be almost impossible to return to the “old” way even if they wanted to.

These deals are usually touted as a route to saving money, although it seems that is not always the case. In one example, a deal was meant to deliver £70m savings and 100 new jobs: when neither benefit actually materialised, the contract was transferred back to the council.

So how does this affect walking, I hear you ask?

Well, the obvious answer is that local authorities are responsible, through Rights of Way departments, for the upkeep and maintenance of the all the footpaths, bridleways, by-ways and so forth. But with low priority, reduced budgets and outsourced responsibility, how will upkeep and maintenance of the network be enacted and policed?

The providers are only in it to make money, and I suspect there is little money to be had from contracts like this because we all know that RoW team budgets are miniscule in relative terms, and that a good footpath network runs on the goodwill of many people – landowners and managers, local volunteers, Ramblers’ groups, and the like. Will those volunteers still feel as altruistic if they are ultimately helping to line the pockets of big business and greedy shareholders?

The other aspect – the one that is perhaps most immediately concerning here on Ambles & Rambles – is that my own local authority, Northamptonshire, is set to adopt an “alternative delivery model” like this and follow in the footsteps of the council mentioned above, declaring just last month that it intended to outsource 95% of its work and go down to a skeleton staff.

Quite how this will manifest itself in the future, no one yet knows. It’s one thing to ask local residents to keep an eye out for any maintenance issues, to help fix a stile or put up a new waymarker, but another altogether to expect them to fight legal battles over illegal closures, maintain (or even improve by 2026, the cut-off date for re-inclusion of remembered but lost pre-1949 routes into the network and set out in the CroW Act 2000) the definitive map, or negotiate new access rights with landowners.

Because, in the end, it all comes down to money. It’s the reason that outsourcing is being proposed, and it’s why contractors will take it on. If they can’t make any money out of it, they won’t do it, and I’m sure they will be inclined to minimise outlay in order to maximise profit margins and keep shareholders happy. Unless the contracts are absolutely correctly specified then the contractors will work any loopholes they can find – they have whole departments given over to just that sort of fine-tooth-combery – and exploit them to the full if they can.

And by the time the contracts are re-let, there could be a lot of damage done.

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