Bury: privatising public services

The Lancashire town of Bury has a radical approach to spending cuts – the council plans to privatise all its public services. Could it become a model for the whole nation? There is much more at stake than money, argues Paul Vallely

Every morning and afternoon for the past seven years Karen Duke has donned a massive fluorescent coat and picked up her lollipop-lady stop sign and shepherded scores of children across the pitted and potholed road outside Fairfield County Primary School. It is a busy road, for it links the town centre and the emergency department of the local hospital. Ambulances with flashing blue lights whiz regularly past her. And cars do not always stop at the traffic-light crossing unless Duke interposes herself and her sign between them and the children. Some years back, a child was killed on the road outside the school.

But Duke is to go – at least if the local council has its way. Her job has been earmarked to be axed in the current round of public-spending cuts. All across the country, tens of thousands of little cuts in public services are about to be made in changes which will do irreparable damage to the social fabric of the ordinary communities in which we live. The phony war is over. With the start of the new financial year on 5 April, the biggest cuts since the Great Depression will hit Britain.

But here in Bury, in Lancashire, local people may see some of the biggest changes anywhere in the UK. That is because the ruling Conservative group on the town council has launched one of the most radical responses to Britain's deficit. It has determined to hand control of all the services the council currently provides to private companies, charities and voluntary groups.

Its recent round of cuts – which threaten to devastate Bury's youth services and care for vulnerable adults while taking an axe to library services for the housebound, education advisers, school-improvement partners and lollipop ladies – is only the start of a programme to save £32m within the next three years. It could bring to pass the dream, or nightmare, of the arch-Thatcherite minister Nicholas Ridley, who in the 1980s said that local councils should only meet once a year to approve tenders from private contractors.

The news has taken the town by surprise. When the council leader, Bob Bibby, went on radio to announce it last month, the day after the last budget cuts were agreed, even some members of his own inner cabinet and senior council staff had not been forewarned. But Bury Council runs under the Strong Leader model – which sounds like something from North Korea but was introduced by Tony Blair as an alternative to elected mayors – and the move looks likely to be rubber-stamped when the council meets this week.

Under the plan – which has just been the subject of a three-week consultation among the people of Bury – all council services are to be scrutinised against the default assumption "that the council will not directly deliver services". The revolutionary idea is being proposed because the consensus in the town is that Bury has been one of the urban authorities which has received the least funding from central government in recent decades. Public services were sparely run anyway, so no more salami-slicing cuts are viable. Transforming the council into an "enabling" authority is therefore, according to Bibby, the only option.

Not everyone agrees. A campaigning group of local citizens, the Bury Action Group, has sprung up to oppose the plan outlined in a new policy document called Transforming Bury. "Nothing in the document explains why the starting point should be to privatise everything," says one member of the group, George Heron, a retired further-education lecturer. "It can only be understood as a political prejudice against public provision." There is also no evidence that community groups currently working in partnership with the council wish to set themselves up as alternative providers, he says. "On the contrary, those groups are amongst the staunchest defenders of council provision."

What Bury decides on Thursday could become a model for the whole country. Over the next few months, every service the council provides – from libraries to refuse collection – is to be examined against a "Transforming Toolkit", which will begin by considering whether the council should cease the service in whole or part. Where the council has a statutory responsibility, it will try to hive it off to a public-private partnership, a private company, a voluntary group or even a stock market flotation. The plan is for the changes to be in place by 2012-13.

I contact Bibby, and Bury's chief executive, Mike Kelly, to ask them to explain the thinking behind a process which critics dismiss as ideological. Bibby had told the local paper, the Bury Times: "It gives me no pleasure to propose a budget that has such major repercussions. I didn't come into politics to cut services and jobs, but we've been faced with simply no option."

But Bibby has gone suddenly coy. A council spokesman tells me: "The leader feels that it would be inappropriate to give a full interview on this subject. The policy is currently out for consultation, and it is important that this is not prejudiced in any way."

The Bury Action Group is unsurprised at such a response. "The whole consultation was just tokenistic," the group's chair, Sue Arnall, a former social worker, tells me. "They kept the whole idea quiet until they got this year's cuts approved and then announced privatisation with a consultation lasting less than three weeks."

Worse still, the documents put out by the council are full of impenetrable jargon, she says. "Look at this," she says, pointing to a line in the council's cuts proposals. "It says: 'Restructure of local area working to refocus on community engagement and development – saving £270,000 by losing eight full-time jobs.' What on earth does that mean? How can an ordinary person sensibly comment on that?"

What, as an ordinary person, she can and does comment on, is the farewell party held the night before by a parent's support group that previously met regularly in a community centre in Whitefield. "They are now going to have to meet once a month in Morrisons café," she says.

Then there are the Cubs and Brownies, who have been told they must pay £25 to use the local park. Or the education welfare officers who have been directed to cease working to support parents in getting children fed, clothed and into school and focus on taking the parents of truants to court. "How can the Big Society work if they cut all training for schools' governors?" Arnall asks.

But it is difficult to assess how badly Bury is going to be hit by even the first round of cuts. That is partly because, she says, the council will only at meetings answer questions which have been put in writing five working days in advance.

"That's not all. The council cabinet meets in private and no minutes are published," Arnall adds. "And all council employees have been told they are not to give the public any detail about where the cuts will exactly come."

But those directly affected are starting to work things out. "Four of the town's five youth clubs will close," says Jamie Walker, a Radcliffe teenager who has been elected by his peers as the town's MP for the National Youth Parliament. "The clubs are great. We do cooking and painting classes and grow plants to give to the residents of local old people's homes. But the youth budget is being cut by two-thirds. So now we'll just have to stay in or just hang around the streets. But we don't know exactly what will happen... because the youth workers have been issued with a gagging order instructing them not to tell us anything."

Perhaps that explains why, when you walk through Bury's market and ask local people about it all, most are in the dark as to what is going on. Not one of the dozens of people I encountered had even heard of the consultation process. But there is universal dismay at what is seen as the false economy of axing lollipopladies. And everyone says that more, not fewer, youth clubs are needed, with youth employment at its highest since records began. "We have to provide something to keep the kids off the streets and out of trouble," says Sid Ahktar, who has run a clothing stall in the outdoor market for 20 years.

There are some who back the privatise-everything plan. Tony Hill, at his carpets and rug stall, was broadly sympathetic. "It will become more efficient. I do two days a week with a charity in Oldham. Same service is run by the council in Bury. Oldham is much better run," he says. But not all the self-employed market traders are so favourable. "Privatisation sounds good," says Chris Schofield, who was on a stall that proclaimed "Designer Watches £3.99 each". He adds: "But when the cheapest quote gets the job services will go down hill. The council will get locked into a three-year contract."

Debra Zajak, a 20-year-old sports development student at Bolton University, who works as a swimming coach with both sectors, also has reservations: "The private sector is better organised but the council staff are more interested in the kids and what they want. And the private sector will put the prices up."

Over at Sweet Treats, where the average customer spend on boiled delicacies is way down on the past, Gail Ridyard insists that council workers have to do their bit in taking cuts. But she didn't want to see council staff put on 16-week contracts losing their permanent jobs. "We won't get a choice over which private company is chosen," she says. "It might be one with no morals."

So what will it happen? The Conservative are the largest party at present, with 23 seats against Labour's 21, with the six Liberal Democrat councillors holding the balance of power. The Labour leader, Mike Connolly, is anticipating Labour will regain control at the local elections in May. "As a Labour group we accept the need to look at new ways of working," he says. "But total privatisation will not be our starting point."

No one is quite clear where the Liberal Democrats stand. They have eschewed a formal coalition with the Conservatives but appear to have a tacit pact, abstaining on key issues so the Tories carry the day. "Wholesale privatisation of council services we would never support," their leader, Tim Pickstone, says. He says his party will "look sensibly at everything a council does... seeing if there are ways of doing things more efficiently".

That seems to mean the Tories' plan that henceforth Bury Council should provide no services directly will be passed on Thursday.

Meanwhile, those most affected by such political decisions are having to make do and mend. "I blame the central Government," says Chris Ashley, the headteacher at Fairfield which is to have funding for its lollipop lady axed. "They have put up a political smokescreen. The school budget might be the same as before but we're being asked to do a lot more with it, buying in services that previously were free. Paying for a crossing supervisor is just the latest example."

He has decided that he will have to find the money from the school budget to keep Duke at work as a lollipop lady. "All schools put safety first. In years gone by we had a pupil killed. So for peace of mind I'll have to pay an adult to do the job. I can't rely on parents volunteering; I need the reliability. So I'll need to downgrade the support I get for caretaking and cleaning . If the caretaker is off, I'll have to cover for opening up the school or a classroom may have to be left dirty. And I'll have to take eight hours a week from a welfare assistant who supports the children in reading."

It is cuts like that which will cause widespread public discontent as they begin to bite in frontline services everywhere. No wonder the advocates of mass-privatisation are rushing through the decision in Bury this week. If their consultation had lasted months rather than a few tokenistic days they would, very likely, have found that local people would have said a resounding "No" to their plan.

The idea that frontline services will not be affected by public spending cuts is seen as risible by most people in Bury. "There's no point in us having a view on anything," says the young father pushing a child in a buggy in the market. "In the end they'll just do what they want anyway."

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