Leading article: A sweeping privatisation without a democratic mandate

Share
Related Topics

In a small borough in the north-west of England, an experiment is about to take place that could have profound consequences across the wider nation. As we report today, Bury Council's plans for the privatisation of local services are revolutionary in their scope. Every service provided by the council – from libraries, to youth groups, to social work, to rubbish collection – is to be put up for sale. Any private company, charity or third-sector group that wants to be able to bid for a public contract will be allowed to do so. Bury council wants to transform itself from being a provider of local services into a hands-off commissioner.

The council claims that its financial predicament leaves it with no alternative to this sweeping programme of privatisation. And there is no doubt that the local authority needs to find considerable savings, some £32.4m over five years, as a result of the drastic reduction in its grant from Whitehall. But those savings are by no means out of line with the savings being forced on many other councils. The suspicion is that Bury's Conservative-controlled council is not embarking on this reform because it must, but because it wants to.

And it has powerful friends. The Thatcherite wing of the Tory party has long been obsessed with privatisation. There will be many in the party watching closely what happens in Bury, with a view to implementing a similar programme elsewhere.

Advocates of privatisation regard the policy as a panacea that increases efficiency and delivers better value for money for taxpayers. But this is not always the case. If there are no quick profits to be made, the private sector is often loath to bid for contracts. And Bury council is likely to find that the charity sector lacks the capacity to take on new public contracts.

Efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. What might look like a success on the balance sheet of a private company or a council's budget can mean worse services in a community. Providers can put profit before the public good. In the context of council services, that could mean less time spent by social workers with elderly or mentally ill people. It could mean less frequent bin collections, or fewer youth groups.

Greater efficiency could also mean higher charges for the public. One proposal in Bury is to charge groups of Cubs and Brownies to pay to use the local park. Such moves might be efficient, but that efficiency comes at a price. And the cost is usually borne by those least likely to make a fuss.

There are other reasons for concern. Privatisation with proper funding is one thing, but reform on the cheap is a false economy. The previous Conservative government privatised the railways in the early 1990s in the expectation that this would improve services and reduce the burden on the taxpayer. But Britain has ended up with a second-rate rail service and an even larger public subsidy than in the days of British Rail.

Privatisation tends to work when it is accompanied by proper regulation and oversight. But all too often such scrutiny is lacking because privatisation turns out to be a way for politicians to wash their hands of services that they never had much interest in providing in the first place.

But the greatest objection to the Bury experiment is consent. There is no democratic mandate in the borough for this programme of wholesale privatisation. The council has rushed through the plan with a consultation period of just three weeks. Bury council and the Coalition are convinced of the merits of their privatising agenda. What neither is convinced of, though, is public support. This is a revolution that the British people are going to have to like or lump.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: The Easter message

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

There is far too much sexism in the UK - but a point scoring system against other countries won't help to tackle it

Victoria Richards
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit