Tuesday 28 October 2014

Carmarthenshire council; A leisure trust on its way?

Update; Please also see later post, 9th February 2015, for further developments; A Leisure trust on its way...a follow-up post 


Although it doesn't appear to have been discussed in a democratic fashion anywhere, it looks like Carmarthenshire council has decided that the 'alternative mode of delivery' (in other words 'how can we save money') of leisure services will eventually be through a new arms-length trust.

A tender has already been published to find a leisure consultant "to assist with the delivery of an alternative trust management arrangement for its Leisure Services". How much this 14 month contract is worth is unknown, it's unlikely to come cheap.

Carmarthenshire's leisure services do not just include the leisure centres but country parks, theatres, museums and libraries as well. Whether the intention is to hive the whole lot off is not clear.

The 'money saving' notion stems from the fact that this trust will have charitable status, a loophole exists exempting the trust from the usual business rates and VAT. The idea is that it also (hopefully) attracts grant funding which would not otherwise be available although this carries it's own uncertainties. The council will retain the freehold but will lease the properties to the trust and give it helping financial hand in the first few years.

It all sounds ideal and the launch of these trusts, which also involves the wholesale transfer of staff, is often accompanied with a fanfare of 'social enterprise' and 'community ownership'.

In reality the trusts are usually made up of unelected business and community representatives and a handful of councillors and essentially mean that direct control is lost and influence over council services is left to an independent body, protected from scrutiny by 'commercial confidentiality'.

The chief executive has now informed councillors that the council is going to sell off all property, even if on a lease, which isn't 'vital' to the council. What will constitute 'vital' is anyone's guess, presumably the Parc Y Scarlets stadium and evangelical bowling alley will both be essential for the smooth running of carmscc...both currently paying nil rent.

An arms-length trust can also be a useful tool for selling off assets without the irritating scrutiny of full council.

The commissioning of a trust itself can also be an expensive exercise and the trust can find costs increasing as it lacks the local authorities' ability to use economies of scale. Educational links and improvement projects can also become sidelined as trustees are bound by law to act in the best interest of the board rather than the priorities of the local authority...

There are, I'm sure, many examples of good practice and maybe this is preferable than a complete outsourcing exercise to a distant private company although ultimate control over a leisure trust could still be managed by such an arrangement.
However, before the plan is trumpeted by CarmsPR as a 'no-other-option-possible' fait accompli it's always worth checking out the pros and cons, a good plain summary of the cons can be found here (EU Strategy Paper 2008). Further ups and downs of leisure trusts can be googled.

A move such as this to transfer control of such a large chunk of council services should be subject to public consultation. Presumably this will happen after the consultant reports back with the recommendation County Hall prefers...

Still on the subject of off-loading services, a report from earlier this year from the council's TIC team ('Transform, Innovate, Change', or in plain English, the cutback squad) shows that a report had been commissioned from Neopost Ltd (at unknown cost);
 'to undertake a review of Carmarthenshire’s postage, correspondence and communication activity with a view to presenting a full proposal of potential efficiency savings to TIC Programme Board'. 

Clearly Neopost Ltd, a company whose services include printing and postage for local authorities, unsurprisingly advised that outsourcing was a distinct possibility.

Lo and behold a tender has now gone out to supply all the postage and printing needs for everything related specifically to Council tax and housing benefit.

The tender has yet to be awarded but not only is this a time of considerable change within the welfare system but this is a highly sensitive responsibility. The tender notice itself warns that 'These are sensitive and time-critical mailings with legislative requirements, including strict bill despatch deadlines, document merging and data protection safeguards'.

What could possibly go wrong....?
Clearly the council are not ready to entrust the publication of the precious propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News to anyone else just yet.

One of the problems with outsourced services is that all the usual checks and balances of publicly delivered services, including accountability (not much of that in Carmarthenshire admittedly) becomes fractured as suppliers are shrouded in matters of business confidentiality and are not subject to Freedom of Information requests. At the moment, around 70% of home care services are farmed out to the private sector.

But most of all, like any private company, they are driven by profit, not public service and whilst savings are I'm sure possible in some areas, Carmarthenshire council needs to tread very carefully. Aside from anything else, the council already seems to be spending significant sums on external consultants in it's bid to 'save money'.

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