Craig Dearden-Phillips: Councils run too many services... and charities have the chance to step in

Local Authorities can't afford to own everything they deliver, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

The 2010s will, I believe, be the decade that councils stop doing things - or rather, start focusing on their core business of making sure things get done. Councils are not there to do things - and when they try, they're not normally very good at it. Indeed, who could expect them, realistically, to be good at everything? Councils are ridiculously over-diversified organisations. Can you name a charity or company that could credibly claim both to look after abused children and to fix roads competently? Or support carers and recycle rubbish?

Barnet, Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham, Essex. All of these councils are leading the way in asking "why should we deliver this?" And they have rapidly come to the conclusion that no, they shouldn't be trying to do so much. No other business could, so why should they? Few businesses are lumbered with the disastrous 'on-costs' that the public sector still bears - sky-high pensions, sick leave and so on. Now the boom is over, it makes good sense to have far fewer people on councils' books.

The logical outcome is a much bigger role for the private and third sectors. The private sector is already limbering up to run onto the pitch. The third sector dressing room, however, is a less unified place. Some players are hungry, seeing the possible improvements that could be made, for example, to services to vulnerable groups or to recycling. Others, though, are more half-hearted. They want to do things, but have reservations about what this might say about them as players. And a small minority are not going on that pitch for love nor money. They agree with Dave Prentice, leader of trade union Unison, that outsourcing blocks accountability to voters.

Excuse me, but public services provided by local authorities are no more 'accountable' to elected members than those provided by Capita or Turning Point. I would argue, in fact, that in-house services are actually less accountable because, from what I have seen, they are treated as 'family' rather than as being there to do a job. So outsourcing probably means more accountability, not less.

We stand at an important junction. By 2015, the council I sit on will have a third less money to spend than it does today. A new line will be drawn between what we do and what we ask other sectors to do better and cheaper. The third sector needs to recognise it is time to seize the day and run out, determined to win - not for ourselves, but for the people we are here to serve.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is founder and chief executive of Speaking Up, and writes in a personal capacity

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