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Shared services, Cornwall Council's cabinet must listen to democracy and stop this great gamble

Following on from yesterday's full council vote to turn down the cabinets and officers plans to part privatise public services the Conservative party remains adamant on ignoring the democratic will of the chamber. This is an absolutely ludicrous situation, the obvious contradiction with democracy is that nobody stood on the platform of sharing services with private companies, the people of Cornwall have not been asked whether they agree with these plans either in a referendum or at the ballot box. The staff that will be most effected by these changes have not even been asked. Despite all this the ruling group on Cornwall Council are determined to push through these plans.

If you missed the webcast (link here) various directors and assorted bureaucrats made the case for bringing in private sector companies to run council services in partnership with the council. Most councillors argued against the scheme in the mammoth three hour long debate and a wide array of arguments came to light against the scheme. When it came to the vote councillors voted in a clear majority for a motion that read:

“In view of its far-reaching consequences, including its potential impact on Council governance and elected Member accountability, this Council believes that it is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall for the Council to enter into the proposed Strategic Partnership for Support Services.”

But the powers that be want to still carry on, they claim that working in partnership with private companies could safeguard and indeed create jobs and could attract investment into Cornwall. The operative word here is of course could, nobody actually knows. Despite the senior bureaucrats being very convincing in their arguments yesterday (the Conservative and Independent cabinet were less forthcoming in their own policy, a sad indictment of Cornish democracy) nobody actually knows what will happen. The ludicrous thing about it all is that despite all the promises contracts with private companies have not been signed in fact, the bid process has not finished. So one half of the partnership (the bureaucrats) is making extravagant claims of jobs, savings and improvements to services without a contract explaining as much or indeed a company clearly and realistically offering as much. For all their intelligence quite how they think that a private company can deliver this great wish list is either very naive or impossibly insightful.

We all no doubt remember too well the widely discredited Labour PFI scheme (private finance initiative) which were sold as cure alls to the state's ills. Before they were introduced they were widely bandied about as a way of private money providing capital for state spending. Allowing authorities to build such things as hospitals without the up front capital, then the company would make a profit and helping the state out of bind, a win win situation. When the rose tinted glasses were removed and the plans introduced costs spiralled and the taxpayer was left vastly out of pocket and the shareholders were left the only happy party. My point is that PFI was too good to be true and Cornwall Council and other authorities in Kernow sharing services will go the same way.

Most troubling thing about the whole endeavour is that it involves Cornwall Council and NHS staff in Cornwall having their employment transferred to the partnership. Quite what pay, conditions and contracts they will be under will be up to the partnership, which will be run by a board of 5, 3 from the private sector, 1 from Cornwall Council the CEO and 1 from the NHS (note none of these people spending taxpayers money will be elected or accountable to the people of Cornwall). More worrying still this board could decide that Cornish services would be better run from elsewhere, perhaps the Cornish taxpayer might ring the council to pay their council tax, or ring Treliske to make an appointment and speak to someone in a call centre on another continent. It will be up to the board to decide what happens, they might decide it's cheaper to take jobs out of Cornwall. Minded more to running down costs and preserving profits, an obvious choice would be to take jobs out of the Cornish economy. Considering the uncertainty about the future of jobs in Cornwall themselves or their pay and conditions, it comes as no surprise that NHS staff in Cornwall do not support the private-public partnership proposals. I'd imagine council staff feel much the same in the face of such uncertainty.

These plans are very badly thought out, there is no guarantee that the extravagant promises of the bureaucrats will be matched in reality, in fact examples from local authorities in England where these kind of schemes have been a success for the taxpayer are few and far between in stark contrast to the many examples where they have failed. Those in charge at Cornwall Council may well think that this is a great idea and they may have convinced themselves that companies as far afield as America will place the best interests of Cornwall before their profits. Even if they were right, even if, this is besides the point, democracy is the guiding principle of Cornwall Council not what the select few thinks is best. The council chamber was very clear, councillors from all parties joined together to condemn these plans. The people of Cornwall have not been asked if they want their services run by private companies. The staff at Cornwall Council have not been asked and the staff at Treliske have been very clear to their management that they do not want this. There is absolutely no mandate outside of the top floor of County Hall and corporate boardrooms for these plans, this great gamble should be binned immediately.

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