The One Barnet case heralds local government’s disappearing act

This is a future vision of local government where councils are reduced to mere technocratic commissioning bodies.


Barnet Council’s radical plan to outsource 70 per cent of its services to a private company was upheld this week by the High Court on a technicality.

The legal challenge to the One Barnet programme brought by Maria Nash, a severely disabled resident of the north London borough, exposed the Council’s failure to consult residents on the planned changes to the fundamental role of local government. Lord Justice Underhill found that “the Council never set out to consult about its outsourcing programme at all” and that “representatives should have been given the opportunity to express views or concerns about outsourcing the functions or services in question”. However, despite the lack of consultation, Maria Nash’s challenge failed because it was brought out of time.

The decision means that unless Nash’s lawyers can mount a successful appeal, Barnet Council will proceed with plans to sign two contracts, together worth around £600m over 10 years, with Capita Plc, which privatise many of the Council’s core functions. With the precedent for the mass outsourcing of local government, we can expect other local authorities, in their desperate search for cost savings, to follow suit.

Dubbed the “easyCouncil”, Barnet’s Tory administration has characterised itself as a “no frills” local authority delivering only basic public services and charging for optional extras. Contracting out of services may be nothing new, but privatisation on this scale is. The Council will contract out quintessential local government services including planning, environmental health, cemeteries, customer services and highways to a single private provider. With this 790 full-time jobs will be transferred to the private sector. Many of these jobs will leave the borough leading to a loss of local knowledge on which services such as planning and environmental health rely.

This is a future vision of local government where councils are reduced to mere technocratic commissioning bodies rather than democratic authorities entrusted with developing and delivering social improvement in their communities.

But, some say, if it reduces the tax bill and delivers efficient services why the outcry?

Even before One Barnet programme, there have been warning signs that the wholesale privatisation of local government leads to downgraded services. Fiascos in Barnet over the outsourcing of car parking charges which led to heavy losses to high street businesses, mismanaged care schemes for disabled persons and IT providers that have gone bust at a massive loss to the taxpayer, do not augur well.

Driven by profit-making objectives, the private contractors, lack the public service ethos which is so important in the delivery of public services. Under the new contracts, a single company will have responsibility for granting planning permissions, building control certificates and environmental health. With a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders, Capita will have every incentive under a 10 year contract to cut corners in a drive for greater profits.

And when things go wrong to whom should residents turn? To customer services now relocated to the other end of the country? To their local councillors? Ordinarily, a resident with a complaint about, say, flytipping in their street would contact their councillor to resolve the problem. But under privatised arrangements locked in for 10 years at a time councillors will lose most of their ability respond.

As Barnet Liberal Democrat councillor Jack Cohen put it “Does anyone think that locally elected councillors will have in future the same influence, the same advocacy rights and the same input with the large multinationals as they do at the moment?”

The outsourcing of local government services threatens not just to downgrade services but to downgrade local democracy. At the heart of the Nash case, which the court vindicated, was the fact that people were not asked for their views – neither at the ballot box nor in consultation – on what will be one of the most radical experiments in local government privatisation.

Once the contracts are signed they will remain in place for ten years, regardless of who wins the local elections. Any future administration will be caught in a contractual straightjacket. One might reasonably ask, what is the point of voting in local elections every four years when the contracts for managing most core services are only renegotiated every ten years?

The removal of local governments’ power over the day to day delivery of basic services is likely to be irreversible. The reduction of local authorities influence over social policy diminishes their power to innovate and control outcomes. With this week’s local elections likely to produce low voter turnouts, the privatisation of most local government functions will only lead to a further a breakdown in the relationship between ordinary citizens and local councils.

As John Stuart Mill recognised back in the 19th century the main purpose of local power was not simply to deliver efficient outcomes but to nourish the public spirit. Local government can provide greater opportunities for daily contact among and between citizens and their elected officials. However, councils can only become ‘schoolhouses of democracy’ if they are sufficiently empowered to take the decisions which shape the quality of local life. Power and participation go hand in hand – the existence of power tends to motivate people to participate in the exercise of that power. Powerlessness tends to breed the opposite. If people think that local authorities cannot significantly affect social policy in their area, why should they bother voting or even participating in the delivery of those services?

The mass privatisation of local services across Britain heralded by the One Barnet programme has the potential to fundamentally undermine local democracy. If that happens, there will be little to stop private companies taking over what little remains of local government.

The Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.