One Barnet - a billion pound gamble?

It is local government outsourcing on a scale never seen before and it is widely viewed as a blueprint for Tory privatisation.

Barnet Council’s answer to swingeing government funding cuts amid one of the harshest economic recessions in living memory is One Barnet – a programme due to hand over more than �50million worth of the council’s services each year to two private companies.

On Monday (October 22), scores of activists and residents filled the Phoenix Cinema, in High Road, East Finchley, for the premiere of Barnet – The Billion Pound Gamble.

The film, made by American director Charles Honderick, examines fears in the local community about the uncertainty of such unprecedented outsourcing.

With Barnet Council’s cabinet set to approve the entire scheme and award two corporations multi-million pound contracts for the next 10 years by January, time is running out for those in opposition and one question resonates stronger than ever – just how much of a gamble is One Barnet?

The government’s national spending review of local authority funding, announced in 2010, stripped Barnet Council’s budget of �72million for the next five years.

The ruling Conservative group at the council sees outsourcing the bulk of its services as the most effective option to negate the need for increased council tax and wide-ranging service cuts.

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Barnet’s deputy leader Cllr Dan Thomas, cabinet member for resources and performance, conceded that One Barnet was not without its risks but insisted residents would benefit ultimately.

“All projects of the smallest and biggest size have risks and I’m confident we have mitigated against those risks,” he said.

“I’m sure residents don’t want their council tax going up or their services to be cut.”

Among the most prominent fears from those in opposition is the prospect of a private firm, commissioned under One Barnet, going bust and plundering millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

But Cllr Thomas said “clauses in contracts” agreed between the council and private firms would ensure that in the event of a company going under, taxpayers’ money would be compensated.

Following Monday’s premiere at the Phoenix Cinema, the Barnet Alliance for Public Services (BAPS) held a Q&A session between audience members and a panel of One Barnet opposition activists.

Theresa Musgrove, author of the Broken Barnet blog where she writes as Mrs Angry, described One Barnet’s process of commissioning services privately as “deeply flawed”, arguing that there are “potential conflicts of interests”.

There are also concerns that the outsourcing of council services will shed local jobs and put the desire for profit ahead of what is best for local residents.

However, the council believes that further jobs will actually be created under One Barnet’s Development and Regulatory Services (DRS) project, one of the council’s two major outsourcing contracts.

Council bosses also point to the recent transfer of the music service to run independently as an example of the merits of outsourcing.

As an independent body, the music service now qualifies for charitable funding it could not access under council control.

On Wednesday (October 24), representatives from BAPS presented a petition to a group of Barnet councillors, calling on the council to halt the One Barnet programme until it has been put to a referendum of residents.

They claim that the council has failed to discuss their plans with residents, who should be able to vote on whether they want it to go ahead or not.

But Cllr Thomas and the council’s Tory group see it differently.

“We won the last election with this commissioning model out there as a policy of the council,” he said.

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