Martin Hannan: Private decision must be public’s

Next week, Edinburgh council will vote on the first part of the process which is intended to lead to Alternative Business Models as a way of running the council.

By Martin Hannan
Tuesday, 18th October 2011, 1:09 pm

When these ideas were first put forward, I was uneasy about them because I felt that such a wholesale privatisation – there is no other word for it –of council services was not being considered carefully enough.

I am not against the principle of private companies running council services, except for schools and social work. If it can be proven that the private sector can do the job better, then it would be folly to oppose it.

I am, however, a mortal enemy of privatisation for its own sake, or for reasons of ideology, and my contention has always been that a full and proper analysis, preferably involving an independent examining body, should be done as to whether the private route is better and more cost-effective than staying wholly public.

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Suffice to say that I have seen absolutely nothing in the council’s plans which in any way convince me that Alternative Business Models are the way forward for Edinburgh.

On the contrary, I am appalled and alarmed that the council is rushing into the privatisation of such important services as cleansing without fully examining what it is proposing. Audit Scotland’s warning that councillors were not fully informed enough to make conclusions about privatisation struck a chord – wasn’t that the reason that decisions on the trams were put off by the council? They wanted more information on the trams, so before decision time, why not examine every last detail of plans which will utterly transform local government in the Capital. And surely the trams must have taught them one lesson – get external and genuinely independent experts to look at the whole of the plans.

Yes, the council has to save money – tens of millions of pounds, though the quickest way to achieve that is not one which the council’s management level will ever propose since it would involve a massive lemming-like cull of themselves and their underlings. Non-filling of vacancies, the banning of overtime, capping of salaries, reduction of salary levels for new directors and the abandonment of all but essential projects should be instituted – it would hurt, but employees would accept that rather than privatisation.

As far as I know, no one really seriously tried to foment an agreement with the other Lothian councils to try to share services and cut costs that way. But then if you were East, Mid or West Lothian, would you really want to be associated with a council that becomes more toxic by the day because of the Great Trams Disaster, as the BBC called it? And no, the title of their informative programme was no exaggeration.

As yet, no councillor has even come close to making the case for privatisation, and no party has embraced it – if they do they can forget about being re-elected because tens of thousands will mark them down for figurative death.

As an SNP member, I would be utterly appalled if any councillor from my party was to vote for privatisation, at least without an absolutely full explanation proving that Alternative Business Models are better and more cost-effective than the present way of doing things. No such explanation has come forward.

Remember, not a single party at the last election put forward any talk of Alternative Business Models. No one, not the Lie Demons, the Tatty Tories, New or Old Labour (what are they this week?) nor the Greens or the SNP has the right to carry out such a huge and fundamental change without putting it to the people.

In no way has the council even come close to making the case for privatisation. Simply saying “we’ve got to do it because of the cuts” is not evidence that privatisation works. It is evidence, however, that the council does not possess sufficient intellectual power to devise other ways of going forward.

A wise woman with considerable experience of the havoc wreaked upon the civil service and local government told me quite simply: “Margaret Thatcher would be proud of them.”

There can be no more eloquent condemnation of those who would cast out hard-working local people to the whims of private industry where, sooner or later, they will suffer worse conditions and probably even lower rates of pay than they get at the moment – not that salaries at the lower end of the council are anything too wonderful.

Working for the council was always a trade-off for the employees – you didn’t get the best wages, but the job was secure and there was a pension to come at the end of your stint. Now job security is going to go out of the window and there must be serious doubt about private companies picking up the bill for the privatised workers’ pensions, at least not in the way that the present pension fund does.

As I have indicated previously, the fiasco over the trams has destroyed any moral right which the present council has to make any decision of such fundamental proportions.

The correct way forward is for the political parties to decide whether they can take privatisation forward and put it to the people next May. That’s the correct and democratic thing to do.