Catalyst for change?

Local elections 2010.'Council Leader Peter Box.'w1820s019
Local elections 2010.'Council Leader Peter Box.'w1820s019

A RADICAL overhaul of council services could see private sector companies and volunteer groups running the district’s parks and libraries.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Wakefield Council bosses put forward controversial proposals to become a “catalyst” council – an authority which is responsible for services but doesn’t directly provide them.

A report to next week’s council cabinet suggests co-operatives, community organisations and town councils will be asked to step in to take over services as the council tackles crippling budget cuts.

It also indicates joint ventures with private sector partners and outside organisations will be considered, but council leader Peter Box has denied claims the council is privatising services.

He said: “I don’t think the report is about privatisation. We have a strong commitment to local services being publicly delivered.

“I believe in local services being delivered by local authorities, the real debate is given the financial climate we are in, how can we make sure that everything is still delivered in the district?

“There are a range of options in terms of delivering services. With libraries, we have had expressions from town and parish councils and the church – that’s not privatisation.

“Parks can be taken over by town councils or organisations such as Friends of Savile Park. I don’t think that’s privatisation.

“It’s never been suggested we are privatising, but you do have to look at the whole range of models. It’s a possibility. In the past we have privatised some things like street lighting.

“Circumstances have changed and we have to look at different delivery models and we shouldn’t be afraid of that.”

Following budget cuts of £67 million, the council has conceded it will no longer be the sole, direct provider of services for the district. It will however remain responsible for the standard of services.

Coun Box added: “Retention of jobs in the district is a key priority. The big debate is, as a catalyst council, how we do this. We have to restructure in terms of service delivery. This report is a starting point.”

If the report is approved, consultation with interested parties will take place until July when cabinet will meet again to discuss the findings.

Conservative council leader Mark Crowther said: “We welcome these proposals, even though everyone recognises that they are being published several years too late.

“Had these proposals been brought forward several years ago, as we have been arguing, the cost efficiencies that would now be available to us would have helped to provide much needed additional support to our frontline local services.”

Kevin Osborne, regional organiser for Unison, said the union was meeting council bosses tomorrow (Friday March 11) to discuss the plans.

He said: “We are somewhat alarmed by what is happening and will be expressing our views when we meet the council.

“Our main comment would be why is it necessary to outsource when existing in-house models can be reviewed. If an in-house arrangement is not delivering then it can be reviewed to see if it can be made more cost effective.

“Voluntary organisations have already expressed concern over their ability to take on more work, given the squeeze that is being placed upon them.

“It looks more likely to be bigger private sector organisations that will be sniffing around and looking for extended opportunities in Wakefield.”