From the 1st April Kettering’s Library has been taken over by be a social enterprise company called ‘First for Wellbeing’... this will weaken accountability of this public service, and it seems not many people were even aware of this change.
First for Wellbeing, which also now runs the country parks as it has taken on all of the County Council’s Public Health agenda, has been set up by the County Council and is jointly owned by NCC, the NHS and the University of Northampton. As the largest shareholder it is accountable through NCC but there are questions about how this process will work.
Before, services were the responsibility of a councillor on the cabinet along with his or her other cabinet colleagues (all Conservatives). Other backbench councillors had the responsibility to question and scrutinise their work primarily through the relevant scrutiny committee in the same way backbench MPs hold the government to account through select committees, but how this will work now is still unclear.
This is part of the County Council’s plan for Next Generation Working with all services being transferred to trusts or other organisations. The idea is supposedly designed to save money, however it is not clear exactly how this will happen. We know the cost of setting up these organisations is expensive (the consultant in charge earns £1,000 a day for example and is pretty much full time), we know there will be increased management costs, we know they will have to pay VAT where often the council does not, and we know they may have to pay corporation tax where the council does not. What we don't know is exactly how any savings will be coming from because we’ll be left with the same people who run the services now doing pretty much the same job as they do now but for more money.
The whole Next Generation Working model is far from convincing as far as I’m concerned. During the recent farcical budget process we've just gone through, where the Tories had to quickly change their financial plans half way through as it became clear the budget might not be able to be approved, a magical £9m of income appeared in the budget for this year which is money supposed to come into the new children's trust from third parties. How on earth are the council going to sell children’s services to others when they have such a bad national reputation and are under government scrutiny following concerns from OFSTED?
This is why on behalf of the Labour Group I called for the whole next generation outsourcing process to be stopped while we looked at other alternatives including the setting up of co-operatives, bringing in better performing public sector organisations, and continuing to provide direct services but in a different way.
I don’t mind saying that I am not ideologically bound to maintaining services as they are, and if I could be persuaded that we could get a cheaper deal AND that residents of Northamptonshire would get a better service, then I might support it, but there is no way that argument is even close to being made with the next generation project!