Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Albert’s got it wrong that it’s the end of local government

Albert’s got it wrong that it’s the end of local government

The Chamberlain Files have reported a new suicide note for Birmingham City Council written by the Birmingham Labour Party – see http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/birmingham-city-council-in-600-million-budget-crisis/5017 

In the article, Paul Dale describes how under Albert Bore’s leadership the Council will be making over 1000 people redundant and reducing the Council to only providing “adult and children’s social services, schools, refuse collection and housing.” Or as Albert describes it “the end of local government as we have known it.”

Now I could go on to describe how Albert and the Labour Party came into power in May promising “no cuts”, but I won’t. What I will describe is how if the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition had continued, this decimation would not be happening.

The coalition recognised that there were massive inefficiencies within the Council and there were huge opportunities to carefully cut these out. And when I left in May 2012 as Cabinet member for Leisure, sport and Culture, there were still loads more inefficiencies and money raising ways that could be dealt.

To give some examples of how lose making Council services can be turned around, let’s look as some examples I achieved as Cabinet member

Golf courses – Birmingham has 7 golf courses that have been losing money for over 20 years. In 2008/9 they lost £650,000 with the likelihood that would increase to over £1million per year. When I became Cabinet member, my officers were recommending closing half of Cocks Moor Woods golf course, closing one third of Harborne Church Farm golf course and completely closing Hill Top golf course. I completely turned this on its head and invited bids from private sector companies to run ALL 7 golf courses. Last January, a national golf company with an excellent reputation took over the management of the courses. They would investing over £16million in upgrading them, plus maintain the courses as competively priced turn-up-and-play golf courses. The Council still own the courses, but the £650k loss is now reduced to zero.

The Labour Party criticised me for privatising the management of our golf courses, insisting that ‘they’ would be happy to keep funding them to the tune of £650,000 per year. I reduced that loss to zero and if I hadn’t done this, all 7 courses would now be in danger of closing after April 2013.

Harborne swimming baths – Harborne swimming baths used to lose £300,000 per year. With its rebuilding, we estimated that if the Council continued to run it, it would lose £150,000 per year. We now have a private company who are paying the Council to run it as a municipal leisure centre. Harborne swimming baths is now the ONLY leisure centre that does not make a loss. The Council still sets the entrance price for Harborne baths, plus they continue to run all the Councils concessionary schemes. So how is it that a private sector company can run a leisure centre at a profit, but not the public sector. The reason is simple – the private sector companies market the leisure centres well and run them efficiently both in energy use and management. There are lots of private companies that run municipal leisure and sports centres up and down Britain and understand the latest energy saving technologies, plus the latest leisure trends for customers.

Birmingham has a huge stock of leisure centres that are losing millions of pounds per year. Instead of closing them down, as Labour seem intent on doing, let’s see if the private sector can run them profitably.
Playing fields – the Council spends over a million pounds per year cutting grass in playing fields that desperately need investment. A classic example is Holders Lane and Pebble Mill playing fields, just south of Cannon Hill Park. The Council spends over £100,000 per year cutting its grass, with almost zero income from their hire. Few schools use them due to the derelict changing rooms on Holders Lane playing fields, and the non-existence of changing rooms on Pebble Mill playing fields.

We have two organisations that would like to maintain these playing fields at their own cost, invest up to £7million in upgrading the playing fields by installing new drainage and building state-of-the art changing rooms on both playing fields. The cost of hire would still be set by the Council and schools would be encouraged to use them.

The new Labour administration doesn’t want to hand over these playing fields to either organisations and are happy to continue cutting the grass and see little-or-no-one use these playing fields (so much for our Olympic legacy!).

When I was Cabinet member, we had lots of interested companies – community, charitable and private – that were interested in taking the day-to-day management of specific playing fields off our hands, investing in them and continuing to run them as community playing fields.

Isn’t it better to see our playing fields run by non-Council organisations, than to be left to rot under Council management as the Labour Party seems intent on doing?

The above is just a small part of the entrepreneurial ways that the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration was working with both the third sector and the private sector to run our Council services more efficiently.

The Birmingham Labour may feel working with the third sector and private sector is ideologically impure. However, I think members of public would rather see an open private-public sector facility, than a permanently closed public sector facility.

Time for the Labour administration to get real!


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