Council sell-off – first services identified

LIBRARIES, highway services and children’s centres could be among the first services offloaded by Suffolk County Council in an unprecedented shake-up of the authority, the EADT can reveal.

The county council’s full meeting next Thursday is set to approve the implementation of the authority’s “New Strategic Direction” which will see services sold off or handed over to social enterprise bodies.

It aims to offload these services in three distinct phases over the next two years – and is aiming to start the process by trying to “divest” some services in a pilot programme before phase one starts in April next year.

Some of the county’s most high-profile services could be included in the pilot scheme.

It is considering offloading its libraries, highway services, youth clubs, independent living centres, employment enterprises, careers advice service, early years services including children’s centres, its country parks and one of the county’s record offices.

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Not all these services will be included in the pilot scheme – the county is planning further discussions before it makes a final decision.

It is implicit in the report that the process could be challenging. It says: “It is the intention that lessons will be learned by going through this process.”

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The EADT revealed last week that the county council is aiming to spin off as many services as possible to the private sector or social enterprise bodies which are run at arms length from the authority.

This could ultimately leave the council with just a few hundred managers organising contracts with other bodies – although council leader Jeremy Pembroke said he did not expect the fire service would be run in this way.

Last night Mr Pembroke said: “The New Strategic Direction is the proposed solution to the issues we face as a result of the national financial situation.

“We recognise that the funding we will get from the Government will be lower. Our proposals have three things at their heart – stronger local democracy, more responsive and cost-effective services which others are well placed to deliver with our support, and greater capacity in communities so that people can have the services they want, rather than those that we think they need.

“We know that we need to do something to reduce the size of the council – make it less bureaucratic and less expensive. But nothing has been decided yet – we will have a full and open debate at the council meeting next week.”

The timescale for the “divesting” of services which will leave the county as an “enabling authority” is quite rapid.

The full phase one of the programme would run from April until October/November next year.

Phase two would start in the middle of next year and run until May 2012 and phase three would run from late autumn next year until September 2012.

The timetable for the changes was described as “very ambitious” by opposition leader Kathy Pollard from the Liberal Democrats.

She said: “I wish I had more confidence in what they are planning to do, but I’m afraid I don’t.

“They are pressing ahead very fast and are really not consulting anyone about the proposals. I hear concerns from parish councils who are expected to take on a more central role and from staff.

“There are thousands of loyal and committed staff at the authority who have not been involved in this process at all and are then just being told their jobs could be at risk. That is not a good way to treat people.”

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