The Bickerstaffe Record

Being Labour, Cotterill on the Council, Leisure and culture

Summing up the Tory approach in West Lancashire

06.18.08 | 1 Comment

The phrase ‘people not profit’ is a bit hackneyed nowadays, and is often used without much in the way of  thought process.  Yet it’s the reverse  – ‘profit not people’ which comes to mind as the most appropriate way to encapsulate the West Lancs District ruling Tories’ approach to its ‘management’ of leisure services – by ‘management’ I mean the way it outsources it to Serco.  The clearest example of this is the Cabinet report on how it wants to see the new swimming pool and sports centre in Skelmersdale managed.  The report is written by an officer, but I don’t blame him – all he’s doing is reflecting Tory priorities.

Read the report, and see if you can see any mention at all of the effect on people in West Lancashire of outsourcing leisure services to Serco, via the Council’s nominally independent but tame West Lancashire Leisure Trust (one of its Trustees of 2006-07 is, by 2008-09, the Tory Cabinet responsible for leisure services, which doesn’t exactly smack of independence!).

 There’s brief reference to the number of customers having increased, but that’s set in financial terms rather than whether it’s good for people.  More importantly, the use of general customer increases conceals two issues :

a) that customer numbers in the way the reports uses it means customers visits, and it’s quite possible that it’s a smaller number of people with more dosh using the facilities more often, with others having dropped off since prices increased;

and (related to this)

b) that in Skelmersdale, where the new facility is due to go up, customer numbers (in their terms) dropped while they increased markedly in the better off parts of the District.

 So what are the recommendations of the report?  That the new facility just be handed over to Serco.  The rationale for this is that the taxpayer of West Lancashire already subsidises them to the tune of £1million per year, and that it’s sensible to have continuity.

The point I’ll be putting over as forcibly as I can in the coming months is that it is a very long way from sensible to approach it like this, as long as you believe in public services being beneficial to people, as opposed to large companies. 

 First, there is ample evidence – see my January report on the state of play with Serco – to suggest that Serco are not delivering what is needed.   Second, even in the absence of evidence to date, surely it makes sense to conduct an evaluation, in the context of The Leisure Trust’s (laudable but unrealised) stated objectives, of what has been delivered to date, and make a decision about whether to go to open tender/deliver the service in-house based on the findings. 

 The Council has already effectively given £3million – in any other circumstance the opportunity would be taken to conduct a ‘mid-term’ evaluation.  Why won’t they do the same here?  The simple answer is that they  don’t care about the quality of provision, or about how it affects people’s lives  – for them it’s enough to have got rid of the responsibility and they don’t want any awkward answers  to questions they’ve not thought of asking.

 I’ll ask for them then.

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