Fears over Sunderland Council services sell-off

CONCERNED: Colin Wakefield
CONCERNED: Colin Wakefield
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COUNCIL services will be put up for sale this summer amid warnings that authority bosses need to be “very careful” about privatisation.

The so-called Community Right to Challenge will allow voluntary and community groups, charities, parish councils or two or more members of local authority staff to bid to run council services.

Any service provided by the council, either directly or on its behalf, will be up for grabs between June 1 and July 31, with only some NHS-run services and those commissioned to help individuals with complex health and social care needs exempt.

The policy was approved by Sunderland City Council’s cabinet as they were legally obliged to by the Coalition Government’s Localism Act.

It means any bid – or “expression of interest” – that meets the Act’s criteria, will trigger an open procurement process in which any private company can offer to run a service.

But Independent Sunderland councillor Colin Wakefield said he was worried about the impact of the plans.

He said: “The track record of the Localism Act is not good. It seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction to things, and it’s far from clear what benefits there are from it.

“One of the problems with privatising services is it ends up with people on the lowest wages and the minimum number employed while services end up being cut and cut.

“Services suffer and we have to be very careful about that.”

Cabinet secretary Mel Spedding insisted the policy would not result in a free-for-all.

“If a bid meets the criteria, then we have to consider it, but the decision is, quite rightly, with the local authority, as guardians of the public purse,” he said.  “People cannot just say ‘I can do that’, give us a cheque and then just start the work. They have to be a relevant body and they have to display an ability to do the work.

“The criteria is not that different to our standard procurement rules.”

Conservative leader Robert Oliver added: “It’s a very positive idea, and there have been some good examples of how it can work.”