Today City of Edinburgh Councillors are making the most important decision of their political careers. The Liberal Democrat-led administration has proposed a dramatic change in the level and mechanism of service delivery. While there’s been a lot of discussion of the Edinburgh Trams this change, if implemented, promises to turn vast swathes of Council services into a shambolic embarrassment for the people of Edinburgh.

The decision will be about whether to finally approve a process designed by senior management to substantially reduce in-house provision of services. Masquerading under the title “Alternative Business Models” this approach functions by creating a price for the way services are delivered presently, then inviting profit-motivated organisations to beat that price.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out what will happen. The private companies will design services to win the contracts. They’ll be able to do this, in part because they either pay no pension to workers below senior management, or because they pay very low pensions. The other reason why private companies will seek to win these contracts is that they can make enormous profit from additional services. This happens when the Council needs something that they haven’t specified in the contract. It is what drove the price of the trams project up so enormously. For example, very large parts of the work to move utilities in the tram project weren’t included in the contract. The engineering firms therefore charged the very substantial costs to the Council. In many cases this is done at a premium, or in the form of a surcharge. It’s a little bit like the schemes promoted by Ryanair to charge passengers to use the toilet. While the upfront price looks less, the overall cost is in fact substantially more.

Where currently Council employees often work longer and harder than strictly required and take on initiatives by themselves, this will no longer happen. Instead anything other than the basic service will result in premium charges being incurred by the Council. We will lose helpful and willing staff and instead be served by staff working with poor conditions, poor pensions and being driven to maximise profits from the citizens of Edinburgh. By opting for companies that function on the profit motive Edinburgh Council is asking for the people of Edinburgh to be fleeced.

Given Edinburgh Council’s previous attempts to outsource services to profit-making organisations, this project looks doomed to disaster for the citizens of Edinburgh. In 2008 the Council ‘outsourced’ homelessness services to save money. They were so keen to save money that they are said to have asked the organisation that had won the contract to take a significant cut to the value of the contract. The result was the contractor walking away from the contract. The result was the Council paying vast sums to provide the service in-house, and the loss of an award-winning project delivered by Shelter.

Having utterly failed to learn from this disaster the Council instead decided to batter ahead with a similar process for the most vulnerable people requiring social care. By slashing the money available to contractors, the Council aimed to make savings at the expense of those in need of daily care support. Thankfully one administration Councillor worked for a care organisation and so had to declare an interest in the vote. This allowed the opposition, led by Cllr Maggie Chapman to defeat the administration. A review of the process by an external organisation concluded there were 27 flaws in the process. It’s almost certain that any savings from cutting services to vulnerable people have been eaten up in mismanaged tendering processes.
The implementation of the “Alternative Business Models” approach will mean a reduction in the quality of service and an overall increase in the cost of running the Council. The only people who gain are the owners of the companies providing services.

But all is not lost, the SNP announced yesterday they wouldn’t vote for important parts of the plan. It’s unclear whether they’ll vote for the rest of the programme. And other Councils have pursued this model. Few have succeeded.

Barnet Council wanted to make their Council perform like a budget airline. The plans were derailed when the savings didn’t materialise. Suffolk County Council followed a similar path – the result was a change of both approach and Council leader.

What is common to these is that citizens expressed their serious concerns. If you value your services in Edinburgh, or anywhere else, it makes sense to go and see your Councillor to tell them to stop this process. If you’re in Edinburgh join Save Our Services – Edinburgh Against Privatisation who organised today’s protest outside the council