'Shared services project is best way forward'
COUNCILLOR Steve Double, Cabinet member for shared services, finds himself speaking for the authority on its plans to transfer services such as payroll, benefits and libraries to a joint venture with a private company in a contract potentially worth up to £800 million.
Yet while the shared services project has brought concerns from councillors, unions and the public about what it means for the future of council services and jobs, Mr Double is confident it is the best way forward.
He says: "Under the terms of the contract the joint venture will have to make savings of 20 per cent on the services that it provides – that is something that the council would not be able to do without having to cut back those services.
"The contract will state that the services provided by the joint venture will have to be maintained and will have to remain at the same level and standard as now. And obviously there is a hope that with the expertise of our private partner the quality of those services will actually improve."
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"What has been lost in the headline grabbing is that the alternative is not to do nothing. With the savings that we have to make the status quo is not an option.
"The alternative would be culling 200 to 300 jobs and a reduction in council services. This is about protecting council services and securing and protecting jobs for the future.
"The contract we are negotiating will clearly state service delivery has to be maintained and service standards have to be maintained at current levels and any strategic decisions, let's say, closing a library, the council would maintain the ultimate decision on that.
"Those services (covered by the joint venture) will be more secure than they currently are as they will be written into a contract.
"If we have got to make 20 per cent savings we will be forced with decisions to close things like libraries or reduce staff.
"The challenges the partnership will face are exactly the same. The difference, I believe, is that being in a joint venture gives us the opportunity to protect those services and it is less likely that we will have to make further cuts."
One of the main benefits highlighted has been the promise that 500 jobs could be created by the project – but how certain is that and what kind of jobs would they be?
Mr Double explains: "The level of jobs which will be created will be part of the contract – it will be a contractual obligation and there will be penalties if they don't deliver. These will be net jobs created by the venture. Both companies are considering relocating part of their existing base operations to locations in Cornwall. The other jobs will come from the winning of contracts from other councils across the country.
"People have questioned the level of jobs which will be available, but I always say that for every basic job you have to have supervisors, managers, you have to have technicians and human resources – I am confident that there will be a broad range of jobs created by this project. They will not all be low wage jobs.
"It will open up a new market as it is not seasonal employment, it's not dependent on the weather – it will be a new market for jobs. And all the jobs must be based in Cornwall – that doesn't stop people from outside Cornwall applying, but they must be based in Cornwall. It means the partner cannot move the operations elsewhere."
The Conservative Cabinet member also said while concerns have been made about changes which could come about due to the transfer of services he believes this will be negligible.
"What is important to understand is that we will be transferring our existing workforce into the joint venture, it will be the same staff in the same places delivering the same services. We are not talking about having new staff from the partner coming in here to do the jobs.
"In my conversations with the public they don't have any hang-ups about who delivers the services; all they are interested in is getting value for money and good quality services.
"People have made comparisons with the waste contract where we amalgamated six contracts into one unified contract. In that everything about that service changed, there were new vehicles, new rounds … on day one with this virtually nothing will change."
He also addressed concerns over the council's control over services in future, saying: "In future should the joint venture want to make any changes they will have to present to the partnership board a business plan for our approval on how they will operate our services. The partnership board will have representatives from health and from the council – how that will be formed and work I can't say as it is different for each bidder.
"In terms of the council there will be a role for members through a committee or panel that will closely scrutinise the partnership. I believe the control of the council over these services will be at the same level it currently is."
Asked whether he believed that the project would go ahead and whether it would work he said he was confident.
"The over-arching idea of the project is to take the best of the private sector and team it with the best of the public sector and using our joint expertise to protect public services.
"I am confident that this will deliver significant benefits for Cornwall both in terms of protecting council services and creating a new employment opportunity."