Using budget airlines as a template for better service provision might seem a strange idea, on the face of it. But that’s what Tory-controlled Barnet Council is doing: it’s trying to get a better handle on costs by charging residents extra for services that were once considered standard – including things like planning applications, waste collection, and home help. However, as far as we know there’s no plan to start putting coin slots on toilet doors or charging fat people more council tax, so it’s not pursuing the Ryanair model entirely…
The experiment – which has inevitably been dubbed ‘easyCouncil’ – is supposedly about spending the council’s money in a more flexible and targeted way. Just as Ryanair and co were able to provide cheap and cheerful flights by charging for all these optional extras, so Barnet council thinks it can cut its basic costs and allocate its spending better by charging for things like faster planning consent. Since it looks inevitable that councils are going to have to trim their budgets in the coming years, as the Government is forced to cut public spending, you can see the sense in this.
Naturally there’s also a political aspect to this. Since this is a Tory council, it’s inevitably being seen as a dry run for possible policy under a Conservative government. And it includes some of the trendiest Tory ideas of the moment, like greater customer choice. For example, the elderly will apparently be given more say in how their care budgets are spent: instead of a cleaner, they can fritter the cash away on a trip to Eastbourne instead, should they so desire. Dave’s people are denying that it’s a blueprint for future reforms, but we’re sure he’ll be watching with interest (he’s previously said that he’ll basically leave local councils to their own devices, which is very un-Thatcherite of him).
We’re all for councils spending money more effectively, and for residents taking more responsibility (‘With council tenants, there has been a lot of 'my a**e needs wiping, can somebody from the council come and do it for me,’ as one local councillor colourfully put it in the Standard). But we can’t help feeling that adopting a no-frills approach to public sector provision could be fraught with difficulties. People use budget airlines because they’re cheap, and they only have to put up with them for a few hours. But council tax is already expensive, and we use its services all the time. We’re not sure what the consequences will be for the social contract if councils start treating their residents like profit centres rather than human beings...
In today's bulletin:
Business spending slumps to record low - but GDP revised upwards
Tory council adopts 'no frills' approach to spending
Bad day at work? Blame your colleagues
SMEs hung up on taking telephone calls
Celebrate in style, with YouTube