‘The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.’ I was reminded of this old idiom when I read David Cameron’s latest outburst on public service reform. In his Daily Telegraph article, Cameron said
We will create a new presumption – backed up by new rights for public service users and a new system of independent adjudication – that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service…… This is a transformation: instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly.
There is an obvious contradiction between the localist agenda and Cameron’s new doctrine of ‘compulsory competition’. Cameron appears to be saying ‘you can do what you like as long as it is what I like, and not otherwise’. There is to be a White Paper called ‘Open Public Services’. I assume that means making public services open to anyone to make a few bucks – hence the need to count the spoons.
Competition has been an important element in providing housing services for a long time, especially to deliver hard projects like capital investment, repairs and grounds maintenance, or to deliver IT-based services like some elements of housing benefit. In many circumstances it is the sensible thing to do. But not in all, and much less so in the services that are highly focused on people.
The previous attempt to bring Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) into housing management – under the last Tory government – was an unmitigated disaster and a huge waste of time and money. CCT was an extraordinarily bureaucratic exercise requiring councils to write hugely detailed specifications of the services they wanted to deliver, and in-house teams to write hugely detailed proposals about how they would go about performing the specification. Both sides required teams of people including lawyers and accountants (and humble housing consultants) – I know because I did both on behalf of various councils. The fact that very few housing associations, faced with the same issues but not subject to the regime, chose to put their housing management services out to competition told its own story – they would have done so if it made any sense.
It was – still is – a fledgling market and a few private firms also wasted their time putting in hopeless bids. Where other providers did win contracts it was invariably where the existing service was failing and the council, often with tenant support, concluded that new providers might help bring about improvements. Some providers have done well, but that’s not my point.
A lot was written about HM CCT at the time, why compulsory tendering was an ideologically-driven waste of time and money that also held back real service improvement by diverting resources into pointless activities. Most sensible people think these decisions should be made by landlords and tenants who know their local services. If Cameron chooses to go down the road of centrally-directed compulsion again it will prove that the Tories don’t learn from history or from their previous mistakes.
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