In the middle of the phone hacking scandal David Cameron found time to launch his White Paper on ‘Open Public Services’ (see the Cabinet Office website).
This document contains more warm words than you can count about the benefits it will bring to individuals and communities, but it is remarkably reminiscent of the proposals
for the NHS: when you strip away the verbiage, it is about putting most public services out to tender to any willing provider, extending the purchaser/provider split, and reducing the role of public bodies to that of commissioners. As the paper says: “the principles of open
public services will switch the default from one where the state provides the service itself to one where the state commissions the service from a range of diverse providers.” In the real world, it means more private companies running more public services, the process otherwise known as privatisation.
The implications for housing are not entirely clear. ‘Housing management’ is identified as one of the services where the government will consult about how to open up the service to more local commissioning. There is no specific mention of councils who still directly manage their housing stock but there may be serious implications for them further down the line as the plans develop.
There is a specific reference to arms length management organisations (ALMOs). They are given as a good example of how public sector providers could be given ‘autonomous status’ and become like housing associations. We covered some of the options available for ALMOs recently on Red Brick, but although the White Paper talks a lot about improving accountability and empowerment, more importantly it raises the spectre of ALMOs being forced to become ‘autonomous’ even when this is against the express wishes of the tenants.
One other reference to a housing-related service concerns Supporting People, a service
which is already largely commissioned but where the future emphasis is planned to be on the development of personalised budgets.
There are three principle fears about the White paper and none are addressed in it.
First, that this will follow the same route as Thatcher’s Compulsory Competitive
Tendering regime but with more soft soap – it is bound to involve compulsion but the likely mechanisms for achieving compliance are not made clear. Classic Cameron.
Secondly, there is no reference to the need to undertake an EU procurement for services, which is a major issue when considering the future direction of ALMOs.
And thirdly, there is no linkage to the size of future budgets and the cuts – new rights for individuals and communities will only be worth the paper they are written on if there is the money to back them up.