Thursday, 13 June 2013

Do Not Write Off Engaging with Croydon Council

There was a very low attendance in the public gallery at Tuesday night’s Scrutiny and Strategic Overview Committee meeting considering the decision to treat John Laing Integrated Services as preferred bidder for the Library contract. This was probably a measure of the growing cynicism of activists about engaging with the Council’s Committee process. This is a pity as engagement in the decision making process should never be written off as a waste of time, even if only small examples of influence can be achieved.

Ian Hunter, another resident concerned about the process, and I spoke to the Committee on the Libraries issue. I also spoke on the Committee’s work programme.  I think both sets of interventions were useful.

Ian Hunter’s Questions

Ian Hunter argued that there should have been a public  consultation on the re-tendering. After summarising the background he posed three questions to Cllr. Pollard:

·         Given that the current JLIS bid introduces new material or substance issues that either reallocate risk factors or require a re-assessment of price and this makes a marked change in delivery of the Services. What reasons in detail will you give for not holding a formal and General Public Consultation exercise, even  though such an action might delay the placing of a new contract?
·         Given that JLIS, an experienced manager of several libraries, spent several months in intensive negotiations during which  they should have taken into account all Financial and Performance management aspect of Library services, what differences in detail, not apparent in the original dialogue are present in the revised bid?
·         Given that this issue revolves around the way any contractor should perform their duties and how accountable they would be to the Borough Council – and by extension its ratepayers, rather  than shareholders, why is Cllr. O’Connell, as Cabinet Member for Finance Performance management, not sitting before this assembly instead of yourself?

Cllr. Pollard was there and not O’Connell because the Leader had delegated the matter to him. His answers stressed that both JLIS and GLL revised bids were different from their originals but to the same specification which had not changed. The price has come down offering a better deal. The offer includes new IT, wi-fi, new stock and other new service benefits, such as self-service. He could not give more detail because of the legal constraints.

Committee Members Concerns

There were several questions from Committee members to which Cllr. Pollard responded:
·         There would be no library closures.
·         The aggregate number of opening hours would be the same as now, and any changes within that at particular libraries would have to be discussed with the Council.
·         No one can  second guess what the next Comprehensive Spending Review would require in the way of future cuts to the Council’s budget; he hoped that the proposed tendering savings would enable the Council in the future to resist having to cut the Library budget allocation.
·         The building assets remain with the Council so if JLIS goes bust the Council would step in to provide the service while it decided what should happen next.

 Scrutinising Leader’s Delegated Authority

Labour Committee spokesperson Cllr Sean Fitzsimons was concerned about the way in which Cllr Pollard’s decision had been posted on the web and not notified to Labour Councillors. While Democratic and Legal Services officers defended the process as being within the letter of the requirements, cross party agreement was reached on the need to  consider how to scrutinise how the Leader’s delegated authority process operates.

My Comments

I stressed the importance of the public right to have basic information about what Laing was proposing. I suggested the issue would not go away; there might be referrals to the Ombudsman and District Auditor and that it would be a major issue in the local elections. I suggested that the exercise be aborted and the future of libraries be a matter for the election. My final point related to whether there was a major conflict of interest which should have debarred JLIS from being invited to bid in the first place.  As I thought there may have been a bit of a misunderstanding about what I said  I have explained it in a follow-up email. As far as I can make it out CCURV  is an organisation made up of two sets of partners: J. Laing and the Mayor and Burgesses of Croydon. The Library bid by JLIS is from a subsidiary of the J. Laing. Cllr Pollard admitted that this was an interesting point which a legal opinion should be sought on.

‘Commercial Confidentiality’ Frustration

Committee members and  Cllr Pollard were clearly frustrated by the fact that the legal advice received made it clear that the kind of detailed information about JLIS’s bid could not be made public because of ‘commercial confidentiality’. Cllr Fitzsimons contrasted this with the level of financial information set out in the additional papers on another item on the agenda, the proposed join regulatory services with Merton and Richmond Councils. Members found themselves hamstrung in discussing detail they could discuss in open session. However a lot more information and explanation has been provided in the additional paper commenting on the Labour call-in, especially in response to its list of questions , which included some of those I had emailed on 25 May to all Councillors. The extra paper is not at the time of writing on the Council website, so to see it you will need to keep checking
Inevitably the Committee went into closed session. When it re-convened in open session members seemed confused about what to do. It did not oppose the decision.  So the next part of the process is to continue discussions with Laing to see if a contract can be entered into and agreed.

In my follow-up email I have suggested that there is a way in which more information could be made publicly available. Discussions could be had with JLIS to reach agreement on what detail they would be prepared to allow the Council to publish. I have also suggested that it would also make sense to issue a public statement  setting out the assurances Cllr Pollard gave to the Committee and using some of the material in answer to the Labour call-in questions. That would provide the public more information that is readily available at present. It could be displayed at all the Libraries and other Council premises, schools, etc.

The Work Programme

On the work programme Committee Chair Steve Hollands asked me to email my suggestions so they could be taken into account. I agreed to do this but also exercised my right to address the Committee.

I expressed the hope that the Committee would develop a more open, less party political inquiry approach to its work, encouraging all types of community and voluntary groups to submit their analyses, views and recommendations on topics the Committee is considering. [My views on the role of Scrutiny Committees can be seen in my blog discussion on Lambeth’s at]

I suggested that there additional issues which have been emerging over recent months which merit inquiry:

·         Welfare and anti-poverty strategy (inc. how to increase benefit take-up and advice provision – I particularly cited the problem of pensioner poverty.)
·         Cultural and heritage strategy
·         Rented housing strategy.  I was not sure whether this would fit in the 18 June Housing topic, given the serious of the issue and involving such questions as increasing low rent social housing; reducing homelessness; re-examining the value of past initiatives such as living over the shop, and private landlord rent levels.
·         Street Lighting Replacement Programme, given the growing concerns about people’s dealings with the programme team, issues of siting at boundary walls not a kerb edges, and conversation areas.

On the whole my suggestions seemed  favourably received. Tory Cllr  Dr Jason Cummings said that street lighting  was already scrutinised. My concern was supported by Labour’s Cllr Khan.

I have now emailed the Committee Clerk, copied to Cllrs Holland, Cummings, Fitzsimonds and Pollard. As concern was expressed about the increased load of taking on extra topics on the Committee and its two sub-committees, I have suggested that If there are Councillors who are not on any Committees or only one, then smaller inquiries under the Committee could involve them easing the load on Committee members.

Community and voluntary groups that want to consider submitting views to the Committee on the topics it will be reviewing over the next few months can see the list on the Committee agenda at the same Council webpage as the one above.

This posting is also in my EDiary/News Issue 40 available from me at 

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