Headlines: February 22nd, 2011

Prime Minister David Cameron has set out his vision of public services where providers from the private and third sectors will be given a level playing field to compete with any public body. This will be achieved by creating a presumption that private firms, voluntary groups and charities will be allowed to run services. By creating this legal presumption there would be no need for repeated legislation.

The plans could allow non-public providers to run schools, hospitals and council services, such as parks and adult care. Mr Cameron said that the new legislation, which will be announced in a White Paper next month, will not be about destabilising the public services on which people rely but rather it will be about ensuring they are as good as they can be.

Although the new arrangements are being viewed as privatisation, the term could be misleading because the move will provide an alternative revenue stream for charities that have lost state funding under the programme of cuts. Opening up public services in this way will boost the Big Society by opening minds to a wider range of possibilities for responding to local situations.

The White Paper will propose a transformation in thinking about public services. The current need to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services will be replaced by the state having to justify why it should continue to operate a monopoly.

Opening public services in this way is closely related to the Localism Bill currently being debated in Parliament and to the Total Pace approach to the delivery of services. Total Place has been re-badged as Community Budgets and pilots in 16 areas will start in April 2011. The pilots will have a pooled pot of money to respond to the needs of families with complex needs in those areas. Place Boards will be set up to provide governance and accountability. Under this new model it would be a short step for Place Boards to commission private or third sector companies or to prompt the formation of mutuals to deliver services in innovative ways.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber in responding to the Prime minister’s announcement said: “This is a naked right wing agenda that takes us right back to the most divisive years of the 1980s. The Prime Minister has been telling us that the cuts are sadly necessary, not a secret political project to destroy public services. Yet today’s proposal to privatise everything that moves is exactly the kind of proposal that voters would reject if put at an election .

Simon Parker Director of the New Local Government Network said: “The NLGN welcomes the introduction of a presumption that public services should be open to a range of providers, while ensuring the mistakes of ‘CCT’ are not repeated.”