Fyson on ... Council trend for no-frills services

Council trend for no-frills services that risks blurring planning's democratic representation.

Pressure is mounting on local government to reduce costs and to rethink its relationship with the citizenry. Conservative-controlled councils have already begun to put forward models of service provision that they claim could save substantial sums and support the "big society".

The liberal left, including Ed Miliband's "new generation" Labour Party, may be infuriated by what it sees as a calculated ideological assault on the public sector.

But it must choose its grounds for criticism carefully. It is no good lashing out, for example, at a supposed drop in standards as a result of outsourcing if evidence indicates the opposite effect.

Neither can the loss of public sector jobs of itself justify resistance. Jobs in the private sector will grow and good service achieved with fewer personnel will seem like a bargain to hard-pressed public chief executives.

The public sector cannot afford to operate as a job creation programme, despite its honourable history as a motor of economic revival, without a hike in taxation to levels that no politician would dare advocate nowadays.

Programmes such as those proposed for Barnet, Brighton and Suffolk involve farming out most - or eventually all - services. They leave the council as little more than a provider of the basics with frills paid for by the recipient, or even as a mere administrator of contracts.

These so-called "easy councils" follow the budget airline model and invite a critique which starts by considering the public's relationship to the providers.

The formula offers little hope of the convenience of the one-stop shop and, in further separating public from experts, runs counter to the localism agenda. In the case of planning, there will be a major reduction of in-house professionals to advise councillors or the public - a trend already well under way.

The maintenance of planning's deserved reputation for professional integrity is all-important. Any further integration of plan-making and commercial development within an expanded consultancy sector is bound to give rise to increased public disquiet. A substantial public service cadre must be retained to prepare, monitor and control the essential policies and processes from a financially disinterested standpoint.

The government's intention to redefine the relationship of the public to the state at the local level has gained credibility with publication of the Commission on 2020 Public Services report, endorsing as it does development of a new culture of democratic participation.

But it cannot achieve this by distancing services from representative democracy.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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