Cllr Roderick Bluh, the Conservative leader of Swindon Council, on how backbench councillors can pay their way – by challenging procurement spending items "asking the questions officers wish hadn't been asked."
One of the biggest challenges of any Conservative administration is how to gain control over the Council’s procurement process so that delivering value for money becomes a way of life, and not an afterthought. We have all heard stories about how suppliers up their prices by 20% when the customer is the Council simply because they think they can get away with it. Whether this is true or not, as Conservatives we know that every pound we spend comes from the taxpayers, therefore it is our duty to make sure it is spent effectively.
We have to acknowledge that the distortion of Labour’s best value has created a culture where officers can become so fixated on delivering the gold-plated services. At the same time Labour’s ill-thought out scrutiny-executive split has left the majority of councillors feeling excluded from real decision-making.
In Swindon we use a Procurement Advisory Group, called PAG, whose chairman is the Cabinet member for Finance, where back-benchers examine in detail, all major spending proposals. I am delighted with the way this Group operates and it shows the power and benefit of having good Conservative councillors.
PAG has proved to be extremely effective because the members have absolutely no hesitation in probing the detail, asking the questions officers wished had not been asked and not being fobbed off with petty excuses. It has the courage to recommend reports be rejected. In one instance, even the Chief Executive had to withdraw an item for further work because it had not survived PAG’s incisive examination. Since it meets in private and is an advisory group, it is not bound by the usual notice and access to information rules. Against this, it only makes recommendations and not decisions allowing the cabinet member the option of ignoring councillors’ advice.
There have been two real benefits. First, we estimate that we have been able to save £10m on procurement. As well as securing vital services in a growing town, this has meant we have delivered balanced budgets and reduced council tax increases by two thirds on the previous Labour regime. There is still more work to do, and our next task is to separate the function of procurement from those who hold the budgets. By doing this, we can use professional buyers who are more skilled in negotiating and extracting the best deal rather than those who are more concerned simply with using what is to be procured.
Second, it has helped us reverse part of new Labour’s attacks on local government, which were based on the logic that some Labour councillors were incompetent; therefore all councillors are not to be trusted. Giving back benchers a real say in the important decisions of the council is vital. I hope that the next Conservative government will do more than it has so far indicated to reverse the paranoia against locally elected, locally accountable councillors and give us real authority as well as responsibility to shape our boroughs, counties and districts for the better.