Tim Grier, the Managing Director of John Laing Integrated Services, gave an interesting talk at the recent Conservative Way Forward Local Government conference. In 2008 the then Conservative-led Hounslow Council awarded his firm a ground breaking 15 year contract to manage Libraries – alongside a 10 year contract to run parks, heritage buildings and allotments.
Mr Grier reports:
The cost of running the library service was reduced by £1.25m immediately and has reduced by 30% in total since 2008 – and all 11 libraries remain open and for longer hours than is stated in the contract, at the same time significant refurbishment, colocation with leisure services, replacing all the public computers, installing wireless in the libraries and using technology to free up the staff to serve the community.
And within the 30% reduction in cost the percentage back office costs have gone from 39% to 24% and therefore the costs directed front line up from 61% to 76%. Less time on bureaucracy, less waste – so the Public get more for less.
There are 151 Library Authorities in England, yet only 17 have developed alternative management models. These don't necessarily mean bringing in private firms to run libraries. My own council of Hammersmith and Fulham is part of the Tri Borough initiative which has provided an improved library service at reduced cost. Essex County Council runs the libraries for Slough Council. A few others are run by trusts of leisure companies.
John Laing have also won contracts to run libraries in Croydon, Harrow and Ealing.
Mr Grier certainly feels the process could be easier:
Two years to procure a £4m service is bonkers and it would assist greatly if Local Authorities were to exert the maximum leadership and direction to shorten the process and get to conclusions much quicker.
There should also be an end to closed or restricted practices where during procurement the bidders don’t have opportunity to meet or engage with chief executives, council leaders and councillors to hear the vision for the authority, the plans for the budget and the community services.
Also there should be flexible arrangements rather than restrictive long term contracts to allow more services to be added in time.
Often library buildings have unused office space. One way of achieving savings is to use this space. By moving in staff or voluntary groups from other council properties that helps to keep the library viable, when the surplus building can then be sold.
Privatisation – or "contracting out" or "outsourcing" – is not the only answer. The Big Society option of volunteers running libraries also has attractions. Sharing the library service with neighbouring authorities saves substantial sums – although doing that and contracting out the running of the service are not mutually exclusive policies.
Of course the clear sense in all this does not mean that it avoids controversy. Picture the scene at a Labour Group meeting in Ealing as the councillors are briefed on the privatisation plans. There is likely to be a bit of back chat, isn't there? Inevitably the trade unions complain.
Perhaps that is why several Labour councils have decided to shut libraries instead – horrified by the idea of having anything to do with either volunteers or the private sector. Those councils are seeking to maintain the purity of their socialist ideology – while sacrificing the interests of their local residents.