Cornwall Council yesterday debated in an open and informed way proposals to set up a major joint venture with BT, keep services in-house or have a limited “strategic partnership”.
The debate was webcast and councillors voted on the basis of a wealth of information published by the council on its website. On the specific potential benefits of a joint venture the council had information from BT and Kevin Lavery, the council’s chief executive. Lavery also produced a useful “pros and cons” summary of the options available to councillors.
On the risks of a joint venture, and the experiences of other authorities, councillors had invaluable information from Cornwall Council’s independent “Single Issue Panel” of councillors, and from Dave Orr who has a deep understanding of Southwest One, the failed joint venture in Somerset with IBM.
In the end the full council rejected proposals for in-house services, and also decided against setting up a major joint venture with BT. Councillors voted for a limited strategic partnership which includes telehealth and telecare, ICT and document management. How this will work, whether BT will want to run it, and whether it will need a new competitive tender are questions yet to be answered.
Jim Currie, the council leader, and a sceptic of a major joint venture, warned councillors about the dangers of making a decision under pressure of fear.
“The doom and gloom is just not sustainable,” he said. “The fear that has been put in us has to be modified by reality. The reality is that the vast majority of councils will go under before we do.”
He added that the council has expertise, pensions, and trading contacts that would be given away in a joint venture or outsourcing deal. A costly SAP system would also be transferred. The council, he said, would be “giving away the ERP that cost us so much money and lots of IT updates that go with it”.
Cornwall Council has emerged from the debate over the proposed joint venture with BT as an exemplar of local democracy. Alec Robertson, the former council leader, who was ousted because of his strong support for a joint venture, comes out of the debate with credit.
There was pressure to do so but Robertson decided that the future of council services should be a decision taken by the full council and not by an inner circle of cabinet councillors. This was a bold step but a critical one in favour of local democracy.
Jim Currie who was voted Cornwall’s leader after Robertson was ousted, also emerges from the debate with credit. Like Robertson Currie is a conviction politician.
But the clear winner of the debate is Cornwall Council. Its reports on the options available to councillors are not perfect but at least they make clear what is and is not being published; and a great deal has been published. Everything Cornwall Council has done is in marked contrast to the partnership decision of Barnet Council which kept its decision on a partnership deal to an inner circle of cabinet councillors. Barnet was entitled to do so, but it was a macho stance given the strength of local opposition. Barnet published little information on its proposals compared to Cornwall.
It would be a pity, though, to shine a light on Cornwall’s democratic strengths by putting Barnet in the shadows. Democracy has its flaws, but Cornwall Council has shown how those weaknesses can be tackled by more democracy, not less.
Shared services in the public sector – Tim Manning.
Jude’s Blog (local councillor)
Very thin joint venture is supported – Andrew Wallis (local councillor)