Never Knowingly Undersold

Well, I have to admit I didn’t see this one coming:

Labour is planning to re-brand one of its local authorities as Britain’s first “John Lewis council”, offering council tax rebates to residents in exchange for helping to run services, in a direct challenge to the Conservatives’ pioneering “easyCouncil”.

In a move which could propel town hall politics into the national general election campaign, ministers are to champion the south London borough of Lambeth as their new vision of how local government can work.

It will put Lambeth head-to-head with the north London borough of Barnet, where the Tories are charging customers for services along the lines of the business model of budget airlines such as easyJet.

But being “ripe for manipulation by indignant local councillors” (arf) then you wouldn’t expect me to be first with all the @lambeth_council cabinet news (quick check: timestamp of 21:45. I certainly wasn’t first to the story, but I can’t be arsed to wait around another five days before the SLP runs with it online.)

And so first thoughts on Labour led @lambeth_council being branded as a ‘John Lewis council’ ahead of the local elections. Don’t be fooled by the name; I would have thought a Primark council would have been more appropriate, given the current shoddy state of leisure and housing in the Rotten Borough.

But the story isn’t about branding. It’s the election policy that the national Nu Labour party has come up with to try and restle back the agenda offer a fresh approach to local politics. @lambeth_council seems to be the guinea pig in all of this.

Fine work in coming up with a strategy to try and revitalise an area that has been left to run down in recent years. What of the policy itself though? Will it really make a difference on the ground and empower the electorate to take more control of their services?

I actually rather like the idea of big medium local government making decisions on my behalf. That’s what I vote them in for – to take care of the local community whilst I can take care of the finer things in life, such as attending to the wine cellar.

Democracy takes place in the form of the ballot box, not a knee jerk voter friendly policy, just weeks away from the election. The idea of my little patch of South London becoming a national political football in the wider scheme of events sits rather uneasy with me.

It is tempting to analyse the John Lewis model and view it as an exercise in taking local politics to the street. The alternative opinion is of course that it is an exercise in taking local politics away from politicians, and allowing them to wash their hands of all responsibility when services fail to deliver.

It is interesting to note that our friends @lambeth_council are keen to cite the Greenwich Leisure Limited example as the way forward in the Rotten Borough, should Labour retain control of the council.

This is hardly a success story of the current administration, leaving the legacy of two closed leisure centres, and one that is only open for public swimming for limited hours during the day.

Talking to the lovely GLL staff on the ground, and it seems that if the John Lewis analysis is to be followed through, then they certainly feel that they are at the wrong end of a never knowingly undersold policy.

Everything has a price with this type of political management, and the sharp end is met from the preferred service providers, and of course the customers.

I’ve kept my receipt after forking out for a Lambeth GLL leisure card. With nowhere for me to swim during the daytime in the Rotten Borough, I certainly feel as though I have been undersold.

But whom do I turn to? The democratically elected political party that has given a stakeholder share in providing the service to a third party? The third party that has its hands tied by @lambeth_council? The Tories?

Careful for what you wish for, once again.

The dressing up of this new approach to local politics will be to talk of an ideological battle taking place Nu Labour in Lambeth, and the Tory Easy Jet model up in Barnet. It’s all a headline writers dream, something that the image conscious Labour cabinet in Lambeth are all too aware of it.

But looking more closely as the proposal, this is anything but a return to the days of the red flag flying from the town hall in the Rotten Borough. John Lewis may have the upper hand over Easy Jet in a game of top trumps (still following all of this twaddle?) but business is business.

And right now, the business of Labour led Lambeth Council is that of doing deals with private capital in a bid to limit responsibility when things go wrong. We’ve witnessed this on a massive scale in Streatham with Tesco now in control of leisure. Is this really the way ahead for Lambeth health, education and housing provision for the following four years?

Local government is elected to govern. If they aren’t up to the job, then they should make way for a political party that can take control of policy and provision in the area.

Hang onto yer receipts, people.

6 thoughts on “Never Knowingly Undersold

  1. It’s all too depressing for words. The LibDems & Tories made a mess of the borough, and after a rather dirtily won election (whatever happened to ‘Keep Clapham Swimming?) Labour have turned out to be no better.

    I hope the elections return a few more Green party councillors, is it too much to hope they might end up holding the balance of power – after all they can’t do much worse than the others.

  2. Hi Jason – while i understand some of your concerns, I think this is a disingenuous take on the proposals – and perhaps coloured with some prejudice about Lambeth – after all who really calls Lambeth “a rotten borough” any more – yes of course life is not perfect but the council has been fast improving (the audit commission’s judgement, not mine). And of course you neglect to mention that Clapham swimming pool is being rebuilt and redeveloped not simply ‘closed’ forever. But the point about getting service users and residents involved in running things is key. In a way it is the same kind of revolution that has happened in so many other fields – the online space being the obvious one. Giving greater opportunities for citizens to become active and involved in running programmes which are for them often leads to better services, rather than ‘knee jerk’ reactions as you put it. And the model is hardly a guinea-pig experiment – something that has already been piloted in Lambeth in a number of areas, works effectively to run a major bank and supermarket (the Co-op) and a major retail business (John Lewis) might just have some merits to it surely? We will face massive budgetary challenges over the next years because of the financial crisis. Faced with that, we have 3 broad choices: ignore it and run up debts, cut back frontline services or look at innovative solutions to protect public services. I know which of those options I would choose.

  3. @Alex Bingham

    Thanks for the reply – it is good to have input from a prospective local Labour councillor for the Stockwell ward (you didn’t mention this, so I thought I would just confirm.)

    About Clapham – the fact remains that it is closed. Along with Streatham. And Brixton, apart from the bonkers opening times. The long term aim of a new Clapham pool is great, but it is the very essence of this proposed John Lewis style of politics that has led to such a meltdown in leisure provision in Lambeth.

    GLL was told to close by the Cathedral Group on 3st December, 2009. Not by Lambeth Council, not by GLL. Business deals made by the Labour group have meant that the Council is no longer in control of the timeline for the closures of key services.

    It’s a similar deal up in Streatham with Tesco holding all the cards.

    If Lambeth Council was in control of leisure, the sensible option would have been to delay the closure of Clapham whilst the money to refurbish Brixton Rec (again) was spent.

    Opening up key public services to interference from outside agencies just leads to confusion, and perhaps more importantly, a lack of accountability on the democratically elected party. Sadly the people of Streatham are finding this out on a massive scale right now.

    As or the knee jerk reaction analysis – why choose to launch this policy only a matter of months before a local election, not to mention a week after the Tories stole all the headlines with their co-op model for local councils?

    I truly hope this has been thought through. Lambeth is a borough that sadly suffers from a lot of social deprivation. You can’t play political games, putting in place social experiments with people that really need your help right now.

    I elect local officials to govern and to be held to account, not to pass the buck to Tesco, the Cathedral Group etc.

  4. My other worry is that this is a great example of headline politics – as Alex says, the idea of replicating successful models like the Co-op or John Lewis is a very attractive one, but at the moment it still appears to be unclear exactly how it’s going to wok.

    If I see more details then maybe I’ll become less cynical, but at the moment, I’m wondering if I’ll have to be sweeping the streets to qualify for my council tax discount.

  5. @Geoff – yes, early days. It’s done the headline grabbing trick rather well for today, a technique that all political parties are of course guilty of.

    Hopefully Lambeth Labour will be in a position to cost the scheme ahead of polling day on May 6th. I would be interested in knowing how the £700 per hour fee paid to Lambeth Living consultants fits into the John Lewis style of local government for the people.

  6. I hope so too. Despite all my cynicism and criticism of Lambeth Labour I still think I’d rather see them in charge than the alternative.

    I just hope they can learn to spend as much time on things like costed numbers and delivery as they do on spin.

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