Profit, Loss and Accountability

One month on since Labour led @lambeth_council announced ambitious plans to manage services in the borough as a cooperative, what further facts do we now know about the much-hyped John Lewis style of local government?

Sadly, very few.

As we enter an election period, not surprisingly the information is centred around selling the idea per se, rather than specific examples of how the scheme will work on the ground.

Writing on LabourList, shortly after the Petri dish plans were launched, Lambeth Council leader @cllrstevereed said:

It works by empowering citizens and communities to take more responsibility for running some services themselves, freeing up resources to guarantee services for the most vulnerable.

As I have blogged before, I very much like the idea of empowering citizens and communities, but not at the expense of taking away responsibility from the democratically elected officials. The ballot box is all about trust, and not an exercise in removing accountability.

And so as a citizen, how exactly can I go about being empowered in Lambeth? This is a question I put to my local Labour party on the ground in The Oval ward:

I have had need to contact my current local Councillors on many occasions to have rubbish removed from around Palfrey Place. Under the coop style of governance, would this mean that there would be a Council Tax reduction in my own personal bill, should I clear the rubbish up personally?

I am very impressed with the current re-cycling scheme that I receive each week. I have been very vocal in contacting my current Councillors when there is a problem with the service. Who would I contact under a coop scheme? My local Councillors or the members of the cooperative? Would they be accountable, and what powers would you give them?

Jane Edbrooke, the Labour candidate for The Oval ward, kindly responded by stating:

In March we will set up a Citizens Commission to involve residents and service users in discussions about this new way of delivering public services.

Great – so the micro level of service provision is going to include a consultation with locals, the people that know precisely how their local patch operates.

Jane even blogged about this, telling local people in The Oval ward how we could “feed into the consultation process.”

Labour Oval

With the 1st April upon us in a few days, I have yet to receive an invite to feed into the consultation process. In fact I can’t find anyone in my little patch of South London that has been invited to help with the consultation.

Our nearby friends over in the Larkhall ward have similar plans for speaking directly with locals about how the John Lewis system would work on the ground at a micro local level:

What happens next? We are working on a consultation document that will go out to the council’s partners in March. We will also set up a Citizens Commission to involve residents and service users in discussions about this new way of delivering public services. The Commission will report back in April.

I asked the good @cllr_robbins (who really is a rather decent chap)…

Who are the council’s partners? Business, voluntary organisations or the electorate? Given the scope of the John Lewis proposals, I would hope the electorate are consulted as a partner of the council.

I appreciate this is a busy time for a local Councillor standing for re-election, but as April approaches, I haven’t received a reply to my question.

I keep on hearing @LambethLabour talk about a “consultation process” taking place throughout the borough during March. I’ve yet to be consulted about how council services are going to be managed in partnership with the people. Seems like I’m not alone.

And so what of the wider financial argument that is propping up the John Lewis model? We all accept that cuts to frontline services will have to be made, whoever gains control of Lambeth Council after May 6th. This is the whole point of introducing the John Lewis Petri dish in Lambeth.

The fanfare that welcomed the scheme managed to deliver a Guardian front page back in February, boasting that:

The council is confident this will deliver people the services they want at a saving. Research shows that if both employees and users become involved in the provision of a service, they become far more intolerant of waste and bureaucracy and significant savings can be made.

Making significant savings is key to the cooperative model. In the absence of any consultation, I wanted to find out what level of savings have already been made by Lambeth Council is the provision of services that are currently operating as a cooperatives.

I filed a Freedom of Information request (FOI) asking about the Tenant Management Organisation of Lambeth Towers in Kennington, and Patmos Area Community Association in Brixton. The council website states that:

A Tenant Management Organisation is a means by which council tenants and leaseholders can collectively take on responsibility for managing their homes.

This is the forerunner for a John Lewis style of government, setting out the blueprint of how a cooperative can work to the benefit of both the local authority, and the electorate.

My FOI asked:

Please could you tell me what has been the overall financial saving, or loss, to the Council in the past financial year as a consequence of the TMO of Lambeth Towers in Kennington and Patmos Area Community Association in Brixton.

MY FOI wasn’t answered in the legal time frame by Lambeth Council. A local resident living on the Elthred Estate kindly added an annotation, addressing a parallel FOI I put forward about levels of council funding for TMO’s:

There are tower blocks, which are managed by Lambeth, and then there is Elthred Estate that is managed by a TMO. The Tower Block in my opinion has received more funding the Elthred Estate due to Lambeth wanting to pull down Elthred Estate. However due to local campaigns and more people purchasing the flats on the Estate, this has failed.

The Elthread Estate has yet to receive any development from the money Lambeth Council has received from selling the land. Only the tower block has received improvements, e.g. construction work. I wonder how many locals were offered work on this site? If you ask for an FOI comparing the two funding over the last thirty years, because that how long I have lived on the Estate, you see the Elthred has received little funding of development.

My FOI regarding how much money has been saved as a consequence of a John Lewis style of management was finally answered, following a little prompting and a reminder of the council’s legal obligations.

Here’s the response:

Lambeth Towers is not a Tenant Managed organisation, therefore funding information is not provided in the response below.

Strange, seeing as though the Lambeth Council website states:

Currently, there are two developing TMO’s in the borough, Lambeth Towers in Kennington and Patmos Area Community Association in Brixton.

But anyway, moving on…

The allowances payable to the TMO’s are calculated on the basis of the number and type of services performed by each TMO, using a financial model created for this purpose by the Council’s Officers in January 2009.

The calculation of the allowances is based on the actual costs incurred by the Council in past years. Therefore the allowances fully reflect the Council’s spend on its own properties. Consequently, no savings / losses are incurred as a result of a creation of new TMO.

Hang on…

Consequently, no savings / losses are incurred as a result of a creation of new TMO.

There we have it. And so for all the gusto of Guardian front page news stories, talk of a consultation process that has yet to surface, and yes, even a @LambethLabour election manifesto pledge that has relegated the John Lewis policy to the penultimate page…

Consequently, no savings / losses are incurred as a result of a creation of new TMO.

Never Knowingly Undersold.

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