Natalie Tarry, Research Officer, NLGN
Public Private Partnerships are a well-rehearsed topic in the local government world and nothing splits people’s opinions more than the involvement of the private sector in public service delivery. However, these partnerships have been around for a while and the world they exist in has changed somewhat since 1997. New agendas have emerged, such as Gershon’s drive for efficiency, calls for greater choice in local public services, community regeneration and citizen engagement. Many partnerships are now emerging that reflect these changes.
In this context, the New Local Government Network’s Research Unit has engaged in a year long study into how local authorities are using partnerships to modernise. The research – published at a conference later this month [March] – has identified new trends in the partnership market and how these are being influenced by the developing agendas. It highlights the innovative types of partnerships (in terms of the outcomes they are now delivering and, in some cases, new partnership structures) and asks what can be learnt.
One of twenty-five case studies is the work between the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Accord. In May 2003, they embarked on a ten-year partnership – Thames Accord – to improve and modernise the housing repairs service. Due to the right to buy, social housing tenants had steadily dwindled in number and the service seemed to be hardly sustainable anymore, although the partnership still covers 22,500 homes (35% of local residents live in social housing). Barking and Dagenham was very pragmatic about the situation and saw a partnership as the ideal solution to retain the service and jobs for their workforce. They transferred 330 of their staff under TUPE arrangements.
However, the Council’s experience illustrates how different the new wave of partnerships can be from many traditional partnerships. They are responding to and delivering on different agendas. The partnership priorities in this context are the regeneration of the local economy and to raise pride in the borough by making Barking and Dagenham a cleaner, greener and safer place. These objectives stretch well beyond the remit of improving the housing repairs service.
How does the partnership meet these objectives? It employs local labour and uses local small and medium sized enterprises. And it has a growing apprentice scheme and strong relations with the local college (Chris Blair, the Managing Director of Thames Accord sits on the Board of Barking College). Employment has actually increased; since transfer twenty-five new staff have been employed, including ten additional apprentices. The company has also won work in adjacent boroughs to ensure the longevity of the business.
They also have an impressive range of partnerships with the voluntary sector. Thames Accord staff work closely with the Voluntary Bureau – a community group that provides services to the needy and vulnerable. This can involve anything from changing a lightbulb to dropping somebody off at the hospital. They also provide some work and training space for children at the Osborn Centre in Dagenham – a centre for special needs children.
Many of these ‘soft’ approaches are not part of the contractual arrangement, but Thames Accord feel they have a role to play in the community. Obviously at the same time they are still delivering on service improvements and greater efficiencies. In the first year they achieved 90% of their year-4 targets, hence these had to be revised. £500,000 worth of savings were reinvested into the service. And customers and local residents are happy too. Customer satisfaction has risen and many recognise the role Thames Accord plays in the Barking and Dagenham area.
Relationships with the Council are very strong and the Director of Housing, David Woods is full of praise: “The Council feels very confident about having Thames Accord as its partner. This partnership has changed our view on service delivery and we benefit much from working together”,
Barking and Dagenham is just one of the case studies NLGN has visited to understand how local authorities are now approaching the modernisation agenda, and how they are using partnerships to meet fresh challenges.
Partnerships have a huge role to play in the modernisation of local government, but at the moment, our findings suggest that only a few authorities have recognised their potential. Too many have been scared away by high profile failures, and not enough have gone out of their way to discover the many success stories of partnership experiences that are delivering better services, innovation and greater efficiencies – i.e. addressing the many challenges local government is faced with today. Come on board if you don’t want to be left behind.
Natalie Tarry is Research Officer at the New Local Government Network
Her report, New Ways to Modernise will be published on 22 March and launched at a one-day conference ‘The New Wave of Local Partnerships’, featuring a keynote address from Rt Hon Nick Raynsford. Booking details for the conference, which is supported by The MJ, are available at www.neilstewartassociates.com/sa199