It took a special meeting at the Town Hall last week to insist that the management of Croydon’s public libraries should be monitored monthly, rather than the annual reporting period proposed by the Conservative-run council as its privatises the service under a £30 million, eight-year contract for John Laing Integrated Services.
With such a new way of running the borough’s 13 public libraries, regular monitoring of Laing’s performance will provide a vital safeguard for the interests of Council Tax-payers, who own the properties and whose money will be used to pay for Laing’s management.
Unusually, the library issue had been referred to Croydon Council’s scrutiny and strategic overview committee on Thursday by both the Labour opposition group and the governing Tories. The Conservative councillors, who only on Monday had all voted through the privatisation at the main council meeting, seemed to concede – as Inside Croydon has long highlighted – that the process had been far from open and transparent.
According to sources at Wandsworth Council, which had conducted the bidding process jointly with Croydon, Laings is the third, and worst, bidder for the service on grounds of performance and cost. It was conceded at Thursday’s meeting that a joint team of staff from both councils had evaluated the bids and scored the criteria; so Wandsworth officers were involved in evaluating the bid for the Croydon contract and vice versa.
Labour’s amendment to the reporting requirements was achieved in the closed part of Thursday’s meeting, closed to press and public because of “commercial confidentiality” – in other words, Croydon Council is far too embarrassed to admit to the details of its latest outsourcing experiment with public services.
Although both sides made it clear that the committee’s role was to scrutinise the executive, the level of questions to Steve O’Connell, the cabinet member for finance and performance, and council staff lacked much in terms of penetrating quality. This was partly because the Tories had got themselves into a difficulty about what detail could be discussed in public. It was compounded because Labour meekly agreed.
The chair of the meeting refused to let a question be answered publicly about whether library staff on short-term contracts were to be transferred (“Tuped”) across to Laing. Although this was a question that could have been answered in a general way, he argued that it was wrong to discuss staff matters in public.
In Wandsworth, this sort of detailed bid information has all been included in publicly available documents.
One member of the public, Inside Croydon contributor Sean Creighton, was given permission to put questions to the meeting, and he asked about Laing’s capital investment in Croydon’s libraries. With Croydon Council already deeply committed to a £450 million “urban regeneration vehicle” deal with builders John Laing, there is understandable concern and suspicion that the borough’s libraries may ultimately be folded into that property portfolio.
Labour wants to ensure that Laing is obliged to make capital investment in the libraries. They were told that this was the case, with the council retaining freehold ownership.
Creighton suggested that unless the contract was tightly drafted, there would be loopholes which the contractor could exploit. The draft contract should be open to public debate to assist that process.
In referring the decision for scrutiny, Labour had stated that the council’s papers “did not consider the significant financial conflict of interest (loans and contracts) between the council and John Laing” and the lack of transparency and openness of information about the bids could adversely affect public attitudes.
Croydon’s Labour group will now consider its threat to take the matter to judicial review – get a judge to rule on whether the whole business has been handled properly, fairly and legally. Library campaigners may also be able to do the same, especially if there has been no adequate equalities assessment in the public arena or full consultation of all library areas affected.
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- £30m libraries privatisation could be sent for judicial review (insidecroydon.com)
- Legacy of the riots: Croydon abandoned by middle-class (standard.co.uk)
- All change for library services (bbc.co.uk)