Croydon’s secretive council is at it again, this time sneaking out a report just before the Bank Holiday weekend that announces that Tim Pollard, the deputy leader of the Conservative-run council, has decided that he will award an eight-year contract to run the borough’s public libraries, worth many millions of pounds of public cash, to John Laing Integrated Services, JLIS – a subsidiary of the building firm.
No debate. No details. No discussion. Kim Jong Eun would be so proud.
The award of this contract has never been discussed in the council chamber at the Town Hall. Indeed, when one councillor sought to ask questions about the re-tendering, he was ordered out of the chamber by the Tory mayor.
And the terms of this second bid by JLIS have also not been made public. This would harm their “commercial confidentiality”, we are told. Which is Croydon Council speak for “this would expose the fact that JLIS’s bid is undoubtedly inferior in terms of price and quality to the alternative bidder”.
Pollard and the Tory-run council had wanted to hand the deal on a plate to JLIS, to begin in April. Croydon Council is firmly in bed with builders John Laing over the floundering £450 million Urban Regeneration Vehicle deal – another agreement involving vast amounts of public property which has been kept secret from senior councillors and the public. Part of this deal is the white elephant council offices being built on Mint Walk, costing the Council Tax-payers of Croydon a cool £140 million – another figure which the ruling Tories denied and kept secret for years.
The privatisation of Croydon’s libraries was not in the Tories’ election manifesto in 2010 and has never been demanded by any groundswell of public opinion. In fact, the opposite was the case – most residents are opposed to library privatisation. Undaunted by anything as gauche as public opinion, Croydon’s penny-wise, pound-foolish Tories decided to privatise our public libraries.
The tendering process, also conducted at considerable cost to the public purse, was done with Wandsworth with a view to sharing some of the costs of running the library services across the two south London boroughs. As a result of that process, Wandsworth chose to appoint Greenwich Leisure, on the basis that they were the best bidder in terms of price and quality of service offered.
Wandsworth is regarded as the acme of a well-run London borough. It has been Tory controlled for decades. They are no mugs. And they said that the JLIS pitch to run our libraries was the worst of all three bidders – their service offer was the worst and JLIS was the most expensive, an important consideration for a process that is supposed to save the public money.
This was somewhat embarrassing for their less-capable Tory colleagues here in Croydon. They were not counting on Wandsworth being quite so open, transparent and honest about the conduct of the tendering process involving public money, and exposing the craven nature of Croydon opting for JLIS, the most expensive bidder.
Nor was Pollard and his mates in Croydon expecting JLIS to pull out of the cushty library deal at the 11th hour, after they’d examined the fine print about pension entitlements for the borough’s library staff (that Laings’ lawyers and accountants had had the best part of a year to consider such matters beforehand seems to count for nothing).
“OK then,” was the effective message from Pollard when this was forced, reluctantly, into the open in February. With the planned handover of our libraries barely six weeks away, Pollard’s message amounted to: “We’ll let JLIS bid again and we’ll make the pension terms easier for you.”
To get a better idea of how Croydon Council staff get stitched up when their work is “outsourced” to a third party, you should listen to the excellent Chris Mullen’s programme on Radio 4, where what happened to workers’ terms and conditions in the borough’s care homes after they were handed over to Scare UK is outlined. Is that what awaits Croydon’s library staff?
Greenwich Leisure – a company set up by the leisure services department of the Labour-run south London borough – did submit another bid to run Croydon’s libraries. For all the good it did.
On Thursday, Croydon quietly published Pollard’s report – there’s nothing on the council website and Inside Croydon has received no press release with the announcement – saying that JLIS had got the deal, estimated to be worth £30 million, to begin in October – six months later than had been arranged, and with Croydon Council’s budgets having to suffer the pain of at least an additional £1 million costs as a consequence.
The decision can only be stopped if referred to the council’s scrutiny committee by this Friday. “What’s the point?” one disillusioned Croydon library campaigner said to Inside Croydon last night.
“The Tory stooges on the scrutiny committee will turn up, with their scripted responses, and vote the deal through anyway.”
What is interesting about the report as published is that it is Pollard’s recommendation, and not that of a council committee (as was the case with the original tender) or the cabinet of senior Tory councillors. His recommendation does not even carry the support of another cabinet member.
As Norbury resident Sean Creighton, an expert on library services across London, has noted, Pollard’s report is stunningly lacking in any details of the comparative figures offered by JLIS and Greenwich.
JLIS last year withdrew from other contracts with local authorities in England because it has been unable to make enough money from the deals. That suggests that Croydon Council is making the margins on managing our public libraries attractive enough for JLIS to really want to do this. Or maybe they are eyeing the value of some of the buildings that house our public libraries? New Addington’s purpose-built library has already been vacated, rather than repaired, its books now moved to the entrance lobby of a nearby council building – might that site soon be developed … by Laing?
Pollard’s report contains no detail on the adjustment reached over the staff pensions which prompted the re-tendering. As Creighton notes, “There is no attempt to provide fuller information in line with the council decision that there should be more public information on future procurement bids.”
On Monday night, as the majority of Croydon’s councillors, Labour as well as Conservative, rushed to get their snouts in the trough for wine and canapes at the installation of a new Mayor, spotted slipping away from the Town Hall down Mint Walk was Pollard with his family. Maybe the kids needed an early night?
Or maybe Councillor Pollard felt it better to sneak out down the Town Hall’s back alley before anyone might want to ask him awkward questions about what he has done with Croydon’s public library service?
- Laings quit £30m Croydon libraries privatisation deal
- Questions Pollard must answer over libraries shambles
- £30m libraries privatisation could be sent for judicial review
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon. Not from Watford or Redhill
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