This was not what was meant when ‘taking back control’ was coined as a slogan, but this week in Croydon, our council has moved in to relieve a French firm of its responsibilities in our parks, as KEN LEE reports
Croydon’s 127 parks and open spaces are being tended by council workers this week for the first time in nearly five years, after a disastrous £16million out-sourced maintenance contract was finally dumped.
It means that at least 80 parks maintenance staff have been taken back in-house by the council, though the Labour-run local authority has done little to trumpet this bold triumph for socialist principles. The council waited until last week to get around to a somewhat mealy mouthed press release about the changeover, which made no mention of the 80 council jobs in this reversal of privatisation. It was almost as if the council hierarchy is embarrassed by the outcome.
Which may well be the case.
The decision not to renew idVerde’s contract was taken by the borough’s Labour politicians, announced at a full council meeting last July by Simon Hall, the cabinet member for finance. It left council staff with barely six months to make all the necessary arrangements to transfer parks workers on to the Town Hall payroll, and acquire and equip a borough parks department, effectively from scratch. Sources in Fisher’s Folly suggest that council execs were not best pleased.
With pressures on council budgets already well past breaking point, it is not something that senior council directors wish to repeat any time soon (anything for an easy life on £100,000 per year plus, eh?). But there is a fear that something similar might yet be forced on to the council, as its deal with rubbish contractors Veolia is also in deep trouble.
Yet it is all a situation largely of their own making.
Last month, in a special report to mark one year on from the collapse of outsourcing giant Carillion, the TUC described that public service crisis as a symbol of “the bankruptcy of the privatisation dogma”.
And while the non-renewal of idVerde’s parks contract in Croydon is hardly of Carillion scale (it was worth £3.2million per year to the company), there are similarities, and deeper concerns about the manner in which council executives operate, because the idVerde deal failed – just as the Veolia deal is failing to deliver the expected services – largely because of a failure of the borough’s own procurement process.
IdVerde, the French-owned conglomerate, had inherited the Croydon parks maintenance contract when they took over Quadron in 2016, and they were increasingly criticised by the public, friends of parks groups and councillors for poor service, falling standards and for paying staff at below the London Living Wage.
By last year, idVerde was being fined £15,000 per month by the council for the shortcomings in its service – mainly the failure to cut the grass in the borough’s parks and open spaces regularly or adequately.
There were other complaints, too, about park gates being locked through the day, or unlocked overnight, about parks equipment being poorly maintained and unsafe. While idVerde had the parks contract, they had stripped the service to the bone so much that there was little resource available even for routine maintenance work.
The council’s hefty monthly fine made the already low-balled contract even less financially sustainable for the commercial operator than it had been when Quadron originally pitched for it. By the end, it seemed that idVerde were almost relieved to be rid of it. All mention of their Croydon contract has been wiped from their corporate website.
Getting the boot from Croydon might be an embarrassment for idVerde, but also for Croydon Council. It is only two years since idVerde was taken on by two other councils – Merton and Kingston – under a £26million grounds maintenance contract through the South London Waste Partnership. Croydon is also a member of SLWP, and its existing arrangement with idVerde was influential in the company being awarded this additional work by our neighbours.
Even by the middle of last summer, complaints about the under-staffed and poor service in Merton’s and Kingston’s parks and green spaces were beginning to mount up faster than an idVerde pile of grass cuttings.
It was Conservative councillor Phil Thomas who signed off on a £16million, five-year deal between Croydon and Quadron in 2014, just before the Tories lost that year’s local elections and therefore control of the council.
By shifting 90 parks staff off the council pay-roll, Thomas and the then chief executive, Nathan Elvery, reckoned that they could shave 10per cent off the council’s park-keeping costs.
“This represents a great deal for local taxpayers and will mean that visitors to Croydon’s parks and open spaces will continue to enjoy excellent standards,” Thomas said at the time, a statement which as every Croydon park-user can attest was demonstrably untrue.
IdVerde proved to be a constant source of angst for Croydon’s Labour administration once it took office in May 2014. Having had a manifesto commitment to ensure all council workers are paid the London Living Wage, the Labour leadership was distressed – though ought not be surprised – to confirm that idVerde was paying its parks staff less than that. Often much less.
There had been no stipulation on the contractor to pay the improved rate in their contract negotiated under the Tories. The vast majority of idVerde’s staff in Croydon had previously been council employees, who would have been eligible for the London Living Wage.
In charge of the parks, as the Labour cabinet member for sport, culture and stuff, was Timothy Godfrey. Sources close to the now ex-councillor suggest that he was constantly frustrated by council staff in his endeavours to take a harder line with under-performing contractors over parks, as well as in libraries.
Only in the event of Carillion’s collapse last year was Godfrey allowed to take Croydon’s library service back in-house. It is thought to be Godfrey, even though he did not stand for re-election last May, who influenced the decision to cut ties with idVerde over the parks deal, too.
In Godfrey’s absence, Stuart Collins, the cabinet member for dirty streets, fly tips and unemptied bins, was the councillor wheeled out by the council’s press office to provide suitable quotage last week. Judged by his verbiage, the party line over the new parks arrangements is that it will be more accountable “directly to residents”.
The ever so on-message Collins is supposed to have said, “By delivering this service directly to residents we can improve how we direct and shape work.
“We will have more control over what works to carry out and when work will go ahead as we deliver services directly to residents.
“The council is well-placed to listen to and respond quickly to communities, helping them make the most of their parks and open spaces.”
None the wiser? Nor us.
One of the first benefits of “direct” control of Croydon’s parks is the immediate abandonment of the use of glyphosate, the weedkiller which has been linked to causing cancer in humans, and which idVerde continued to spray around our public parks and children’s playgrounds. Apparently, under the old contract, the council was powerless to direct idVerde what kind of poison it inflicts on the borough’s residents.
Collins gave an undertaking last year to stop using glyphosate once the parks service came back in-house, in response to a petition organised by the Croydon Friends of the Earth. What is to become of the reputedly extensive stocks of the weedkiller still held by various friends of parks and other volunteer groups, used in their essential assistance in the parks, is as yet unresolved.
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