Published on June 10th, 2013 | by HOHBrian0
Control and Accountability: Handsworth Against the Cuts’ Leisure Centre Debate
Story and pictures by John O’Meara
Cuts through devolution
Handsworth Against the Cuts (HATC) organised a meeting at Handworth Leisure Centre on 1st June to draw attention to risks to the Centre by future Council plans. 60 people came, including the 3 Labour councillors and Council officers. What developed was a questioning of the Council’s use of devolution and outsourcing as a means of implementing cuts, and a determination not to let either officers or elected members dilute their responsibility for key decisions.
The meeting was told about question marks over the future of the Leisure Centre because Labour has not reversed the previous administration’s competitive tendering process to find a private sector organisation to run some or all of the Council’s Leisure Services. While there are no current plans to go down this road (at the time of writing), it is being held in reserve as an option depending on how difficult the financial situation becomes.
Wellbeing Centres and Trusts
Caroline Johnson (Assistant Branch Secretary, Birmingham Unison) questioned the inevitability of austerity and cuts at either the national or local level, and recast them as an ideological programme,
the result of political choices and priorities – favouring those with money and power at the expense of those without either. Councillor Hussein said that councillors had no option but to work with the decreased budgets (including the local Leisure Services budget) given to them as one of the Council’s 10 Districts – to do otherwise would be against the law. He suggested that draft plans for ‘wellbeing centres’ paid for by the NHS (a development of leisure centres), together with a prioritisation exercise favouring ‘deprived’ areas, would safeguare provision locally. Steve Salt, Lead Officer for Service Integration in Perry Barr District,
suggested that if management arrangements changed it was likely to be an ‘outsourcing’ (to a ‘Trust’) similar to the one in Sandwell, and that the Council would always retain ownership and responsibility for the service. He reiterated that prioritising would ensure service provision was maintained in Handsworth, and as an example pointed to £400,000 which had just been allocated to deal with pressing maintenance in the Leisure Centre. Councillor Zaffar praised the way Handsworth Against the Cuts were making local democracy work by posing questions and holding people to account, and said that decisions on local priorities couldn’t be made without local councillors who in their turn would not make such decisions without consultation with local people and groups like HATC.
Local control and ‘keeping an eye’ on events
During the debate prompted by these contributions, which included several residents speaking from the floor, there was praise for the existing services but concern about the deteriorating condition of the building and equipment. There was considerable mistrust of any move to pass responsibility for the Leisure Centre to either a private sector company or a trust. It was said that the Council had simply implemented central government cuts by passing responsibility for reduced budgets to the 10 District Committees. Some said that the councillors should have refused to implement the reduced budget from central government and instead made one of their own, even if it was illegal to do this. Others focused more on an outsourcing or competitive tendering exercise providing the opportunity to pass pressure and responsibility on to a service provider, who would be forced to increase charges, reduce services, or pay staff less, or a combination of all three. There was concern that a Community Development Trust that had recently been formed in the area might bid to run the service, and that trusts and social enterprises were vulnerable to take-over by larger and differently motivated concerns in the longer term. Any passing on of responsibility to another body was seen as weakening the public ownership of the service and obscuring accountability for it. In her summing up Sue Thomas of HATC said that the demand of the meeting was for the Leisure Centre to remain in Local Authority (and therefore local people’s) hands, and to be run by staff directly employed by the Council. The meeting was clear about the need to ‘keep an eye’ on developments, and to mobilize local residents at any sign of moves to weaken their grip on a valued local resource.
Story and pictures by John O’Meara