It's not Armageddon, we're getting on with it

By Stephen Evans | 09 January 2015
  • Stephen Evans

Barnet Council, then, in North London.  You know: 'EasyCouncil'; purveyors of the 'Graph of Doom'; ideologically driven outsourcing zealots; gleefully cutting services with impunity; selling its soul (and services) to the private sector; single-mindedly hell-bent on pursuing the destruction of public services forever and a day and who, given half the chance, would sell its own mother in the process (or outsource her). 

Just because.  Because it's fun.  Because it gets a kick out of it.

Google 'Barnet Council' and you'll discover that this is what some might have you to believe.  Seek a more balanced view and the reality is quite different (and less dramatic).

Public sector body signs contract with private company to provide its back office at lower cost? Shock.

A private company - with modern systems and greater capital behind it - transacts planning applications more efficiently than an in-house service? Horror.

Risk averse, lumbering bureaucrats and local councillors that never see it coming do some thinking back in 2008 - a year after Northern Rock - to anticipate the impending global recession (that turns out to be the worst in 80 years) and devise a plan to avoid the borough they represent going bankrupt?  Hang on...

It’s no longer news that there’s no money, that councils need to change.  It's the ‘how’ they change that shapes opinion.

Barnet’s ‘how’ is to be a Commissioning Council.  That means we're not driven by a pre-disposed public or private sector ideology, we're driven by a desire for service quality, impact and value for taxpayers.  Show me the council that has remained 100% ‘in-house’.  The point is, it isn’t a binary debate about in or out, public or private – it can’t be and, let’s be honest, never has been. 

So, where do things stand in Barnet?  We’ve signed contracts with Capita to provide our back office and manage some transactional services - 8% of all services.  Those services now cost £6 million less a year and we’re seeing improvements - resolution of issues at a customer’s first contact increased from 35% to 61%; a planning service ranked second in London for speed of decisions. 

We have a varied mix of providers: Some in-house; some charities; some private; some shared with other authorities; and some joint ventures.  All are commissioned to provide clear service outcomes and secure value for taxpayers.  For those that are outsourced, strict contracts and performance targets are in place. 

We’re focused on maximising the opportunities of growth and regeneration; meeting the borough’s housing needs – including building the first council houses in the borough for over 20 years – and getting people into work.

We’re taking a more entrepreneurial approach, by exploring opportunities to sell more services to the public and private sectors through our commercial Joint Venture.  Any profit we make will be reinvested in the borough – in homes, school places and transport.

Could we have done more to engage people?  Absolutely.  Looking ahead, our ability to build trust will be a pre-condition for success - residents will not accept the magnitude of change unless they believe the council is working in their interest.  We have to earn that trust through effective engagement and a good customer experience. 

But we have made progress.  Did you hear about resident satisfaction increasing significantly since 2012, with more residents trusting the council and thinking we’re doing a good job?  So, the next time you hear about Barnet Council’s pursuit of Local Government Armageddon, you might stop to consider that all might not be as it seems. 

Stephen Evans is director of strategy and communications, Barnet LBC

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