Tuesday 5 January 2010

Legal halt for Easy Council plans

Barnet's new fast track planning system - whereby those wanting a faster decision could pay more to jump the queue - has been derailed due to concerns over the legality of the 'easy council' approach to this service.

The Tory council's Future Shape redesign of service delivery launched last year by then Barnet leader, Mike Freer, proposed a radical new approach to dealing with the inevitable cuts in public sector budgets. Dubbed 'easy council' basic services would be available for all but optional extras would be available for those willing to pay - a la Easy Jet business model.

Whilst widely acclaimed as pioneering - and championed by Tory leadership - Barnet has run into problems with implementation. Just last month (December 2009) a high court judge stopped the council from removing 24-hour live in wardens at sheltered housing. A campaign by elderly residents had claimed the council was acting unlawfully in its plan to scrap wardens in order to save £400,000 a year - citing existing tenancy agreements and duties under the disability discrimination act precluded this.

According to the Times, current council leader, Lynne Hillan, is determined to carry through Future Shape and is now pushing for changes to the law to give councils more flexibility. In the meantime, Barnet is considering whether to appeal the judgement.

Freer, meanwhile, has stepped down as council leader in order to stand as a Tory candidate at the next general election.

Writing in the Times last November, Freer admitted that "in all honesty, some of Barnet's proposals may not work". But he insisted that, "if we don't experiment and we carry on providing services in the same way, then the system will underperform against rising expectations."

According to Freer, Future Shape aimed to preserve high quality, but assumes that citizens have to accept more responsibility. "The council leadership has had to endure snide comments because of our admiration for the budget airline business model -- Barnet aims to be easyCouncil, if you will."

Running an airline, however, is possibly less complex than navigating a few hundred years of local government evolution and legislation.