A move to sell off huge swathes of Cornwall Council's services has hit a major bump in the road, after the plan was rejected by a majority of councillors at the authority.
A meeting yesterday heard a motion calling on Cornwall Council to scrap its decision to enter into a partnership with the private sector to deliver a range of support services.
This was supported by a majority of councillors following a three hour debate at County Hall.
A bid to have the discussions held in secret was also rejected, after calls that the council's much trumpeted dedication to "openness and transparency" should apply on such an important decision.
The council’s cabinet had already voted to issue formal invitations to tender for the new £300m contract at a meeting on July 31.
Today’s motion, which was proposed by Andrew Wallis and seconded by Andrew Long, was aimed at halting this process, as, “in view of its far reaching consequences, including its potential impact on Council governance and elected member accountability, this council believes that it is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall for the council to enter into the proposed strategic partnership for support services and procurement”.
Members had serious concerns about the potential risk and governance, as well as queries over the savings which would be generated and the number of new jobs created.
Cllr Wallis said: "Before the debate started there was a move to put the whole item, debate and vote into closed session because it was claimed from officers that some of the information, and questions could be commercially sensitive. I really struggled (as did many others) with this, as the information the councillors had been supplied with, was already in the public domain.
" The impact on the Strategic Partnership has such far-reaching consequences to the people of Cornwall, that it should be fully debated in open session and the vote in full view of the public. Not behind closed doors. Thankfully, and it was a close vote, the councillors decided not to go into closed session.
"My points came from too many unknowns, losing democratic accountability on so many services and pie-in-the-sky predictions on job creation. These ‘aspirational’ jobs were a concern for the scrutiny panel looking into this plan, If the scrutiny panel is worried, you have to get worried, too.
"A main selling point of the Strategic Partnership is the ability to ‘buy’ other services from other council’s. I however, pointed out what I believe is a massive flaw in this plan. For example, imagine if there was a motion to handover all these services to another council to run, and therefore create jobs in that authority. There would be uproar, and claims the jobs must stay in Cornwall. So you can hardly expect other councils to allow jobs to go to another council at the expense of their own. It just would not happen. I believe the market is already flooded with many sellers of shared services, but not many buyers."
Mr Wallis added that a good question is what happens now as the ultimate decision lies with the cabinet.
"Will the Cabinet change its course on this? To be honest, I do not think it will drop the proposals completely. However, it could postpone the decision to after the elections in May 2013. Then the new council has the democratic mandate (and possible will) to enter into some sort of strategic partnership."
Steve Double, the Council’s portfolio holder for environment, waste management and shared services, said that the proposal would bring together the best of the private and public sector in an innovative partnership which would enable the Council to protect frontline services from the impact of further Government cuts at the same time as creating up to 500 new jobs in Cornwall.
“All the concerns which have been raised today have already been considered by the Cabinet” he said.
“I cannot believe that a proposal which protects frontline services, creates 500 new jobs and reduced costs by £10m a year is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall.
“This is a very complex proposal and unfortunately the decision by Members not to move into private session meant that we were unable to share the detailed confidential information they needed to make an informed decision”.
Mebyon Kernow and Lib Dems on the authority have also come out against the plan.
Speaking on behalf of Mebyon Kernow in the debate, Cllr Long told councillors much of the evidence used to support the joint venture was “pure conjecture.” He rubbished the claims about savings and
the creation of jobs, describing the promises as “pie in the sky,” adding we are more likely to see “bacon-clad flying mammals.”
He also slammed the lack of democratic accountability in the proposed arrangement and condemned the proposal as “full of risks” and urged the Cabinet to “reverse its decision.”
Also speaking at the meeting, fellow MK Councillor Loveday Jenkin (Wendron) blasted the transfer of staff and huge budgets into a private sector company, which she said would “inevitably result in worse terms and conditions for local workers.”