Housing chief says council could ‘save a packet’ by taking back services from private contractors
Former electrician says Camden should give 'insourcing' a fair hearing
20 July, 2018 — By Richard Osley
CAMDEN’S housing chief says he is determined that “insourcing” – the use of an in-house Town Hall workforce instead of profit-seeking private contractors – will be considered as a way to improve services.
In an interview with the New Journal, Labour councillor Meric Apak said he was ready to stand against critics who say council-run services are too expensive and impractical. “Insourcing for ideological reasons has been left off the table for decades,” he said. “I want to bring it back onto the table, so that it has a fair airing together with all other options. I’m not about ideology. I want to improve services.”
Supporters of insourcing believe the door is open for change and the chance to peel back more than two decades of privatisation in local government.
The issue was brought into sharp focus by the fire safety crisis at the Chalcots estate, where a web of contracts has complicated efforts to find out what went wrong and when. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly called on Labour-controlled councils to move towards in-house services, while council chief Councillor Georgia Gould has said she is open to the discussion.
Cllr Apak said: “People can come up with every reason under the sun to outsource because it’s easier. Their reason is usually cost, but I don’t buy it. I fall back on my experience as an electrical sub-contractor all my life and the layers of sub-contractors you see. At a minimum, if each contractor creams off 10 per cent, that’s 40 per cent, 50 per cent saved straight away.”
He added: “Contractors are making a killing out of this. I think we can save a packet doing things in-house. We need to change the working culture.” While the Conservative opposition in Camden has already warned of the costs involved, it is understood there is also resistance to the idea among some quarters of the Labour Party who see it as an unrealistic vision. The issue was discussed during the compilation of the local election manifesto in May, but has not been debated at Labour group since then.
Cllr Apak said he had a four-year vision of how the housing department could lead the way in considering insourcing. He said this could take the form of setting up a company in a co-operative structure to organise work and even at some future date to sell services to other local authorities. A social enterprise model will also be looked at.
“The problem for us is capacity. We have deskilled ourselves. It’s going to take time,” he said. “If we just started tomorrow, you are going to fall flat on your face – and that’s not what I want. Then we’ll have people saying: ‘We told you so.’ We need to start recruiting at every level.”
The recent taking back of the maintenance role at the Chalcots, which had been refurbished using a private finance initiative (PFI) deal, meant recruitment of some skilled workers had begun. He retains concerns that work on estates is largely checked and reviewed by contractors.
Cllr Apak said the council could walk away from several, smaller rolling contracts if it wanted to without a financial penalty. The “minor repairs” contract for the north of the borough was brought in-house in 2013.
Cllr Apak said: “To the south of Euston Road, we had a contractor. When we benchmarked them, every year after that the in-house team outperformed the contractor at every level. So I’m basing this on evidence, not ideology.” Oliver Cooper, leader of the Conservatives in Camden, said last month: “Services should be procured from whoever provides them best: whether that’s in-house or from a contractor. Bringing services in-house for political reasons would cost taxpayers, leaseholders and tenants millions of pounds as a sop to Camden’s Corbynistas.”