Will Tory Barnet's 'Ryanair Council' model backfire?

by Stephen Tall on August 29, 2009

There’s been plenty of reaction to yesterday’s Guardian story in which Tory-controlled Barnet council revelled in their plans to adopt the practices of no-frills airlines like Ryanair in their delivery of local services:

Barnet wants householders to pay extra to jump the queue for planning consents, in the way budget airlines charge extra for priority boarding. And as budget airline passengers choose to spend their budget on either flying at peaktime or having an in-flight meal, recipients of adult social care in Barnet will choose to spend a limited budget on whether to have a cleaner or a respite carer or even a holiday to Eastbourne. Other examples of proposed reforms include reducing the size of waste bins to minimise the cost of council rubbish collections.

The proposals are being seen as an example of “new Conservatism” which is spreading among Tory-controlled boroughs. Observers believe “radical outriders” such as Barnet offer a glimpse of how a David Cameron government could overhaul public service provision in an era of heavy spending cuts.

The Evening Standard’s Paul Waugh has dug out a couple of revealing quotes, first from Tory Barnet councillor John Hart:

With council tenants, and I’ll admit I am putting it crudely, it has been a lot of ‘my arse needs wiping, and somebody from the council can come and do it for me’.”

Charming. I’ve no doubt there are some council tenants like that; I’m sure there are also plenty of residents in private houses who have a similar view. Sweeping generalisations, as the saying goes, are always a mistake.

Barnet’s chief executive comes up with a more refined and interesting example:

The snowfall this winter was a good example. A lot of people phoned the council to ask when we were going to come along to clear the pavement. In the past most residents would have got out their spades and cleared the pavement in front of their house … We need to think about which of those approaches is the right model.”

Perhaps so, though I suspect this refers to a golden age when housewives weren’t in a rush to get to work, fewer elderly people lived alone in their own houses, and before lots of people lived in flats without gardens and therefore lack a shovel to shift snow – all of which factors inevitably mean folk look to the council more today to help them go about their daily lives.

Lib Dem peer Lord (Tony) Greaves has a scathing letter in today’s Guardian on the subject:

What’s this stuff about “cheap and cheerful”? If you want to be less miserable on a low-budget airline, you have to cough up more cash. There is one good thing about delaying the date of the election. The longer people have to understand what the Tories will do to public services, the less likely they are to vote for them.

Meanwhile Jonathan Fryer, Lib Dem candidate in June’s Euro elections for London, is also unimpressed:

Rather as with Ryanair — which reportedly investigated the possiblity of putting passengers in the hold, if only they could find some way of stopping them freezing to death — Barnet’s relentless drive could lead to some very uncomfortable as well as unfair outcomes. … The interesting thing to watch will be David Cameron’s reactions to all this. Will the supposed Prime Minister-in-waiting hail Mr Freer and his colleagues as visionaries, who have provided a template for a future Conservative government’s approach to public services? Or will he realise that the model is about as appealing as a sandwich with no filling and is therefore an electoral liability?

Carl Packman at Liberal Conspiracy is also not a fan of the Barnet formula:

When the system of public services is structured upon the ability to pay and not a system of privileging necessities in order to balance budgets, then we are in trouble.