Public sector fights back

Stung by private-sector takeovers, the body representing councils has formed an alliance to run failing services, reports Warwick Mansell

THE Local Government Association is to launch a joint bid with a private company to help run education services in failing local authorities.

The association - which represents the interests of the 172 English and Welsh local authorities is linking up with Capita - the business support services firm, and the Improvement and Development Agency, a sister body to the LGA that promotes best practice in local government.

Struggling councils will not be the only ones offered support. In line with ministers' current thinking on public-private partnerships, even successful authorities will be able to buy services.

The move comes after the LGA failed in earlier, independent attempts to join the Government's approved list of service-providers.

The association has repeatedly clashed with ministers over their alleged enthusiasm for purely private-sector solutions for struggling authorities.

It may find comfort in last week's report by the Commons education select committee, which said that private-sector intervention was not the only solution. MPs said that successful councils should be encouraged to help out their failing counterparts.

Meanwhile, the future of several struggling councils who were forced to open their doors to management consultants became clearer this week.

Sandwell, one of two authorities to have failed a re-inspection by the Office for Standards in Education, is likely to escape wholesale privatisation.

A report from consultants KPMG opposed privatising even a few of the West Midlands council's services. Instead, a tmporary senior management team will be appointed.

New consultants will be asked to draw up a detailed short-term recovery plan, while Sandwell will invite private providers to come up with a long-term strategy. A board of public and private "stakeholders" will monitor progress.

KPMG criticised Sandwell for a lack of leadership and a breakdown in its relationship with schools. Director of education Stuart Gallacher has already announced his resignation.

In Bradford, school standards minister Estelle Morris met dozens of headteachers to outline the Government's plans for the authority, which received one of the worst OFSTED reports.

Consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers have called for a "partnership" between the authority and an external provider, which would deliver most of the services.

Again, an improvement board, including representatives from the external partner, schools, councillors and officers, would monitor performance. A similar arrangement is one of two options in Haringey, north London, where PriceWaterhouseCoopers are also the consultants.

The other is for the authority to become a minority partner in a joint venture with an external provider. This company would then manage the services. A draft report was expected from the consultants today.

The privatisation bandwagon continued to roll on this week as half of England's 150 local authorities visited a "marriage-bureau" event, meeting potential partners from the business world.

Twenty-seven firms attended the Government-sponsored get-

together at a Heathrow hotel, in which successful councils were asked to consider private-sector involvement in their schools.

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