A Life in a Year – 9th June, The Political Cycle and Public Services

I have discovered that if one thing is life is true it is that everything happens in cycles.  Take British politics for example – there are two main parties in the United Kingdom and every ten years or so they alternate in Government and everything changes.

If, like me, your career is in the public sector times are generally good when the Labour Party is in power when there is a wave of investment in state services and not so good however when the Conservative Party gets an election victory and takes up occupation in Whitehall. 

As a small side observation it’s a strange thing but many people who work in the Health Service and the Police and the schools actually vote Conservative and personally I find that a bizarre thing to do!

On 9th June 1983 the Conservative Party won the General Election and Margaret Thatcher became the first woman Prime Minister and the country was engulfed in a wave of public sector bashing that as usual picked on local government for a real good kicking.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Tories thought that the private sector was, by definition, much more competent and efficient in these matters than the public sector and local authorities were required to offer certain services for open competition under what was called ‘Compulsory Competitive Tendering’.  If only she had known the truth!

Rubbish collection was one of these services and so that the waste management companies could cope with all the new work and local authorities couldn’t cheat, the Government set out a phased three year programme and one by one local authority services were thrown into a private sector pond full of hungry piranha ready to strip the flesh off of public services, cynically reduce service standards and hopefully get fat at the council tax payer’s expense.  As soon as the waste management companies spotted a contract they took a liking to they would express an interest, obtain the tender documents and specifications and go to work sharpening their pencils.

This was never a scientific process and the first thing the tendering manager did was to get up early one Monday morning and sit outside the council depot and count the dustcarts and the number of men in them as they left to go to work.  And that was about all there was to it and half an hour later over a bacon butty and a cup of tea he would write this down on the back of a fag packet and by mid morning he would have a price in his head.  Nothing else in his head, just the price!  Sometimes, if he was being especially thorough, he would go back on Tuesday morning just to check his calculations but this would be quite unusual.

The tendering manager at Cory Environmental was called Tony Palmer and for Tony arriving at the tender price was gloriously simple.  If the Council had ten refuse collection rounds, the company would do it with nine, and just in case the Council could do it for nine then they would do it with eight so that would immediately undercut the Council price by 20%.  Just to make absolutely certain they would find out how much a refuse collector was paid each week and then they would reduce that by 20% as well.  If the Council had three mechanics to keep the fleet running they would do it with two and so on and so on. There was no way these boys could fail to win tenders!

I worked for the private sector waste management companies for ten years between 1990 and 2000 and then thankfully with the return to power of the Labour Party was able to return to local government where services are provided properly through direct delivery.

You can probably imagine my horror therefore when ten years later ‘son of Thatcher’, David Cameron, became Conservative Prime Minister in 2010 and has embarked on a similar dismantling of public services and twenty years after my first painful experience in the incompetent world of the private sector I find myself facing the same prospect all over again.

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