The Privatisation of Public Services

On 11th February 1975 the Conservative Party choose Margaret Thatcher as their new leader and when she eventually became the first woman Prime Minister the country was engulfed in a wave of right wing extremism that as usual picked on local government for a real good kicking.

In the 1980s and 1990s because Margaret Thatcher 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 – ‘Compusory Competitive Thieving’ would have been a more appropriate project title!

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 a man 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 was able to return to local government where services are provided properly through direct delivery so imagine my horror when ‘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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2 responses to “The Privatisation of Public Services

  1. There is something bizarre about the British desire to endlessly bash the public sector. I spent far more years in the public sector than the private sector and I saw a hell of a lot of people working extremely hard, conscientiously, and all hours under the sun. Actually half the time it was under the moon as people stayed well into the night to get on with their work. I don’t think domestic policies are the strongest point of the Conservative Party.

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