Last night we had some rare excitement at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC). OSC is the committee that chases the rest of the council around with the proverbial bucket, cleaning up. Most of our work is not glamorous and excites little public interest.
The main item last night was a call-in. This is where a member of the council (ie a councillor) calls-in a decision made by a council committee to ask that it is reconsidered. This is a mechanism that allows council decisions to be reconsidered in the cold light of day.
Last night’s call-in related to a re-organisation of the ranger service, see Cabinet papers here and here. The council wants to re-organise Parks, Countryside and Events Service (PCE). Yes, this will reduce the headcount. Both council officers and the administration believe that this efficiency saving can be made without compromising services. They reckon that the having two bigger bases for this service will lead to a more effective and sustainable service. They want to consolidate on the two most modern buildings in Acton and Southall and give up dilapidated and not-fit-for-purpose buildings at Brent Lodge and Horseden Hill. The plan says the same number of rangers will be deployed differently.
The call-in was made by the tiny LibDem group of three. The meeting attracted some 20 or so people from Hanwell including LibDem activist Nigel Bakhai. The main speaker on behalf of the Lawns and Hanwell Village Green residents’ associations was Carolyn Brown
A number of times speakers and questioners alluded to the fact that the current ranger team of 20 was not at full strength – there are currently 16 working with one on long-term sick leave. Much was made of the fact that the service had gone slow on recruiting vacancies in the current financial year. The cash to fill them had been used this year to fight other fires in the service such as storm damage to trees. The portfolio holder, Nigel Sumner, made a commitment that these posts would be recruited next year.
I talked briefly and asked that the audience considered the council’s role and responsibilities in the round. The council is not talking about reducing service levels it is talking about an internal re-organisation which it thinks will be more efficient. The council needs to push all the time to be more efficient if it is to meet all of its commitments. Legal responsibilities to care for the elderly and young people for instance get more and more onerous every year as the number of elderly and special needs increase. The council got elected to clean up the borough so we are entitled to prioritise this area for additional spending as we have. At the same time the public has a limited appetite for increases in council taxes. The only way to square the circle is to do more for less – a discipline that applies equally in the private sector.
Although Labour councillor Bassam Mahfouz would not normally be considered a natural ally of the ruling Conservative group he noted in the debate that he sensed weaknesses in the current PCE structure that led to services deficiencies in his area. He welcomed the consolidation into two bases, although, to be fair, he called for guarantees that the ranger service would return to its full strength of 20 and that the redundant sites would be properly used in future.
At the end of the debate it was agreed that the re-organisation should proceed without it being referred back to cabinet for further consideration. Councillor Mahfouz abstained rather than vote against the majority group members which shows that these things can be decided on their merits.
The public is entitled to watch service levels like hawks and demand that they get satisfaction. There is no way though that the council is required to keep the same people sitting in a building year after year just so residents around one park can feel they are getting a good service.