By Andrew Bounds
Published: June 21 2010 18:53
Bernard Priest is a man with a calling. It is to break the link between quality and money in public services. “It is not about cutting but improving,” he says of a five-year transformation plan under way at Manchester city council.
“Most people in the public sector think that to improve something you have to spend money,” says the councillor. “We have shown you can save money and improve services.”
Manchester remains the fourth most-deprived place in Britain, and Mr Priest, the executive member for finance, says large-scale service cuts are not an option. Forty per cent of its adult residents are too poor to pay council tax.
With an annual spend of £480m, the Labour-run authority has saved £55m in the past four years and is targeting another £100m between 2010 and 2013. Council tax rises have been pegged to inflation or below for 11 years, with a freeze this year.
The measures taken are standard for the private sector. Barriers between departments have been broken down.
All staff assessing requests for services, whether it be for a taxi licence or housing benefit, work together.
A new customer service centre, part of a town hall refurbishment, has already cut waiting times from 35 minutes to seven.
Private companies providing home-care services must issue staff with electronic monitors, so the council pays only for time spent with a patient. That has cut almost £2m from a £13.8m contract.
The council reached a deal with its staff: there would be no compulsory redundancies as long as they agreed to be flexible.
Numbers have shrunk slightly to 12,500 and are expected to fall by a further 1,000 over the next three years. The council now needs to find £7m more savings this year because of central government grant cuts announced this month.
Jim White, a director of consultants Turner and Townsend, who has been advising Manchester, said it offered an alternative to the “Easycouncil” model of providing only essential services and charging for extras. “Rather than doing more with less it is about doing a bit less for a lot less,” he said.
The council is putting up school meal prices, while its “fairer” charging system for adult social services provoked a backlash when begun in 2008. Those better off and with big savings had to pay for the first time.
Mr Priest said: “We don’t get everything right but that was the right decision. We need to charge some people so we can provide a service to those who need it most. In Manchester we do not want communities and people to be left to sink or swim.”
Many mental health sufferers, however, say they can no longer afford day centres where their conditions were managed in the community.
Alan Hartman, of the Manchester Users’ Network, a patients’ group, said: “A lot of people are suffering. Many are in debt and lots are going back into hospital because their condition is deteriorating.”
Several members are seeking a judicial review to overturn the decision.
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2010.