Yesterday there was a meeting of the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Scrutiny Committees are the bodies that are meant to analyse in close detail what the Cabinet and council are doing and to hold them to account. In a way they are like Select Committees in Parliament - they don't wield power, but they should have significant influence.
At the first meeting of the Committee, a number of us complained that there was too long a delay until the next meeting and so this one was added. The subjects for scrutiny were the fire service - in view of their 'poor' rating in a recent inspection; the plans by the council to bid for PFI funding for council house building and the decision by the Executive to delay the implementation of the localism scheme as I have described previously.
It was a hugely frustrating meeting. But first the good news:
The first subject was the fire service. The Chief Fire Officer - who is new in post since the report - gave a good, if slightly over-long, presentation and then answered questions. I think he acquitted himself very well and gave us some confidence that he understood the challenges in front of him, even if he does not yet have all the answers. I would have been a bit suspicious if he claimed he had!
Then we moved onto PFI for council housing. Again, the presentation was overlong, but this one fairly horrified me. According to the officers, the PFI scheme is just too complex to be explained to us. But what figures were given showed that PFI scheme houses would be more expensive (at least 25% more) and would not be controlled or ultimately owned by the Council.
I have a basic objection to PFI in that I think that if the Council is paying a vast amount for assets then they should be owned and controlled by the Council. However, I recognise that we are in an imperfect world and, if PFI is the only way of getting things done, then I will hold my nose and vote for it.
But I worry that this is not a scheme I could ever support.
For one thing, the complexity of the scheme seems unnecessary. With a relatively straighforward issue you can see the pitfalls and the challenges and work to sort out and problems in advance. Where you throw unknown factors into the mix and then wrap the whole lot up in a breath-takingly complex contract (and throw in a dose of 'commercial confidentiality' for good measure) then you have a recipe for disaster. Think of the banking crisis. Some bright spark thought it would be a good idea to wrap up sub-prime mortgages and toxic debts in a complex package and then sell it on to you and me through our banks. Could a PFI housing scheme be the same?
It was also suggested that, so long as the contract covers every eventuality, then the Council will be protected. I have yet to hear about a PFI contract which thinks of everything. And even if it does, what will the Council do if, three quarters of the way through the contract, the private sector partner demands a change to the terms? Can a new private sector partner be found at that stage? And if the original partner simply walks away, what can be done. Stagecoach did that with the North East rail franchise and the Government was powerless to hold them to the contract they had signed.
I was concerned that the Director seemed to think that the go ahead would be automatic for the Council to carry on with such a scheme. I suggested that the scrutiny committee needed to look both at the principle of the scheme and, if approved by Cabinet, at the details of the bid. Regrettably, the Chair did not allow us to ask detailed questions of the officers and it was finally decided that there should be a whole day seminar with all councillors present - at a date to be decided. I trust that this will be advetised well in advance and that officers come along with all the details and the willingness to answer every question - there will be many.
On localism the committee again decided to hold a mass debate at some unknown point in the future.
Could these future meetings work? Yes they could. But they are not the proper function of a scrutiny committee which should be presented with all the facts and allowed to debate within meetings.