6 March 2015

Lambeth & Southwark Childcare Commission

As Southwark's Cabinet Member for Childcare and Schools I warmly welcomed this week's report of the Lambeth and Southwark Childcare Commission, chaired by Dame Tessa Jowell MP. Like our neighbours in Lambeth, we are firmly committed to giving every child the best start in life and helping parents find affordable, accessible and quality childcare. This report acknowledges the challenges faced by local families but sets out a range of options that could be used to tackle these by the Mayor of London, central government, local authorities and employers. There is no one solution to deal with the many problems parents in London face trying to get back to work while managing the burdens and prohibitive costs of childcare. The Council no doubt has a role to play in stepping up to deliver the options set out in the report but we also need to work with parents, businesses and the Mayor in open partnership to create a city that embraces parenthood and creates a world of opportunity for all our children.

The report recommends that both councils look into the idea of a childcare matchmaking service, which would pair qualified childminders with parents who are looking for childcare on a flexible basis. It also recommends that the councils consider incentivising local employers to set up workplace nurseries, possibly by discounting business rates or brokering deals with childcare providers. One further suggestion is for Transport for London to consider offering new parents discounted transport fares to help make going back to work affordable, or for the Mayor of London to look into the feasibility of providing an interest-free loan scheme so that parents can pay any upfront childcare costs. The report also challenges the Government to change their funding of early years development, pooling the education, early years and childcare budgets to take a 0-18 approach recognising that early intervention can save money in the long-term.
I look forward to discussing these recommendations and many others with colleagues across Southwark and Lambeth in the coming weeks. I am determined that together we can make childcare work better for families, better for children and better for our communities. 

The full report can be read here.

5 February 2015

Local cemeteries - What's going on?

Ahead of next week's public meeting to discuss our local cemeteries I just wanted to explain some of the background to the current situation. 

There was a very extensive consultation on the cemeteries in 2012. The consensus was that people wanted the council to continue to offer burial space in the borough. I personally don't agree with this knowing the huge existing pressure on land but the point of the consultation was to listen and plan our future policy on peoples' views. Many options like out of town burial were explored as part of this process. 

 As ward councillors we all thought it vitally important to protect Honor Oak Rec. This is a green space used by local residents and also used by local schools and football clubs. Whilst I think many parts of Camberwell Old are beautiful and a haven for wildlife I think that sensitive reuse of parts of the cemetery which allow us to protect Honor Oak Rec are worth pursuing.

All three of us are also committed to protecting the land immediately behind Ryedale at Camberwell Old as I do think burials this would have an impact on the houses that back onto it and the alternative of planting a screen would mean a loss of light for these residents. 

 What we proposed in 2012 was that instead we brought forward plans to bring back into use 'Site Z' at Camberwell Old. This is a site that is currently closed to the public because of the huge amount of dumping that has taken place on the site. The great majority of the trees on the boundary will be protected and further planting will be done. 

Many other mature tree of merit away from the boundary are been protected and plans have been worked up around them. Many of the ones that are going (and every single one that I queried when visiting yesterday) have been covered with 1-2 metres of the dumping. This means their likely lifespan is only 10 years at most.

It will be a massive operation to remove all the dumping from the site and this includes toxic waste. Doing this and creating new grave space means the area can be opened up to the public. Given the protection of the boundary and the commitment to new planting means that a quality new green space will be created. 

The most beautiful oaks are being protected, there is a plan for a peaceful sitting area around one and with the right planning this will be a beautiful area with stunning views over the city. I have attached some pictures of 'site Z' to show the poor quality of the 'woods' there. Much of it is buddleia which reduces biodiversity. In the picture with brambles and trees in the distance, the ones in the distance stay, it's the area of bramble that is being cleared. I was there with an ecologist and a tree expert yesterday. Both agreed that we were protecting the important bits of the nature and our plans would help other nature flourish.

I do feel more reluctant about the gladed area of the cemetery - the 'H' sites. Part of the coppicing work that will take place here will help protect the existing trees and increase the biodiversity of the area but in my heart of heart I would prefer that after this work was done the sites were protected as woodland. However, to get to a stage of being able to reuse our existing cemeteries we do need to use these spaces. To me, it's therefore making sure that we do our best to protect the character of what is there - protecting all the trees we can, looking at what new graves might look like, what additional planting is possible and the possibility of reusing of the old headstones to preserve the character of the area. 

 On Camberwell New, it does seem that some people involved in the campaign group have reached the point of not accepting we should ever cut down any tree ever, for any reason. The main new site at Camberwell New is a concrete slab that can't currently be accessed by the public. The smaller additional site would mean the loss of a few poor quality trees on the edge of grass/lawn area on a slope that hasn't been used - 13 trees is the number given. This spot is right on the edge of the wooded boundary of the cemetery (all protected) and One Tree Hill (a stunning wooded background and all protected obviously). The feeling of the wooded edge of the cemetery will still be retained and this piece of lawn can be brought into use. Again I visited yesterday and felt no concern that the character of the cemetery or the neighbouring nature reserve would be affected. 

 I think what we're trying to do is find the best balance possible. I feel that a very extensive consultation took place in 2012 - I went to meetings with 150 people attending etc. We tried to find our way to the best outcome and compromise. What would be good now would be residents looking at how we can implement these plans as sensitively as possible and looking at what is actually being proposed. I'm not sure that claiming that Southwark Council is 'destroying forests' is the best way to have that debate - I'm sorry if others feel otherwise but I've always felt that it's best to be honest when you disagree with the views of others.

12 January 2015

A new approach to outsourcing and procurement

A report published today is recommending a new approach to outsourcing and procurement at Southwark Council.  Proposals include introducing an in-house "preferred provider" policy, a target for creating local jobs and apprenticeships with council spending and greater protection for the workforce.

Southwark’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) is publishing an investigation into the council’s approach to commissioning, procurement and outsourcing. You can see the full draft report here.  Changes will be made to this following our OSC meeting on the 19th January where the committee will discuss the draft.

This is a huge issue.  Southwark Council’s register of contracts with external organisations shows 220 different contracts for goods and services.  That accounts for a total contract value of £2.6 billion.  A huge range of services, from the building of new schools to employment support services to homecare for vulnerable residents, are procured by the council.  Decisions about when to outsource and who gets the contracts have a big impact on the lives of people in the borough.  

Southwark has had more than its fair share of outsourcing and procurement controversies in recent decades, some of which have led to serious and prolonged reductions in service quality and wasted taxpayers’ money. Our aim as a committee is to make recommendations which stop this from happening again in the future.

Labour has made taken some big steps forward on this issue since 2010, signing up to the Ethical Care Charter, introducing a Living Wage and ending several underperforming contracts.

Yet, commissioning services in Southwark still needs to be more transparent, subject to greater democratic control and more engaged with what service users want. The council also needs to take more advantage of its spending power to promote equality and fairness. 

We’ve made 20 recommendations in all and I've highlighted a few of these below:

1.      In-house as “preferred provider”
Due to the risks associated with outsourcing large-scale services, the draft report calls on the Cabinet to introduce a policy of in-house as the “preferred provider”, similar to the NHS preferred provider policy operated when Andy Burnham was Health Secretary.  This would not mean that Southwark would cease to outsource services.  Instead it would mean that the possible benefits of outsourcing, where it was considered appropriate, would need to be properly investigated and evidenced.

2.      “Gateway zero” reports for all large scale commissioning processes
(Apologies in advance for the jargon here!) A Gateway 1 report is a document published by the council which sets a procurement strategy. If you see a Gateway 1 report, you know a decision has been made to outsource a service (or to continue an outsourced arrangement).  To ensure a decision to change the way a service is delivered is made with appropriate input from Cabinet, elected members, staff , service users and residents the draft report recommends a new standard report, prior to Gateway 1.  This would need to make the case for the preferred mode of delivery – in-house, private sector, CVS sector, shared service etc.  A Gateway zero report would also ensure that the broad methods by which a service is to be delivered (e.g. single provider/framework of providers etc.) could be discussed before a particular approach becomes hard to unpick. We recommend these should be reserved for high value services and would exclude capital investment works.

3.      Lower Contract thresholds
In other London boroughs the thresholds for officers to be able to approve procurement decisions are significantly lower and Cabinet Members formally sign-off more decisions.  Evidence is presented in the report showing that Southwark is out of step with the thresholds for other London boroughs.  The report recommends lowering the threshold levels to improve oversight of this spending.

4.      Using the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 – Jobs and apprentices
More should be done to encourage social benefits derived from our procurement activity. The draft report recommends setting targets for the number of apprenticeships and the number of jobs created by each £1 million of our procurement spending.

5.      Using the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 – other social clauses
The report recommends other social value issues which could be introduced in Southwark’s tendering processes.  They are:

  • Disqualification of bidders who have engaged in trade union black-listing (and have shown no commitment to ensuring this does not happen again in the future).
  • Disqualification of bidders for licensed premises (Park CafĂ©’s etc.) not prepared to sign up to Southwark’s Women’s Safety Charter
  • Flexible working and family friendly policies
  • Training and development of staff
  • Environmental considerations
6.      Standard contract clauses
To improve scrutiny and monitoring of contracts, the draft report recommends introducing the following contract clauses for all contracts:

  • Prompt payment of sub-contractors
  • Adherence to Southwark’s whistle-blowing policy
  • Open book audits of contract accounts on request
  • ‘Termination at will’ clauses
  • Openness and transparency in the event of termination – allowing us to explain to residents why a contract has been terminated.
  • Attendance at council committees such as Cabinet or scrutiny by contractors on request
  • Break clauses allowing Southwark to conclude a contract should the ownership of contractor change during the life of a contract.
7.      Openness and transparency for contracts
Procurement is often shrouded in unnecessary secrecy.  To counter this all contracts signed by Southwark Council with external contractors should be published in full online with a link from the contracts register.  In those exceptions where commercial confidentiality is considered an issue, partial redaction could be used.

8.     Protecting the workforce

When the council renews contracts or outsources services to the private or voluntary sector as a minimum the following workforce provisions should apply:
  • Access to the LGPS
  • Trade Union recognition agreements
  • London Living Wage
  • Payment of sick pay
  • Appropriate training
  • Defined hour contracts without unreasonable “availability clauses” (i.e. no zero hours contracts)
  • Free access to personal protective equipment
  • Guarantees that TUPE terms and conditions will last for the term of the contract
9.      Social Value: Gender Pay Gap and Pay differentials
The report recommends that the Cabinet sets a threshold for both the employee gender pay gap and pay differentials (the gap between the lowest and highest paid) for organisations to qualify to provide services on our behalf.

As I say, the report is still in draft form and subject to consultation.  If you want to make any further suggestions, take a look at the report and email me at gavin.edwards@southwark.gov.uk  

Once we've agreed a final version of the report it will go to Southwark's Cabinet for a response to the recommendations. 

5 November 2014

Southwark Council's first live webcast - Monday 10th November, 7pm

Southwark Council's Tooley Street Offices

On Monday night Southwark will show its first ever live webcast of a council meeting. True, it's won't be challenging Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey in the ratings but it is an important step in opening up the democratic procedures of your council.

The meeting will be of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee which will be debating the borough's cycling strategy (which is currently being consulted on) and procurement. We will also be questioning Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Planning and Transport about issues across his remit.

The papers for the meeting are here.  I don't have the link for the webcast page just yet but will publish it here and Tweet it as soon as I do.

My view is that the more people who can see what goes on in Southwark Council's meetings, the more they will reflect what is important to people in the borough.  Many people simply don't have the time to come to Tooley Street to sit in on a meeting. Webcasts means that if there is an issue people are interested in they can watch the meeting and even participate via social media. (Suggested Twitter hashtag for the meeting #swklive)  This also means that we will have a full recording of the meeting which can be posted online as a record of what was said.

This is something I promised to introduce when I took on the Chair on the Committee. The first webcast is only a pilot, but there are lots of examples of this being successful elsewhere so I'm hopeful that we can build on this first attempt. 

12 September 2014

Dulwich Hospital Site, interview with the Council Leader, Peckham Rye Station and Contracting-Out

OSC is scrutinising council procurement

Our latest Southwark Overview and Scrutiny (OSC) meeting took place on Monday night.The meeting covered the prospects for a new secondary school on the Dulwich Hospital site, an interview of the Leader of the Council, a briefing from officers on the regeneration of the area around Peckham Rye Station and finally, a session to discuss how and why certain council services are contracted out.  

Dulwich Hospital Site

The Committee heard from representatives of two groups interested in running a secondary school from the Dulwich Hospital Site. Charter School Educational Trust and Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation are sponsoring Free School bids to run a new secondary school from the site. The council is assisting and facilitating the bids. Projected figures on pupil numbers show a real need for more secondary places in the area in coming years. 

The mess created by the anarchic free school system, has resulted in the Department for Education approving a primary school for the site. You can see more information on this here.

It was very useful to hear from two groups campaigning to run a secondary school which is desperately needed.  Charter and Haberdashers’ Aske’s have exemplary records of providing high quality education.  Both groups expressed surprise at developments relating to th DfE and  "Harris Nunhead Primary Free School" but hope this issue could soon be resolved. 

OSC will be reporting on the issue of school places to the council's Cabinet in the new year, so it was fascinating to hear how these two groups had navigated the system so far.  Their comments will strengthen our recommendations.  

Leader's Interview

There was a lively session in which the Leader of the Council, Peter John, was interviewed on a variety of policy issues including the steps which would be taken to introduce free swimming and gym use in the borough.  The Leader was also asked about the Bakerloo Line extension, employment levels in the borough and how the council would deal with further cuts in government funding over the coming year. If you're interested in finding out more about these issues, the minutes for this session will appear here soon.  

Peckham Rye Station Redevelopment

Next up on the agenda was the redevelopment which the council is leading around Peckham Rye Station.  The briefing which accompanied this session is here, giving a useful update on where this project is at.  

In particular, members on the Committee quizzed the officer on why the original proposals for this regeneration project met with such opposition.  We were also given details of the "co-design" process which is now taking place.  The website for this can be found here.  Members made a number of suggestions as to how this process might be improved, particularly regarding the need to include all parts of the Peckham Community.

OSC will continue to scutinise Regen projects throughout the borough as a core part of our work.  

Corporate Procurement

(Don't run away. I know it sounds boring - but it's hugely important). Your council spends millions of pounds every year on contracts for goods and services. Sometimes this is money well spent, but sometimes it can lead to serious problems. In Southwark, we have seen more than our fair share of failed "outsourcing" projects over the last decade.  Revenue and Benefits, the call centre and housing repairs are just a few examples of contractors letting us down in terms of quality and cost.  

OSC will be producing a report in December which tries to identify what has been going wrong and suggest improvements. So far, we have studied the internal processes to sign off these contracts and looked at the details of some current contracts. At Monday's meeting we were able to dig into these areas even further by speaking to senior officers

In the coming weeks we'll be gathering further information on a sample of the current contracts (there are hundreds in total). At our November meeting we'll be talking to John Tizard, former Head of Policy at Capita who has become a critic of some parts of the "Procurement Agenda". I'll also be inviting written submissions from various groups across the borough. 

17 July 2014

School places scrutiny update

On Monday night we held our second Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) meeting since the election. Our work programme this year includes analysing the provision of school places across the borough. So as one of the main agenda items for this meeting we invited the council officers responsible to explain how demand is being met. 

Officers said that Southwark is facing a number of challenges regarding school places. Demand, both primary and secondary places continues to rise.  The council is co-ordinating the expansion of a number of existing schools to address this and there are also several free school proposals which are being progressed.  Further details of this programme can be found in the newly published School Places Strategy Update” .   This programme is being looked at as part of our scrutiny. 
One particular issue of concern is the uncertainty over the future use of the Dulwich Hospital site.  The council has committed to opening a new secondary school there but the DfE and the Education Funding Agency have also given the green light to a “Nunhead” Free Primary School there.  Primary school places in this area are already being provided  through other free school proposals and the expansion of popular existing primary schools, including Ivydale School. 
In short,  this means a new secondary school and a local primary expansion programme is being threatened because the government has thrown a  new school into the mix without consulting either local parents or Southwark council.  Our report will need to address what more can be done by all interested parties to avoid this kind of controversy.  OSC will be talking to parents groups, school sponsors and the Cabinet Member before reaching our conclusions. 
More widely, the OSC report  will make recommendations on how to improve school place provision in Southwark and ensure proposals to meet demand are delivered.  Issues like the “reputation lag” of good schools which remain under-subscribed will form part of this.  We will highlight good and poor case studies of how free school proposals are developed and look at encouraging school sponsors to engage with the council instead of, as sometimes happens,  pulling the shutters down.  We may also carry out our own survey of parents to see what they think of the allocation process, and take a close look at the capital investment programme which will support the expansion of existing schools. 
Members of OSC will be encouraged to contribute as many ideas as possible, but if you would like to make your own suggestion or even just let us know about your experience of school places allocation in the borough, you can email me at gavin.edwards@southwark.gov.uk . I would be very interested to hear from you.  

26 June 2014

Update on Overview and Scrutiny

Last night we had our first Overview & Scrutiny Committee (OSC) meeting since the election. This is an update on how the meeting went.  I blogged last week about how I wanted to improve OSC by producing more real recommendations for improving services and making the proceedings of the committee more open.

We agreed a number of changes (including making progress on streaming meetings live online) and then set out our work programme for the coming year.  OSC will start by taking an in-depth look at the following:

-  School places across the borough
-  The implementation of free gym use and swimming
-  The council's procurement strategy (what services are contracted out and how is this done)
-  The detail of how Southwark Council will deliver on the pledge to build 11,000 new council homes
-  The quality and speed of responses to casework raised on behalf of residents.

We will also be looking at numerous other issues as and when they arise.  For example, next month we will be speaking to the independent investigator into the major works at Draper House.  In addition, Southwark's Cabinet members will be interviewed by OSC to ensure we keep a close eye on the policy areas in their portfolios.

There are also a number of major regeneration projects going on across the borough at the moment. Because of their importance, at alternate meetings we will include one of these regeneration projects on our agenda.

Finally, we are also going to be asking staff and members of the public to suggest scrutiny items via a survey which will soon be published.  Our view is that staff and service users are usually the first people to notice when things start to go wrong.  We hope that will give us even more to get our teeth into.

To start as I mean to go on, I also made sure we got down to the nitty gritty at the first meeting and we made a start at investigating one of our more in-depth topics:  the delivery of the 11,000 new council homes.  Following a detailed briefing from officers on progress so far, we questioned them regarding progress made on the action plan set out in the January Cabinet paper.  A crucial next step in the process is the setting up of a "Council owned vehicle" which can access and use all the funding needed to build the homes.  OSC requested that more details of the proposals came to us at our September meeting.

I'll now be working to sort out the agenda for next month's OSC and start gathering together evidence on some of our longer-term scrutiny topics.

Our next meeting is on 15th July and the agenda will be published soon.