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.

20 June 2014

Overview and Scrutiny in Southwark - a new approach


Since the election last month I've taken on a new role as Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC).  As the name suggests, this is the committee which has primary responsibility for scrutinising how the council is being run and looking into various issues of interest and concern.

Some parties on the council are less than happy to see a Labour Councillor taking on this role. But the real problem is that most people couldn't care less who the Chair of OSC is or which party they're a member of. To the vast majority, council committees are irrelevant to their lives which is why people rarely turn up to them. 

Having been a member of the committee for the past 4 years, I'd have to say that people weren't missing much.  In four years this supposedly powerful committee achieved very little either in terms of changing council policy or developing new ideas for delivering services.  There were some meetings where we made progress, but that was the exception rather than the rule.  Usually they consisted of political grandstanding to meet the requirements of pre-drafted opposition press releases. 

As the new Chair, I want to make some changes to way the committee is run.  Firstly, I want to make sure that OSC actually produces detailed reports which the Council's Cabinet has to respond to.  Something which simply didn't happen in the last four years.

As a Sub-committee Chair, I worked with my committee to produce recommendations for change on issues like housing repairs, domestic violence support and community wardens.  I'll continue in this vain as chair of OSC.  Two issues which spring to mind for the coming year are to examine the detail of the Administration's pledge to introduce free gym and swimming across the borough and the promise to build 11,000 new council homes.  The latter of these is already on the agenda for our first meeting on 25th June.  

I also want to ensure that the proceedings of the committee are more open.  I've already asked officers to look into streaming our meetings online and also to upload video of the meetings for future reference.  In a digital age it's surprising that this doesn't already happen and it's about time Southwark caught up.  I don't pretend that we'll be breaking any records for viewing figures, but if only a tiny number of people watched the streams that would still be an improvement on the usual attendances.  It will also allow people to tweet or share links to particular parts of meetings and generally open the process up. 

There are other issues which need ironing out to make the committee more effective at what it is supposed to do.  One is the need open up a line of communication between the residents, front-line staff and Scrutiny. Staff and service users are often the first people to see major issues arising.  When other avenues have been exhausted, I want them to feel that there is an easy way of alerting OSC.  

I'm going to work with everyone and anyone who can make a contribution to improving the way the council delivers services. That includes Cabinet Members and the Lib Dem members of the committee.  None of this is going to turn OSC into a box-office hit, but it will be a start. 

27 May 2014

A big "thank you" from Peckham Rye Labour


In case you haven't heard already, the results for the council elections in Southwark came in on Friday. I'm really pleased that Renata, Victoria and I have been re-elected to represent Peckham Rye Ward for another four years.  Across the borough Labour made significant gains from the Liberal Democrats meaning that Southwark continues to have a Labour run council.

We'd like to say a huge "thank you" to everyone who voted, and especially to those who supported us.  We are very proud that you have given us the opportunity to continue our work for the ward and on the council.

I'll try not to bore you with too many statistics, but the short version of the vote in Peckham Rye is that Labour significantly increased its support whilst the Lib Dem vote almost completely collapsed compared to the previous election. 56% of total votes cast went to Labour, that's up 15% on 2010.  You can see the full results here.  It's also worth noting that Labour has finally got a councillor back in East Dulwich Ward, which neighbours our own.  Well done to Charlie Smith!

Hopefully, part of this is a reflection of our hard work locally, but I know that it is mainly about growing support for Labour values and a damning indictment of Southwark Lib Dem support for Tory policies in the Coalition.  From talking to people on the doorstep, it's also clear that the approach taken to issues like recycling, school meals and housing by Southwark's Labour Council has impressed many.

Southwark has now been run by Labour for four years and the council is gaining a national reputation for innovative policy and sensible, long term planning.

Whatever the reasons for the result, we are very grateful.  Victoria, Renata and I will continue to campaign on all of the issues that matter for you in this area.  As soon as possible we want to see the 63 bus route extended, the new One O'Clock Club built, major works completed on the Rye Hill Park Estate and plans for further investment in Peckham Rye Park delivered.

Finally, if you ever need to get in touch with us, no matter what it's about, you can find all of our contact details here.