Birmingham up for grabs

A meeting at Birmingham Council House, organised by Birmingham Trades Council (24/6/2008), invited speakers on the vexed matter of privatisation of public services. What amazed even seasoned activists was the extent of moves to bring in the private sector offering lucrative contracts. All three major parties support this although it is the manifesto of none.
While post office closures are a national issue there are proposals to close a considerable number in Birmingham. This needs to be seen in the context of the government’s plan for postal services as a whole, which have all the hallmarks of privatised operations. Private companies have the opportunity to “cherry pick” the lucrative bits they like and leave the costly unattractive parts. These are usually the parts that provide essential services to the public – like mail delivery and post offices. The process was described in graphic and gory detail by a leader of the Communication Workers’ Union. He would have to leave the meeting early to attend another meeting in Coventry in advance of an announcement that this City, 7th largest in UK, would be having its Mail Centre closed.
In order for firms to tender the rules are that this has to be placed in the European Journal, at a cost of around £1 million. The competitors have to pay VAT so that has to be added in somewhere. The UK has moved much further in running down its postal services than anywhere else, and they give the Chief Executive of the Post Office a 3 year bonus package worth £3 million to run it down, with a poorer service to all of us: later deliveries when we have already been cut from 2 to 1. The once proud flagship Crown Post Offices which remain under the Post Offices control will now be found behind the green groceries of Cost Cutter and the like The Post Office has a huge distribution network, but there has been massive underinvestment. Money has been taken out of the Post Office following the Postal Services Act. Another familiar feature is the “consultation” process in which people are invited to meetings where the commercial decisions will already have been taken. These are not for negotiation.
In discussion we were further reduced to abject gloom when we realised that other unions such as the NUT used private mail services.

Rick Hatcher had earlier given us a rundown of education in the brave new world. “Modernisation” is the word New Labour always uses. Before we discussed the Academies soon to feature in Birmingham Rick reminded us what had already been privatised in education, again with lucrative contracts on offer. What did working people get to benefit them? The answer was loss of jobs, poorer working conditions and a threat to local democracy. Among those bidding for Birmingham schools were Land Securities, one of the biggest property companies, and Catalyst Education owned by the Bovis group. Rick saw these as a springboard to getting other council services. The contracts are for 20 years, once more cherry picking the profitable parts, and are a partnership between national and local government and the contractor, with the council and government having a 10% stake each and 80% going to the contractor. For this the contractor would have a say in what is taught, selection of staff and membership of governing bodies. While there was room for a councillor and parent governor it is clear to see that lone voices would find great difficulty in putting their views across.
Six academies are proposed for Birmingham, although following the announcement by Ed Balls that any school deemed to be failing would be a prime target for conversion. This could add up to 10 more in Birmingham. Land and premises are being handed over. While these are still described glowingly as “part of the family of Birmingham schools” the City Council will have little say in practice, which means of course that they will become unaccountable to the electorate. More democracy out of the window in one fell swoop! It emerged that one of those lined up to take over schools in Birmingham had made a bid in Bradford, but for reasons that are unclear they were “booted out”. Another comes under a former education director for Dudley and his sidekick under the name of the Orbiston Trust. The story goes that they had left Dudley in quite a hurry and once again it would be reassuring to have a reason. The Kibg Edwards Foundation are due to take over Shenley Court.
While claims are made that Academies improve educational standards there is absolutely no evidence that they do. One member of our group had visited the Grace Academy in Solihull, which is one of the schools run by committed evangelical. For some reason there is an extremely high turnover of staff there. Evidently they began the teaching day at 8.30 and finished at 3.15, allowing a 25 minute break for lunch. The school, was very well endowed with buildings and equipment. WE have already heard how a religious foundation elsewhere in the UK now teaches creationism, having appointed a head teacher and staff to carry this out. We can look forward to seeing schools set up to teach a range of bizarre matters, and none of us will have the power to say a word.
Since all three major parties are up for all of this, and elected members seem united as turkeys voting for Christmas. Happy to lose power, happy to bury democracy, happy to see essential services go to providers with dodgy backgrounds who will provide inferior services from unmotivated staff on low pay. This is even weirder when you consider members of the public’s view on the privatisation of their services. First of all there is wide spread ignorance. When out canvassing in May I raised the matter and found the vast majority were alarmed. Was this raised by other candidates, including those now elected?

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