Council workers face uncertain future as bulk of services privatised

Observatory comp'Burnley Town Hall, by Peter Seavers
Observatory comp'Burnley Town Hall, by Peter Seavers

A significant number of Burnley Borough Council workers could lose their jobs over the coming decade in one of the most radical shake-ups of municipal services in the town’s history.

The council, reeling from massive government funding cuts, announced that private company Liberata had secured a £34m. contract to deliver the bulk of its services over the next 10 years.

There’s a lot of worry and concern among our members about their future.

Peter Thorne, branch secretary UNISON

The company will begin work from next January in an arrangement which will see around 120 workers being transferred, but around 40% of the workforce is expected to be cut over the next 10 years, according to a local union chief.

The decision results from the major Change Programme Burnley Council has been running since April 2014 in a bid to make massive savings.

Since 2010, the council has seen unprecedented government funding reductions of £8m. representing more than 50% of core funding.

This has already led to the loss of 145 full time equivalent posts.

Now, the council’s Executive Committee has decided the Liberata bid is the most “economically advantageous”.

But Peter Thorne, the Burnley branch secretary of UNISON, which represents many of the workers, said: “A report states that up to 40% of the workforce could be cut over the course of the contract. This is not good news for our workers. Up to 40% of jobs will be cut over the course of Liberata’s contract.

“The company has said it will create 100 new jobs but that is dependent on it winning new contracts, they cannot just pluck them out of the air.

“There’s a lot of worry and concern among our members about their future. We also have concerns over the quality of service for customers.

“We understand a lot more will be going online meaning less face to face contact. This will obviously affect the elderly and people who cannot afford a computer.”

It is expected that the staff will initially be retained in Burnley but may eventually be transferred to Liberata’s base in Nelson. The company currently runs a number of services for Pendle Borough Council.

Burnley Council leader Coun. Mark Townsend said the agreement would bring “opportunities for growth” into the borough at a time of government austerity measures.

He said: “We are taking this step to respond positively to the challenges that we face. Burnley Council is acting in line with its responsibility to provide the best possible services to residents, in spite of major reductions to our funding.

“Since 2010, the council has taken a range of steps to protect key services as well as dealing with the financial situation. We have made significant job cuts. We have positively explored options to work with other organisations, for example through setting up Burnley Leisure as a charitable trust.

“Bringing in a strategic partner is a new approach, which will make the council look and feel radically different.”

The services which will transfer are Customer Services and Information Technology services; Revenues, Benefits and Debt Management; Payroll and Human Resources systems; Asset and Facility Management services; and Environmental Health and Licensing.

Liberata has promised to create more than 100 new jobs over the first five years of the contract.

Coun. Townsend added: “Services will develop and change. We will be improving the ways people can access their services and do business with the council online. As this happens, we are absolutely committed to a smooth transition, both in the way that people receive their services, and for the 120 employees affected.

“Liberata has the objective of retaining jobs, skills and talent in Burnley and is looking to grow jobs and services in our borough. For many of the current council employees working in the services which form part of the contract, who will transfer with terms and conditions protected, this will mean new opportunities.”

Charlie Bruin, the managing director of Liberata’s business process services, said his company had a track record in driving down costs.

He said: “Key to enabling Burnley Council to meet its strategic objectives will be service innovation and digital transformation. We have a demonstrable track record in enabling our clients to drive down costs, while at the same time improve both the citizen and employee experience of critical services.”

Like many councils throughout the country, Burnley Council faces big financial challenges.

The council’s current medium term financial strategy has targeted savings of at least £2m. over the next two years out of a current total annual budget of around £16m.

In July, Chancellor George Osborne announced the need for the public sector to find further savings, with detailed announcements expected in November.