Is Serco “As guilty in 2019 as was claimed back in 2008?” In 2008 Labour Cllr Paul Cotterill wrote “I reported recently on my concerns that Serco may be being quietly lined up, under the cover of the ‘shared services’ agenda, to deliver other West Lancashire District Council services, despite its failures in delivering the ones its got a contract for already.
“So I asked for a briefing, as is my right (or so I thought) as Shadow Portfolio Holder Services for Community Services (including leisure services, parks and open spaces etc). I have been told, twice (well I wrote twice to ask), politely but firmly, that this is not possible, and that I will have to get any news I do get from the Labour group leader, who is allowed to meet the Chief Executive. That might happen next week when the Chief Executive returns from holidays.
“So is the Conservative-controlled Council hiding something? Is it scared I might do something awful like tell people what’s going on in good time for them to take a view? I couldn’t possibly say. I’ve not been briefed”.
Cllr Cotterill, Shadow Portfolio Holder, Leisure Services, had published “A Labour Review, an Interim report to the Leader of West Lancashire Labour Group of District Councillors”. Below we publish parts of the report that seem relevant to Serco Leisure Operating Ltd in 2019.
SERCO SO FAR
A Labour review
Interim report to the Leader of West Lancashire Labour Group of District Councillors
Shadow Portfolio Holder, Leisure Services
“This is an interim report, made to the leader of West Lancashire Labour Group of councillors but presented publicly for comment and further input, on the performance of SERCO Leisure Ltd (hereafter SERCO) in the delivery of leisure services at five wet and dry facilities in West Lancashire. It identifies a number of key failures and weaknesses in SERCO’s delivery of the contract, in West Lancashire District Council’s initial contracting arrangements, and the capacity of West Lancashire Leisure Trust, established expressly to manage the SERCO contract, to fulfil that function.
“SERCO has provided misleading analyses of its proposed price increases, whether by fault or by design. Actual percentage increases have been higher than the figure provided by SERCO. In 2006, the actual average price rise was around 9.24% rather than the 4.54% rise claimed by SERCO and accepted by West Lancashire Leisure Trust. Price rises for individuals, as distinct from those for other public organisations, may have been as high as 14% in the same year. Poor data provision means that price rises in 2005 cannot yet be adequately assessed.
“While SERCO and the District Council have made claims about the success of the service on the basis of growing patronage (take up) between 2005 and 2007, the overall growth figure conceals quite alarming disparities. While use has grown in better off areas, it has slumped in the lower income area of Skelmersdale. This is a dangerous pattern to have emerged so early in the contract, especially given the cumulative and long standing nature of negative lifestyle changes.
“Fundamentally, there is a great risk that the people of West Lancashire will be failed by the operations of the contract with SERCO. In narrow terms this is because of the poor initial establishment and consequent monitoring of the contract with SERCO, but ultimately this poor contracting has its roots in a neo-liberal political philosophy unsuited to modern, responsible local government which seeks to ensure the well-being of the whole community”.
“I’ve received an invitation”
Also in 2008 Cllr Cotterill wrote “I’ve received an ‘invitation’ from the West Lancashire District Council Chief Executive to meet himself and the District Solicitor to “discuss issues relating to the press release which you issued on SERCO Leisure Service.” The press release included data analysis and the report that he produced on Serco Leisure Ltd’s operations in West Lancashire since ‘outsourcing’ by the Conservatives in 2005. The Council went to some lengths to ensure that the report was not distributed through its own channels, and the local press did its best to ignore the detail of the findings, preferring a headline to say that ‘families can’t afford to keep fit’ rather than focusing on what I suggest is a strategy of excluding of low income people.
“Now, the Chief Executive is not a bloke who goes around seeking urgent meetings with scruffy opposition councillors if he doesn’t need to, and especially not with his lawyer present. So something must be up, especially as the press release is four months old now. I know the Audit Commission took an interest in the findings when I sent them, and I know the auditor has been in the Council recently, so are the big guns coming out to make sure it doesn’t all get just a little bit too public for them? Are Serco getting a little bit worried and banging their corporate fist? We’ll see next Thursday when I go and meet them”.
“I duly went along to see the Council offices the other day to see what was up. They advised me that: a) my press release in March, which suggested the Audit Commission was ‘closing in’ on the ‘scandal’ that is Serco’s delivery of leisure services in West Lancashire, was a little bit close to the wire; b) Serco might have looked to take legal action against me for the original report on their activities, and that I should be careful in future.
“The implication in the latter advice was that Serco just hadn’t feel it important enough to pursue, or were feeling kindly towards me. Of course, just as valid a reason for Serco not chasing me is that the report is an accurate assessment of the misleading data on price increase averages (I’ve never said that this is purposeful), and more generally their use of public funds in a way that promotes social inequality. Another reason may be they’ve never bothered to read it!
“I am of course grateful to the Chief Executive and the District Solicitor for what are obviously well meaning attempts to protect me from myself, they are both patently decent people and I am not suggesting that their view of my press release (they didn’t mention the actual report) is anything other than duly cautious.
Incorrect use of public money by Serco
“However, I stand by my report and will be continuing to investigate and shed as much light as possible on what I believe is incorrect use of public money by Serco, and ineffective governance by the West Lancashire Leisure Trust”.
Serco so far?
In 2019 Serco Leisure Operating Ltd has breached planning conditions at the Beacon Park Golf Course, has blamed Oakland Golf and Leisure Ltd its development partner, has received £183,864 royalties revenue that should be for the West Lancashire Leisure Trust to allocate on local health initiatives, and is responsible for the loss of competitive golf for Senior Golfers for at least a year. 2019 proves Cllr Cotterill was right to challenge Serco in 2008. And we will probably still write similar reports in 2020 unless Serco meets the commitment that Rupert Soames has made to West Lancashire Borough Council “To invest this money (£183,864) at Beacon Park Golf Course”.