A Labour-led council has been branded “secretive and undemocratic” after a behind-closed-doors decision to share services with a neighbouring authority.
Northumberland County Council’s deputy leader Dave Ledger and executive director Steven Mason agreed to share some functions, including HR, IT and audit services, with authorities in County Durham and North Tyneside, which also have a Labour majority, at private meetings earlier this year.
The North East Chamber of Commerce has said it is “disappointing” the private sector was excluded from bidding for contracts while opposition politicians have accused officials of a failure to consult the public.
Coun Ledger however, defended the move by saying no money changed hands and the council’s motivation was to save funds.
Peter Jackson, leader of the Northumberland Conservatives, said: “Any elected council paid for by the taxpayer should be open and accountable, and yet here we have another example of how secretive and undemocratic Northumberland County Council is being run.
“If this process had been conducted in an open way then surely the private sector should have been given a chance to put forward both its skills and expertise.
“There are many other significant ways which this council could save money and be more effective and the first place I would recommend them to look is the cost of empty and under-used council properties.”
Ross Smith, director of policy at the North East Chamber of Commerce, added: “It is disappointing for us that these functions haven’t gone out to tender.
“There has not been proper testing to see if private sector companies could have done this job and delivered more for the North East economy by doing so.
“Without doubt, there are benefits to be had from sharing services but if some of those functions could be contracted out to private firms that creates economies of scale that enable the North East to contract in more work from outside of the region.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative candidate for Berwick, was also critical of the authority.
She said: “It is only right that Northumberland County Council should look at every way of becoming more efficient and saving money. However, as with many other decisions, this has been done behind closed doors with the effect of giving great insecurity to key existing staff.”
Coun Ledger,said the move makes sense and was efficient.
He said: “Northumberland County Council in common with many other public sector organisations is actively exploring a range of shared services with other like-minded organisations, in order to as far as possible protect direct service delivery as we attempt to deal with the significant reductions in funding from national government.
“The HR and IT services are currently operating as a public partnership with Durham County Council. It has a larger HR service than we have, while our IT service has advantages over Durham’s - so it makes sense to maximise the skills of both.
“We are also sharing audit services with North Tyneside and have been for a number of years now and also more recently developed a partnership on procurement with NHS.
“There was no tendering process as no money has changed hands. In these times of financial austerity we are always looking at ways of delivering services in the most efficient way.”