John Carleton is the head of Local Partnerships, the newest body trying to help councils drive a better bargain with private companies. He brings a wealth of experience from public service, banking, consultancy … and international rugby
Perhaps one of the lowest points in John Carleton’s international rugby career, in which he garnered 32 caps for England and seven tries, came on the unsuccessful 1983 Lions’ tour to New Zealand. Three months of rain had culminated in yet another defeat in the “horizontal snow” of Dunedin.
“I remember it distinctly,” Carleton says, “because the World Cup cricket was on in the UK. I was lying in bed in New Zealand in a tracksuit, cold, and watching England and Pakistan from Old Trafford on the TV and it was 80-odd degrees and people had their shirts off.”
He looks, fortunately, much happier now, newly installed as the first chief executive of Local Partnerships. The agency, formed out of the ashes of its predecessor, the 4ps, is now run as a joint venture between the Local Government Association and Partnerships UK, itself a public-private hybrid.
The agency’s job, Carleton says, is to be at the “interface” between councils and their private and voluntary sector partners, trying to make those relationships run more smoothly. But, as he acknowledges, it is no easy task.
Carleton, 53, has the kind of solid, compact build you’d expect from a former international winger, and an accent that bears the traces of his native Lancashire. His career has spanned both public and private sectors, first as a banker specialising in real estate, then at the Housing Corporation, where he says he was “humbled” by the dedication of his fellow workers showed in their attempts to improve some of the worst housing in the UK.
At that time, the relationship between the sectors was tainted by “huge amounts of suspicion on both sides”, he says.”I used to work for a guy who described partnership as the suppression of mutual loathing to access somebody else’s cash … I think a lot of people could see that sort of approach.”
Now, he says, both sides have come “an awful, awful long way”, though he accepts the relationship is far from perfect.
He acknowledges, too, that some public-private partnerships and outsourcing deals have been failures. That, he says, comes down to councils not knowing what they want at the outset.
“I bet nearly every time you find a partnership agreement that isn’t working, has flaws, has problems, those flaws can be rooted back to when the partnership was originally set up, and will be rooted back to potentially really poor choices, uninformed choices at [that] point.”
The mission for Local Partnerships, as he sees it, is to help councils make those choices better. Taking politicians’ promises of localism at face value, he insists that whichever party wins power in the general election next year, councils will be in control of more spending and policy.
“It’s not our role to second-guess how local authorities will deliver services to their people”
But as part of that, they will have to make “informed decisions” about what services they provide directly and which ones they outsource.
This doesn’t mean that the agency will be promoting privatisation, Carleton insists. Rather, it will be using its wealth of experience in hundreds of public-private schemes to help councils, especially small ones that struggle with complex, private sector-based projects, to strike better deals.
“It’s not our role to second-guess how local authorities will deliver services to their people,” he says. “It’s our job to help them find the best way of delivery, whether that be direct [public services], or whether that be working with partners.
“Our job … will be to help them find those partners, to help them structure the partnership arrangement right, to help them with the governance around that – and maybe even identify how they can fund that.”
One criticism levelled at the predecessor to Local Partnerships, the 4ps, was its lack of profile amongst senior council directors.
Carleton won’t comment on that, but says: “If that’s been the perception in the past, it certainly won’t be the reality in the future.”
He hopes to get out of his London office “at least” one day a week and go round the country talking to local councils. As he does, he will be “particularly interested” to hear from councils who feel their relationship with the 4ps “has not been that great. My offer, my promise, my commitment is, talk to me and let’s see how we can repair that.”
Another part of his mission is to get councils working together better. He admits it’s “not easy”, but insists good examples do exist, and that he will be pushing that message vigorously. He will also be pointing out that demands for services – notably in housing – Increasingly overspill local authority boundaries.
And he may be able to offer councils the incentive of start-up funding. In situations where a potentially cost-cutting project is being stymied by lack of upfront cash to invest, Local Partnerships could, he thinks, step in with some of its own money.
One problem he faces, however, is the need to charge councils for the agency’s services. Around a quarter of the Local Partnerships budget comes direct from government, but funding squeezes means the agency will increasingly look to the council fees that already currently make up the rest of its budget.
Will councils cough up more, given the enormous strain on budgets?
Carleton insists they will – as long as the agency can prove that its experience of working with private companies can help them drive a good bargain, and thus save money.
“If we can demonstrate to local public bodies that … we can help them deliver more for less – then, yes, they will pay for that.”
He takes the same line when asked whether the Conservatives, having made clear their dislike for quangos, might scrap Local Partnerships if they won power.
“Whichever government is in power, the services that they [councils] are empowered to deliver will increase,” he says. “So consequently if we are making them more efficient, more effective … I feel fairly comfortable that Local Partnerships has got a future, no matter who’s in government.”
First published in The Guardian