Yet the council’s leaders have given up control by outsourcing repairs to an ‘arms-length’ private company – something that Green Party councillors are now trying to change.
To be clear, there are many council homes that are in good condition, where repairs are carried out promptly, and where tenants are able to live securely and affordably.
Yet as a local councillor I regularly and increasingly hear about important repairs being delayed or missed. A repair to fix a hole in a roof was rescheduled first one, then two, then three years later than originally promised. Windows have been left broken for months.
Tenants have repeatedly booked days off work so contractors could mend flood damage on a certain date, only for no one to show up, with no one contacting them to say why or to arrange an alternative date. I have chased the council up on more roof repairs that were a year overdue, only to be told that the work was cancelled but no one knows why.
This pattern is repeated across the city, and it is sadly no surprise that the Housing Ombudsman recently listed Norwich City Council as one of the worst social landlords in the country. That was in part for their repeated failure to carry out repairs on time or at all.
At the heart of this scandal is the private company that the council set up in 2021 to manage and carry out repairs, Norwich City Services Limited (NCSL).
If the council receives a report of a problem that needs repairing in a block of flats or a house, they cannot simply send a council worker to fix it. Instead, the work has to go via a complex system of contracts with NCSL, which restricts the council’s oversight and control.
Norwich is not alone among councils in facing higher costs and lower quality after frontline services were outsourced to “arms-length” companies. But after a wave of privatisation under Margaret Thatcher and New Labour, many councils are now switching to employing staff directly, rather than relying on costly private contracts.
Insourcing by employing staff directly gives councils greater control, with measurably better results for their local areas. Places like Islington, Exeter and Maidstone have saved taxpayers’ money, raised salaries and pensions for their lowest-paid workers, and improved frontline services including repairs to council homes or street cleaning by insourcing.
Green Party councillors are this week proposing that the city council vote on plans to fully insource the council’s repairs and maintenance service. Insourcing would mean the council has full control over repairs and maintenance, and could be much more responsive to problems.
It would also mean NCSL staff who are currently doing work for the council but are paid less than council staff would get fair pay, ending the two-tier system that has discontent among workers and almost led to strikes in 2021 and 2022.
Raising pay and pensions for these low-paid workers would mean a cost to the council, but it would make recruitment and retention easier. There would also be savings, as management costs would be reduced by insourcing.
And jobs should be done right first time, rather than the waste of money and time and the frustration for tenants that is going on currently.
Greens recognise that we cannot commit to fully insourcing NCSL until there is a full assessment of the costs versus the savings.
But our motion to the city council aims to set a direction for moving towards full control of the repairs and maintenance services.
Local government work should be carried out by properly-paid local government workers, with control and responsibility resting ultimately with the politicians elected to run the council, not a private ‘arms-length’ company.
Jamie Osborn is a Norwich Green Party councillor for Mancroft Ward