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Preparation the key for charities looking to take on council services

Source: Public Sector Executive Feb/Mar 2015

Barbara Harbinson, chief executive of Halifax Opportunities Trust, discusses how her charity successfully won a competitive tender to deliver children’s centre services for one West Yorkshire council.

Calderdale Council announced in April 2014 that two local childcare providers had won contracts to run its 21 children’s centre services. This followed a 2013 decision to keep all the centres open, but to put the running of them out to tender – attracting many national providers.

At the time, councillors noted that many of the centres would have to “adapt” and day-care facilities may have to change to “minimise cost and maximise effectiveness and efficiency”.

The transfer of all Calderdale’s children’s centres to independent providers happened on 1 July 2014, with Halifax Opportunities Trust (HOT) providing services at 11 centres and North Halifax Partnership taking over the remaining 10.

Nearly nine months on and PSE caught up with HOT to see how the charity is delivering the services, and why the organisation’s bid was successful.

Chief executive Barbara Harbinson told us that the last few months have been a real “learning curve” for her organisation, but the team is committed to delivering high-quality services for young people and families.

“For me, the best service delivery possible is with a good provider that has deep-rooted community links, and we have that,” she said.

The contract won by HOT, a community development charity, is worth £10.5m over three years. It wasn’t the organisation’s first involvement with these services, however.

It had already worked with Calderdale Council to develop and run Sure Start children’s centres in central Halifax.

Value of early intervention

Harbinson explained that, while the local authority has had to make tough financial decisions in recent years, the elected administration understand the role and value of children’s centres.

“All the agenda around preventative activity is about early intervention, holistic, people-centred approaches; it is all embodied in what good children’s centres do,” she said.

“Whatever you’re going to cut, you wouldn’t cut supporting the most vulnerable children – because they’re going to carry those early problems for the rest of their lives. Even if you’re not a caring person, at least the economic argument should sway people. Why would you want to spend a lot of money [in the future] on trying to undo problems that you can’t because it is too late?”

Scary proposition

Asked what the competitive tender process was like for a small charity like HOT, Harbinson used one word: scary. But careful preparation and professional support helped ensure success.

“We tried to become experts in all sorts of areas,” she said. “Everyone was aware of the value of this local childcare provision, so we had a lot of time to do some awareness-raising. We also had help from Locality [the nationwide network of development trusts, community enterprises, settlements and social action centres] who came in and we had them as an internal team. We took it very, very seriously.”

The tender process has its own idiosyncrasies, and other charities would be advised to seek professional support before attempting it, PSE was told. HOT applied for and won more than £60,000 from the Social Investment Business to help it put together its tender, allowing it to “compete on a level playing field against the big national charities”.

Harbinson added: “You should never assume that a relatively small charity like ours doesn’t know what it is doing. But people do assume this from time to time.”

About 100 staff were TUPE transferred from the council to the charity when it won the contract, almost doubling its headcount.

Asked how the organisation coped with this, Harbinson said: “We knew it was going to happen and we had time to plan. We had transition plans in place, so the local authority didn’t cut them off on day one of the contract.”

She admitted that there were “a few hitches” along the way, but joked: “Everybody got paid!”

With more than two years still to run on the contract, Harbinson told us that HOT is increasing the occupancy at its centres and making sure the staffing ratios are appropriate for need.

There haven’t been any job losses. “We haven’t come in and said ‘we know best’; it is very much a learning process about what works best for each community. This is probably the main difference between us and a national provider, where their prescribed model would be replicated throughout the country.”

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