CONTROVERSIAL plans to reshape the way Barnet Council provides services have been given a ringing endorsement by a government minister.

Bob Neill MP, the Local Government minister, visited council offices at North London Business Park last Thursday to see first hand the plans being put in place under the Future Shape scheme.

Under the plans, dubbed easyCouncil by previous leader Mike Freer, the council will look to outsource more services and start charging residents more for extra levels of certain services.

Speaking exclusively to the Times Series Mr Neill said: ““I think it's really exciting.

“I want to see for myself where there are real examples of imagination and good practice in local communities.

“In the future councils are going to receive less funding and local authorities have to have the courage to think outside the box.”

It is hoped the plans will help the council to hit targets of reducing expenditure by more than 25 per cent over the next three years, as austerity measures by the government start to bite.

Mr Neill added: “We've got to step back and see what are the key objectives here. It's to provide the best possible services for the residents of their particular area.

“Long-term, if we want to keep jobs and employment we have got to have a good economy and for that we have to be prepared to change the way we operate and see the big picture.

“The key thing is rethinking services to get better services from a limited amount of money.”

A paper which went before a council committee scrutinising the process last week highlighted services including planning, building control, environmental health and licensing functions which could be outsourced with private contractors.

This has lead to fears the cost to residents to use certain services or that some functions, including libraries which Barnet is currently consulting on, could be severely cut.

Mr Neill said: “There are certain core services the council has certain statutory responsibilities for. “I'm open minded about how these things are delivered, that's the big difference. For example looking to work with the private sector.

“When dealing with things like the vulnerable we have to make sure adequate safeguard are built in to protect them. It's perfectly possible to do within a model like this one.”

At an audit committee meeting last week it was revealed the cost of consultants and implementing the strategy so far is in excess of £2m, with officers unable to point to any concrete savings yet made.

The minister said: “This is part of a much bigger strategy the council are looking at. I'm the first to condemn money spent on types of consultancy which does not lead anywhere.

“Here it's different as they're taking a fresh look at how services are delivered and work done as part of that is a very sensible endeavour.

“What we've had in the past is a lot of money spent on employing consultants to tick boxes, not making things staff controlled. We have abolished those and leave it to the local authorities to decide what they should concentrate on.”

However, Mr Neill refused to recommend the Future Shape model as something all councils should be looking at, adding: “I'm not advocating a one size fits all policy. Different models work appropriately in different areas.

“What I think is really important is the thought process and political process which goes on and a willingness to look radically at how we deliver services with a focus on customer being in mind.

“Different local authorities do different things better. What we as a government have a desire to do is give more freedoms to local authorities to decide to go down the road this borough's doing or an adaptation of that.”

He also said he was “not too fussed” about concerns raised by external auditors Grant Thornton no business plan has yet been drawn up for the Future Shape programme.

Council leader Lynne Hillan said she thought Mr Neill was “very impressed” with the scheme which showed Barnet as a “forward thinking” borough.

She added: “There are a lot of concrete plans coming through and the review in housing is an example of some of the ideas coming forward.

“We have employed consultants but it would be pointless to employ full time members of staff to do specific pieces of work and the savings this year will be £3.2m.”