Health promotion to move into hidden world of Shropshire Council’s private company

Shropshire Council is rapidly reducing public oversight of public services paid for with public money. Its latest move is to create a new non-profit enterprise to manage public health services. That’s a good idea. But it wants transfer the new enterprise into its shadowy company ip&e. That’s a bad idea.

In April 2013, the government transferred responsibility for public health to local councils, including Shropshire Council. Public health services are about improving and protecting the health and wellbeing of communities. They aim to prevent illness by addressing the causes of ill-health, including lifestyle, living and working conditions.

In July this year, Shropshire Council’s Cabinet resolved to create a new non-profit enterprise – Help2Change – to integrate health prevention services in the county. It will embrace services such as NHS Health Checks, Help2Quit and Help2Slim.

Next Wednesday 3 September, a special meeting of the Cabinet will be held mostly behind closed doors to agree the transfer of Help2Change to ip&e, the council’s semi-secret private company. No paperwork is yet online for a meeting just 72 hours away but we need have no doubt that the Cabinet will approve the transfer.

The idea of grouping help prevention services into a not-for-profit enterprise is a good one. But I am concerned that it is disappearing into the ambit of ip&e, the council’s shadowy company.

ip&e was set up in May 2012 to be a delivery vehicle for the council’s ambitions to “become a ‘strategic commissioner’ of local public services” and to generate income for the council. It doesn’t hold AGMs. Its website tells us nothing much. Its accounts are rolled up into a single line entry in Shropshire Council’s accounts. It is subject to freedom of information laws, but it’s hard to target an FoI request when so little is known about the company.

Transferring services to ip&e reduces public oversight of public services paid for with public money. I think that’s wrong in principle and it continues Shropshire Council’s slide into a black hole of democracy.

It worries me too that the governance and management of ip&e isn’t that stable. Eleven directors have been appointed in the 27 months since it was established. Seven of those have resigned having averaged less than ten months each. A managing director was appointed in October 2012 and departed nine months later. Council leader Keith Barrow told the BBC he “couldn’t truthfully say that [the MD’s departure] had always been the plan,” but said the council would be looking “somewhere down the line for the right person to take the company forward.” There has been no new MD appointment and the company is down to four directors against the eight required by the company’s articles of association.

ip&e has a poor track record in governance and its operations are largely invisible to the public eye. That’s why I am against transferring something as vital as public health into its remit.