700 jobs at risk as plunging market share and mothballed £500,000 cook freeze unit prompt county council to axe school dinners and cleaning division

School caterers, cleaners and caretakers were amongst those honoured at Cambridgeshire Catering and

School caterers, cleaners and caretakers were amongst those honoured at Cambridgeshire Catering and Cleaning Services ninth annual awards on Tuesday 3 October. - Credit: Archant

Up to 700 people are at risk of losing their job following the shock announcement by Cambridgeshire County Council that it is to axe its trading division providing school dinners and cleaning services to schools.

The decision was made partly in response to falling market share.

However I understand many of those affected by the decision only discovered their fate in emails sent in recent days and offering no certainty of future employment.

One school official I spoke to tonight said they were like many others and not hanging around to see if the county council sells its operation as a going concern – they are busy sourcing new suppliers themselves.

“This is after the county council spent huge sums rebranding the service, improving and refitting kitchens and paying for cashless payment software for schools,” said the official.

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A council spokesman said:” Cambridgeshire Catering and Cleaning Services (CCS) employs just over 700 staff, most of whom work in schools and we hope the majority of these will be able to transfer to the new supplier chosen to provide services for the school.”

The spokesman added: “We will be closing the service by the end of the year. We will be working with schools to help them to secure high quality and cost-effective catering from new suppliers - with additional time and support dedicated to smaller, rural schools.”

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With three academy school dinner contracts lost in January it meant Cambridgeshire Catering and Cleaning Services (CCS) has lost 28 separate contracts in just two years.

Diamond Academy – with primary schools across Fenland and parts of Cambridgeshire – went elsewhere in January for three contracts bringing the total now held across the county to 171. In 2015 the council had 202 contracts. This was despite the council winning three new contracts last September.

But it is not simply the lost contracts that are causing anxieties - , a mothballed £500,000 cook freeze unit has annual £80,000 lease/rates costs and there is a further £250,000 dilapidations cost to resolve before a 2020 break clause; the council in difficulty.

The CCS was also forecasting what it termed “an under recovery” of £240,000.

The commercial and investment committee rejected a suggested turnaround plan and decided to pull out of catering altogether by the end of the year.

Two key roles have been left vacant for nine months – saving £70,000 – while the council considered options.

Councillor Josh Schumann, chairman of the commercial and investment committee that took the decision to close during a confidential session, admitted times are tough.

”The introduction of universal free school meals for younger children made the market very attractive to commercial competitors, which resulted in a number of new entrants to the market,” he said.

“This put pressure on CCS who lost a number of profitable contracts. We have explored other options but the service simply can’t win enough new business to make it competitive.

“We have taken the decision to pull out of this market by the end of 2018 giving schools and staff time to look at the range of options available to them in good time.”

There are 30 vacancies within the service and it is probable these will be recruited but staff faces uncertain times.

“During this period we will be working closely with all of our schools to ensure that the transition to a new provider proves to be successful and ensures that similar or improved meals are available to all children,” said Cllr Schumann.

“The service is currently making a marginal return, however, we expect this to decrease over the next year, so we are taking this decision now to enable us to support schools with a smooth transition to new providers and withdraw from the market in a managed and considered way.”

CCS been in operation for over 30 years and also provides the catering at Shire Hall and Cambridge Library.

Lib Dem leader Lucy Nethsingha said: “I would like to make it clear that this decision was opposed by Lib Dem and Labour members on the committee.

“I am deeply concerned that this move will reduce the quality of the meals provided to school children in Cambridgeshire, with the biggest impact on our smaller rural schools,” she said.

Labour’s Linda Jones said: “Government regulations on school meals are weak and school funding is being squeezed. Commercial providers could save costs by cutting quality, offering pasties, burgers and fried fish and chips.

“Childhood obesity is already a major health issue across Cambridgeshire and we should be encouraging healthy food organisations, not cutting them.

Cllr Jones said the Tory controlled council “seem to be far more focused on selling off services when they should be focusing on their wider responsibility for the health and wellbeing of the community.”

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