Harry Fone: A browse through Council contracts shows the extravagant spending continues

26 Aug

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) frequently calls out wasteful foreign aid spending and we never have a shortage of examples. From “friendship benches” in Zimbabwe to a study of Latin American teenagers, millions of pounds go up in smoke every year. A common argument by those who defend overseas aid is that you can always cherry-pick profligate projects.

But I disagree. It shouldn’t be easy to find such examples because they shouldn’t exist in the first place. This brings me onto local authority spending. Despite many councils claiming there is no more fat left to trim from their budgets, one doesn’t have to delve too deep to find some juicy morsels. In what will be at least a two-part series I’ve put together a list of publicly tendered council contracts that are ripe for cutting to help put a stop to inflation-busting council tax rises.

Barnsley Borough Council is currently tendering a contract worth between £25,980 and £30,000 to buy 100 laptop computers which it will loan to European Social Fund (ESF) participants. If you’re not aware, the ESF “aims to improve employment opportunities in the European Union”. Now this may well be a remnant of Brexit that Britain still pays into but why Barnsley Council thinks this is a good use of local residents’ cash at a time like this is beyond me. Especially so considering that council tax increased by 3.4 per cent in Barnsley this year.

The TPA has previously called out so-called ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ – glossy council newsletters funded by council tax which are often nothing more than propaganda. Spending on these was bad enough before the pandemic but that hasn’t stopped Dorset council. The local authority offered a contract worth £225,000 for “the provision of a Residents’ Magazine Publication”. Dorset residents pay the second-highest Band D bill in the country at £2,223 – every penny of which should be going on statutory services not glorifying the council.

In this column, I’ve highlighted questionable spending by town and parish councils. My concern is that many are charging ever-greater precepts and becoming more grandiose in their ambitions. Leighton-Linslade Town Council in Bedfordshire is the latest example. It seeks suppliers to set up a “technology helpline” for those aged over 55 in the community. This is very noble but is it the role of a town council? Especially when the cost is upwards of £30,000. Add to that there are countless private sector organisations already providing training (often for free) and you have to question if this is good value for money.

This next area of spending is interesting to say the least. Both Doncaster and West Lancashire Borough Council have awarded contracts for “terrorism insurance” worth £80,000 and £13,038 respectively. I can’t be certain but I find it unlikely that councils were taking out this kind of cover, say, 25 years ago. Perhaps it’s a worrying sign of the times we live in. In this instance, I’m not saying this is outright wasteful spending either but I suspect many households would be more than a little annoyed to see their hard-earned taxes spent in this manner.

I’ll try and finish on a happier note, or perhaps that should be a ‘hoppier’ note? I’ve discovered that the Isle of Wight council plans to construct a “Brewery and Visitor Centre”. The contract doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail but we know that total value was £1.75 million for “the construction of a steel-framed structure to provide a Brewery facility incorporating a visitor centre, staff offices and storage warehouse.” Begging the question, why is the IoW council building a brewery? Given many councils have a poor track record when it comes to commercial investments one wonders if the council will be able to organise the proverbial in a brewery or will things fizz out?

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so far I’ve only scoured a small percentage of the thousands of contracts put out to tender by councils. In my next column I’ll show you even more wasteful contracts. At a time when the public finances are in dire straits, every penny of taxpayers’ cash matters. Councils can’t afford to waste a single penny. So if you’re concerned about your council’s spending I implore you to join me in this quest to root out waste. Do drop me an email with your findings.

Liam Walker: This pandemic has shown remote council meetings can work and they should continue

18 Jun

Cllr Liam Walker represents the Hanborough & Minster Lovell Division on Oxfordshire County Council.

If two years ago, we had told our council staff here in Oxfordshire and across the country, that they would all have to work remotely from home, we would probably have been laughed out of the room – after having been given a raft of reasons as to why that is not practically possible. Yet a year ago, that was the instruction given – and local government reacted incredibly quickly and stepped up to the task. We’ve had staff and councillors working from kitchen table tops, in the cupboard under the stairs, or away from the children in a quiet corner of the garden shed. Local government had to react quickly. Simply shutting down wasn’t an option and in fact the complete opposite took place, with councils across the UK redoubling their efforts to support their communities and help them deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helping families with food, working with our NHS partners to support the shielding programme, supporting community groups, and providing thousands of volunteers to help collect food, medication, and essential supplies for neighbours – local government stepped up and we all played our part.

Arguably few positives have come from the COVID-19 pandemic, but, at a local level, three really do stick out for me: a surge in community spirit, a spotlight on the incredible work of our NHS, care staff and key workers; and (on a more personal level), being able to hold and vote with remote council meetings. While I firmly believe that the former will both endure long after the pandemic dies away, sadly the latter is under threat.

Although “You’re on mute!” was probably the most popular phrase of 2020, enabling local councils to hold their meetings remotely and letting councillors vote remotely will probably rank as some of the most modern changes to hit local government in many years. It was a struggle at the start as some councillors learnt the importance of unmuting, not having the camera tilted too low, and making sure the bookcase behind reflected their personality and politics, but we got there eventually – and it has worked incredibly well.

I’m not sure I need to list the many benefits of remote meetings, but for me the one that sticks out the most is making the council more inclusive, especially for those with young families or those who also have full-time jobs. As someone who works as well as being a county councillor, I’ve been able to balance both roles much more easily and I have been far more productive as a result. Being able to attend meetings by just turning my laptop on has been liberating.

The environment also benefits, with fewer staff and councillors having to travel around their areas in vehicles to attend meetings, which could have easily been held remotely. Plus, there is the benefit to the taxpayer, as councillors and staff across the country are no longer claiming mileage, resulting in more cash for councils that can be invested in frontline services.

It wouldn’t be right to talk only about the benefits of remote meetings without also touching on the downsides. One thing I’ve found hard is having to juggle back-to-back meetings with very little time to exercise or sometimes even pop to the bathroom. I think this has got better but in the early months it was easy to sit at my desk for eight hours a day, which isn’t healthy for anyone.

Getting the right balance is key and going forward I’m definitely in favour of a hybrid model where there is the option to dial in to a meeting remotely or attend in person. It should be about choice and what is most practical for the individuals involved – but having the legislation to allow this is crucial.

Emergency legislation was passed in the House of Commons to give local councils the power to do business over video-conferencing tools like Zoom or Teams, but the temporary law ran out after the local elections on 6th May. The government have now said there is no time to pass legislation on this subject. There is some optimistic news with Hertfordshire County Council formally raising a High Court challenge on the issue with a possible hearing date being in April.

The Local Government Association has also called for the decision to be reversed and the move to stop remote meetings has been criticised by Jacquie Weaver who became famous after that Handford Parish Council meeting. I tend to agree with Jacquie who has said the decision is dreadful and rightly pointed out that remote meetings have helped to increase awareness and engagement in local government.

Robert Jenrick, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, supports the idea of remote meetings. I put the question of remote meetings to him, ironically via Zoom, where he said he is working on a solution and he’s had feedback from councils and leaders across the country on the decision not to extend the legislation.

The roll of red tape has been brought out and there is to be a Government consultation which is open until the end of this month. It will cover local governments’ experiences of remote meetings and I urge all colleagues to contribute towards it and share their views, whether positive or negative.

It’s not often in politics that there is an issue that gets cross-party support but this one has certainly gained it from councils of all colours. That has to be significant and cannot be ignored. The government recently cut red tape to allow councils to fly the Union Flag on their buildings; now it’s time for them to cut red tape to allow councillors to have the Union Flag in their Zoom backgrounds and to continue with remote meetings and voting.

James Frayne: Four lessons for industry and government from monstering of AstraZeneca

30 Mar

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In Andrew Roberts’ great biography of Winston Churchill, he tells an unflattering story of how Churchill unfairly criticised the behaviour of Shell Oil when he was First Sea Lord, before the First World War.

As Roberts tells it, Churchill had made the sound decision to shift the Royal Navy onto oil and away from coal; this would make British ships faster and more efficient. Doing so, however, required vast amounts of oil, which the Royal Navy secured via a huge deal with Shell.

In announcing the deal to Parliament, Churchill said it was a great deal other than the cost – which he implied had been too high and therefore that Shell had ripped off the taxpayer. The Chairman of Shell asked Churchill to make the details of the arrangement public, but Churchill refused.

In 1966, it was finally revealed that Shell made almost no money from the arrangement and had even offered to put a Royal Navy commander on the board of the company. In hindsight, it was an extraordinary attack on a company that had offered the British Government help.

Fast forward a hundred years and here we are with another part-British company – Astra Zeneca – being smashed apart by politicians for doing something more altruistic than Shell did – providing vast numbers of injections to Covid-hit countries across the world at cost. Politicians and officials in the US and Europe have lined up to criticise the company’s methodology and the drug’s safety whilst also effectively (and wrongly) accusing it of unethical behaviour in the form of stockpiling, failing to meet contractual arrangements, and so on.

The British Government hasn’t been the one attacking AZ this time, but nonetheless, as with Shell, politicians are attacking a company that has been doing the right thing. (Disclosure: Public First does occasional work for the University of Oxford, but has not worked on the vaccine project, nor have we ever worked with AZ ). Little wonder AZ are publicly musing whether they made a mistake in offering all this at cost.

What have we learned from the AZ affair? Four big lessons stand out.

1. There are massive risks of working with any Government – and this Government in particular

Any business that works with Government puts itself in the firing line: more people hear about them; the media takes a closer interest; opponents of the Government start criticising them. Businesses that work with Governments aren’t choosing to work with apolitical “states” and masses of neutral civil servants, but with political entities who have political supporters and political opponents – and this Government has more than its fair share of opponents.

As I’ve written before, much of the British media likes to think of most European countries being led by entirely rational, reasonable, great statesmen and women – driven only by vision and altruism and utterly uninterested in politics. But just as Leo Varadkar’s hostility to Britain during Brexit negotiations was in part driven by an electoral need to attract “soft” Sinn Fein voters, so Macron’s hostility to AZ is partly driven by embarrassment at French and general European failure to get their act together on vaccination, while Britain steamed ahead.

What was Macron – who faces his own election again soon – going to say? “Sorry everyone, I have personally messed up and Britain, who I always criticised, has made impeccable decisions”? Clearly not: there were obvious short-term political reasons why AZ would come under fire. You choose to work with Government, you pay a price.

2) British companies might face particular vulnerability in this new world

The fact AZ is part-British caused the company big political problems. While the idea of actual anti-British hostility is way overdone, the reality of Brexit made the failure of the European vaccination programme more problematic politically for some European leaders. In other words, it’s just hard luck on AZ that the political stars were lined up against them; there was little they could do.

But this is unlikely to be a one-off; while Covid raised the stakes, it’s nonetheless reasonable to assume that British companies are going to become more vulnerable politically and commercially in the coming years. Has Britain been in the EU, other European leaders would not have trashed it; outside the EU, it’s a different story. Our closest ally – the United States – is eye-wateringly aggressive in promoting and protecting its leading businesses (like Boeing); the EU is equally combative.

Outside the EU, for all the benefits that brings, there’s no question our businesses will lack the same protection that membership of a bigger block will bring.

3) The British Government will have to become more assertive on behalf of British companies

While there’s a limit to what the British Government can do to promote and protect British firms, it is going to have to start becoming much more assertive. At the moment, the Government helps to promote British trade by, for example, making introductions to foreign companies and foreign states; it also promotes Britain as a destination to invest in. This is all useful and the marketing teams at the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade have done a decent job over the last decade.

But the Government isn’t set up to engage in PR combat on behalf of British firms; in other words, to help defend firms in the media (and indeed on social media). While the Government can plan neat marketing campaigns to invest in Global Britain, they’re just not geared up to, say, engage in close combat with the New York Times, which is an entirely different model of communications.

The Government needs to explore the creation of a team within BEIS, the DIT or the Cabinet Office to help British businesses out when they’re unfairly attacked. While it’s not for them to promote one firm over another or to act as a business’ press office, the reality is that only Governments can make the news and command attention at certain times.

What could AZ really do when attacked by the President of France? At best, have a paragraph of context dumped on the end of a story. There’s no reason why the British Government can’t or shouldn’t be more assertive in helping British companies in the media – at least amongst top-tier titles like the NYT.

4) ‘Purpose’ is overplayed as a concept in corporate communications

For those of you that work in and around public affairs and corporate communications, you’ll know the recent obsession with firms demonstrating so-called “purpose”; this is where firms project their values to the outside world to show their decency. It’s a good idea in principle, although, as I’ve bored those of you in public affairs to death with for a decade, demonstrating purpose has to reflect the realities of public opinion, not the opinion of a company’s own marketing team.

In many ways, AZ had the perfect model to show “purpose”; in the end, though, it wasn’t enough. This is because “purpose” soon becomes “politics”.

I have no special knowledge of AZ or what happened, so I make a broader point not directed at them: you can only engage in this sort of work if you are ready for political combat. Again, AZ aside, there are many, many firms that are dipping their toe into the most controversial policy issues without even basic thought or preparation about how such policy conversations might play out.

AZ’s experience should make all businesses preparing to engage in seemingly innocuous policy conversations – or ones where there seem only to be upsides – think again.

Selina Seesunkur: Conservatives need to show more enthusiasm for online campaigning

19 Nov

Cllr Selina Seesunkur represents Larkswood Ward on Waltham Forest Council and is a Conservative list candidate for the London Assembly.

I have been a Conservative all my politically conscience life. Both my parents are Conservatives and yet I got into this political arena quite late; or should I say, had an activist knocked on my door sooner, I would have joined the Party sooner. But no-one did and, quite frankly, growing up in a traditional household where your parents hound you to become a Lawyer, Doctor, or Accountant, joining a Political Party or becoming an MP or Councillor was never discussed.

I was elected as a local councillor in 2018 and have not looked back. My story above, shows how important door knocking can be. It allows us to find and adopt new members, making our Conservative family bigger. The number of people I have been door knocking with who forget about membership astounds me. Door knocking allows us to ascertain issues within a community as well as providing us with the opportunity to tell residents about the things we have done locally, but above all, it allows us to connect with people on a truly personal level.

So what now? Has Covid taken our ability to campaign away from us? Of course not.

Being part of the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO) has introduced me to a whole of host of zoom meetings which have replaced meetings and traditional development sessions; I even got to run my own sessions. I realised through speaking to women in my capacity as the CWO Lea Valley Area Chairman, there was a gap between people wanting to get selected and an understanding of the way in which the Party operated. I designed and delivered “The Voluntary Party, Associations and Me” which was attended by over 100 CWO members. Marjorie Baylis, Anne Steward, and the CWO Chairman, Fleur Butler, were on the panel and attendees gave really positive feedback. We ran the course again at Party Conference.

Taking your time to upskill or refresh yourself is always a good thing as it is an investment in yourself, whether you are looking to become an Association Chairman, councillor, or MP. The CWO offer so many classes that they have been able to build their membership as their events are members only.

As someone on the London Assembly list, Connect Calling sessions have been a fab way to connect with my London Assembly candidate colleagues on Zoom before engaging in a session of ringing around. If you were ever down about being stuck at home, or not able to see all your family at the same time, under one roof, make a few phone calls, the positive vibes associated with Shaun Bailey, our London Mayoral Candidate, will tickle you pink. As a teenage girl, I was on the phone a lot, typical, yes I know, but my mum would go ape, she gave me phone phobia for years, so if I can pick up the phone, so can you.

Ok, so you are a pro and you are savvy with Zoom and you are making phone calls, what else? I have What’s App fatigue, so I created a private group for London local councillors on Facebook to keep everyone connected. It is in its early phase but in the absence of London Council meetings it’s shaping up to be a good forum for sharing best practice. I felt it important as the CCA Rep for London to do something that brought councillors together at this difficult time. Yes there are so many Facebook groups out there, so I believe it is now best to be selective; this group is open to Conservative Councillors and Assembly Members only.

But the most active group I create, which runs itself now, was created at the beginning of lockdown, and it remains a non-political group. I noticed everyone was talking about getting meals to the vulnerable, but very few were dealing with the mental health risks associated with lockdown, so I started a Self-Isolation Help Group (now called the Friendship Network). I knew this could be an unmanageable task so I asked a team of Conservative Activists to help me administer the page. The page started out as an advice page but it took on a life of its own as people joined it, jokes, cool things to do at home, exercise, fun things for children, a couple of members used it as a platform to share their Covid art and more.

It was a little hairy at the start but with the help of David, Andrea, Mara, and Rathi, it’s the only group (that I am aware of), where people from all political persuasions co-exist and we can share a post from the Prime Minister, the Party, and from MPs, like Dr Luke Evans and Alicia Kearns and no-one gets sworn at. We have had such great feedback, but this group member (Phil) says it all “It’s the most positive group on Facebook”. The group has plateaued since the lockdown eased but it is still very much there, and people join us regularly. I have not used the group as a campaign group, but the thing about politics: it’s about making connections and you never know where new connections may take you. So my advice to you is “think outside of the box”.

Douglas Pullen: Zoom has boosted participation in local democracy

10 Sep

Cllr Douglas Pullen is the Leader of Lichfield District Council.

One of the many COVID-induced jolts that local government received related to our distinctly 20th century meeting schedule. While the private sector has been hosting Webex/Zoom/Skype meetings for nigh on two decades, the “compelling event” never arrived for councils to make the shift. Our officers all worked in one building, the councillors attended the Council Chamber for our meetings, and requests for conference calls involved someone putting their phone in the middle of the room on loudspeaker.

Well, the compelling event has arrived now – and the arguments to maintain some of the provisions of the Coronavirus Act beyond 7th May 2021 are impossible to ignore.

Here in leafy, largely uncontentious Lichfield District (with a population 130,000) we have had over 3,000 views of our 15 Zoom meetings, which have been streamed live via YouTube. Intrigue and novelty no doubt have played a part in these numbers, but we are seeing the numbers hold steady, and far in excess of the two or three politicos that would usually turn up our meetings in the chamber. Our attendance rates by councillors has shot up too, with virtually no “apologies” sent in so far, compared to a usual turnout figure of 80 per cent.

So councillor attendance rates are up and there’s increased public engagement. There’s also a reduction in our carbon foot-print, improvements in record-keeping, and greater transparency – all laudable, but that is just a mild improvement on what has gone before. The real transformative powers of retaining broadcast remote-meetings lies in how this shift could affect the demographic of our next cohort of councillors.

As a young(ish) leader with a family and a full-time job, I am rather unusual in local government. This isn’t because community activism isn’t appealing – it’s the almost daily dash across the country to return for a rigidly-fixed 6pm meeting which is distinctly unalluring. So the role of a councillor typically attracts retirees, the self-employed, small business-owners, and MP staffers, and typically excludes those with young families, the 9-5’ers, the commuters, and the night-workers.

We need a better mix of all of these types to ensure we can live up to the mantra of being “representatives of our community”, which trips so easily off our tongues when asked about our work as a councillor. Imagine the tectonic-shift in the demographic of our councillors if meetings could be attended by video-call from your toy-strewn living room, your office in another city, your work canteen, or the 17:43 Euston – Lichfield Trent Valley.

It gives an opportunity to strengthen local democracy and widen participation. Imagine how quickly our annual group photos will change to include more females, younger members, more ethnic minority councillors – and how that will positively impact our decision-making processes.

Amongst the many painful jolts of COVID, this is one which I warmly embrace.