Robert Ward: Applying the principles of Sherlock Holmes to scrutinise Croydon Council

16 Jul

Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

As opposition lead on Croydon Council scrutiny, there have been times in the last three years when I wished for the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes. I suspect, though, that even he would have been challenged to figure out the extent of the shortcomings of Croydon Council. Without access to information, we are all helpless.

At first sight, the enhanced powers of scrutiny members to access information should have solved the case without the need ever to knock on the door of 221b Baker Street at dead of night. The dogged but unimaginative Inspector Lestrade would have cracked the case by lunchtime. Why did it take so long for the truth to come out?

There is no simple answer, but restricted access to information is one reason. According to the Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities “the prevailing organisational culture, behaviours and attitudes of an authority will largely determine whether its scrutiny function succeeds or fails”. A culture of secrecy sets scrutiny up for failure. Breaking down secrecy barriers is crucial to turning things around.

More from the Statutory Guidance:

“Scrutiny members should have access to a regularly available source of key information about the management of the authority”.

That such information must exist should not be a matter of debate. An administration cannot pretend to be in control of an organisation without it. The only question is whether they are willing to share it.

Yet a dashboard of diagnostic data is ineffective without contextual knowledge. Councillors need help to make sense of what they are looking at. Without understanding, it is all too easy for councillors to make vague, unfocussed requests and for officers then to dismiss them as time-wasting or politically motivated fishing exercises. The truth may be a lack of understanding by the councillors, or a handy excuse for officers unwilling to share. What, after all, is wrong with a fishing exercise when it is fishy behaviour that you are trying to catch?

The upside for officers of well-informed councillors is reduced effort. Well-framed questions are a lot easier to answer. Back to the Statutory Guidance: “Authorities should consider whether seeking clarification from the information requester could help better target the request” and “Officers should speak to scrutiny members to ensure they understand the reasons why information is needed”. The latter should not be to seek out reasons for refusal, but to give a better answer.

Sherlock Holmes’ first literary case in Croydon was a murder in Upper Norwood. In The Sign of the Four there is the famous quote that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Councillors are not world-renowned, albeit imaginary detectives. They should not have to submit a succession of questions to eliminate all other possible options to get to the truth.

Questions clearly expressed should elicit a response in plain English. It is for officers to figure out how to give an informative and diagnostic answer, not for councillors to decode answers written in elliptical officer-speak or spend hours searching for gaps. Back to the Statutory Guidance: Authorities should “ensure the information is supplied in a format appropriate to the recipient’s needs”.

Unlike the characters in Conan Doyle’s books, several of which were written during the years he lived in Croydon, the Council “should adopt a default position of sharing the information they hold, on request, with scrutiny committee members”. What is more, even if information cannot be shared publicly, the Council “should give serious consideration to whether that information could be shared in closed session”.

But enough of the Statutory Guidance – I recommend you read it for yourself; here is my quick assessment guide of your access to information service:

  • Do you have a dashboard with comparative performance data?
  • Is there a presumption that requested information will be provided?
  • Is provision as a confidential item always considered for what cannot be shared publicly?
  • Do councillors know how a request should be made and to whom?
  • Are there time limits on provision of responses?
  • Is performance against those time limits monitored and published at least annually?
  • Is there an appeal process for refusals?
  • Are written reasons for refusal provided to the full committee, in public, on request?

At a more emotional level, if the response to information requests leaves you feeling like you are dealing with Professor Moriarty, you have a problem.

Harry Fone: Unanswered questions about Slough’s bankruptcy

13 Jul

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

It wasn’t a huge surprise when I learned that Slough council had declared itself bankrupt. As I’ve pointed out in this column, the authority’s frivolous spending and poor financial accounting practices all contributed to its downfall.

This being the third English council bankruptcy, it’s worth analysing exactly what went wrong for Slough. In the past, senior council executives and leaders have often pointed the finger at cuts in central government funding. But interestingly, that narrative doesn’t seem to be taking hold this time, perhaps for obvious reasons.

If we look at historical council tax data, it’s clear for all to see that Slough council shouldn’t have a revenue problem. In 1996-97 it increased council tax by 17.8 per cent; only four councils raised rates by a higher amount in this year. Increases of 10 per cent or greater followed in the next two years. Then 9.9 per cent in 2002-03 before another astronomical increase of 17.5 per cent in 2003-04.

Previous research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance showed that between 1997 and 2017, Slough’s council tax bills increased by 72 per cent in real terms – 15 per cent higher than the average for England. But if you look at Band D bills from 1995 to the present day, they have nearly doubled from £900 (inflation adjusted) to £1,795.

And what have residents got for their hard-earned council tax in recent years? Sticking out like a sore thumb is the £49 million spent on a new office complex complete with “innovative collaboration spaces, a tranquillity room, innovation room and even an exercise studio.” In 2019, the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List revealed Slough’s outgoing chief executive at the time, Roger Parkin, pocketed total remuneration of nearly £600,000 – the highest in the country. Then, almost unbelievably, in November last year, councillors awarded themselves a pay rise despite the devastating effects of the pandemic on many Slough residents.

Perhaps most comically of all, the council created a snazzy website with the phrase “Let’s Be World Class” adorning one of its pages. I’m still waiting on a response from the council as to the cost of the website, but judging by the flashy graphics and slick animated videos it can’t have been cheap. The council proclaims how well it has coped with Covid as it “redesigned [its] world class leadership structure” and “Launched the Brilliant Basics ways of working framework.” Clearly, there is more work to be done to justify these bold claims.

In a leaked internal video to Slough council staff, chief executive, Josie Wragg, made clear the council had endured a “challenging situation based on poor financial practice over a number of years” adding “as the closing of the 18-19 accounts progressed, the exposure of the financial challenges was starting to become apparent.” Additionally in an email to staff, Ms Wragg wrote, “Since April our new ‘A-team’ of financial experts, together with the Leadership team, have been undertaking a review of our finances, financial processes and other related matters.” Begging the question, was the previous ‘A-team’ up to scratch? Seemingly not.

We know from a recent audit report that the council’s accounting practices were lacking. The wait for the publication of the draft statement of accounts for 2019-20 goes on and 2018-19’s accounts are still unaudited. For me though, not enough attention has been focussed on Neil Wilcox, the former Section 151 officer at Slough council. He announced his resignation in April this year supposedly to “spend more time with family and friends” but the timing is interesting to say the least.

In an email sent on April 22nd to Slough council staff, Wilcox said, “for 2021/22 the Council balanced its budget”. Yet just a couple of weeks ago, his replacement, Steven Mair, filed a Section 114 notice for bankruptcy and declared the budget will not be deliverable after all.

So several key questions remain unanswered. Did Wilcox know about the massive black hole in the council’s finances? If he did, when was the discovery made and did he raise the alarm with chief executive Josie Wragg? And if Ms Wragg was made aware, what action did she take? Conversely, if Mr Wilcox was not aware of the looming financial armageddon then I think it would be fair to ask whether he was fit for the role and worthy of his six-figure taxpayer-funded salary.

Council tax is a huge burden on households and many feel short-changed when it comes to frontline services. Local authorities have a tremendous duty of care to taxpayers’ money. This sorry saga raises serious concerns about Slough’s management structure and whether checks and balances were in place. Lessons must be learned and those responsible held to account. The nation can’t afford to see a fourth, fifth, or even sixth council go bankrupt.

Leading Conservative councils are withdrawing their support for Stonewall

12 Jul

In recent weeks I have been undertaking extensive investigations into the funding for Stonewall from local authorities. This has been done via Freedom of Information requests and via contact with council leaders and other councillors. Last week I reported that Surrey County Council had decided to continue with funding. I suggested that the decision was a serious mistake for various reasons. One is “value for money” – sending Council Taxpayers money to political lobbying groups is unjustified, regardless of the particular causes they espouse. Also freedom of conscience. Council staff should not be sent on “training” sessions to be told what to think. Provided they carry out their work to a high professional standard, their personal views on political and social issues are their own affair. Finally, Stonewall has become a highly controversial outfit. From its beginnings in championing equal rights for gay people, it has adopted an extremist agenda that is hostile to free speech, damages the mental health of children, and undermines women’s rights. Stonewall declares that ‘trans women are women’ despite the phrase’s potential to ride roughshod over elementary science, established language, and women’s rights to single sex spaces and services.

The good news is that Surrey County Council is very much the exception. The great majority of councils have not given money to Stonewall in recent years. Of those that have, many indicated that they would not be doing so again. Conservative councils withdrawing backing include Conwy, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Northumberland, and Wiltshire.

Some Labour councils (or Labour-led councils) have also ceased their funding. These include Blackpool, Cheshire East, Hounslow, Islington, Merton, Redbridge, Southend and Warrington.

The following councils are currently still funding Stonewall and have not given any clear indication they will stop doing so:

  • Anglesey
  • Argyll and Bute
  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Brent Council
  • Bridgend
  • Brighton and Hove
  • Calderdale
  • Camden Council
  • Cardiff
  • Ceredigion
  • Dorset
  • East Ayrshire
  • Fife
  • Glasgow
  • Gloucestershire
  • Greenwich
  • Greater London Authority
  • Gwynedd
  • Hackney
  • Haringey
  • Kirklees
  • Lambeth
  • Leeds
  • Leicester
  • Leicestershire
  • Midlothian
  • North Lincolnshire
  • Nottingham
  • Oxfordshire
  • Portsmouth
  • Rhondda-Cynon-Taf
  • Slough
  • Southwark
  • Stirling
  • Stockport
  • Sandwell
  • Sunderland
  • Surrey
  • Telford and Wrekin
  • Torfaen
  • Waltham Forest
  • Westminster.

Typically the sum involved is £3,000 a year for membership of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme. Some have paid for extra, for example, additional training sessions on top of this.

Though I have included Slough Borough Council, there must be some doubt about that particular revenue stream. The Council has issued a Section 114 notice which restricts its spending to essential services.

Among those Conservative councils on the list, some have indicated that the issue is under review. The message from Gloucestershire is:

“We are taking the opportunity to raise questions with them”.  

Westminister Council states:

“We are reviewing all of our memberships to ensure value for money”.

Cllr Rob Waltham, the leader of North Lincolnshire Council, tells me:

“We have over the past few years sought to improve the councils standing and position on LGBT+ issues. It was well established back then that Stonewall were the  leading body for accreditation on such matters.  Clearly recent events and our progressive approach as an organisation has provided us an opportunity to review and think if this relationship is best suited to deliver our aims. I have triggered that review and will happily report back once it is completed.”

Dorset Council has also put the matter “under review”. But what was especially weak in this case was that elected councillors responded that it was not a matter for them and was for their officials to decide.

I have also made enquiries about police constabularies. Most have not provided recent funding. Greater Manchester Police has, but has stopped doing so. Police forces still providing funding are:

  • Derbyshire
  • Durham
  • Dyfed-Powys
  • Gwent
  • Hertfordshire
  • Humberside.

Again the spending is usually £3,000 a year each.

Jonathan Evison, the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Humberside, arranged for his assistant to write to me to say that it was an “operational” matter for the Chief Constable. This seems to me to stretch the definition of operational policing to an absurd degree. The PCC is supposed to be responsible for setting the policies, priorities, and the budget. If they are abdicating responsibility on a decision about handing over money from the police budget to Stonewall, it is hard to see what the point is of electing a PCC is.

When it comes to the NHS Trusts there is not even the potential of democratic accountability – though some local councillors may sit on the board of governors as appointees. Some of these Trusts give funds to Stonewall, most do not. It really seems to depend on the ideological whims of the senior officials. Those that have withdrawn funding include the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, the Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust, the Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group and the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group. The following are presently due to continue making payments –  though the Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust did add it was “under review”:

  • Aneurin Bevan University Health Board
  • Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board
  • Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust
  • Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust
  • Hywel Dda University Health Board
  • Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group
  • Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Midlands Partnership Foundation Trust
  • Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • North East London NHS Foundation Trust
  • North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust
  • Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust
  • Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust
  • Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Royal Orthopaedic NHS Foundation Trust
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Solent NHS Trust
  • South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust
  • Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust
  • Swansea Bay University Health Board
  • University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospitals Birmingham
  • West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust

While I am encouraged that the overall trend is for payments to be ended or reviewed, it does seem extraordinary that any payment of public funds to Stonewall should remain legal. Public sector bodies should not make payments from taxpayer funds to lobbying organisations, who in turn use that funding to lobby public sector bodies.  The rules on this should be tightened.

Why is Surrey County Council still funding Stonewall?

5 Jul

I have been investigating which councils have been funding the controversial campaign group Stonewall and, if so, whether they intend to continue doing so. I will present a full account in due course. It is taking some time to obtain definitive responses – some councils have been, er, stonewalling.

Liz Truss, who, as well as being the International Trade Secretary is also the Women and Equalities Minister, has made her view clear that Government Departments should not be providing funding.

From the Freedom of Information responses I have been sent so far, the evidence is that the majority of local authorities have sent no money to Stonewall in recent years. Of those that have, several have decided to end the arrangement or have it under review. Those that have indicated they will continue funding tend to be Labour councils. But there has been a notable exception. Surrey County Council, which has a solid Conservative majority, informs me that it will be paying £3,000 to Stonewall in the current financial year.

Cllr Tim Oliver, the council leader, says:

“Earlier this year, Surrey County Council joined the Stonewall Champion programme, and the money identified in the FOI response paid for membership of the programme and the benefits associated with that membership. The Council’s decision to engage with the programme was based on the value of the tools and the access to advice and expertise that this membership provides. This decision was taken in the context of the work the authority is now doing to create a step change in its approach to being a fairer, more inclusive organisation as set out in the Council’s EDI strategy, which was approved in November 2020.”  

I believe the decision is misguided for various reasons.

First of all, it is an improper use of Council Taxpayers’ money to be sent to political campaigning bodies, regardless of whether one might happen to agree or disagree with the views of such a body. That is not only poor value for money but a distortion of the democratic process. The rules for local authority already state:

“Local authorities should not incur any expenditure in retaining the services of lobbyists for the purpose of the publication of any material designed to influence public officials, Members of Parliament, political parties or the Government to take a particular view on any issue”

It would be welcome if these rules were tightened and applied more stringently.

Secondly, the staff of a council should be entitled to their own opinions. Certainly, there should be a general professional requirement to treat each other and members of the public with courtesy and without discrimination. But it should be irrelevant which party they vote for, or which church they attend, or their views on sexual morality. They just need to be good at filling potholes, or emptying dustbins, or cutting grass, or managing libraries, or caring for the elderly, or whatever their job happens to be. Of course, they need to accept the policies decided by the elected councillors. This is quite different to sending staff off to a Conference to be told what to think – or, still worse, punishing them for uttering dissent. Imagine if a Conservative council, at great expense, packed its staff off to a Legatum Institute conference extolling the merits of free enterprise, or a Migration Watch seminar on the strain immigration was imposing on public services, or Right To Life UK on how abortion constituted the murder of unborn children. There would be great indignation and rightly so.

Thirdly, in the particular case of Stonewall, such funding is especially ill-judged. Founded in 1989 – by Matthew Parris among others – it had the worthy aim of a society where homosexuals had equal rights with heterosexuals. Yet it has mutated into becoming an extreme and pernicious outfit that threatens freedom of speech, undermines protections for women, and is a danger to the mental health of children.

A recent leader in The Times stated:

“Stonewall’s thinly-disguised threats of ostracism have nothing to do with the ethos of serving the public, treating employees well, or promoting the welfare of gays, bisexuals and transgender people. It is odious to suppose that merely by querying the organisation’s objectives, critics are somehow guilty of “transphobic” prejudice. Those who have fallen foul of Stonewall’s edicts are insisting that a culture of open dissent is healthy and that one of enforced contrition is a hallmark of totalitarianism. Stonewall has long since lost its way as a campaigning organisation. Public and private sectors employers should withhold all cooperation with its demands for orthodoxy and have nothing to do with it.”

The zealotry on transgenderism is such to include demands that “trans-exclusionary” practices should be prohibited. Stonewall wants the law changed to end protection for single sex spaces. So biological men who “identify” as women could use women’s lavatories, demand to be sent to women’s prisons and women’s refuges, and compete in women’s sports. Especially damaging is Stonewall’s work in schools – primary and secondary – providing “toolkits” for teachers that introduce children as young as four to the concept of being ‘trans’, and say they should encourage pupils to question the gender identity that has been “assigned” to them at birth.

Those who challenge any of this face being labelled “transphobic” and may even face losing their jobs. In a way, to say free speech is threatened is to understate the matter. There is forced speech. There is a requirement for people to state things they believe to false. For example, if at a girls’ school, one of the pupils decides to identify as a boy, then a teacher can get into trouble for refusing to use the “correct pronouns”.

I would urge any local authority sending money to Stonewall to desist. But I am especially dismayed that any Conservative council should regard this as a right and proper way to dispense with the money of their Council Taxpayers.

Harry Fone: Social distancing rules have pushed up the cost of council meetings

29 Jun

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

In recent weeks I’ve received a lot of correspondence from concerned taxpayers and councillors about the costs of holding covid compliant council meetings. During the pandemic, temporary legislation allowed local authorities to hold hybrid meetings – a mix of virtual and in-person meetings – in order for local government to function effectively.

Since May 7th, councils, by law, must hold meetings in person, despite the fact that social distancing guidelines are still in place. Many authorities lack the floor space to facilitate this and have effectively been forced to hire venues that do, at significant cost to the taxpayer.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council shelled out £6,000 to hold a recent meeting at a local exhibition venue. So too Sefton, Sheffield and Manchester, costing taxpayers £3,000, £10,000 and £7,000 respectively. Similarly, Portsmouth City Council bought £5,000 worth of AV equipment in order for its meeting to go ahead. Across England’s 330 plus councils, it’s very possible that the total bill to ensure meetings are covid compliant could be in excess of £1 million.

With many in the private sector adopting the financial and environmental benefits of video conferencing technology, it’s a massive shame that the temporary legislation couldn’t have been extended until social distancing restrictions are lifted. Councils aren’t to blame for this and many local leaders have called for hybrid meetings to continue. It’s not hard to see why – time and money could have been better utilised on frontline services.

A warm welcome?

Back in March, the government announced the Welcome Back Fund (WBF) “to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns”. £56 million has been allocated to local authorities in England to invest in everything from seating areas to parks.

I’m not a huge fan of the WBF. Yes, I want my town centre to look nice but there really isn’t a magic money tree. Given the devastating effects of covid we have to focus public cash on real priorities like adult social care and children’s services. Is this fund really a priority at a time like this? Put it another way, if you were struggling to pay your mortgage every month you wouldn’t splash out on fripperies would you?

Sheffield City Council was allocated some £520,216 from the fund and I have to question whether they’ve made the best decisions when it comes to spending taxpayers’ cash. The council has tendered two contracts, one to appoint a “media and PR agency” and the other a “creative agency” to promote the objectives of the WBF. The total value of these contracts is £135,000 – 26 per cent of allocated funding.

It begs the question, will taxpayers’ actually see any value from this? It seems quite ridiculous to me that such a large chunk of their budget will be splurged on ad men. Does the council really need two agencies to achieve its goals? Why not ask the public directly (for little to no cost) what they want by getting them to email their suggestions. Or why not go to businesses directly in the town centre and get their opinions?

Promising news from Croydon

At long last there’s a glimmer of hope for Croydon Council following the latest report from its Improvement and Assurance Panel. You may recall that the council ploughed £214 million into a housing company called Brick-by-Brick (BBB) which at last count had only built a handful of the homes it promised. This coupled with other serious failings led to Croydon Council declaring bankruptcy.

A brighter future is on the horizon though. The decision has been taken to continue with housing construction on some BBB sites but with the overarching goal to extract the company from all activities by October of this year. Additionally, a property developer is seeking to buy up BBB and a deal will hopefully be struck next month.

There are opportunities for further savings to be made too. The council has 313 external contracts worth around £200 million that are up for renewal this year. The Improvement and Assurance Panel described the council’s arrangements for ensuring that contracts deliver value as “poor.” So one would hope that in future negotiations they can both negotiate better deals and ensure that suppliers better fulfil their contractual obligations.

Croydon Council is by no means out of the woods. It’s only thanks to capital injections totalling £120 million from central government that there is a balanced budget this year. In all likelihood, residents will be paying for the council’s mistakes in the form of even higher council tax bills. Let’s hope Croydon residents get good value for money in future, especially since the newly appointed chief executive will be paid £192,000 a year.

Robert Ward: The three tests to see if your council is on the path to becoming another Croydon

22 Jun

Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

A study by management guru, Jim Collins, concluded that you start off on the path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of the organisation. The facts about Croydon Council are as brutal as it gets. There is a bookshelf full of reports, still being added to, following the Section 114 Notice, effectively declaring its bankruptcy. From the Non-statutory Review the Council is:

“Unfamiliar with taking and implementing difficult financial decisions and as a consequence it has engendered a culture of poor budget management and poor financial control.”

The Council’s failings were attributed to “poor leadership and poor management over a number of years.” The Report in the Public Interest euphemistically cited a “collective corporate blindness.”

To declare an interest, I was for the last three years, and am, the opposition Scrutiny lead. My response to the bankruptcy, like that of Council employees and Croydon residents, was anger and disbelief that the situation was so bad. My feelings had an extra edge because throughout the last three years I believed the Council was dysfunctional. I made those views known, but at the end of the day I did not take the crucial step of voting to refer decisions back for reconsideration.

As has emerged since the issuing of the Section 114 Notice, reality was worse than I had imagined. Dipping again into management-speak, if successful project management produces “no surprises”, each report on the Council’s failure has regularly produced not just surprises, but jaw droppers. The organisation appears to have had few business processes and did not take seriously those it had.

The mess was covered up by delay, obfuscation, and secrecy. That is a toxic mix, but on top of that, the Regina Road scandal revealed that far from being delivered a service, the council’s housing tenants were treated with contempt. Getting out of this mess is not going to be quick or easy, because it is not about easily fixable issues, it is about culture.

I dislike the use of ‘culture’ to describe a failing organisation. It puts a veneer of respectability around what is really a set of very bad habits. Contempt for customers, failure to follow proper processes, misleading those who try to find out what is going on, should not be dignified as ‘culture’. Whatever you call it, this is not something that can be changed quickly. To quote another management guru, culture eats strategy for lunch.

We now have the clarity of hindsight. The stock phrase is that we must learn lessons so that this never happens again. My personal view is that we need to re-think the approach to scrutiny, which is often expressed as that of a ‘critical friend’. That sounds very comfortable, but what do you do if your friend is an alcoholic? How long do you put up with denial or the faux outrage of “how dare you suggest I’ve been drinking”? How often do you give them the benefit of the doubt before calling the cops as they drive off, again, in an inebriated state?

For the moment may I offer fellow councillors three diagnostic tests.

Test 1 – The Freedom of Iinformation test

Quick and easy, put in a couple of Freedom of Information requests; I recommend using whatdotheyknow.com. Ask for simple things that every Council should have. Make sure you know what one looks like. If it comes back immediately, which it should, then you are in good shape. If nothing happens, or you get a document that is not a valid response then you have two indications – your FoI process does not work, and the council may not have a policy that it should have. Start to worry.

Test 2 – The complaints process test

Follow a few legitimate complaints. Complexity and delay are the failing council’s weapon of choice. A high proportion of residents, and councillors, can be relied upon to give up their complaint in the face of failure to respond and muddle. If you do not see a working complaints process, worry more.

Test 3 – The show-me test

Pick a matter of some importance, say, a significant decision on service delivery. The Council report will claim data gathering, analysis and evaluation of options, but typically show none of this. The options presented are typically what the council wants to do and the status quo, predetermined as inadequate. Ask for the analysis. Research what good looks like. I recommend the six elements of decision quality. If you are refused or get an inadequate response (including ‘commerciality’ or lack of officer time), start to worry a lot.

If your Council fails all three of these tests, my recommendation is that if you are in opposition, start voting against the administration; if you are in power, start losing sleep.

Harry Fone: Northamptonshire’s downfall was brought about by highly paid group-think

15 Jun

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

One of the common rebuttals to the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s Town Hall Rich List, is “if you don’t pay top dollar, councils can’t attract the best staff”. I was reminded of this after reading an in-depth report published recently by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) into the bankruptcy of Northamptonshire County Council in 2018.

It’s a highly critical analysis of a failed council and lays bare the “cultural malaise” that engulfed the authority. The report’s authors write:

“A ‘group-think’ mentality had prevailed at the Council for many years, with senior officers and politicians inclined to pursue misguided courses of action while failing to accept the reality of the organisation’s predicament. Dissenting voices were ignored, partners were brushed aside if they didn’t adhere to the Council’s view and offers of help from within the sector were rebuffed until it was too late.” 

Perhaps no surprise then, that an impartial assessment of the authority’s finances revealed that a forecasted shortfall in the budget of £8 million was actually nearer £64 million – it would almost be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious.

Looking back over the figures for 2017-18, Northamptonshire employed 19 members of staff who received remuneration in excess of £100,000. The annual bill to the taxpayer for these staff alone was £2.8 million. Adding insult to injury, the outgoing chief executive – who ironically then went on to work for a firm that advised councils on how to reduce financial pressures – received a loss of office compensation package of £142,000. So much for the top dollar argument…

If you’re a councillor and your authority also suffers “from a lack of strategic direction” or a “preoccupation with far-fetched experiments and ill-thought through exotic solutions”, I urge you to read the report and act on its recommendations.

Can we have some more, please?

From one report to another, as the Public Accounts Committee released its latest report on COVID-19 and the effects on local government finance. As you would expect, it details the impact of the pandemic on council finances – despite injections of funds from central government the future still looks bleak.

A number of recommendations are made to MHCLG. A key one is that there should be more certainty about the amount of funding coming from central government. Consequently, there have been yet more calls for gaps in council budgets to be plugged by central government.

This is one of the big issues I have with the report. Yes, I’m sure MHCLG could improve, but what about local authorities? The report notes that councils are making efficiency savings to make up for funding shortfalls but seems to suggest that the pips are already beginning to squeak.

As I hope I’ve made clear in this column over the weeks and months, there is still plenty of fat left to trim. Councils’ first instincts shouldn’t be to demand more money from central government (read: taxpayer) – this mentality must change.

The highs and lows of Council Tax bills

Last week I visited Nottingham where residents are now paying the highest council tax in the country at £2,226 for a Band D property. On the journey, my colleague asked me what the highest bill in England was irrespective of banding. I didn’t know, only that it would be over £4,000 for a Band H property in Nottingham. This got me thinking, we always talk about Band D bills because it’s a handy average but what about bills at the high and low end of the scale?

Data reveals that the highest council tax is indeed in Nottingham with a Band H bill coming in at a colossal £4,452. 104 local authorities in England have a Band H charge in excess of £4,000 but only one is in London – Kingston-upon-Thames charges £4,114.

On the other end of the scale, only eight councils charge less than £1,000 for a Band A bill (without any form of discount, e.g. single person or carer discount etc). Of those seven are in the capital, the City of London, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Westminster. Westminster has the lowest Band A bill in England at a mere £553. Windsor & Maidenhead is the only local authority outside of London to charge less than £1,000 for Band A at £982.

It’s interesting to see the huge range in Council Tax charges across the country. However, if trends continue next year we’ll likely see fewer people paying less than £1,000 and more facing bills of over £4,000. This is why it’s vital that authorities eradicate as much wasteful spending as possible.

Councils challenged to release surplus property to provide new homes

14 Jun

Regular readers will know of my concern with empty municipal garages. There are around 100,000 of them – many of which could be replaced with new homes. But while that is significant, it is merely an example of the potential if a serious effort was made to tackle “state land banking” – the vast amount of unused property being hoarded by the public sector. The Ministry of Defence owns over half a million acres.

The Times recently reported:

“Councils in Britain own commercial or retail buildings that have been empty for more than a year and could be converted into 19,500 homes. They also own 24,000 empty homes that could help ease the housing crisis, according to a report by Habitat for Humanity, a housing charity, and M&G investments…

“Derby was found to have the most vacant council-owned commercial properties, with 51 unused retail units and 73 empty office buildings. Other areas with a high number of empty council-owned commercial properties included Edinburgh, with 114, and Leeds with 101.

“The researchers found that Derby had 473 homeless or vulnerable people in urgent need of housing.

“The councils with the most disused council houses were Southwark in south London, which had 1,021, and Birmingham with 798. In Birmingham there are 2,340 homeless and priority needs people who could be housed in the 5,448 empty privately owned homes and 798 unused council houses.”

The research paper does also considers the private sector – for instance, whether the owners of privately owned empty shops face planning obstacles to obtaining a change of use to turn them into homes. But it does seem extraordinary that so many local authorities simultaneously struggle to cope with providing accommodation for the homeless, while themselves sitting on unused municipal property empires.

Council leaders are quick to blame “austerity” for their difficulties and demand extra funding from the Government. Yet selling these unused assets would raise funds for them – to allow them to reduce debt and thus the burden of their interest payments. They would be able to negotiate with developers a proportion of “social housing” among the new homes being built. But when we talk about “affordable” housing it is important to remember that increasing the supply of private housing is also of relevance.

This is not just in helping more onto the home ownership “ladder” but also in expanding the choice of private rented accommodation to reduce rents. That is also relevant to reducing homelessness. At present local authorities are placing around 100,000 households in temporary accommodation (typically low quality and unsuitable – including bed and breakfast hotels) at a cost of over a billion a year. Why is there such inertia about taking this opportunity to ease this pressure?

It comes as no surprise that the worst offenders are Labour councils. So far as council homes that have been empty for more than 12 months are concerned, those with the highest number are as follows:

  • Southwark 1,021
  • Birmingham 798
  • Camden 748
  • Sheffield 727
  • Gateshead 719
  • Ealing 611
  • Newcastle Upon Tyne 589
  • Newham 535
  • Dudley 528
  • Greenwich 520

The Conservatives gained Dudley from No Overall Control last month. Labour also lost overall control in Sheffield. Otherwise, those are all Labour councils. This is not to suggest that Conservative councils should escape criticism. The full list is here.

Then we have the league table for “the total number of business and/or commercial premises owned by your local authority, that have been empty or vacant for 12 months or more, and of that number, how many have their primary function as retail space, office space, leisure space or other.” The term “other” might include workshops, warehouses or community centres.

  • Derby 173
  • Leeds 101
  • Cheshire West 75
  • Gateshead 55
  • Greenwich 47
  • Sefton 45
  • Rotherham 43
  • Brent 42

Derby is no overall control – though it does have a Conservative leader who I hope might reflect on whether the asset management could be more rigorous. The other councils at the top of the league table are Labour. The full list is here.

According to the latest figures there are 10,510 “households” placed in bed and breakfast hotels. Southwark Council has 218 of them. Tower Hamlets has 432. Ealing 339. Newham 295. Croydon 255. Mostly these will be single people but sometimes families will be placed. With hotel prices in London at around £150 a night per room, putting up a family can cost thousands of pounds a week. The families are miserable and the Council Taxpayer picks up a huge bill. Councils could convert some of their surplus buildings into housing and sell to private landlords on condition that some is made avalaible to be let to the Council as temporary accommodation for an agreed number of years. Why do these councils instead place families in hotels as if there was no alternative?

Certain caveats apply. The report estimates 19,500 new homes could be made available, but that is an extrapolation as not all the councils responded to the Freedom of Information requests. Invariably when bureaucrats are challenged over a specific building they will offer detailed excuses – which may have some validity. For instance, there might be an awful tower block that has been vacated due to structural faults. It might have a hundred flats. But once demolished there could be a larger number of replacement homes on the site – lower rise but higher density. That would be welcome. Though why such tower blocks can stand empty for years – or even decades – before the work is undertaken is rather more questionable.

Congratulations to Habitat for Humanity for gathering his important evidence. I would like to say that it should shame councils into releasing these surplus properties to allow an increase in the housing supply which is desperately needed. I fear that will not happen. What is needed is a legal mechanism that would force the sales to go through. There could be a specified deadline, certain exceptions could apply. An appeal mechanism to the Secretary of State could be allowed. But we really need the auctioneer’s hammer to start coming down. We can not allow this terrible waste of resources to continue. It is not fair on the taxpayer – or on those trapped in overcrowded, overpriced housing.

 

Harry Fone: Slough Council slammed for sloppy accounting

1 Jun

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

Back in February this year, I revealed that Slough Borough Council had spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash adorning their new headquarters with plush fittings, astroturf and even bean bags. I questioned whether council bosses had their priorities straight – and it would seem that a recent independent audit confirms my suspicions.

The report by Grant Thornton lays bare the local authority’s financial incompetence, “we are not satisfied that, in all significant respects Slough Borough Council put in place proper arrangements for securing economy, efficiency and effectiveness in its use of resources for the year ended 31 March 2019.”

At the time of writing, Slough Council is yet to publish its latest statement of account. It’s perhaps not hard to see why given the auditor’s comments that there is a “lack of supporting audit trail for key notes in the accounts”. Worse still, the council has a budget gap of nearly £1.3 million and is forecast to have a mere £550,000 in its general fund reserves.

Grant Thornton has recommended a series of measures to address the council’s financial management. For the sake of local residents who suffered a 5.1 per cent increase in Council Tax this year, I hope town hall bosses are able to turn the ship around. They shouldn’t get comfy in those bean bags just yet.

Councils face tax deficit

The latest figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government reveal that councils in England face a £509 million net shortfall in the amount of Council Tax they expect to collect. The revelations come despite another year of inflation-busting council tax rises.

Out of 309 local authorities, 258 (83 per cent) reported they are expecting a deficit in council tax collections which totals close to £546 million. 10 councils are on par with just 41 reporting an expected surplus amounting to nearly £37 million.

Liverpool City Council has the highest deficit at £17.7 million compared to South Oxfordshire which had the greatest surplus at just over £4.2 million. Another name that jumped out of the top ten highest deficits was Croydon at £9.2 million – which will offer little comfort to local taxpayers who have seen their council go bankrupt in 2020 and leading to massive increases in council tax.

No doubt the pandemic has greatly affected balance sheets and the government has allowed councils to spread shortfalls across upcoming financial years until 2024. But once again this highlights why local authorities shouldn’t see residents as cash cows to be milked. They need to trim the fat in their budgets. As I wrote just the other week, there are plenty of places where they can make a start.

Laying down the law

I was delighted to read this week that the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Nottinghamshire has announced plans to save taxpayers £78,000 a year. Caroline Henry is set to scrap the role of deputy PCC and furthermore will not claim any expenses.

In fairness to the previous incumbent Paddy Tipping, he didn’t claim any allowances in 2020 and only claimed £1,885 in 2019. A relatively small amount of money in the scheme of things but it’s great to see Henry displaying the right attitude towards taxpayers’ hard-earned cash. Especially so, after residents were subjected to the maximum possible increase of £15 (Band D) for the police precept this year.

In a perhaps unfortunate twist, she may be forced to employ a deputy. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel is seeking to make the appointment mandatory in the near future. Time will tell whether this is the right move but I’m not sure it will please taxpayers. Doing some back of the envelope calculations and assuming an average salary of say, £60,000 for a deputy (it’s likely to be higher) – across the country the cost will be in the region of £2.5 million a year. This is just for salaries; the bill will likely be much larger when pensions, perks and expenses are factored into the equation.

In response, Caroline Henry has said she will not appoint a deputy until she is legally mandated to do so. I hope other Police and Crime Commissioners will follow her lead.

Harry Fone: Councils have saved millions on their printing bills

21 May

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

Following the local elections, there will be many newly elected councillors, possibly now in overall control of a council, eager to make a big difference in their local communities. One of the best ways to do this is by ensuring that every penny of council tax nets maximum possible value. But of course hand-wringing council bosses and bureaucrats may well claim that there is no fat left to trim. That’s why I’ve laid out where simple savings can be made.

Printing costs

New research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) reveals that councils made huge savings on printing over the last twelve months. Local authorities spent just £41.6 million from April 2020 to February 2021, a staggering £32 million less than the previous financial year.

Some things must be printed out, perhaps most notably everything required to run a successful local election, but big reductions are possible as Chorley and East Riding have shown. Locking in these economic and environmental savings for the future can only be a good thing.

Make changes to senior staffing 

As the latest edition of the Town Hall Rich List revealed, thousands of council employees are enjoying remuneration in excess of £100,000 per year. Polling by the TPA showed that 59 per cent of people want their salaries to be frozen or cut.

But questions remain about whether these executive positions are needed in the first place. Many insiders I’ve spoken to argue that there are too many directors in councils – a lot of the work could be done at management level.

Stoke City Council is seeking to reduce its number of senior staff and save taxpayers £360,000 a year in the process. If staff numbers can’t be cut, why not consider sharing senior staff between two councils and halve the wage bill for taxpayers?

Work with the private and voluntary sectors

I think most Conservatives would agree that the private sector tends to be more efficient than the public sector. I would argue that local government doesn’t fully explore the potential that’s available – there is no shortage of people and organisations seeking to make their area better for all.

Consider council award ceremonies for example. In 2019 the TPA discovered that nearly £6.6 million was spent on these extravagances. A minority of entrepreneurial councils managed to cover the costs through private sponsorship. More authorities should do so – not just for awards ceremonies (which are highly questionable in the first place). But perhaps for beautifying town centres or even covering the costs of Christmas lights. The possibilities are endless and if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Councillor allowances

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen numerous examples of councillors awarding themselves increases in their allowances. From Bristol to Tower Hamlets, elected members have been seemingly tone-deaf to the financial problems many households have experienced.

As a newly-elected councillor, why not lead by example and return a portion of your allowances to taxpayers? If more of your fellow councillors follow suit there are huge savings to be made. In 2018-19 alone the TPA calculated the cost of allowances to the taxpayer at £255 million. At the very least, councils should commit to a freeze in allowances for as long as possible. Local taxpayers will thank you for it.

Seize the benefits of the working from home revolution

As I recently highlighted, councils are all too eager to splash the cash on shiny new headquarters. But given the pandemic has seemingly kickstarted the working from home revolution, should councils think again before building a new office block? With fewer people coming into the office, a smaller amount of space will be needed. Hot-desking is likely to be more widely adopted. With it comes very welcome savings on heating, electricity, IT equipment, to name a few.

It’s also worth considering what impact working from home could have on productivity and absenteeism. Figures by the ONS showed a huge decline in public sector productivity in Q2 and Q3 of 2020. Public sector absenteeism is still greater than that of the private sector and the trend doesn’t look like reversing anytime soon. Council wage bills eat up huge amounts of taxpayers’ cash. Councillors must enact policies and practices that get the best performance out of staff.

Savings must be made

It’s very plausible that in 2022-23, the average Band D council tax bill in England could be just shy of £2,000. Residents want a break from inflation-busting rate rises. They need proactive councillors who will keep a tight grip on the purse strings and ramp up efficiency.

There will be plenty of people who will tell you this can’t be done, but the government begs to differ. This document outlines even more ways to make savings. I hope this will inspire you to launch a ‘War on Waste’ in your local authority. If you’d like a helping hand, feel free to email me, harry.fone@taxpayersalliance.com