It has been a very busy few weeks for the TPA grassroots. Last week I attended the inaugural meeting of our new Birmingham Branch. The branch will be holding an action day on 15th June. More details to follow, but if you would like to help, please let me know.
Regular readers of this website will also know that we have a new coordinator in Islington. His name is Henry Zarb, and if you have any stories you would like to share with him, he will be delighted to hear from you.
We are also holding two supporter social evenings next week. The first will be in Cardiff, where I will be joining our Wales Coordinator, Lee Canning, at The Queens Vaults, 29 Westgate Street, Cardiff City Centre, at 7.30pm on Tuesday 21st May. Lee has some great ideas for new campaigns in Wales and would love to hear from you. If you can make it next Tuesday, please let Lee know. It will be great to see you there.
The second supporter social next week will be on Thursday 23rd May, in Hove. We will be meeting at The Exchange, 8 Goldstone Street, Hove, East Sussex, BN3 3RL at 7pm. A local supporter would like to start a new TPA branch in the Brighton area, so please come along for a chat with like minded people who would like to keep an eye on wasteful spending and high taxes in Sussex. If you can make it to Hove next Thursday, please let me know.
In addition to the supporter social events, I am also meeting with some supporters in Canterbury next Thursday at 1pm. If you would like to join us for lunch, drop me a line. It will be great to get an East Kent branch of the TPA off the ground very soon.
Finally, many thanks to all those who have volunteered their time to help us in our campaigns throughout the country. We will be holding more supporter events, so please look out for one happening near you.
Conwy council in North Wales claims that “lessons have been learned” after a bridge rebuilding project in Llandudno went £1m over budget. The Maesdu Bridge, which has even been described by Independent councillor Dave Cowans as “value for money” is one of the main transport links into the Conwy town. The bridge underwent a complete rebuild and was reopened in September 2010, however a report into the scheme has highlighted significant failings within the management of the scheme.
A report on the overspend, which was discussed by the principal scrutiny and overview committee, said that previous issues had now been addressed but the overall cost of a project this size wasn’t unreasonable. As reported by the BBC, Conwy Council claimed:
… with the possible exception of the design fees, the overall cost of the project is not unreasonable for a scheme of this size and complexity.
Geraint Edwards, the council’s Head of Environment, Roads and Facilities, admitted that it ‘doesn’t seem possible’ to build a bridge at the original cost and confirmed that certain planning items had been delegated to inexperienced staff leading to costings for essential works being over-looked. Further to this Mr Edwards claims that even the designer’s fees of £680,000 appeared excessive and that attempts by the council to negotiate any money back had failed.
Conwy Council has done everything but learn lessons from this expedition of mismanagement. To claim that designer’s fees are excessive is outrageous, simply due to the fact that all fees surely were agreed in advance. As for the matter of over £1m overspend, no one at Conwy Council wants to take responsibility.
A Somerset supporter draws our attention to some extravagant expenditure at Taunton Deane Borough Council. Over the last years, they have spent £450,000 of taxpayers’ money subsidising the failing Brewhouse theatre in Taunton. Two years ago it lost its Art Council funding, but still it continued to employ 20 full time staff and 15 part time staff to manage a 350-seat theatre that rarely sold more than 100 seats at a time.
Despite having nearly half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money poured into its coffers, the Brewhouse theatre finally went into administration four months ago—and if that wasn’t bad enough, the council now wants to spend more taxpayers’ money buying the building. And yet, at the same time as it is dishing out public money to support a failing theatre, it has been less than enthusiastic over plans for a privately-funded theatre to open in the town!
A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that Taunton Deane Borough Council (TDBC) has spent £456,000 supporting the Brewhouse theatre over the past three years. Now the council leader is arguing the case for the authority to take over the theatre completely. ‘The borough council’s bid, if accepted, will help us to safeguard the theatre building and contents as an important performing arts centre while a financially sustainable future is sought,’ says Cllr John Williams. ‘The council has no ambition to be the theatre operator but it is key that we work hard to find a sustainable and successful future for the venue.’ Really? It looks as though the council leader is doing his very best to turn himself into a theatrical impresario.
This wasteful and somewhat bizarre use of taxpayers’ money has infuriated local campaigner Jim Laflin who has backed a privately funded proposal to revive the Taunton Gaumont Palace Theatre into a major showcase for musical talent—at no cost to the local taxpayer. ‘Unfortunately there were people at the council who saw the proposed new theatre as a threat to the Brewhouse,’ said Laflin, ‘and they ignored the Project Gaumont proposal for three years despite it having the support of the Chairman of Brewhouse trustees and unanimous support at three meetings of elected councillors.’
As for the council’s plan to buy the Brewhouse, Laflin is astonished. ‘What is the point of that?’ he says. ‘Is it so that council staff can throw more council taxpayers’ money down the drain? There is no possibility that a 350-seat theatre can be commercially viable and there are already two theatres of that size in the town.’ It does make you wonder why the council leader is so wedded to spending yet more public money on a failing theatre?
Islington Council has sparked controversy by spending £38,307, or £339 pounds each, on 113 banners advertising its borough-wide 20mph speed limit. But that’s not the worst of it—they paid way too much for the banners in the first place!
The 20mph banners are placed high up on lampposts on main routes through the borough which are not controlled by TfL, and along which there is already a plethora of 20mph speed limit signs as well as road roundels. It is difficult to see what these signs add, other than another distraction for drivers who will have to take their eyes of the road to read them. The Council claims the signs are ‘essential’ if drivers are to be made properly aware of the new limit, but I cannot think of another instance anywhere in the UK in which the imposition of a speed limit has had to be advertised by anything other than the normal speed limit signs.
The banners have been condemned by opposition councillors as a waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when the Council should be trying to cut unnecessary spending. It is hard to disagree with that assessment. What struck me, however, was not just the obvious wastefulness of the whole exercise, but the sheer cost of the banners.
I have some knowledge, from previous experience in manufacturing and publishing, of printing costs on various materials and it seemed to me that these banners were extraordinarily expensive at £339 each, even taking into account installation costs. So I decided to do some research to find out whether or not the Council had even got value for money in its spending.
I measured one of the banners, on the Blackstock Road close to my home, and took a good look at the fittings associated with it. I searched for suppliers of printed PVC banners and post mounts, as well as sign installation contractors. The whole exercise took me an hour or so and some phone calls and emails. I was careful to get more than one quotation for each item, and to match the specifications the Council used as closely as possible.
At the end of this process, I found I could have the same banners printed and installed, including the use of the costly spring-type post mounts used by the Council, for under £21,500. In fact, I found that had the Council opted for equally robust rigid rather than sprung post mounts (the latter type are mainly to protect banners in high winds, not usually a feature of Islington in the Spring), the whole job could have been done for less than £13,500—or £119 each!
One is compelled to ask why the Council paid over £38,000, or nearly 80 per cent more to put up these banners than it would have cost anyone else. Their overspending is even more egregious if one accepts that rigid post-mounts could have done the job just as well for even less money. In the current climate, when taxpayers are being asked to put up with significant levels of council tax and reductions in services, it is quite wrong to ask them also to tolerate such huge inefficiencies in council purchasing.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, it is highly likely that this sort of entirely avoidable overpayment for goods and services is endemic, not just in Islington, but throughout all local and central government.
Despite recently published grand plans for spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on refurbishing Bath’s historic Guildhall market, Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) Council might like to consider giving the hard-working traders in the market a break when it comes to charging them for council services.
A Bath supporter of the TPA reveals to me the hidden costs of making changes to a stall in the market. B&NES demand that any such alterations must involved a Listed Building Application—and that’s just for a stall! ‘Listed Building Applications are supposed to be free,’ says the local businessman. ‘The problem is you have to pay for Pre-Application advice first.’
Section 93 of the Local Government Act 2003 specifies what charges can be made for services such as this and further guidance has been provided by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the document ‘General Power for Best Value Authorities to Charge for Discretionary Services – Guidance on the Power in the Local Government Act 2003.’
Basically, the rules are that only the actual cost of providing the service can be charged. Indeed the document says ‘Authorities are not required to charge for discretionary services. They may provide them for free if they so decide.’ However, B&NES charges an eye-watering £70.00 (plus VAT) per hour for this service.
A subsequent FoI Request has shown that B&NES raised a total of £160,000 in 2012 just for Planning Pre-application advice and they are making no attempt, as required by the Act, to show that year-on-year income from this is no greater than the cost of providing the service.
‘If they make this much from just one area,’ says our local source, ‘how much more are they making from other such rackets?’
It is yet another extra burden on Bath’s hard-pressed traders, which they can ill afford in this economic climate.
Around 75 people attended the “Justice for Brid” protest last Saturday. The protest was reported by local media, and this story from the Hull Daily Mail contains video footage of the event.
As we have already said, this is just the beginning of the campaign, and we will be meeting shortly with all those interested in moving the campaign forward.
What is clear from those who attended the protest is they are angry and want answers. If ERYC think they can brush this under the carpet, and that the protesters will go away, they are in for a rude awakening.
If you live in the area and would like to take an active part in the campaign, please drop me a line.
The question of Scottish Independence is a burning issue both in Holyrood and Westminster, but the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay has now managed to scuff together enough half-baked arguments to include itself in the discussion. This, of course, is regarding the debate over borrowing and tax raising powers.
In 2011, a referendum was held so that the Welsh people could decide if they wanted law making powers to be made available to their representatives.All four political parties approved of this move, but now the same political parties are also calling for the findings of Paul Silk (The Silk Commission) to be fully implemented. The Silk Commission argued that with further devolution should come limited powers to raise tax and borrows. For those of us living in Wales this means a travesty is on the horizon.
The Welsh Governments First Minster, Carwyn Jones, in a recent letter to the Chancellor called on the UK Government to give Wales the essential powers it apparently needs. Reported by the BBC, Mr Jones in a letter to the George Osborne appeals for the extra powers to defeat the Pro-Yes Lobby in Scotland. It is claimed, that if it is not made evident that the UK Government is willing to work with devolved nations, then this will simply add to the Pro-Yes vote in Scotland. The First Minister argues by empowering the Welsh Government, a clear example would be provided that devolved funding can be successfully reformed and that the UK Government is willing to work with devolved nations.
You would have thought that the 2011 referendum would have been enough to satisfy the argument that the UK Government isn’t reluctant to work with devolved partners. This move though appears to be nothing more than a ransom demand in the build-up to the Scottish referendum.
One of the great pleasures of grassroots campaigning is meeting new people. On Wednesday, after some radio interviews promoting our “Justice for Brid” protest on Saturday, I drove to Bridlington to meet local traders who are being directly affected by council blunders.
In a recent post I highlighted the social cost of the failed regeneration scheme. After spending an afternoon with supporters, visiting numerous shops, the message came though loud and clear that local people are sick and tired of not being listened to by an arrogant council that thinks it knows better.
One local businessman told me he was thinking about closing his business and relocating to York where the council treat you better. He mentioned that since the council ended free parking in a nearby car park, his trade has suffered. He fears the latest council bungling will force him out of the town after many years trading there.
Someone else, who wishes to remain nameless, used to live in Springfield Avenue. They sold their house to the council five years ago, and told the council they would happily rent it from them until they found somewhere permanent. The council refused to let them do that. Instead, they boarded-up the house and have left it like that for five years. This is not an isolated case. Others have told me similar stories.
Many businesses we visited offered to take more leaflets from us and display them in the shop windows and distribute to their customers. Looking around the area near the Tesco site, there are many empty business premises. Areas that once had footfall are now no longer thriving as the council has left the area blighted and derelict.
In an interview on BBC Radio Humberside, John Lister, Head of Bridlington Renaissance (I know, the irony is not lost on me) tried to pretend all was well; that Tesco’s decision was not as bad as it is. As you can hear, in my response to him, I set the record straight. Former councillor, Geoff Pickering, expanded on my points too, and all of this was too much was Mr Lister. Immediately after his interview, Mr Pickering received this e-mail from Mr Lister:
I presume you are aware that there is a wedding at 1.00 on Saturday in the Town Hall. You are, of course, free to organise a protest but it is necessary to destroy an innocent couple’s big day.
This blatant attempt to bully us was passed to the Yorkshire Post who reported the story yesterday. We checked with the senior registrar who informed us that although there is a wedding taking place at the Town Hall on Saturday, if we leave the area at 1.15pm, we will not get in the way when guests start arriving. We are, of course, more happy to do this, despite what Mr Lister thinks.
If you are in the Bridlington area on Saturday, please come along and support us.
What: “Justice for Brid” protest
When: Saturday 4th May, 12.30pm
Where: Town Hall Gardens, Bridlington. YO16 4LP
A Cornish supporter points out a distinct lack of value when it comes to their parish council. Feock Parish Council has one of the highest annual precepts in Cornwall, at more than £100,000, but this year the parish council has budgeted a staggering £73,320—nearly three quarters of its annual expenditure—on staff salaries and administration. The council currently employs a Parish clerk and two assistants. Staff costs in nearby parishes are a fraction of the levels in Feock and they employ clerks on a part-time or voluntary basis.
Furthermore, the parish council is refusing to share its taxpayer-funded assets with the local community. Feock Parish Council has recently relocated its offices to Devoran Market Hall, a 2,600 square feet space, but has refused generous offers of £12,000 per annum from Devoran Preschool and Devoran Primary School for the part of the site that is not occupied by the parish offices.
‘Our charity community preschool currently operates in a cramped space at the back of Devoran Methodist church,’ says local resident Ben Shankland. ‘We now understand the parish council intends to rent out the spare space on an hourly basis, competing directly with our village halls.’
In the meantime, the cost of the relocation has spiralled and the council has racked up costs of more than £55,000 refurbishing the Market Hall site. This is being financed with a long-term low-interest government loan but these costs now mean that the parish council’s debts exceed 50% of its annual income.
This controversial situation has led a group of concerned residents of the parish to form the New Parish Partnership, a non-partisan group, to contest the parish elections on May 2nd. ‘We will be standing on a platform of value for money, smart localism, and an end to the current parish council’s culture of secrecy and intimidation,’ says Mr Shankland.
After waiting for a week for a full statement from East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC) about the fiasco in Bridlington, the statement from Alan Menzies, Director of Planning and Economic Regeneration, printed in Saturday’s Yorkshire Post, was a huge disappointment. He said the council was unlikely to compulsory purchase the existing Tesco site, which we knew already. He also reiterated the line that the Tesco development was part of a much wider plan, which is also untrue. The existing Area Action Plan (AAP), which is now a planning document, hinges on Tesco moving from its existing site to the coach park next door. It can’t just be amended without going through the planning process again and, if Mr Menzies thinks Tesco will allow another supermarket to easily be built next door, then he is deluded. Tesco will fight the proposal and Bridlington does not need a second supermarket.
As I said last week, the council does not have a Plan B, and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted. Parts of Bridlington are derelict as a result of council blunders, and those officers, councillors, and consultants responsible for the mess must be held to account.
This Saturday, 4 May, at 12.30pm, we are holding a “Justice for Brid” protest. More details are below, and if you are on Facebook, you can register your support on this event page. If you live in the area please do your best to attend. Since launching this event yesterday evening, already almost sixty people have registered to attend. This is going to be a big protest. With your help, we can make it bigger.
What: “Justice for Brid” Protest
When: Saturday 4 May, 12.30 pm
Where: Town Hall Gardens, Bridlington. YO16 4LP
On Tuesday, when I wrote about Bridlington’s regeneration scheme hitting the rocks, I said I would post an update when East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC) decided on its promised “full and frank response”. Well, we are still waiting. Despite knowing for a week that Tesco had decided to pull out of the scheme, and with an estimated £25 million spent, the council is still searching for what to do and say. This tells you more than whatever spin they eventually come up with. The failure to sign-up Tesco before basing their entire plans on them moving has dealt a serious and potentially fatal blow to those plans and confirms that Plan B does not and never did exist.
I spent some time in Bridlington yesterday to take a look for myself why the scheme is so unpopular with many local people and to look at the social costs of the decisions made by bungling bureaucrats, councillors and consultants.
There are fourteen houses on Springfield Avenue, and currently eleven of them have been bought by the council, boarded up, and are currently standing empty. The remaining three homes are due to be compulsory purchased from owners who do not want to move. The council could have simply secured the option to buy those properties as and when they needed them.
Instead (as you can see in the photograph) the council has blighted their neighbourhood. Now the scheme appears to be collapsing, what’s going to happen to this street?
The situation is even worse in the ironically named Palace Avenue. I don’t how many empty houses there are, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the street is completely empty. Remember, the council now owns these properties. If private landlords left their properties in this state of repair, what would the council have to say about it?
Just like Springfield Avenue, the council could have retained an option to buy. This mess did not have to happen. There are more streets like this too. Many other homes and businesses have been bought and are currently standing empty.
If the current regeneration plans do fail, which seems increasingly more likely the longer the council remains silent, those residents who are still living in the affected areas will probably serve blight notices, even if the council does not wish to buy them. If the blight notices are accepted, homeowners will be eligible to receive the same amount as they would have done under a Compulsory Purchase Order. The council will then be the proud owners of empty streets!
The buildings brought in anticipation of imminent demolition appear not to have been maintained. The taxpayer now faces the massive cost of repair. They cannot be left to decline to a dangerous condition and demolition without development in sight would leave Bridlington looking like a post-war bomb site.
The unnecessary cost to taxpayers already runs into the millions. The liability and ongoing costs may soon start to spiral out of control, but as you can see, there is also a social cost. Neighbourhoods have been blighted; families have (more or less) been forced out of their homes under the pretence they were helping regenerate the town they call home. Those responsible for this mess must be held to account.
Islington Council will have to repay motorists a huge amount in compensation over a bungled road layout scheme. It has apparently caused a number of accidents, including three in which vehicles over-turned while trying to negotiate it.
The scheme has attracted a large number of complaints from local residents, and has already cost local taxpayers some £110,000 including revisions. Apart from the accident toll, it seems that technical failures by Islington Council will also lead to over 10,000 traffic fines illegally issued between November last year and February having to be repaid at a cost of up to £1 million. Opposition councillors have called for the scheme to be scrapped.
The road width restriction in Drayton Park, near where I live in Highbury, first came to my notice early last year while it was being built. Not long after I saw that it had been comprehensively demolished and rebuilt with a different layout a short while later. Residents suspected that this indecision and inconvenience must have wasted taxpayers’ money.
Islington Council released two internal reports after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, but they seemed to raise more questions than they answered.
Apparently, the cost of the initial construction had been estimated at £80,000. But strangely, the cost of revision, which involved both the demolition and reconstruction of the restriction according to a new design, was estimated in the second report at only £29,000. It’s hard to decipher how something which requires a great deal more work can cost only just over a third of the original estimate.
The second report showed that the design revision had taken place at the instigation of two groups, the Islington Cyclists’ Action Group (ICAG) and SusTrans, with the latter apparently threatening to withdraw its funding of the Connect2 cycle route scheme unless the design was changed.
A second FOI request was sent to the Council asking for details of how much SusTrans had pledged to the Council for this particular Connect2 route and/or any other route in the borough. The reply from the Council’s Finance Department was that SusTrans had granted the Islington Connect2 scheme £600,000 for 2012-13, but that this came with a proviso that funding could be withdrawn if SusTrans disapproved of any aspect of a particular scheme delivered by the Council. In this case, that is exactly what happened.
So, who did actually pay for the ‘revision’ of this costly and wasteful scheme? SusTrans, which in part is funded by significant amounts of taxpayers’ money from the Department of Transport and the European Union? Or did the money come directly from Islington Council Tax payers? Either way, one can’t help but question the propriety of the Council’s relationship with the groups in question. They seem able to effectively hold the Council to ransom to get their way. It’s Islington’s taxpayers and motorists who suffer as a result.
Islington TaxPayers’ Alliance