Expensive ‘shared space’ in Bath?
Sep 2014 17

The Council in Bath is planning to spend £1.2m of taxpayers’ money on a ‘shared space’ in the city centre, which according to reports will consist primarily of levelling pavements and kerbs along several streets, and re-paving the area. Now, I can’t say I’ve noticed local residents or traders clamouring for this expenditure – marching along the streets with banners demanding a ‘shared space’ for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. In fact, many are speaking out against it.

Although Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES) says they have consulted disabled groups about the design of the shared space, many locals I have spoken to are against it for practical reasons. A lack of differentiated road and pavements can be treacherous. ‘Accessibility should be what underpins any plans, not whatever cyclists want with anyone else being expected to like it or lump it,’ says one disabled resident. ‘Many places no longer allow plans for shared spaces because it has now been recognised that they are dangerous.’

But despite the lack of desperate need for such a project – and active criticism of it – Bath residents are getting it anyway.

‘It links to the priorities of the emerging wider transport strategy Getting Around Bath,’ says a B&NES spokesperson, ‘which will emphasise sustainable travel to reduce congestion and support the long-term economic strategy for the area.’ Whatever that means!

This is the same council that is shutting public toilets that people actually want and care about. And the same council that is happy to keep raising parking fees, which nether residents nor traders want.

Now, if only that ‘shared space’ money could be shifted into dealing with real concerns, then we’d all be a lot happier in Bath. But, apparently, that’s not the way government likes to use our money… is it?

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

Discovering the limits of FOI legislation
Sep 2014 11

For the last year, Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) Council have repeatedly refused to answer my Freedom of Information (FoI) requests about an alleged matter of wrongdoing by a senior local government officer involving taxpayers’ money. I am now in the process of appealing against their stonewalling. My experience may well be of interest to other TPA supporters encountering similar difficulties and reveals the limits of FoI requests.

One of the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 was to create greater transparency in local government and enable citizens to request information in pursuit of this aim. This has been balanced by a right to private data protection for those working within local government. But should this right be extended to those who have been involved in alleged wrongdoing in the course of their work for local government? That is of legitimate interest to the public and should, in my opinion, override anyone’s right to personal data protection.

I am appealing to the First-tier Tribunal against the Information Commissioner’s decision (FS50539446) that the data protection rights of a senior council officer outweigh the public interest in knowing what were the alleged matters of wrongdoing under investigation by the local council. I originally appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office against the blank refusal of Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES) to answer any of my Freedom of Information request questions regarding this matter. The Information Commissioner’s Office has simply backed up B&NES’ refusal to give me any information, quoting Section 40 (2) of the FOIA. This may be correct according to the letter of the law, but in my opinion is most certainly against the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. I would also question whether the matter under investigation does in fact fall under Section 40. That is why I am appealing against this decision.

The incident under investigation involves a former divisional director of tourism, leisure and culture for Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES), who was suspended from his office between July 2012 and his retirement in September 2012. A B&NES press release, printed in part in the Bath Chronicle, declared that ‘certain matters were being investigated’ but they would not say what the matters were and at the end of the process the individual concerned retired.

That both the Council and the Information Commissioner’s Office should quote Section 40 as the reason for not giving out any information on this matter seems odd and illogical, as I don’t understand how a local government investigation of the alleged wrongdoing of a senior council worker can be the exclusive private data of that individual. The clause is badly expressed and confusing and can be used as a catch-all to deny the public access to almost any information held by local government.

The Commissioner claims that the former director expects his terms of employment to remain confidential, but admits that he is a senior council employee and details of pay of such employees are routinely published. At no point does the Commissioner consider the ongoing investigation – and yet I think most people would consider this of legitimate public interest. In my opinion, this is not a good enough reason to refuse a Freedom of Information enquiry into these matters.

The press release given to the local media, referred to above, was in my opinion completely inadequate in the information it put out into the public domain about the reasons for the individual’s suspension and prompt departure. B&NES clearly considers the matter to have been dealt with internally and of no further public interest. This is wrong and not appropriate for a public, taxpayer funded body. It certainly does not ‘give confidence to the community at large.’

Regarding the detail of the Director’s severance payment, if it is enclosed within B&NES overall figures for severance payments, why cannot the precise figure be communicated to the public? As the Commissioner himself quotes from his notes of guidance, such transparency should be especially forthcoming when ‘there is any evidence of mismanagement by senior staff in a public authority’.

Overall, I find the Information Commissioner’s decision surprisingly supportive of B&NES’ efforts to move beyond the investigation. Taxpayers deserve to know the results of the internal investigation. If they’re allowed to get away with this, what next will they bury from the public gaze? I look forward to hearing the comments of the First-tier Tribunal on this most important matter.

Tim Newark is the South West Grassroots Coordinator of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

What’s going on in Wroughton?
Sep 2014 10

There is a phantom national museum in southwest England that is supported with taxpayers’ money – and yet taxpayers can only visit by appointment! What is going on?

“The Science Museum gets a lot of taxpayers’ money each year,” says a local TPA supporter, “and part of it goes to maintain an entire airfield and museum at Wroughton, Wiltshire, which no taxpayer has been allowed to see for several years.”

The branch of the Science Museum at Wroughton, near Swindon, is a vast exhibition facility in which aircraft and other enormous objects are kept in order to be sent to other displays around the country.  But many of the objects are so big, like a Lockheed Constellation or a Hawker Siddeley Trident, that Wroughton is the only place they can be displayed. Indeed, they are not hidden away in crates but are exhibited inside three huge hangars, laid out like a museum, with walkways and information panels. It looks just like a museum, except not a single member of the public can visit it without making an appointment. The museum used to open on several weekends, but it has been closed for at least three years.

The editor of Old Glorya website devoted to steam engine preservation – has been equally frustrated and questioned one of its curators.

“His answer was to say that the Science Museum did bring these exhibits out from time to time and that they were sent to different museums around the country,” writes Colin Tyson. “My retort was that surely it was easier for the general public to go to Wroughton, rather than the high cost of transporting them to other museums for what would be a limited period only. His next excuse was because of health and safety. Some of the vehicles in the museum had asbestos brake linings and thus are considered to be a danger to the public. I then asked why anybody would want to kneel down and possibly inhale any dust that could emanate from the vehicles, even if they knew which ones, if any, were at all dangerous?”

For their part, the Science Museum describe Wroughton as a “vital resource,” supporting a whole range of Museum-wide activities including storage, conservation, exhibitions and loan activities.

Our local supporter isn’t satisfied. “They claim they have a new use for the airfield but their plans to have a solar panel farm have been put back and back.”

In June 2013, Peter Turvey, a former senior curator at Wroughton submitted written evidence to a parliamentary enquiry about the affair. “There is shameful opposition to providing wider public access to the hidden collections in the [Science] Museum’s stores,” cliams Turvey, “particularly those at the large object store at Wroughton in Wiltshire. On many occasions I found management unwilling to support my efforts to improve public access to the stored collections at Wroughton (at minimal cost to the institution). Proposals for Reconstituted Volunteer groups and participation in the excellent Heritage Open Day scheme all fell on deaf ears.”

“After all,” concludes our Wiltshire TPA supporter, “if you keep being paid by the taxpayer and no one is holding you to account then you just say no to everything, never open the museum, stop all activities on the airfield, don’t renew leases on the airfield and so on.”

Tim Newark is the South West Grassroots Coordinator for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

“White Elephant” Scheme Comes Under Fire in Bristol
Aug 2014 28

Bristol residents are angry at a £200m “white elephant” bus scheme that won narrow approval at a council meeting. Residents gathered from the north of the city to protest outside Bristol City Hall holding white elephant placards to protest at the huge, largely unwanted expenditure of taxpayers’ money. The scheme, which involves building a bridge cutting into much-loved Stoke Park, is profoundly unpopular locally.

“We have got to take this city into the 21st century,” said a local transport campaigner at a packed Council meeting. But during the decision-making session, protestors felt the real reason for Bristol City Council wanting to proceed with the expensive project was revealed. If they didn’t approve the application, the route would lose its allocation of Government – taxpayer – funding. The protesters believe this is frequently used as an excuse for bouncing councillors into making unpopular decisions because they just can’t resist any opportunity to spend lots of our money.

Protestors at the meeting complained about not being adequately consulted about the proposed bus route and at the loss of agricultural land. They also objected to normal road being replaced by bus and bike lanes as part of the costly scheme. In the end, their objections were ignored as the £200m scheme was narrowly passed by six councillors to four.

The good news, however, from Bristol is that Mayor George Ferguson’s shameless attempt to get his hands on the money generated by selling a Banksy work of art as been rejected by the artist himself who wanted the Boys’ Club, on whose building the graffiti appeared, to benefit from its sale and not the council. Hoorah! They’ll know how to spend the £400,000 windfall far more wisely.

War on Waste hits Southend-on-Sea
Aug 2014 21

TPA activists visited Southend-on-Sea yesterday as part of our national War on Waste campaign. Having set up camp in the High Street, our team handed out leaflets and books to local residents, finding out from some of them what the real problems were in this sunny part of Essex.

For example, the £51,000 phone bill accumulated by council cabinet members in 2013; and the £1 million paid to sea wall consultants, despite the project lacking planning permission. Residents were angry about wasteful spending, especially since they know budgets are being reduced. The people we spoke to wanted their money spent on essential services, not squandered on wasteful projects.

All in all, the TPA’s afternoon in Southend-on-Sea was most successful. Importantly, the fight against wasteful spending was bolstered by a number of new supporters to our campaign. We look forward to visiting other parts of the UK soon.

Planning costs pile up for Mike Watts
Aug 2014 19

Good news to see that B&NES council leader Paul Crossley is finally congratulating Mike Watts for building his Kelston Toll Road and helping thousands of local drivers overcome the disruption caused by the closure of a short stretch of the A431.

“He has done something the council wasn’t able to do and well done to him,” Crossley told the Bath Chronicle. “He has used his initiative and taken a risk, using his money. He has also been working positively with the council to jump through all the necessary hoops, such as applying for retrospective planning permission.”

But last week, the council claimed Mike Watts had got it wrong when he said retrospective planning costs could come to some £30,000.

“Until we see where the site plan is actually drawn we cannot confirm what the fee will be,” said a council spokesperson, “however as a guide the road itself covers c.0.4ha therefore the fee is likely to be between £780 and the maximum of £1690. We do not know where the £30,000 figure has come from however this does not relate to any planning application fee—the TPA’s article is therefore factually incorrect and misleading.”

So I went back to Mr. Watts and asked him how much the Council planning demands on his toll road might cost him.

“The breakdown of costs for retrospective planning is as follows,” he says, noting that “there might be some variations but this will only be upwards. Planning Consultant £12,000; Architect £1,200; Ecology Report £1,500; Surveyor £800; Ground Report £5,000 (this could rise to £15k if more info is required); Application Fees £1,170; Total £20,500 (plus possible extra £10k = £30k). All above plus VAT.”

Now of course a number of these charges are not directly levied by the council, but the onerous planning regulations require the builder – in this case Mr. Watts – to pay them nonetheless.

Let’s hope B&NES sees sense and recognises the community’s gratitude to Mr. Watts and cuts him some slack and the costs don’t rise any higher.

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

Bath toll road hero hit by Council charges
Aug 2014 11

Mike Watts has hit national headlines for building the first toll road in England for 100 years – and he did it because Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) Council have been too slow to re-open a vital section of the A431 between Bristol and Bath. So I went to visit him to find out the true cost of doing local motorists a favour, and heard how the council is charging him for helping out.

A landslip closed the road between Bristol and Bath in February, and B&NES has said it will take them until Christmas to get it re-opened at a cost to the taxpayer of £1.5 million. In the meantime local businesses have lost thousands of pounds in trade and residents have faced nightmare journeys. Mike Watts lives in the nearby village of Kelston and decided to do something about it.

“I used to turn left outside of my village and get into Bath in eight minutes,” says Watts. “With the road closed I had to turn right and it took me one hour twenty minutes to get in. Aside from the waste of time, my petrol expenditure went right up.”

B&NES refused to act quickly on re-opening the road and so Watts was forced to create his own mini-bypass on a field nearby. He’s had to put his house on the line to cover the £150,000 construction costs and £150,000 in running costs. “We need to get 1250 cars using this toll road every day to cover our costs,” he said.

It is to be noted that his construction costs are a tenth of the council’s estimate of taxpayers’ money needed to fix the road and he’s opened it six months earlier than B&NES could deliver. The private sector really is leaner and fitter at dealing with such problems.

One might have thought the council would be delighted at Watts helping them out to create an alternative route for local traffic, but they have refused to endorse his efforts and have carped about safety issues ever since. The really shocking point I learn talking to Watts is that B&NES now wants to make money out of his enterprise.

Watts had had to apply for retrospective planning permissions and claims the council have quoted some £30,000 for doing it – a tenth of his total costs. The Council has disputed the figure.

On top of that Watts has had to employ a planning consultant to navigate his way through the maze of regulations and that’s cost him a further £12,000, plus there are additional costs for surveys and signage. I think a grateful public would expect the council to waive or severely reduce these costs to Watts and let him get on with running the toll road to the benefit of the whole community. This story really makes one wonder what the purpose of local government is when it fails to deal efficiently with a problem like this in the first place and then wants to charge an arm and a leg to those who do help out. Shame on B&NES!

*This article has been amended from its original version after B&NES disputed the £30,000 figure, citing an estimate between £780 and £1,690. Mr. Watts was unavailable for further comment.

Payouts in Wales
Jul 2014 29

Figures released last week by BBC Wales have highlighted that local authorities have spent £30m of taxpayers’ money on redundancy packages. There have been a number of local authorities in Wales who have increased council tax up to 5% and the figures are nearly double last year’s. When I hit the streets and talk to residents in Wales, they often complain about cuts to their front-line services, with no serious attempt by some local authorities to make serious savings.

The Welsh Local Government Association blames contractual agreements and austerity measures for these payments, but it might be more to do with poorly negotiated contracts.

Cardiff and Blaenau Gwent had the biggest payouts with both spending more than double than the previous year on redundancies, which combined were nearly £1.25m this year alone.

Public sector redundancies should be in line with the statutory requirements, but our past Town Hall Rich Lists have shown that executives in particular are given very large payouts, sometimes after spending just a little time at the Council.

Local representatives should act now and lead the way in ensuring front line services are protected and wasteful spending is eradicated.

TPA protests the hated Holiday Tax in Bristol
Jul 2014 29

TPA supporters protested against Air Passenger Duty (APD) in Bristol Airport yesterday, setting up a stall in the departure zone and chatting to holidaymakers. APD is a departure tax charged on flights from the UK and can add over hundreds of pounds to long haul flights. On a standard rate flight from London to New York, it adds £138 to the overall cost. For a longer flight to South East Asia that becomes a whopping £170. As for a family holiday to Florida with economy flights that’s an extra £276 in duty alone. Even on short haul flights the hated holiday tax can push up the cost of a flight by as much as 50%.

“You spend all year working to pay the high cost of living,” said one traveller, “and you get slapped with this on your holiday. To just pay for this tax I’d have to work five shifts. It’s just not fair.”

“Our particular concern in Bristol,” said Jacqui Mills of Bristol Airport, ‘is that if a devolved Wales gets tax raising powers, it will scrap this duty—just as Scotland would too—and then Cardiff will grab all our travel trade with cheaper duty-free fares.”

The tax was first introduced in 2006 and has been increased several times since then, being doubled in 2007 and going up by 8% in 2012, with increases by the rate of inflation in 2013 and 2014.

This year’s Budget announced some reforms to the tax which will reduce the future burden on travellers a little. Passengers flying to all long-haul destinations from April 2015 will pay the same rate as they do to fly to the US. However, passengers using private jets will be hit harder by the changes, paying six times the amount of APD charged to economy class passengers. And of course, the changes do little for families jetting off to the beaches of Spain, Portugal and Turkey this summer.

A spokesman for IAG, British Airways’ parent company, was unimpressed, saying “It still punishes families and costs UK jobs. The only long-term solution is to scrap APD in its entirety and allow the aviation and tourism industries to flourish, to the benefit of the wider UK economy.”

It’s time for George Osborne to go further, and make Britain an aviation-friendly country once again.

A Town Council with an unfortunate penchant for hoarding
Jul 2014 29

It’s slightly unusual for a council at the parish level to feature on this blog, but Dover Town Council has surpassed itself in costing the taxpayer dear and not spending wisely. In the last few months they have reached new heights of unpopularity.

The Council has listened to locals on occasion – in one recent year, they bowed to pressure and froze their council tax take, but the norm has been for above-inflation increases. Their precept – the amount the Council wishes to collect in tax revenue – was £633,150 in 2012, rising to £764,474 in 2013 and £885,977 in 2014. Public disapproval has been aroused several times over what has been both spent and not spent. They refused grants to the local carnival procession, while happily spending on regalia for the mayor and town clerk, and lavish ceremonies. Staff received above-inflation salary increases and a generous Christmas dinner bonus. Also purchased: a new car for the mayor and a 4×4 for official use – the official reason being the need to access their allotments. Two vehicles in a smallish town? No War on Waste there!

They managed to put a picture on their website purporting to be Dover’s white cliffs that turned out to be somewhere else. They made national news when, without any consultation, they put benches in the town’s main pedestrian precinct that were “deliberately designed” to be uncomfortable so as to discourage people sitting on them too long (the intended target being people with drink, though it ended up hitting everybody else just wanting a rest with their shopping). There was also a matter of franchising out a reopening public toilet on the seafront as a combined toilet and shop. This was delayed for a year by their not following correct procedure and a bid being put in by a councillor without declaring their interest. There are other issues, from the lack of a World War I ceremony to the memorial benches dedicated to loved ones were found dumped behind their offices. I could go on, but will concentrate on the matter of our money.

It has now come to light via the Dover Express that Dover Town Council reserves are quite considerable, bearing in mind the council’s size: £764,474 in 2012, £885,977 in 2013 rising to £1,148,938 in 2014. This prompted the rather blunt headline – “Town council is hoarding £1 million of your money”. It is difficult to justify why that money is being held in reserve, rather on essential services or being used to reduce people’s tax bill.

Unsurprisingly, a petition is being started calling for the abolition of the town council. Before we had a town council, after district councils were set up (replacing the old borough council) Dover had Charter Trustees. They too proved very good at spending and losing money. Something, clearly, has to change.

Stockton Council’s expensive property grab
Jul 2014 24

Stockton Borough Council has been buying up large, high end houses at above market rates, with seemingly little concern for getting good value for taxpayers’ money. The Council is working with a private contractor, Spark of Genius, with the aim of bringing 20 looked after children back into the community, and claim this will save between £400,000 and £500,000 a year. Though certainly a laudable aim, there have been a number of questions raised about how they are actually going about it.

The intention was to buy four large properties in the Stockton area alongside renovating King Edwin’s School. The properties bought were at the top end of the local market and the prices have certainly raised eyebrows. Rather than negotiating the best deal for taxpayers, the council has inadvertently been forcing up the prices of the properties. For instance, it entered a bidding war for the Old Vicarage in Stillington, paying £50,000 over the £350,000 asking price for a building which will cost a small fortune to renovate.

Their questionable procurement tactics don’t end there. Another local property had languished on the market for around two years, with buyers put off by the need for extensive renovation and the £650,000 asking price. Stockton Borough Council paid £600,000 – a far from sensible rate, local residents have told us.

The problems for the Council and Spark of Genius do not end there. They claim that the scheme is designed to produce savings of around half a million pounds but so far no evidence for this has been produced. Worse, the council’s Chief Executive dismissed the likely £500,000 overspend on the £2.3 million budget as “small”, when talking to our local supporter.

The cavalier attitude towards taxpayers’ money is clearly concerning. While the aims of the project are praiseworthy, there is certainly more that they could do to ensure our money is not being wasted.

 

Bristol’s unwanted parking zones come under attack
Jul 2014 23

Local residents and traders opposed to elected Bristol Mayor George Ferguson’s costly Residents’ Parking Zones (RPZ) gathered outside City Hall on College Green—and they brought along a WW2 Sherman tank to make their point!

On the same day, Bristol City Council debated a petition of ‘No Confidence’ in Mayor Ferguson’s efforts to severely restrict the use of cars in Bristol with his parking zones.

“RPZ are forcing businesses to close already from lack of customers, companies to relocate because they are unable to get their staff into work and communities are isolated from lack of visitors,” says campaigner Robert Duxbury, Chair of Ashley Ward RPZ action group. “Even Blue Badge holders are being prevented from parking close to their intended destinations because Bristol’s RPZ prohibits their free unrestricted use of resident only parking bays.”

“Mayor Ferguson has said “I’m not going to react to any demonstration – I will react to normal discussion.” But when a normal discussion involving a Cross Party Working Group of Councillors, with input from residents and traders, submitted their recommendations on RPZ he completely ignored them,” says Duxbury.

The ‘No Confidence’ petition has attracted over 5,000 signatures and is the sixth most popular out of 428 petitions submitted to Bristol City Council’s website. In the last year, two anti-RPZ petitions gathered more than 11,000 signatures and hundreds of residents have demonstrated on Bristol streets. Mayor Ferguson has ignored them all.

“That’s the problem,” said one protestor outside City Hall, “the Mayor has too much power and can just dismiss our petitions without properly considering them—the councillors around him seem toothless.”

As I discovered in Islington, when I contested that council’s Controlled Parking Zones, residents’ parking schemes can initially seem appealing but end up being a tax on visiting family and friends and discourage passers-by from popping into local shopping streets, with a subsequent loss in trade for independent shops and restaurants. Of course, councils love the extra revenue from parking permits and fines, but is it really any good for the community?

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