Recently, in the middle of the night, I awoke from a dream in which I was being forcibly gagged. I quickly reassured myself with the thought that, while it may be known for many things, Norfolk is not a county markedly recognised for sheltering roaming gangs of serial nocturnal gaggers. Then the source of the dream came to me; it was what I had been reading in the Eastern Daily Press (“EDP”), our local newspaper.
Sheringham, a popular small seaside town here, is currently the scene of a supermarket war between Tesco and Waitrose. This has torn the local population in two. The umpire is North Norfolk District Council (“NNDC”) whose planning committee has been struggling for ages now with the two rival planning applications. What did the EDP report that caused me my problem? You will have to be patient with me. It is a longish story.
At a planning committee meeting in March this year, one of the committee members – Cllr Penny Beavan Jones – expressed the opinion that the Waitrose scheme should be preferred, because the elderly and disabled would find the experience of a ride on an electric bus to the Waitrose store “the highlight of their week”. Of course, in terms of planning law and policy, Cllr Jones’s opinion of what the elderly and disabled might or might not enjoy is entirely irrelevant to the determination of two controversial planning applications. (It is hardly – for those of you in the know – a “material consideration”.) But, we have all experienced this kind of thing before with planning committees.
Then, however, I wondered how I would feel if I were (even) older than I am or disabled, or both. I would certainly find her statement pretty offensive. Paul and Wendy Norman of Sheringham evidently did. They made a formal complaint against Cllr Jones to the NNDC standards committee, alleging a failure on her part to “treat others with respect” as the NNDC members code of conduct requires.
The complaint was investigated, and having been subjected to the filter system, proceeded this month to a full hearing by the NNDC standards committee. It was rejected. At that point, while I sympathised greatly with Mr and Mrs Norman, I did not anticipate bad dreams. But then Norman Lamb, the usually widely respected Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk, aired his own views on these events in an article in the EDP entitled “It’s like the Thought Police have gone into overdrive”.
Mr Lamb’s thrust, if I may put it that way, was that this comment “given in good faith as part of a contribution to this local debate” did not justify the time and expenditure on the part of NNDC that it involved. In short, it should never have been entertained.
Let us look at a few facts. All local authorities are obliged to impose a code of conduct on their members. The requirement “to treat others with respect” is uniform. In 2009-2010, the NNDC standards committee received a total of fifty-three conduct complaints. Of those, twenty-five alleged a failure to treat others with respect. That, alone, should tell Mr Lamb something.
Local councillors occupy a privileged position in our communities. Sadly, in the case of a few, that brings with it an unjustified sense of self-importance. This is occasionally manifested by flippant, off-the-cuff- remarks that may not be intended deliberately to offend but, in fact, do so. That is simply not acceptable to many members of the public, as this episode illustrates. One incredibly humbling comment posted on the EDP website by a disabled reader is evidence enough of that fact.
I am terribly sorry for Mr and Mrs Norman, who undoubtedly now feel that they have done something wrong and consider that they are being punished. They have done nothing wrong. Their complaint survived a rigorous filter process, before reaching a formal hearing, and that speaks for itself. This is an example of a retrospective attempt to gag them.
But, dear readers, there is worse to come! With virtually no publicity, NNDC at the same time issued to all parish councils within its area a document entitled “Policy on Unreasonably Persistent Complainants” with the recommendation that it be adopted. In fact, one parish council has apparently already adopted the policy “without much discussion”. Individuals can be designated under this policy as “unreasonably persistent complainants” and can be made subject to official sanctions.
I have found it impossible, so far, to trace a copy of this document on the NNDC website, but it probably emanates from guidance issued by the Local Government Ombudsman (“LGO”). What, I hear you ask – isn’t that the same LGO that has a dismal record of upholding complaints against local authorities? I know of no other. And why is a complainant usually persistent? This is frequently because his or her complaint has not been dealt with properly, e.g. no reasons given for dismissing it, or it has been ignored altogether.
And so we come back to my dream, and gagging, for this is what it is about. Local authorities owe their residents a duty to act constitutionally and within the law. When they fail in this respect, those residents must have an unrestricted right to pursue whatever is the appropriate complaints procedure without hindrance from the authority in question, and without being designated as an offender. Will I have bad dreams tonight?
John Martin, Norfolk
Below is a short article I wrote for the Hull Daily Mail,
published on Saturday 11 September.
At this time of year, we learn how much our local councillors
have been paid in allowances and expenses, and the perennial debate commences on
whether or not they provide value for money. During the course of my work, I
speak to many councillors and there are those who are extremely hardworking and,
as in any other profession or walk of life, there are those who are not.
This year, though, the leader of East Riding of Yorkshire
Council, Stephen Parnaby, announced councillors in his authority will not
receive a rise next year and Carl Minns, leader of Hull City Council, has
announced cabinet members will take a pay cut of 5% from January next year. We
in the Taxpayers’ Alliance welcome these moves, as it shows councillors are
prepared to lead by example as the inevitable cuts to public services start to
bite. My only is question to Mr Parnaby is: Why has it taken so long? Hull City
councillors have been on a pay freeze for the last four years. Nevertheless, his
decision is welcome news.
What has annoyed me – and many others on the Mail’s website
– is the position of Dave Mathieson, the convenor of the UNITE union in Hull. Mr Mathieson is not paid by his union; he is paid by the
taxpayer. He has received salary increases over the past four years and as far
as I’m aware, he has not volunteered to take a 5% pay cut himself. I am not
ideologically opposed to trades’ unions. If people wish to join one, it is up to
them. I think my views are in tune with the majority of the British people,
however, it is wrong that every taxpayer in the country indirectly funds them.
If UNITE wants a full-time convenor in Hull, it should pay for it
I have seen the income from my business fall by around a
third in the past couple of years. If only my outgoings had done the same. If Mr
Mathieson wants to lead by example, perhaps he should resign from his job at
Hull City Council, become a full-time employee on his union’s payroll, and
relieve taxpayers of the expense of his salary. If he does this voluntarily, I
will be the first person to congratulate him.
Oh the joys of living in an old-fashioned shire county, with its two tiers of local government. I have previously bored for England – and at length on the TPA website – about Norfolk County Council (“NCC”) and its twin-hatter phenomenon. Fifty of the eighty-four seats on NCC are held by members of one of the underlying seven district councils. Quite quickly, these fortunate individuals acquired the description “twin-hatters” in the local media.
The problems that spring from this have been well-rehearsed before, but let me just issue a few reminders. Can a twin-hatter dedicate sufficient time to serve adequately both on NCC and on his or her district council, particularly where the individual in question has special responsibilities as a member? (At the moment, one half of the members of NCC qualify for a special responsibility allowance.)
The same question can be asked where the twin-hatter is shown in the register of members’ interests as employed or running a business. While the quality of the information contained in the NCC register varies, it would seem that more than twenty twin-hatters have full-time work or business interests.
Then there is the issue of conflict of interest. Separate instances of this may occur. On the one hand, an NCC twin-hatter may have a personal and prejudicial interest simply as a result of receiving an allowance from a district council. On the other hand, the policy of the twin-hatter’s district council, in relation to a particular matter, may be at variance with that of NCC. In neither instance will the twin-hatter be able to take part in the debate and the vote, without the grant of a dispensation from the NCC standards committee.
Finally, the question of members’ allowances cannot be ignored. Council taxpayers are often (quite properly) offended by the amounts of allowances that twin-hatters can pull in. The starting point for an NCC twin-hatter is about £12,500.
We now come to a fascinating development. Currently, thirteen of the thirty-nine seats on Norwich City Council (“the CC” – if that doesn’t become confusing) are vacant. This is because the decision of the last government to grant the CC unitary status, which would have given the thirteen an extended term until May 2011, was quashed in the High Court a few months ago. The court ruled that the election for the thirteen seats should be held this month. Enter stage left Cllr Charlotte Casimir, who is presently a member of both NCC and Broadland District Council. (She is one of the NCC twin-hatters holding down a paid job, namely as personal assistant to the managing director of a successful housing development company).
Cllr Casimir is now offering herself also as a candidate for the CC. The qualification rules allow this, but should anyone seek to become a triple-hatter? Irrespective, it really could be a first for Norfolk – if the voters don’t reject her!
John Martin, Norfolk
BBC West is this week hosting a televised debate on public sector cuts. They will not have to look far for some prime targets.
Highest paid council Chief Executive in the South West is Kevin Laverty of Cornwall County Council who raked in £238,800 of taxpayers’ money in 2009-2010.
This is substantially more than the salary taken by the Prime Minister.
Are these men and women really saying that leading a council is more stressful and difficult than leading the country?
What are councillors doing voting through such extravagant pay packets?
All these positions could be cut by £100,000 and you would still find competent men and women queuing up to do the jobs.
Public sector cuts should start here, not with front line services.
By the way, this month Bristol businessman Mike Bennett starts his £72,000-a-year job as the city’s new “place-making director”.
He will be tasked with “enhancing Bristol’s sense of place”.
I thought the city had been doing pretty well on that front for at least the last 500 years…
Tim Newark, Bath TaxPayers’ Alliance
It was announced this morning that Hull City Council cabinet members are taking a 5% pay cut.
There are those who will say this is gesture politics, and the net savings to taxpayers will be very small.
In relation to the overall council budget, we are talking about small change, however what this decision does is send a clear message to council workers and council taxpayers that the cabinet is prepared to lead by example.
This also comes on the back of a four-year pay freeze for the city’s councillors, and a decision to reduce the pay of the chief executive when the post was advertised last year.
Today’s announcement is very welcome news and something we in the TPA have been campaigning for. We hope other councils around the country will follow Hull’s example.
In the on-going gull cull controversy in Bath, the acknowledged expert on urban gulls is Peter Rock. He has been a strong supporter of the softly-softly do-very-little approach taken by Bath and North East Somerset Council, which has seen the gull population grow not diminish. A bitter blow to his quest to understand the gulls better has been delivered by recent government cutbacks. He was hoping to win £500,000 from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to spend three years tracking down the movement of gulls around Bath and Bristol, using global positioning satellite technology. By doing this, he hoped to reduce council and private spending on the problem. That is, by spending half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money to establish the bleedin’ obvious! Gulls feed on garbage in the morning.
That such a use of public money could even be contemplated reveals the spendthrift nature of the empire of the quangos over the last decade. Still, Mr Rock—the expert who knows everything about gulls apart from half a million pounds worth of research—has not given up completely on solving the gull problem. “Having discussed the matter at length,” he said, “we have decided that we will devote our determination to exploring other funding possibilities.” Bath MP Don Foster, no doubt, will encourage him, saying: “I am very disappointed that the research grant has not been approved.” As one reader of a previous blog on this local problem suggested, a far cheaper solution would be an airgun…
Tim Newark, Bath TaxPayers’ Alliance
This is the time of year when we learn how much councillors
have been paid in allowances and expenses. It was reported in the Hull Daily
Mail that a total of £1.2 million was paid to East Riding councillors for
2009/10 – an increase of £100,000 on the previous year. Although the council
leader, Stephen Parnaby has said there will be a freeze on allowances next year
(an election year), this compares very badly to Hull City Council where
councillors have been on a pay freeze for the last four years.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2005/6, at total of
£946, 208 was paid to Hull City councillors. In 2009/10, this increased to
£955,409; a rise of 1%. In the East Riding, councillors were paid £906,000 in
2005/6. In just four years, councillors have seen their allowances and expenses
rise by almost 25%. In the past year, when the rest of us have been struggling
to make ends meet, East Riding councillors have enjoyed an increase of almost
The usual excuses will no doubt be reeled out, saying that
councillors give excellent value for money, and they are only implementing the
decisions of the Independent Review Panel. This is cold comfort for taxpayers
who have seen their council tax bills rise, and have had to pay huge sums of
money into the pension funds of senior staff who have applied for early
The gravy train has not hit the buffers, but perhaps, if we are
lucky, we can say it has hit an uphill gradient. Time will tell.
A letter arrived today from a disgruntled WMTPA supporter who was surprised to learn that £1million of taxpayers’ money was being used to ‘spruce-up’ the exteriors of private shops and houses on two streets in Burton.
According to a Burton Mail article the facades of the properties will be replastered, their ‘energy efficiency’ will be improved and all will be subject to a publically-funded ‘tidy up’. The report is accompanied by a photograph of Terry Bushell, of Terry Bushell Travel, who stands smiling outside his shop, no doubt delighted at the news of this unexpected and complimentary renovation.
“The fronts of the 77 properties will be tidied up to make a more positive impact on the street scene”, crows project manager Laura Hunt, adding: “For instance, if a building requires double glazing or loft insulation then that will be installed. There is no cost to any of the homeowners or shopkeepers in this work because it’s all funded by grants from central government”.
Ahh, yes. Central government where they – of course – manufacture money.
In a consultation exchange that presumably went something like –
“Can we do up your house/business?”
“How much will it cost?
“It’s free because everyone else will pay”
– rather unsurprisingly these plans have received the backing from ‘every single resident and shopkeeper affected’. Not least Terry by the looks of it.
But what about the numerous taxpaying property owners who’d love to give their premises a revamp but just can’t afford to because they’re short of cash, in no small part because they’re burdened paying taxes to fund this sort of project?
It’s difficult to take issue with the good intentions behind this, and at the heart of the mission are exactly the things we expect our money to go on – restoring pavements, replacing street lighting – exactly the sort of stuff that tops the list of what many residents value in terms of frontline services. But, as is often the case with local government, it’s been taken too far with so many additional swags and drapes attached that it’s now likely to upset those who are having to shell out for another business or family to luck out whilst they’re struggling to keep their own heads above water.
If these properties need restoring then it is, ultimately, the responsibility of the owner, not the taxpayer. Perhaps if the council hadn’t spent so much money polishing their halo with expensive plans like this, they could’ve reduced the tax burden and allowed proprietors to make their own choices with their own cash in terms of renovation.
The overtime gravy train for the police continues to chug along in Avon and Somerset. Last year, Avon and Somerset police went over budget by £2 million. Four of their PCs managed to earn more than their inspectors. A fully trained Police Constable is paid a starting salary of £25,317 but by claiming overtime, four PCs earned over £50,000 while one sergeant claimed over £60,000. Police inspectors cannot claim overtime and their income starts at £45,624. Such bonus payments include double-time for working on bank holidays, but many in the private sector do this with no increase in their wages whatsoever. Why is the public sector so generous with our money?
Good news for the taxpayer comes from Bath with the sale of 85 per cent of BBC Audiobooks. BBC Worldwide set up the company in 2001, which employs 100 local people, and will retain a 15 per cent stake. Proceeds from the sale will be re-invested in BBC programme making, says a managing director of BBC Worldwide. Let’s hope it doesn’t go into topping up their ludicrously overpaid pension funds. Employees of the newly titled AudioGo company will not be entitled to BBC pensions.
Tim Newark, Bath TPA
Even in this part of the world, we have heard the old saying that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time (the more cynical would add that he then goes on to steal it, though I personally – as my friends would freely acknowledge – do not have a single sceptical bone in my body). However, the underlying message does not seem to have got through to Norfolk County Council. In the five years to 31st March 2010, the Council has spent a huge £14.71m on external consultants and agencies. And this does not include amounts paid out by its wholly owned trading company.
The year for which most information is available is 2008-2009, when expenditure on consultants ran to £3.84m spread over some 90 firms. In seeking to justify that figure, in response to a question from a Labour councillor, the Council leader contended that this amounted to only 0.3% approximately of the Council’s gross budget. With respect, that is a totally disingenuous argument that could be applied to any items of expenditure incurred by the Council, and is barely helpful. It does not, of itself, come anywhere near justifying why such a large sum was spent.
Where did the money go that year? Well, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young between them were paid a total of £845k. Some of this was apparently attributable to “specialist accounting services”, some of it to “management consultancy services”. Despite the fact that the Council has a sixty-strong legal team, which even finds time to provide legal services to a number of outside bodies, it still spent £214k on the services of outside firms of solicitors.
The now infamous “Modern Reward Strategy Project” soaked up another £588k in consultancy fees. Five firms together were paid a total of £406k for assisting the Council in opposing a bid by one of the underlying district councils to achieve unitary status. I suspect that one of those was a firm of political lobbyists. (Don’t tell Eric Pickles!)
On the PFI front, consultants were paid a total of £641k. Two-thirds of that was attributable to a major waste treatment plant, the plans for which were abandoned at a very late stage. On the “sundry” front, £987k was paid to some fifty firms of consultants in relation to what the Council describes as “small consultancy assignments”. How can this be viewed as an efficient way of proceeding?
The problem, as ever, is a lack of detailed information. I extracted all of this by means of requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but that was only scratching the surface. Thankfully, Eric Pickles has now decreed that all local authorities will shortly have to publish online details of all items of expenditure incurred that exceed £500. What a pity that we have had to wait until now!
As on a separate occasion, I accepted the invitation to the public set out on the Council’s website “to make suggestions about areas of service or Council policies that could be looked at by its cabinet scrutiny committee”. I even submitted a reasoned paper. As on a separate occasion, the Tory majority on the committee voted against accepting my suggestions.
Local authorities may ask what exactly is wrong with engaging external consultants? The Council’s leader stated that they provide “specialist skills that were not otherwise available within the organisation”. Perhaps that is a good thing. But not when the Council at the same time employs layers of expensive directors and managers. (The total remuneration bill last year for the six chief officers alone was £1.05m.) If these people lack the “specialist skills” required, they should not have been employed in the first place. There is certainly no sign of the Council making realistic efforts to get rid of many of these directors and managers. It paid PricewaterhouseCoopers £144k last year to review the 600 most senior management posts. To date, only 44 posts have been axed.
All too frequently, a culture grows up within a local authority whereby the appointment of external consultants serves to divert criticism from the authority itself when things subsequently go wrong. It is a form of insurance, at the cost of the public, though without providing the public itself with any worthwhile benefit. This is a luxury that no local authority can now afford, and certainly not while continuing to employ expensive management staff at the same time.
John Martin, Norfolk
There will be very few tears shed in Norfolk at the passing of the Audit Commission. In fact, as I write this I imagine that the Interflora van is parked outside Eric Pickles’ office as armfuls of bouquets of flowers paid for with our strapped cash are borne in to him. Let me explain the absence of grief.
When the three Icelandic banks, Landsbanki, Glitnir and Kaupthing, failed in October 2008, a total of 127 local authorities held deposits in them. Norfolk County Council had £32.5m deposited. This placed it at number four in the league table of shame. Only three other local authorities had more at risk. To further that shame, one fifth of the exposed local authorities were owed £1m or less.
The District Auditor, Mr Rob Murray, signed off the Council’s Annual Audit Letter 2008-2009 in December 2009 without making any obvious criticism in respect of the Council’s conduct generally in relation to the deposits. This was despite the fact that in its report “Risk and return – English local authorities and the Icelandic banks” published in June 2009 the Audit Commission had been critical of the failure of a number of local authorities to manage their deposits, after first being put on notice by the credit rating agencies that problems were just over the horizon. The Audit Commission attributed this to a mixture of reluctance, ignorance, poor advice and likely cost.
I felt that there were a number of questions that should have been asked by the Council at the time that apparently had not been. Here are some of them?
(a) Who at the Council was directly responsible for the decisions to place the deposits?
(b) Did the Council ask for alternative terms to be quoted that would have allowed early termination by it without penalty?
(c) What recognised treasury management qualifications did the officers involved hold?
(d) Were any commissions paid to intermediaries that might have been recovered?
(e) Was it prudent to invest sums of taxpayers’ money with offshore banks for fixed terms of up to four years?
(f) Were any councillors – between April and October 2008 – aware of the basis on which the deposits had been made?
(g) Had the Council since commissioned an independent review of its treasury management practices?
My first port of call was the Council itself. I submitted a detailed paper to its Cabinet Scrutiny Committee – as members of the public are encouraged to do on the Council’s website – setting out reasons why this topic should go on the committee’s work programme. The chairman invited me to address the members, and I turned up ready to do so. However, the Council’s controlling Tory group has a majority on the committee, and those members voted not to allow me to speak. They then voted not to make this a topic for scrutiny. (Publicly, the Council’s attitude appears to be that the sole reason for the potential losses was the collapse of the entire Icelandic banking sector. However, for each local authority facing a loss of this kind, almost three others aren’t.)
Until that point, I had always assumed that the Audit Commission was there to come to the rescue in situations like this one. How naïve was that? I entered into correspondence with Mr Murray, and asked him whether he had considered similar questions himself. From his response, it was clear that he felt that all of this was outside his audit responsibilities in the particular circumstances. Given the large sums that the Audit Commission charges the Council for his services – a total of £334k has been proposed for 2010-2011 – this more than surprised me.
However, I then discovered that the Audit Commission itself had deposited £10m with Landsbanki. To make matters even worse, a subsequent internal review came to the conclusion that “the policy in place at the time the deposits were made (April and July 2008) should have required a more senior level of authorisation that was based on supporting documentation to explain the reasons for the recommended deposit taker, the sum to be invested and the investment term”. No wonder Mr Murray felt a degree of discomfort. Wasn’t this exactly the policy that the Council should have had in place at that time?
Eric Pickles considers that the Audit Commission is no longer fit for purpose, and he is obviously not impressed with some of its junkets such as members of staff enjoying days out at the races and life coaching at public expense. However, we here in Norfolk would probably have turned a blind eye to the odd free bottle of Vimto, if the Audit Commission had at least asked the Council some of our questions.
John Martin, Norfolk
This morning I opened my front door to see a very large seagull using its beak to rip open a bag of my garbage and scatter it all over the pavement. Tomorrow a man is coming to remove a dead bird from blocking up our gutter which has resulted in rainwater flooding our kitchen and staining the ceiling brown.
It seems I am not the only one in Bath to believe that the large bird population of the city is getting out of control. A front-page feature in the local Chronicle called it a “Gull menace” and local groups are taking action against the rampant birds by cladding their buildings with netting and spikes, but what are Bath and North East Somerset Council doing about it? Apparently, not an awful lot. They spend just £10,000 a year on a softly-softly strategy of egg oiling and egg replacement, but instead the seagull population is growing year on year. What is needed is a direct cull of the birds plus action on garbage removal. The council is indicating a new waste food collecting service next year, but how onerous will this be on local residents?
Good news to hear that Bath council taxpayers have received £7 million in compensation for the outrageous overspend on the new Thermae Spa complex, but the bad news is that £2.4 million was spent on legal fees to get it! Still, congratulations are due to the current administration, which is finding cuts of £3.6 million to the current budget.
Tim Newark, Bath