Dec 2010 13

When ten Conservative councillors were deselected a couple of weeks ago, I and many others thought that at last justice had prevailed. An panel of senior Conservatives looked at applications from everyone who wished to be a candidate. Some – including cabinet members – were interviewed. Evidence was taken and minuted. They did not reach their decisions lightly, and spent many hours in deliberations.

When those ten councillors appealed against the decision, I was under the mistaken belief the appeals process would be similar to a court of law. I thought those appealing would have to come up with reasons as to why they should remain on the candidates’ list. The truth is entirely different.

Before I move on to how the appeals were handled, it is worth noting that because there are so many Conservative councillors in the East Riding, many of them serve on the executive councils in their respective constituencies. This gives them a huge block vote in order to get themselves nominated as candidates. They also hold positions of power, giving them an iron grip which is unhealthy and undemocratic.This is why a new system of selecting candidates has been introduced. It tries to remove the crony-ism and vested interests. It is a pilot scheme, and after this appeals process, the Conservative Party will want to revise its policies.

The process was farcical. None of the evidence from the original panel was presented, and basically the deselected councillors said they had been badly done to, and were reinstated. There really wasn’t a point in having the original hearings. They were a complete waste if time. It handed the decision making back to the vested interests it was supposed to be removing it from.

Once again taxpayers will lose out. This now strengthens the leadership’s iron grip. Decisions like the one to award Sue Lockwood’s pension pot £364,205 will still continue. The lack of openness, transparency, and democracy in the scrutiny process will remain. We can only hope the voters will give these councillors the order of the boot at the elections next year. I am not holding out a lot of hope, as all of them are in safe seats. This is why this appeals process has been so disappointing.

Dec 2010 09

TPA supporter John Martin explains why there is much discontent within the ruling Conservative group at County Hall.

One of the principal concerns of the TPA is that public money should not be squandered, or spent in an improper or ill-advised manner. But it is also anxious to see that standards of good governance are maintained within local authorities.

This cannot be the case where the political group in power is engaged in internecine warfare. The minds of our elected representatives should not be distracted when crucial decisions affecting us all need to be made.

Sadly, there have been more than few distractions inside Norfolk County Council (“NCC”) of late. Everything should be sweetness and light within the ruling Conservative group, if only because it has a huge overall majority of thirty-six seats that renders meaningful scrutiny, or opposition, impossible. But this is not so.

The problems began on 1st October with the shock news that Cllr Daniel Cox was resigning, both as leader and as a member of NCC, to take up a post with VSO in India. Most thought that this was a laudable next step, but that did not prevent rumours abounding that this fairly moderate Conservative had experienced enough.

Less laudable was the Cabinet’s decision to throw a leaving reception for him at the public expense, causing Cllr George Nobbs, the inspirational but sensitive leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC, to point out the very obvious and to threaten to boycott the event. This, and the possibility of a UNISON demonstration outside County Hall, resulted in private funds quickly being found. Cllr Cox was the sixth of the ten original members of the Cabinet to go in a period of sixteen months.

The Conservative group quickly held a contest behind closed doors to elect a new leader. The candidates were Cllr Derrick Murphy (the deputy leader), Cllr John Dobson and Cllr William Nunn. After the grey and white smoke had gone up, Cllr Murphy emerged the winner. However, almost immediately the local press reported that another Conservative member had lodged a formal conduct complaint against him, believed to centre upon allegations of verbal bullying and intimidation during the contest. County Hall has totally clammed up on this, but the word on the street is that the complaint is very much alive.

Soon it became payback time. Cllr Dobson – who had been largely responsible for a heavyweight exercise to update and revise NCC’s constitution – was sacked from his role as Conservative spokesman on the Cabinet Scrutiny Committee. To compound his offence of standing against Cllr Murphy in the contest to find a new leader, he had also apparently been critical of the Conservative group’s failure to make all necessary efficiency savings before putting severe cuts to services in place. Cllr Mark Kiddle-Morris lost his seat on the same body. He had been Cllr Nunn’s campaign boss.

But more was still to happen. Conservative Central Office then put Norwich North Constituency Association (“NNCA”) on special measures, removing five members of its executive – including the chairman – and imposing a new chairman from outside Norfolk. It was also reported that the former chairman had previously been suspended for four months following an unfounded allegation of assault made against her.

What does all of this have to do with NCC? I will explain.The former chairman of NNCA is Cllr Shelagh Gurney of NCC. Not only had Cllr Gurney been a past chairman of NCC but (as part of his reshuffle) Cllr Murphy had also just appointed her a deputy Cabinet member. Another of the NNCA’s executive to be removed was Cllr Iain Mackie of NCC. Cllr Murphy had appointed him deputy leader. A third was Cllr Tony Adams. Cllr Murphy had appointed him as Conservative spokesman on the Cabinet Scrutiny Committee.

So there you have it. Three local politicians who were deemed not to be up to scratch by Conservative Central Office now occupy important roles in County Hall. No wonder that, with all of these comings and goings, there is extreme discontent.

Some of this would be mildly amusing, but for the fact that NCC is now in the middle of a public consultation on making cuts to fill a black hole worth £155m over the next three years, and on the verge of signing a contract for a £600m waste incinerator that very few people seem to want. Hanging around in the background is a controversial scheme to continue with plans for an expensive Northern Distributor Road that no longer appears to serve its original purpose, and the potential ultimate loss of £30m in the Icelandic banks’ saga. This is the time when the last thing on which the ruling group should be focusing is how best to tear itself apart.

Dec 2010 06

There are many people in Britain who are facing redundancy. Many do not know if they will still be working after Christmas. This is the economic reality, and they also know the redundancy payments they will receive will be at a minimum. Companies cannot afford to pay more as they struggle to stay in business. If you work in the public sector, however, it’s completely difficult.

Hull City Council abolished the role of Head of Communications and Marketing in September last year, and the incumbent was earning a salary of £65,942. The redundancy payment they received was £109,576. As you can see, this is almost two years’ salary. The argument the council uses is it saves a £66K salary and – eventually –  Hull taxpayers will be better off. These type of high payouts go on all the time, but just over a year on, what has happened to this officer?

They did not sit back and watch their redundancy payment dwindle, struggling to find work. After one month, they were working as the interim Head of Communications and Marketing for another council! That job lasted for six months. They immediately jumped from that job to another as an interim senior manager in another council, where they are currently still employed.

I am not naming this person (although it is not difficult to find out who they are) as I do not wish to single one person out. What I am criticising is the ‘merry-go-round’ in local authorities that costs taxpayers dearly. Strings are never attached when huge amounts of our money are paid out. Former employees are free to pick-up a redundancy payment from one council and jump into another job with a neighbouring council the next day! Many of them also work as consultants and charge exorbitant fees, which nicely tops-up the already generous pension or redundancy payment they have received.

We have called for reform in public sector pensions. To give you two examples, the chief executive of Hull City Council receives a salary of £160K per annum, but when you add our contributions to her pension fund – over £40K – her total remuneration is over £200K! Our most recent Town Hall Rich List (covering 2008/09) shows 6 Hull City Council employees earning above £100k a year. In the 2009/10 accounts (including generous, taxpayer funded pension contributions) this rises to 17. This is completely unsustainable, as our report earlier this year highlighted.

We are never going to bring down government debt (a millstone hanging around the necks of future generations) unless we radically reform public sector pensions. This is urgent, and requires immediate action.

Dec 2010 06

Last Thursday, there was a flurry of snow on the streets of Bath. Thanks to the swift gritting of the roads in the centre of the city by the council, my wife could drive our children to school, the postman could deliver our mail and even the recycling truck could remove our food scraps, but, oh no, our black bags of rubbish remained unmoved.

When I phoned up the council on Friday to ask when they were going to remove our rubbish, I was given two contradictory pieces of advice within minutes of each other. Firstly, I was told I should leave my rubbish out on the off chance that it might be collected that day, but then I mustn’t do that because I would be fined for leaving my rubbish out on a non-pick-up day. That confusion aside, it appears that this failure to pick up our rubbish—one of the fundamental services we pay our council tax for—is less to do with the snow, which wasn’t a problem for any other service, but to do with working practises. As a council spokesman was too quick to point out before the snow had even arrived, ‘When conditions are icy it is unsafe for both pedestrians and vehicles to have waste vehicles weighing up to 20 tonnes negotiating narrow residential streets and collecting waste.’

‘Conditions vary during the day…’ Yes, like their being no snow whatsoever on city centre roads. ‘And we do out best to return later to collect residual waste if it is safe.’ Safe! Everyone else was getting on with their business in the centre of Bath, why couldn’t the B&NES garbage trucks get on with theirs? Instead, rubbish is now piling up in my garden and will it still be there in a week or two weeks if this cold weather continues? Get a grip B&NES and deliver our fundamental services.

By the way, good to see that Bath MP Don Foster is still keen to spend £500,000 of taxpayers’ money on a research scheme devised by self-styled gull expert Peter Rock. Despite the government already sensibly turning down this request, Foster is now tabling an early day motion in Parliament calling on the government to think again and support this project. Note that this half a million pounds does not actually solve the city’s gull problem, but merely takes three years of research studying the birds, so that, no doubt, gull-loving Rock can declare after this vast expenditure that really there is not a lot we can do about the problem. Hmm, does Foster not realise his party is now part of the Coalition devoted supposedly to cutting such idiotic waste?

Dec 2010 03

A quick update on events in the East Riding. Last week, I reported how our campaign against a £364K discretionary payment to a senior council officer resulted in ten councillors being deselected by the Conservative Party.

This week it has been announced those councillors have appealed against the decision. Nine will have their appeals heard next week. The decisions to deselect these councillors was not taken lightly. Sources have told me this was a long process, and the panel reached their verdict after many hours of deliberations.

No-one I have spoken to thinks the appeals will be successful; nor should they be. These councillors – along with others – blatantly wasted taxpayers’ money. The good news is this matter should be settled next week, and we can then move forward. As I said last week, we now have a lame duck leadership in charge of the East Riding and this is not sustainable in the long term.

I will give you a further update next week after the appeals have been heard.

Nov 2010 29

It has been highlighted that Cardiff Councils leader Rodney Berman, has claimed that Cardiff Councils increase of 0.1% for the next financial year is ‘unfair’. In an article published by walesonline, opposition group leaders have attacked the coalition run council and their cavalier attitude when other councils throughout Wales have had their budgets slashed by up to 1.7%.

Understandably Cardiff Council is the biggest local authority within the devolved nation, but considering the economic circumstances within the UK this increase should be classified as a god send. Cardiff council currently receives £395m from the Welsh Assembly Government to provide services to an ever increasing population. This increasing population tactic has been deployed by Rodney Berman in defense of his ill-mannered remarks which act as some what a slap in the face to other local authorities throughout the UK with similar population growth rates.

Such an increase is designed to help keep down an ever increasing council tax bill, something that never seems to happen in in Cardiff and to add further insult to injury has only been accomplished by the Welsh Assembly Government refusing to ring-fence the NHS budget within Wales.

Cardiff Council spend more that £200m in procuring services, that could be better sourced or if services were provided more effectively one such example is that of the £1.3m wasted on public liability claims for trips on pavements recently highlighted by Cardiff branch of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Nov 2010 29

Here is the story so far. Conservative controlled Norfolk County Council (NCC) chooses Cory Wheelabrator (CW) to construct and operate an electricity producing waste incinerator on a site that NCC purchased in 2008. The deal is to involve a twenty-five year PFI contract. NCC is coy about the cost to the taxpayers, but boasts that £169m in PFI credits will be paid by central government over the contract period. The local press then discovers that NCC will have to pay a penalty to CW of up to £20.5m, if for any reason the incinerator is not built. (Gulp!)

Some members of the Cabinet Scrutiny Committee decide that the decision to go ahead should be called in, but lose their nerve when officers argue that, unaccountably, the three-week delay involved would cost £600k in PFI credits. NCC also insists that it will determine the necessary planning application itself, causing Cllr George Nobbs, the energetic but cerebral leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC, to point out that the public may just put two and two together on the issue of apparent bias.

What has happened since? Well, Mark Allen, Assistant Director of Environment and Waste at NCC was interviewed live on BBC Radio Norfolk. (Don’t groan. The Alan Partridge days are long gone.) When the presenter pointed out to him that local objectors were claiming that the total cost of the project would be between £525m and £668m, Mr Allen described their claim as “completely inaccurate” and “false”. However, when pressed, he grudgingly admitted that the total project cost was “roughly about £600m”.  (Gulp again!) What he should have realised was that NCC had previously answered a request from those objectors under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in which it had confirmed that these figures were the “affordability guidelines” set by NCC for CW to meet.

This will be the most expensive contract that NCC has ever entered into. To make matters worse, we who live in Norfolk have had a dislike of PFI contracts ever since the costs under the one for the building of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital spiralled out of sight. No one is sure when the debt there will ever be cleared.

Now I know, like everyone else, that we cannot continue to tip so much waste into landfill, and that other solutions need to be found. But this particular project has caused some very bright minds to point out that there are still so many unanswered questions about the likely impact on health and the environment of an incinerator of this type, capable of processing 260,000 tonnes of waste a year. Pollution is bad enough, but paying the equivalent of about £25m a year under a PFI contract for the privilege of being the victim of pollution is hardly my idea of the icing on the cake.

But then, dear readers, the story took on a delightfully ironic twist. One of the objectors did some digging at H M Land Registry, and discovered that NCC had purchased the site for the incinerator subject to a comparatively recently imposed restrictive covenant prohibiting its use for the commercial production of electricity, an essential part of the project. Given that the site had once been in the ownership of Eastern Electricity, the presence of the restrictive covenant is not surprising. To make matters worse, it is quite likely that the benefit of the restrictive covenant is now vested in Centrica Energy. Even those who are not versed in the delights of commercial property law know that the terms “restrictive covenant” and “ransom” come out of the same stable.

What was the reaction of NCC when the local press broke the story? A spokesman for NCC said “this is not a showstopper” and “land covenants are not only very common, but they are also entirely negotiable”. Indeed they are if negotiation is backed by someone else’s money, namely the taxpayers’. What on earth was NCC doing in purchasing the site with this use in mind, knowing that it was burdened with the restrictive covenant?

All in all, you must agree that this looks a pretty sorry mess to date. And, of course, this is all against the background of NCC trying to make savings of £155m over the next three years, and in so doing cutting vital services like mad. Who is to blame for the mess? It seems to me that the ruling Conservative group has lost control of NCC’s officers, and given the amount of infighting within that group lately perhaps it is not surprising that eyes have been taken off balls. But that is for another time.

Nov 2010 29

No traffic ‘master plan,’ no multi-million pound ‘solution’ that spends taxpayers’ money on unwanted transport schemes, just a little bit of common sense. A B&NES council official announced plans to shift a bus stop along the London Road to allow two lanes of traffic to flow through traffic lights into a supermarket, thus averting traffic jams and keeping local transport moving. It might seem a small issue, but if such inexpensive decisions were made on numerous matters of local concern, we really wouldn’t need the grandiose, hideously expensive proposals usually preferred by Bath bureaucrats and their supporters.

Bath-TPA-small On the other side, however, Bath Spa University continues to push ahead with plans for spending £60 million on a projected facelift. “With the prospect of higher tuition fees just around the corner,” says their vice-chancellor, “we need to make absolutely sure that the university experience we provide our students is of the highest quality.” Hmm, yet another public sector manager arguing that the best way of dealing with the current economic crisis is to keep on spending our money. Maybe the students would prefer lower fees and keep the existing adequate buildings?

A separate application has been put forward for a new university energy centre using biomass fuel in order to reduce its carbon footprint. Its carbon footprint would be a lot smaller if it didn’t keep constructing extravagant new buildings on our beautiful countryside…

Tim Newark, Bath TaxPayers’ Alliance

Nov 2010 25

The old adage you reap what you sow is as true today as when it was first coined. When our elected representatives fail to submit themselves to the wishes of those who elect them, there are consequences; and those consequences can be severe.

In March, I received a phone call from Alexandra Wood, a reporter from the Yorkshire Post. She told me the East Riding of Yorkshire Council were about to pay £364,205 into the pension pot of Sue Lockwood, the Corporate Resources Director. She wanted to take early retirement, and this discretionary payment was going to be made to enhance her pension.
HullEastRiding TPA (1)

At a time when we are being told to tighten our belts and when community groups are being told there isn’t any money to help them, the council’s leadership thought it was fitting to spend our money to enhance the pension of one member of staff!

I organised a protest outside County Hall in Beverley at the beginning of May, and held another protest in June. The response from the public was fantastic. I received many emails urging me on in the campaign, and the story ran for weeks in the Yorkshire Post, the Hull Daily Mail and on the BBC. Unfortunately, despite the many requests for councillors to see reason, this payment was made. The Conservative leader of the council, Stephen Parnaby, and the cabinet thought this was the end of the story. It wasn’t, and what they didn’t realise was the level of anger inside their own party.

Under new rules, Conservative Party candidates have to be approved by a regional panel. Those councillors who sit in safe seats, thinking they are in a job for life, are being judged on results. All ten cabinet members were called for interviews and asked to justify their decisions. Many have been found wanting, and a total of ten councillors have been removed from the party’s list of approved candidates. They include the leader, deputy leader, group secretary and chief whip.

These councillors are allowed to appeal against this decision. They have 28 days, although I think it is unlikely any appeals will be successful. They have crossed the line. I haven’t met anyone – apart from them – who think the discretionary payment was justified. People power has won. Those who have tried to defend the indefensible have found themselves out in the cold.

It is now obvious there is a lame-duck leadership in charge of the East Riding. The people want strong leadership, acting in their best interests. Nothing will change until the new year, and we will then have to see who rises to the top and becomes the new leader of the council. Rest assured we in the TPA will hold them to account until the local elections in May and beyond.

This proves our local campaigns work. They provide a channel for the silent majority to express their views. I hope this story encourages you to campaign in your locality. Together we can win the war against waste, and prove that low taxes benefit us all.

Nov 2010 22

In September, I wrote about the East Riding of Yorkshire Council's pensions' review. Instead of enhancing pensions by 5 years for staff who wish to take early retirement, a review panel decided an augmentation of 2 years would be fair on staff and taxpayers. This was widely reported in the local press, and the consensus was that this is generous to staff and hugely unfair to taxpayers. HullEastRiding TPA (1)

This Wednesday, during a full meeting, councillors will again have the chance to debate this and make their final decision. The case against this policy is very clear. Council employees already benefit from a very generous, taxpayer-subsidised pension scheme. In a report earlier this year, we highlighted how unsustainable this is and how pension liabilities of councils throughout the country amount to a £53 billion black hole. If staff wish to take early retirement – something the majority of those in the private sector can only dream of – they should receive a pension based on the amount they have contributed. If they have paid in for 30 years, they should receive a pension based on 30 years' contributions.

Staff and unions cannot say this is unfair, and this is the decision councillors should arrive at on Wednesday. Please e-mail your councillors and tell them what you think. If you are unsure who your councillors are, click here to find out.

The cost of mobile phones
Nov 2010 19

A big thank you to supporters who have got in touch with me highlighting waste in their local areas. Many are researching this waste, and getting accurate figures from their local authority as a result.

An eagle-eyed supporter in Surrey has spotted how much taxpayers have to fork out for mobile phones. The following is from Surrey County Council’s audit reports of May 2010:

There are currently in excess of 5,000 mobile phones and Blackberrys allocated to staff across the County, with a total monthly bill on average in excess of £60,000 for calls. The contract for mobile phones is currently with Cable and Wireless, who subcontract it to Orange.

This means the annual bill just for calls is over £700K! The report then goes on to say:

There is a lack of a co-ordinated and unified approachin the following areas:

a) No policy in place on the responsibilities of managers and users or protocol with Orange where excessive use is identified

b) It is unclear who has responsibility for monitoring the usage of mobile phones and Blackberrys

c) It is unclear who is responsible for the maintenance and production of an up to date inventory of devices allocated to users.

d) There is a lack of awareness of budgetary information which prevents budget holders undertaking monitoring of expenditure and resulting in some excessive/unusual patterns of usage.

e) A business case has not been made for access to premium rate numbers, international roaming and international calls for the majority of users with this facility.

Initially it was thought that the contract had expired and was in the process of re-tender but a Deed of Variation was in place for the contract. A review of the provision showed the contract was not providing best value and so the contract is being reviewed.

Thank goodness it is being reviewed, although – as yet  - we do not know the results of the review. This is a flagrant misuse of our money that needs to be stopped, and this damning report should make councils elsewhere take note.

How much do mobile phones cost you in your council? Why not send a Freedom of Information Request and find out?

Nov 2010 15

The latest issue of ‘Connect’ flopped through my letterbox, the council-produced ‘magazine for the people of Bath and North Somerset.’ Full of photographs of smiling council workers, it really is just an exercise in public sector self-congratulation. In this age of belt-tightening, do we really need this propaganda magazine? Costing £80,000, this sum of money would cover the £60,000 needed by ‘Off the Record’ to recruit 40 advisors for vulnerable young people.
 
Bath-TPA-small Surely, any important information in this publication should be passed on to the pages of the Bath Chronicle? Local newspapers are the voice of local democracy and should be first with any council announcements. Still, if B&NES council managed to bury its consultation on whether Bath citizens wanted a directly elected mayor on its website, and the Bath Chronicle only found out about it a day before it was to close, what chance is there of that? By the way, the council received only 48 responses to its consultation: 43 of those wanting a change to the current system.
 
Congratulations, however, to the council for giving us a consultation on public spending. My advice would be to start with cutting the wages and pensions of the council’s top managers. Last year, there were five senior officers earning over £100,000. That included the Strategic Director of Children’s Services on £155,102, the Strategic Director of Support Services on £134,506 and the Strategic Director of Customer Services on £136,378. Surely, these bureaucratic posts could be filled at a lower cost to the taxpayer? And, by the way, can some one please tell me why it is that Bath councillors of all parties continue to vote increases to the titanic pay of our chief executive, standing last year at £211,959?
 
Now is the time to express our concerns in the public consultation announced last week in the Bath Chronicle. Oh dear, the deadline has already passed…
 
Tim Newark, Bath TaxPayers’ Alliance

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