Jan 2011 31

You can tell election time is looming in Bath from the amount of councillors posing for photographs in the local newspaper against so-called achievements. But what are some of these ‘victories’ for the taxpayer?

Some time ago I reported that the council had implemented a small but essential change to the traffic system in Bath to alleviate traffic jams along the London Road. They had moved a bus stop a little way along from a busy junction. But my thrill at this display of common sense was premature. It now appears this was merely a temporary measure and it has returned to its original position. In the meantime, however, our fearless councillors claimed that, under pressure from a few elderly residents, they reversed the decision. As one witty local observer commented after they received substantial coverage for ‘campaigning’ to move the bus stop—‘the only thing these councillors had to do was nothing; simply wait before pronouncing their campaign successful.’

Similarly, two councillors can be seen posing determinedly outside a restaurant opposite the Roman Baths. ‘Work has started on a new family-friendly café and restaurant for the Roman Baths,’ says the Bath Chronicle. But excuse me, wasn’t this already a busy restaurant called ‘Binks’ crowded with relaxed families sitting inside and outside?

Now I know it didn’t get rave reviews for its food, but in these days of cuts and redundancies, should the council really be spending money out of council reserves on compensating the current lease-holder for his £500,000 lease and covering his legal fees? In addition to that, the council will close the restaurant for a year (thus losing rental income for council taxpayers), and then spend tens of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds fitting it out and turning it into what?  ‘Somewhere relaxed and casual where families can go,’ says an heroic councillor. Which it already had been for the last 20 years! And by the way, since when it did it fall within the job-description of councillors to become restaurateurs? Beats me, but at least it gets them yet more press coverage at our expense.

Tim Newark, Bath & South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

Jan 2011 31

I once heard a joke which asked how many councillors does it take to change a light bulb?  The answer is 30. One to change the light bulb and 29 to go on an essential fact finding mission to the Caribbean to find out how it’s done there! Sounds far fetched, doesn’t it? Not when you read some of the recent revelations in the Yorkshire Post.

The Yorkshire Post sent Freedom of Information requests to councils and other public bodies in Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire to find out how much of our money they spent on travel and accommodation. Amazingly, North Lincolnshire Council spent almost £10,000 sending councillors and officers across Europe to help them decide how to deal with residents’ rubbish. Five and six man teams went to Spain, Slovenia, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. The council says these were essential fact finding missions, and described them as a small price to pay! Are they expecting us to believe they couldn’t study councils closer to home? Can they not communicate by e-mail and teleconferencing? But this is just the start of this expenses story.

Doncaster NHS Primary Care Trust (PCT) spent £5000 sending three executives to Vancouver to study the Canadian healthcare system. The chief executive of Hull NHS PCT flew club class to Mumbai, India as part of a government-led Top Management Programme. His justification for travelling club class was he was advised to do so to ensure he wasn’t too tired when he arrived in India, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to get the maximum benefit from the course.

Other revelations include stays in expensive London hotels, such as the Crown Plaza in Buckingham Gate, so a councillor and officer from Craven District Council could be near Buckingham Palce to attend a Royal Garden Party. Hull City Council has spent £37,000 on flights and a further £227,000 on hotel bills in the last three years, and Richmondshire District Council spent almost £5000 on flights and hotels for an interim chief executive. Amazingly, he was only in charge of the authority between April and August 2007.

Despite all of this, councils and the NHS feel they have done nothing wrong. They say they always ensure the best value for taxpayers’ money. Well, let me tell them this. When I travel on behalf of the TPA, I always make sure I get the cheapest rail travel possible. I go onto various websites to find the best hotel deals, and stay in budget hotels. If you are travelling to London and have to stay overnight, you can find 3* hotels in or very close to central London for under £100 a night, and this is at short notice. All you have to do is spend a little time searching for the best deals. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. They would do it if they were spending their own money, and it’s what they should be doing when their spending ours.

Jan 2011 31

The devolved Welsh Assembly Government continues to be lax with accounting for taxpayers’ money. Its flagship ‘Communities First’ programme, designed to aid those in deprived areas, has been caught napping again. After a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, it was discovered that there are a number of significant and inherent failings within the record keeping of its Cardiff Council-based Human Resources department.

Apparently, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) have only maintained recruitment costs for their ‘Communities First’ programme since 2005, even though it has been in operation since 2001. That means that four years of spending Welsh Taxpayers’ money has gone unregulated. Nationally, I would not even want to comprehend the amount of Taxpayers’ money outside of Cardiff that has been totally unaccounted for.

On a more damning note, since 2005, a total of £75,648 has been spent by Cardiff Council on recruitment towards their thirty-five member staff team. But within the FOI response, it was highlighted that Cardiff Council when reporting expenditure had not accounted for several elements of recruitment, including interview expenses and Criminal Record Bureau checks, which could account for tens of thousands of pounds more.

A further depressing element to this well-meaning initiative is that the three charitable organisations receiving WAG grants for ‘Communities First’ are not required to forward their expenses onto the Welsh Assembly and only publish results within their annual report. This leaves Welsh Taxpayers totally in the dark about their spending plans and the use of public money.

Jan 2011 27

Yesterday, I wrote about Bradford Council deciding to delay publishing its spending above £500. This morning I was interviewed by BBC Radio Leeds, who told me Leeds and Kirklees councils have not as yet published their spending. It seems those two councils will just meet the deadline, however all councils have had since June last year to prepare themselves. Anyone with basic computer knowledge will tell you this is not a difficult process. Councils do not have any excuses. This information should be online now.

To give you an example, there are five councils in Suffolk who have yet to comply. They are: Suffolk Coastal, St Edmundsbury, Ipswich, Waveney, and Suffolk County Council.

In Berkshire, the leader of Wokingham Borough Council said finance openness ‘is not a priority’ and last week in the House of Commons, Helen Goodman, the MP for Bishop Auckland, accused Eric Pickles of ‘pointless posturing’ over his demands to publish spending. It is worth noting this is the same MP who claimed £600 in expenses to pay her husband to advise her on the running of her office. 

 The Department for Communities and Local Government has a list of councils who have published their spending.  If your council is not on the list, contact them to find out why not. One thing is for certain, we will continue to campaign vigorously to make sure all councils comply. It is our money and we have a right to know how it is spent.

Jan 2011 27

With a sense of impending doom, TPA supporter John Martin brings us up to date on the Norfolk incinerator project.

At the risk of repeating myself, when – figuratively speaking – I last set pen to paper Norfolk County Council (NCC) remained hell bent on acquiring itself an incinerator. It much preferred terms like “energy from waste plant”, but on a good day its officers emerged sufficiently from the closet to use the i – word. Nevertheless, problems were starting to appear.

NCC chose a contractor, the US arm of which was soon to be reported as attracting the eye of the Massachusetts’ attorney general in relation to environmental violations on her patch. The deal was to involve a costly twenty-five year PFI contract, something of which we in Norfolk already have had a bad experience. Expensive penalty provisions were to be included in the contract, sheltering the contractor if the project failed to get clearance. Research uncovered the fact that the land in King’s Lynn that NCC had already acquired as a site was burdened by a restrictive covenant preventing its use for the commercial production of electricity. And NCC unwisely took the view that it could be judge in its own cause and determine the necessary planning application itself.

(On this last point, even the NCC Cabinet Scrutiny Committee took fright and asked the Cabinet to request a call-in by the Secretary of State. This merely prompted an internal statement to the effect that NCC would be doing nothing wrong if it granted planning permission itself. This caused steam to erupt from the ears of Cllr George Nobbs, the flamboyant but concerned leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC.)

The enemy – sorry, the objectors – then put forward some extremely convincing technical arguments to demonstrate that the incinerator was very likely to have a disastrous impact on health and the environment over a wide portion of Norfolk, albeit not including the site of County Hall. Even I started to understand how difficult it can be to ensure that there are no unacceptable levels of dioxin emissions. However, NCC resolutely refused to answer those arguments, and announced that it was satisfied with what it had read on informed websites.

King’s Lynn Borough Council, no doubt encouraged by the tenor of the Localism Bill, agreed to hold a referendum on whether the incinerator should be built, and that is shortly to take place. NCC professed itself unwilling to give weight to the result. A concerned resident made a formal complaint to NCC about misleading statements on its website, but that was summarily dismissed. Private Eye, in its Rotten Boroughs’ feature, reminded its readership of the disastrous experiences in Derbyshire, Shropshire and Cornwall – I would also have thrown in Neath Port Talbot – but despite the feature being circulated to members, nothing changed.

Now, dear readers, you possibly understand the reference to a sense of impending doom. With some like-minded chums in support, I thought that it was time to put a few formal questions to the NCC Cabinet.

First of all, we asked whether any members or officers at NCC had inspected an incinerator of exactly the same design and capacity as that intended for King’s Lynn, and talked to both local occupiers and the pollution control authority. The answer? “No. The layout and design are specific to the site.”

Then we asked why NCC was unwilling to analyse the expert opinion put in front of it by the enemy – oops, the objectors – before the PFI contract is entered into, and so at a time when the penalty provisions are not in operation. (If this is left until the planning application and environmental permit application stages, and the project falls through, NCC could face a bill of up to £20.5m from the contractor.) The answer? “It is conventional for the procuring authority to award a contract before planning permission and permitting are secured as this approach represents the best value for money outcome and transfers some of the risk of failure onto the private sector.”

Finally, we asked whether Counsel’s opinion had been taken on the likelihood of success of a third party claim for judicial review on the ground of apparent bias, should NCC grant planning permission. The answer? “It is our job as elected members to determine a range of matters, sometimes contentious, which affect Norfolk and the people of Norfolk. We follow well-established practices and procedures to ensure that we do so lawfully. We do not take such responsibilities lightly and please be assured that we take the legal advice we need in each case.” Was that a “yes” or a “no”? Search me.

So there you have it. Who knows what will happen next. But this one is likely to run and run. I fear for the outcome.

Jan 2011 26

Time is almost running out for councils to publish all spending above £500. On 10 January, it was reported that with just three weeks to go, only 135 of the 326 English councils had so far complied. If some councils can manage it – including Hammersmith and Fulham who started publishing this information last June –  why can’t others? Is it incompetence, or do they have something to hide?

The Bradford Telegraph and Argus reported on Monday that Bradford Council will not have this information up in time. Here is the reason the leader, Cllr Ian Greenwood gives:

There’s an obligation been put on us by the Communities Secretary to disclose all bills of £500 or above. We won’t be doing that until all the invoices have been purged of commercially-sensitive information that could enable Bradford suppliers to be undercut by firms elsewhere once the details are published.

The council has had months to prepare for this. It has had plenty of time to publish these details online. The council should also ensure it is getting the best deal for taxpayers. It should be procuring goods and services at the best possible price. Many local businesses should be able to do this, but if they can’t, other suppliers should be sought. What else will the council try to hide in the future? What else will it regard as sensitive information? Will it try to hide embarrassing expenditure? These delaying tactics do nothing to convince taxpayers their money is not being wasted.

Bradford taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. They have a right to look through this information, and if they want, challenge the figures they see. There is no excuse for not doing this on time.

Is your council trying to something similar? If it is, please let me know.

Jan 2011 25

I recently visited Bath council’s self-congratulatory ‘Treasure and Transform’ exhibition on the city’s future. Aside from the amusingly pointless design fluff of comparing Bath to a gentleman’s shoe or cricket ball, the nitty-gritty of the exhibition seemed to reinforce a feeling that despite our belt-tightening times, Bath & NES council is determined to go on a spending spree with our money.

There is the £14 million devoted to redeveloping Bath station, but what exactly do we get for this? The southern entrance will be re-instated, a new civic square created and the development of the vaults into restaurants and other unspecified facilities. Are there not enough restaurants just a stone’s throw away (indeed cafés struggling to get business)? Is the space in front of the station not adequate enough? So that leaves an awful lot of money being spent on a new entrance.

Similarly, an undisclosed sum of money is being spent on supposedly much-needed improvements to Bath Abbey, including a multi-purpose space, whatever that means, a café for visitors (are there not enough nearby?), environmentally friendly heating, plus developing (yet again) the vaults for unspecified purposes. All very nice, but do we really need it? Both these projects are swallowing millions of local taxpayers’ money that could be spent on essential services, surely?

At Keynsham and Midsomer Norton we have £28.8 million being spent on new Community Resource Centres. All very pleasant if there was money going spare, but would anyone really miss these projects if they weren’t there? Then we have the re-building of Keynsham Town Hall with library and shops to create a ‘flagship building’, said a helpful advisor at the exhibition. Price unspecified, but again, can all this not wait for when the public coffers are overflowing? It’s no good government putting up taxes and cutting services on one hand and then on the other blowing millions on buildings we don’t really need. I know the council’s answer will be that this money is an investment in creating jobs, but many of these jobs will be in the public sector, when the real engine of recovery will come from an energised private sector and that needs lower taxes and less regulation to get it going.

Tim Newark, Bath TaxPayers’Alliance

Jan 2011 17

Recently it has been reported by the BBC, that both Irish and Ulster-Scots signs could become common place all over Northern Ireland. Conor Murphy, the minister of the Department for Regional Development and Sinn Fein MP has come out and stated that, “We have obligations under the European Charter for the protection of minority languages and the proposed policy will permit the inclusion of either Irish or Ulster-Scots, on town or village welcome signs, some supplementary plate signs for example a ‘school’ warning sign and certain tourist signs.”

From a novelty perspective, these will be great and maybe the odd American that decides to travel to the village his great-great grandfather came from, could get a picture taken. Mr Murphy fails to see that these signs are going to be as useful as a candle in a gale force wind. Consider this, a driver could be travelling along a town or village riddled with signs in a language that was used about the same time as ancient Greek, leaving them totally confused. But more dangerous than that, put this confused driver in front of a school at 3.00pm… I would hate to think of the consequences.

It is true that people in Northern Ireland do speak and read Irish and Ulster-Scots, but these people equally read and speak in English. If anything, Mr Murphy should be considering introducing a number of bi-lingual signs including Polish, Roma or one of the many forms of Chinese, as I could hazard a guess these may well be more popular spoken and written languages within the country.

The costs to proposed sign changes are to be met by the promoter of the sign locally. With this in mind, promoters can include local councils and various government departments.

Once again, we have the EU meddling  in our affairs, and - as usual - its meddling wastes taxpayers’ money.  MLAs need to stop fiddling around with roadsigns and cosmetics and focus on the frontline services taxpayers really care about, especially at a time when public finances are under pressure. We cannot afford to waste money in such a way, and taxpayers should not have to pay for it.

Jan 2011 17

It’s bad enough filling in those time-wasting forms designed by overpaid bureaucrats that want to know your gender and race, but now they’ve added another level of personal enquiry. They want to know your sexual preference. In Bath, this sparked rebellion among 1650 community health and social service workers who were requested to fill in a questionnaire asking them all the usual guff, but then asked them to state their sexual orientation.

Almost 900 of them refused, the largest proportion being those working for Bath and North East Somerset Council with 81 per cent of them leaving the box blank. Apparently staff at NHS B&NES were more forthcoming with 69 per cent declaring themselves heterosexual and 30 per cent refusing to answer. Across the entire staff, only 20 people said they were gay, just over 1.2%.

This is all part of the Equality Act 2010 introduced last October and the data will be used to demonstrate whether a particular section of society is underrepresented in any profession. The introduction of the act has been portrayed by the government as a tidying up of previous legislation, saving time and money for those who must comply with it. But if this data is used to enforce the positive discrimination dimension of the act, still being considered by the government, then that could end up costing the taxpayer a lot of money in legal disputes. So, if ever confronted with such a questionnaire, join the Bath council health staff and deprive the government of this information. It’s none of their business!

Incidentally, I note this same workforce of the NHS B&NES are being shifted over to a new not-for-profit organisation to run the same services. Is this merely a smoke and mirrors attempt to show cut-backs, but just carrying on spending taxpayers’ money as usual?

Jan 2011 17

A follow-up on the New Year’s Day parking story I wrote about last week. After the initial story was reported in the Hull & East Riding Mail, the council did a U-turn. It said it would refund the fines as a goodwill gesture. It cited confusion because New Year’s Day fell on a Saturday, and the bank holiday was on Monday 3 January.

The good news is the fines have been refunded, but I doubt this would have happened if some of those on the receiving end hadn’t spoken to the press. I also find it difficult to believe those responsible for sending the wardens out didn’t realise that regardless of it technically not being a bank holiday, January 1 is still regarded as a holiday by the majority of people. My local supermarket was open, however it traded as if it were a Sunday, and very few shops were open in Beverley on that day. Most people stay at home or visit friends and family.

What his story does highlight is the importance of keeping  pressure on councils to do the right thing. If you feel you are a victim of injustice, do not be frightened to speak out, and if necessary, get publicity for your complaint. As all councils now prepare to publish all spending above £500 on the Internet, it is the responsibility of all of us to look at this spending and highlight anything we feel is erroneous.

All’s well that end’s well in this story, but keep your eyes and ears open for similar things happening around the country. Don’t let them off the hook.

Jan 2011 14

Motorists are used to being treated as cash-cows by the government, and local councils are no exception. One of my fears for the year ahead is councils trying to raise as much revenue as possible by issuing fines to drivers. Many councils throughout the country have significantly increased the amount of parking wardens they employ. This can mean only one thing. Any minor infringement of the law, and you will be clobbered with a fine.

This story from the Hull & East Riding Mail however shows how mean spirited East Riding of Yorkshire Council can be. On every Saturday in December, you could park for free in Beverley. Naturally, this is very popular with both shoppers and traders alike, but when Big Ben heralded the start of 2011, parking charges resumed. As you will remember, January 1 this year fell on a Saturday, and even though it was New Year’s Day, you still needed a parking ticket from 8.00 am.

Sixty-two motorists who had parked their cars so they wouldn’t be ‘drinking and driving’ were caught out and received £60 fines, or £25 if paid within seven days. Parking wardens were out in force as early as 9.00 am! Although the council states it was well publicised that charges would apply, clearly it knew many would fall foul. Why else would you send parking wardens out as early as this on January 1?

To add insult to injury, very few shops were open, and there certainly wasn’t a competition for parking spaces. East Riding Council, who is supposed to be there to serve the people, has once again showed how mean spirited and out of touch it is. So my advice for the coming year is watch how and where you park your car. If it’s hanging over a yellow line by a couple inches, don’t be surprised if you fall foul of the parking wardens, and you know your local council will stick to the letter of the law. They don’t know what the spirit of the law means.

If you have any similar stories you wish to share, e-mail me – [email protected] – and I will do my best to highlight them.

UPDATE: ERYC have agreed to refund all parking fines issue on New Year’s Day.

Jan 2011 12

As a native Northern Irishman living in Cardiff I’m always interested in what is happening back home. But before I start I realise that there are a number of terms by which this little country can be referred to, so considering political sensitivity I will try to include them: we have Ulster, Northern Ireland, the occupied 6 counties, the North of Ireland and goodness knows how many more.

Currently there is a mandatory coalition government in place lead by the DUP and Sinn Fein. Both these parties have representatives, representing the largely rural border region of West Tyrone, which at the last census had a population of 86,200 something that could be compared to a small town in England

Members of the Legislative Assembly are referred to as MLAs. In West Tyrone there are six of them, all getting paid nearly £43,000 per year, plus pensions and expenses. Based on the last census that is one representative getting nearly £43,000 for representing 14,367 people, which in most instances is less people than what would live in a Mainland county council ward. When you add on the office costs - which can be up to £72,000 – you can see those six MLAs can cost taxpayers over £650,000, plus expenses.

Items that have been claimed for on expenses include, stays in five star hotels, first class rail travel and so called ‘fact finding’ missions in Spain. On top of this there is the issue of ‘double jobbing’, where some MLAs hold positions as councillors. One is also an MP, earning over £100K for doing two jobs.

Taxpayers deserve a better deal than this. This is yet another example of our money being wasted, instead of being spent on front line services, such as keeping the roads salted and free of ice. The number of MLAs could easily be cut, and should be sooner rather than later.

In my next post on Northern Ireland, I will highlight more waste, this time regarding traffic signs.

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