It is fascinating to get a snapshot of what our councils spend taxpayers’ money on. A TPA supporter in Bath recently made a Freedom of Information request to Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES) asking to see invoices over £500 for December 2011 categorised under the title ‘Leader’.
At first, the council were vague about what that title meant but then they agreed it meant ‘Leader of the Council’. Then they declared that their invoices had no relation to the leader of the council at all. ‘I do not think that I believe this,’ said our investigator. ‘There are invoices for three new iPads, a new bike, 16k from BUPA, and huge sums for support services.’
‘I am intrigued and think it must be the leader of the council,’ continues our supporter, ‘since these expenses were categorised as ‘LEADER’ and they did initially admit they were expenses made by the leader’s office. Also one of the bills is from the leader’s personal driver, so why would this be in that category if ‘LEADER’ did not mean leader of the council?’
Intriguing indeed. Looking at the invoice for local chauffeur services, it is amazing to see how costly it can be to ship around a leader of the council and to wait for them during numerous events. For example, delivering the council leader to a local theatre and waiting four hours for them costs taxpayers £120, attending the turning on of Christmas lights in the centre of the city and waiting for six hours cost £180, attending a Home Coming parade and hanging around for 10 hours costs £300, joining a function at the American museum and waiting six hours costs £180 and so it goes on, making a monthly bill of £1,620. It makes you wonder if it might be cheaper just to call up a mini-cab rather than expecting drivers to wait for hours sitting in their car.
Then there’s a monthly Vodaphone bill for 31 mobiles at £2,154.60. If this is not for the leader of the council, why is it being charged to that office? Further on is an eye-watering bill for IT services of £344, 108. Then there’s the mysterious bill for £929 for bikes and equipment. Is this suggesting a new mode of transport for the leader from chauffeur driven car to bicycle? But what about the BUPA bill for £16,512? What is the taxpayer doing paying for private healthcare for the council leader’s office?
‘The council have flipped between originally saying that “Leader” does mean leader of the council,’ says our investigator, ‘to now saying that none of the invoices I highlighted were anything to do with the leader of the council. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. Perhaps “Leader” on the mobile phone bills does refer to the lead handset of that group. However, I am sure that other invoices must relate to the leader, as one of them is the leader’s personal driver and who else would get the nice new bicycle and helmet—if not the leader?’
We await the council’s further response to this enterprising investigation by a TPA supporter.
I last wrote about the £2.5 million proposed makeover of Saturday Market in Beverley on 20 December. Since then events have been moving at a rapid rate.
On Saturday 23 December, around 500 protesters took to the streets of Beverley, in very heavy rain, calling for an end to the scheme. As you will see from the video I recorded, last Sunday roughly the same number marched through the town again (and also posted a petition with 800 names on it through the front door of County Hall) ahead of a meeting the following day with officials from East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC).
The meeting did not go well as the council dug its heels firmly into the ground. On Wednesday, around 200 people protested outside County Hall (see photograph below) and unexpectedly, the leader of the council, Stephen Parnaby, gave a statement in the form of an answer to a question from another councillor during the full council meeting.
Unfortunately, work on the makeover will start next week. Although the market square does need some resurfacing work done on it, no-one could describe it as a priority – especially as there are so many pothole-riddled roads in the county. The good news though is work on the main market square (where the cobbles are situated) will not commence until the final phase of work begins. This will allow the council and protesters to sit down and reach an agreement.
The headline in yesterday’s East Riding Mail summed-up the current situation perfectly: “People power causes council cobble wobble”.
Indeed it was people power. We already have too many bog-standard town centres in this country. Preserving the history and character of our towns and cities matters to people. History and character also attract tourists, which is good news for struggling businesses who need all the help they can get.
No-one I have spoken to wants this £2.5 million makeover. Many refer to it as a vanity project. They want money allocated to highways maintenance spent on roads throughout the East Riding; not just on one small part of it. Although a sizeable amount of taxpayers’ money will still be spent on this unwanted project, at least some money will be saved, and for the people of Beverley, part of their history will also be preserved.
UPDATE at the end of the post.
Full council meetings in the East Riding of Yorkshire are usually dull affairs, however yesterday afternoon high drama replaced the usual humdrum.
I commented towards the end of last year that Humberside Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), Matthew Grove had appointed his council colleague, Paul Robinson, as his deputy. The Police and Crime Panel (PCP), by an eight to one margin, advised Mr Grove to think again about the appointment, however he rejected their advice, and confirmed Mr Robinson’s appointment. Yesterday the following motion appeared on the agenda at the full council meeting:
That this Council considers the role of Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner to be incompatible with holding office as an elected member of this Council.
The motion was proposed and seconded by the Labour opposition group, however despite it being an opposition motion, the Conservative leader, Stephen Parnaby, allowed a free vote, despite Paul Robinson being a member of his group. Cllr Parnaby went further and also spoke in favour of the motion, as did the majority of his Conservative colleagues.
The majority of councillors present felt there was a conflict of interest in the Deputy PCC remaining as a councillor and voted 54 in favour; 5 against; with 4 abstaining. This is despite Mr Robinson announcing to the media, and on his blog, that he still intends to continue representing his constituents in Howdenshire. He also announced he intends to give up his councillor’s allowance.
So what happens next? Well, yesterday’s vote has no legal standing, although their arguments about a conflict of interest, and Mr Robinson not having the time to fulfil both roles, are not without merit.
Mr Robinson has been forced to stand down from certain scrutiny committees because there is a conflict of interest, and whilst the last thing we want are councillors not having any outside interests, if Mr Robinson is representing the PCC, he cannot also attend meetings on behalf of his constituents. During other meetings there will be times when he will have to recuse himself, and therefore will not be in a position to fully represent his constituents’ interests. I know there are other examples in the country where councillors have been appointed deputies, but I cannot see how in practice it will work.
Politicians have to be honest with the voters, and they also have to listen to them. All prospective PCCs should have made clear during the election whether or not they intended to appoint deputies. This would have given the voters the opportunity to make an informed decision on the package they were voting for. Too many people have commented since Mr Robinson’s appointment that they were unaware a deputy would be named.
Voters in Howdenshire should also have the right to recall. Judging by the comments made on local newspaper websites, and by those people contacting the BBC in Hull, many of his constituents feel he should stand down. They feel the goal posts have been changed and that he cannot represent them in the same way as before. If enough of them feel this way, they should be allowed to either say yes or no to him continuing as a councillor now, not at the next election in over two years’ time.
UPDATE 14 January:
Mr Robinson announced on Friday 11 January that he intends to resign his council seat.
Council Tax increases are being proposed in two leading West Country authorities. Cornwall Council want to introduce a 1.9% increase in April, following two years of Council Tax freezes. The leader of Cornwall Council says the rise is needed to plug a shortfall of £6.5m. The final decision on the increase will be made by the full council in February.
In Bristol, the newly elected Mayor of the city, the independent George Ferguson, is also proposing a council tax rise of just under 2%. He is matching this rise with a declaration to cut £35m in council spending. This will include cutting 330 jobs, 100 of them compulsory redundancies, making savings of £19.5m.
Determined to ‘cut from the top’, he is not replacing the current chief executive. This follows the early retirement of CE Jan Ormonroyd—whose costly wage increases were the target of a TPA Action Day in Bristol early last year . Instead, the Mayor says the replacement will be ‘a chief operating officer who comes from industry and will also be head of corporate services.’ ‘It’s important we treat running the city council as a business,’ argues Ferguson. ‘I do believe the cuts are responsible and it would be irresponsible not to put up Council Tax.’
Members of the former administration are unhappy about any talks of cuts. “I don’t want any teams or staff put under so much pressure the whole thing breaks down,’ says cabinet member Simon King. ‘There are things here that as a past leader and deputy leader of the previous administration I regret. I regret we can’t build the recycling centre or the swimming pool, and I will go on arguing with George that maybe we can.’
Former rival mayoral candidate and now cabinet member responsible for Finance Geoff Gollop says these proposals, including the Council Tax rise, are ‘not written in tablets of stone,’ are open to suggested amendments and will need to be approved by a majority vote of the council. A source close to the council says ‘It seems that a Council Tax increase has been suggested in some quarters, however the aim is still to achieve a freeze if possible.’
The last thing local authorities should be doing is hiking Council Tax, which hits the poorest households the hardest. After years of taking more and more money from everyone’s wallets it is time council’s focus on cutting waste and bureaucracy instead of pretending a little more cash is the answer to all their problems. What will be particularly galling to many of the residents facing rises is that the politicians are proposing hiking taxes just below the threshold for a referendum. Clearly they are afraid to ask the public their honest opinion on the tax hikes.
In the coming weeks, councils across the UK will be setting budgets for 2013/14. Although the majority of them will accept the Government’s offer of grant and either freeze or lower Council Tax, others will reject it and increase the tax burden on families when they can least afford it.
We are compiling a list of those councils planning a Council Tax increase, and with the help of our supporters, we are organising protests across the country.
We recently held a protest in York, and will be back in York again on Friday 18 January, meeting in St Helen’s Square at 12.30pm.
If your council is planning a rise, this is what you can do:
Council Tax is one of the largest bills families have to pay each month and councils must do everything they can to keep those bills as low as possible. Help us make your voice heard.
Second-home owners in the South West are going to be hit by an increase in council tax bills next year after both Cornwall and Devon councils scrapped their 10% discount. In a move aimed at holiday home owners, they will not only lose their discount but will also be charged 150% on homes that have stood empty for two years.
Plymouth City Council in Devon claims that government cuts have forced the move. ‘We need to look at the big picture here and make sure we are not allowing the most vulnerable people in our city bear the brunt of the cuts,’ says a Plymouth councillor. ‘It’s never an easy decision to make but it’s only right those who can afford a second property pay their full share of council tax.”
A spokesman for local government secretary Eric Pickles agrees, saying: ‘Removing this special tax relief will help to keep council tax bills down for hard-working families and pensioners.’
But characterising second-home owners as ‘rich’ seems an easy target and I would have thought that some of them are also ‘hard-working families’ who have simply chosen to spend their money on a holiday home in Devon or Cornwall because it is cheaper than going abroad. If they now decide to sell up, then the South West will lose their seasonal expenditure. Still, taxing the ‘rich’ is a popular mantra and Plymouth Council hope to raise £1m by cancelling the tax relief.
‘We have people who have been coming to Cornwall for a long time who are involved in local charities and local organisations,’ says Cornwall North MP Dan Rogerson. ‘But that doesn’t mean that they should get the benefit of cheaper tax than those around them that are working hard and contributing far more to the local community.’
In August, I wrote how East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC) had allocated an additional £3.3 million to the highways maintenance budget. It found this extra cash from an underspend of £16.5 million. This is what council leader, Stephen Parnaby said at the time:
Road maintenance remains a significant pressure because of the size of the network in the East Riding and the continuing impact of the severe winter weather in recent years.
It is also one of the top priorities identified by our residents through budget consultations and it is good that the council can respond so positively as a result of prudent financial management.
Prioritising highways maintenance is not new and we have already put in considerable additional funds over and above normal budgets to carry out essential repair work.
The council then went on to allocate £2.5 million of this extra cash on just one project – a makeover for Saturday Market in Beverley.
To bring the story up-to-date, this makeover is scheduled to commence in January and is still facing fierce criticism. Who gave the green light for this spending is also far from clear, as although the cabinet approved the decision to spend an extra £3.3 million on highways maintenance across East Yorkshire, it did not approve this scheme. Nor did the full council, and because it is technically a highways improvement scheme (something which is open to dispute) the council doesn’t need to get planning permission either.
The only public consultation that took place was in the summer when residents and visitors looked at the plans in a mobile exhibition. During this consultation, that I for one didn’t know was taking place, the council claimed it had received overwhelming approval for the scheme. Quite how it can judge the mood of Beverlonians in this way, I don’t know, but afterwards the council leader said as far as he was concerned the sooner we get on with it, the better. Have you ever seen a council move so quickly?
The Market Cross in Saturday Market is a Grade 1 listed building, therefore the area surrounding the cross is in the curtilage of a Grade 1 listed building So what do English Heritage think? This is what they had to say to the Hull Daily Mail:
We advised that it was better to keep the cobblestones rather than remove them completely and to only remove them where wheelchair access was needed.
This advice was given before East Riding submitted their official plans. Since then, we have heard nothing from the council on their plans for the area.
We believe it is possible to improve the market area and still keep the cobbles, which are important to the historic character of Beverley
So if the council had to apply for planning permission, it would have received an immediate objection from English Heritage. Rather handy that it says it doesn’t, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, some roads in East Yorkshire are not only crumbling, they are also sinking. The photographs below were taken in Cottingham, and residents have been told there may be enough money in the budget to repair the roads next year. There again, there may not. You can see why they are angry money intended to repair their street and other crumbling streets around them is instead being spent on what I, and they, regard as a vanity project.
If there is a budget underspend, we elect councillors to make prudent decisions on how the money should be spent. They should also consider returning some cash back to us in the form of a lower Council Tax bill! Despite senior councillors agreeing to spend extra resources on potholes, crumbling and sinking roads, money has been diverted away to something they did not approve of. Nor have all councillors had a chance to vote on the market makeover either. The public consultation was a joke, and the views of English Heritage and Beverley Civic Society have been ignored.
In ERYC, not only is democracy rarely seen in action; it rarely takes place
A major healthcare review of South West London, which has already cost taxpayers £2million, has been thrown into confusion by the collapse of a hospital merger which, critics say, should have been foreseen.
The ‘Better Services, Better Value’ review, begun in May 2011, was well advanced, recommending in May this year that A&E and maternity units at St Helier Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, should close and these services be centralised to two other hospitals in the region. Inevitably, this sparked local opposition and public consultation was due to start in October.
The review’s proposals and business plan were built on the assumption that St Helier would no longer be part of a failing NHS Trust with Epsom Hospital. Back in November 2011, it was announced that Epsom would be acquired by Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals, another trust in the region. On October 25th, however, the board of NHS London dropped a bombshell: the Epsom-Ashford and St Peter’s merger should be stopped because the proposal was not ‘financially viable’.
Local MPs are furious at the collapse of the merger process and consequent de-railing of the review. Reacting to the news Carshalton and Wallington MP Tom Brake said: ‘I am astonished that after all the time they had to work out the figures, at this late stage they have come to the conclusion they don’t add up.’ MP for Mitcham and Morden Siobhain McDonagh commented, ‘It’s frightening that so much money could be invested in something that is so superficial and flimsy.’
The merger proposal failed because Epsom Hospital has a deficit of £13.8m—a fact which should have surprised no-one, according to John Boyd, deputy medical director of Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust from 1997 to 2005. In a letter to the Sutton Guardian published on November 29th, Mr Boyd points out that ‘the original merger between St Helier and Epsom in 1997 took place because Epsom was bankrupt and a financially failed trust. The understanding was that appropriate rationalisation of services between the hospitals would be of mutual benefit. Unfortunately… this rationalisation never took place.’
Public consultation on the closure of services at St Helier has been postponed indefinitely, leaving patients and staff and local residents to face further uncertainty. St Helier has a deficit of £5.6 million and the failing Epsom and St Helier trust is due to end its partnership on April 1st 2013. In November, Matthew Hopkins, chief executive of the trust, did not deny the possibility of government administrators coming in to run it. If so, it will be the second London NHS trust to suffer that fate—the South London Healthcare Trust was taken over by ministers in June.
Meanwhile, Mitcham and Morden councillor Suzanne Evans, shadow cabinet member for health, says of the ‘Better Services, Better Value’ (BSVB) review, ‘A lot of time, effort and money has been wasted and I’m sure BSBV are frustrated. The clinicians who took part did so with the best intentions and I’m sure they are equally frustrated that their efforts have come to nothing.’
Two West Country councils are locked in battle over local car parking charges. North Somerset Council wants to introduce parking charges in council-run car parks in Nailsea—but Nailsea councillors agree with local traders and residents that this will be a tax on shopping and local business that will be bad news for the area.
North Somerset Council (NSC) has already provoked controversy by introducing parking charges on the streets of Weston-super-Mare, to the south of Nailsea. As owners of the car parks in Nailsea they want to do the same there, but they face opposition from the local town councillors. Nailsea Town Council (NTC) want to sign a 25-year-lease with NSC so that they are responsible for management of the car parks—and they can keep them free.
‘We think it is only right for our town that we are in control over our own car parks,’ says NTC Chairman Rod Lees. ‘This will allow us to get away from the constant threat by North Somerset of introducing car parking charges in the town. The town is going through a difficult time with empty shops and to introduce any sort of parking charges will just exacerbate the problems. The move to charge for parking also goes against the Mary Portas report.’
Absolutely, if only more councillors understood this!
‘North Somerset may have introduced a scheme in Weston,’ argues Cllr Lees, ‘but that is a tourist resort with totally different needs to Nailsea and other towns in the north of the district. This is a win-win situation not only for Nailsea but North Somerset too. If parking charges are introduced people will avoid paying in Nailsea and just head to out of town complexes such as Cribbs Causeway.’
If only NTC can agree the lease with NSC, they have already put aside £50,000 in their budget to pay for the maintenance and improvement of the three car parks under threat for the next two years. A fourth car park run by a town centre management group has already agreed to continue offering free parking as well if the council deal goes through. This is the just the right use of taxpayers’ money—benefiting local business people and residents. Well done Nailsea and Cllr Lees!
Anthony O’Sullivan became chief executive of Caerphilly Council in late 2010. Although his annualised salary of £123,665 was around £8K lower than his predecessor’s, he didn’t seem to grumble that he was underpaid, although just before taking up his new job, he did write a confidential note recommending a £15K pay rise for his future deputy.
Writing confidential notes recommending pay rises for senior officers is something Mr O’Sullivan is skilled at, and earlier this year he was at it again. In a confidential report leaked to Wales Online, he recommended the adoption of a new pay banding structure that would result in pay rises of almost 30% for twenty senior officers. Here is part of what he had to say:
Chief officer pay has for some time been below the rates paid for comparable roles in other local authorities and public sector partners such as health. This makes retaining the best talent in this key group more difficult, particularly when set against the backdrop of having to achieve more with reduced resources as the organisation develops.
This has been demonstrated recently by the loss of our head of children’s services to a significantly smaller South Wales authority due to this lack of salary competitiveness. The appointment made leaves us circa £19k adrift of the salary being offered.
There then followed a ‘behind closed doors meeting’ of the senior remuneration committee on 5 September which approved those rises. Five councillors made the decision, however the remaining sixty-eight councillors were not informed of the rises. Some had to find out from disgruntled members of staff.
I’m sure Mr O’Sullivan would have us believe his plea for higher pay was purely for the benefit of Caerphilly residents. He wanted them to have the best, and only by awarding massive pay rises were local taxpayers going to retain the best. Even that argument on its own does not stack up, at a time when working in the public sector brings far better pay and conditions than in the real economy, it makes no sense to pay even more for roles that there are no shortage of applicants for. Of course, this plea on behalf of others also has fringe benefits. Whilst lower paid members of staff have seen their pay frozen for a number of years, it now looks like Mr O’Sullivan’s salary has risen by £35K to £158,360.
Under this new agreement, one chief officer on around £71K appears to be now earning more than £99K. If they were to take early retirement after thirty years service, it would mean their pension would be almost £50K a year, rather than £36K. I’m not saying a raft of officers are about to retire, although we have come across similar stories before. In 2008, some senior officers in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council were awarded inflation busting pay rises because they were invaluable and the council had to pay more in order to retain their services. The same excuses about falling behind market rates were wheeled out. After they received their rises, one by one they took early retirement.
Don’t be surprised if you read similar stories about Caerphilly Council in the not too distant future.
Bristol’s newly elected mayor, George Ferguson, is to be congratulated for emphasising the importance of saving taxpayers’ money. In an election which showed a local distaste for traditional political parties, the independent Ferguson was the runaway winner.
Before the election, a panel of local government bureaucrats had decided that this new mayor should be paid £65,738—the same as an MP—but Ferguson has rejected this, settling on £52,474, the same as the council leader received before this post was abolished.
On top of this he plans to stay in the same office as the former council leader used and promises not to waste taxpayers’ money on employing a large entourage of support staff.
‘I have agreed to take my salary in Bristol Pounds,’ he says, referring to a local business initiative, ‘which means that every penny of my wages will be spent in local shops, bars and restaurants, employing local people, not in multiple-national chain stores which take all their profits out of the city’—or, indeed, out of the country.
Mayor Ferguson will oversee a cabinet of three other members—councillors who are each entitled to an extra allowance of £20,065—but as the petulant local Labour Party, coming second in the election, has refused to allow any of its members to serve on his cabinet, this could save him up to £60,000.
‘You are far more likely to see me on foot, on my bike, or in my own personal little electric- powered Smart car,’ says Ferguson, pushing his angelic credentials possibly a little too far, but he does sound reassuring when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money on business travel.
‘When I go to London by train to persuade ministers to give more to Bristol, I travel second-class, off-peak where possible, and save the city money by using my senior rail-card,’ he explains. ‘When I stayed over in London for the night last week to cram in more meetings, I stayed at my daughter’s home, rather than run up a hotel bill. For a day and a half in London, cramming in nine meetings, I cost a grand total of £75.’
‘I am serious when I say that I will look after taxpayers’ money as carefully as we all look after our own,’ he pledges. Let’s hope that applies to curbing public expenditure on some of Bristol City Council’s grandiose transport projects that have cost millions in the past and to little effect…
The TaxPayers’ Alliance joined up with local retailers and councillors in Cottingham, East Yorkshire, this morning to campaign for a freeze in Business Rates. With the Chancellor of the Exchequer due to give his Autumn Statement tomorrow afternoon, independent shopkeepers sent George Osborne and MPs a message: business rates are crippling our businesses; give us a break and freeze business rates.
Throughout the Breakfast Show on BBC Radio Humberside this morning, traders told their stories. The landlord of the King William IV pub said he was paying £18,000 a year in rates, and for that he doesn’t even get his bins emptied. Jennifer Todd, a local florist, doesn’t know how she will cope will further increases in business rates, and Judy Newlove, who runs ‘Sugar ‘n’ Spice Cakes’ in the village said she had opened up another branch of her business in Hull. Amazingly, she pays more in business rates for her shop in Hull than she does in rent!
It is not too late to get involved in the campaign. Go to freezebusinessrates.org to send a letter to your MP, and get your friends and family to do the same. If you use Twitter, tweet the link to this blog to your followers. If you use Facebook, post this blog to your wall, and ask your Facebook friends to visit freezebusinessrates.org.
Traders I spoke to this morning are typical of local traders throughout the country. Tell your MP local businesses need a break; freeze business rates.