Colchester Borough Council is considering hiking Council Tax next year, despite wasting millions of pound of taxpayers’ money on expensive vanity projects and empty warehouses. Paul Smith, councillor for business and resources said that a rise in Council Tax could be necessary in the face of reductions in the central government grant. The grant will be cut by 16% in 2014 and 15% in 2015. Council Tax has been frozen for 3 years in the face of spending reductions.
Unpopular decisions have been taken, like the closure of the £76,000 Abbots Activity Centre, furiously opposed by elderly residents, local activists and the opposition on the council. But Colchester Borough Council has also been castigated by local residents for wasting money on a massively late and over-budget arts centre, a bus station that is far too small, a self-service website that doesn’t work and an unpopular car ban in the town centre.
The arts centre project at Firstsite, nicknamed the ‘golden banana’ by its admirers and given much ruder names by its opponents, cost £22.45 million to build, most of that put up by taxpayers. Construction costs projected at £16 million overshot to £28 million as a series of disastrous design flaws, delays, and flooding saw the cost spiral out of control. The Council recently recovered £5.75 million from the builders in a series of legal actions. Colchester Borough Council currently pays Firstsite an annual subsidy of £150,000 and a maintenance contribution of £15,000. Colchester MP Bob Russell has described the project as a waste of money.
The new bus station at Osborne Street (built to replace the one destroyed to make way for Firstsite) cost £1.62 million to build but many residents are unhappy with it, describing it as too small and cramped. A proposed extension to the bus station is expected to cost £300,000.
They spent £120,000 to create a self-service website bringing together Council Tax, Housing Benefits, bin collections and other services in a single place. Users have reported that a ‘Not Found’ page greets users trying to pay their Council Tax. In short, it doesn’t work.
They spent £10,000 on promoting a traffic ban in the town centre which was shut down within a month earlier this year. The scheme has since been re-launched and has created traffic chaos, with jams and breakdowns along East Hill and East Street.
The Council also pays £129,000 a year in Business Rates for empty commercial properties including a warehouse that has been derelict for more than a decade. This has so far cost taxpayers over £600,000.
In the face of all this waste, the argument that government cuts make tax hikes necessary is disingenuous at best, and at worst can be seen as an attempt to distract attention away from bad decisions taken by council leadership. Hiking Council Tax will only make life much harder for families already struggling to pay the bills.
Across the country, the results of the last few years spending squeeze have been resoundingly positive, especially in Essex – 70 per cent of people polled are satisfied with the way their local council runs things, despite several years of spending cuts. Higher taxes are not the answer. The Council has, to its credit, frozen taxes and cut spending for three years. There is no reason why they should change direction now.
Following on from our report exposing the councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who ban the public recording, blogging, and tweeting at council meetings, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has announced that these rights will now be enshrined in legislation. The news laws will be part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is set to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, having completed its Lords stages.
The DCLG press release goes to cite our report as a reason for changing the law:
A recent report from the Tax Payers’ Alliance revealed an alarming number of councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who were still keeping democracy behind closed doors. Some councils had even banned local residents from recording, blogging and tweeting at council meetings. Ministers believe these councils are clinging to outdated analogue ideals in the face of a digital age.
This is great victory for transparency, and will force the most secretive council in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, to open its doors to greater scrutiny. It is also a victory for campaign groups like ‘Justice for Bridlington‘ who have been fighting for greater transparency after millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was wasted on a failed and botched regeneration scheme.
Although it is sad that councils like ERYC have had to be forced into allowing greater transparency, today’s announcement is great news for all who want the opportunity to record and report the decisions being made in our name.
In 2010 WalesOnline highlighted the issue of councils publishing free-sheets containing everything from local events and bus timetables to the cronyism of egoistical politicians. Never do these publications provide a critical view of local authorities, such as questioning cases of overspending on nonsensical projects or the negative performance of departments within the authority. WalesOnline revealed that that Welsh Councils spent more than £800,000 on the regular publication of propaganda rags. Unfortunately, it seems the council printing presses are just as busy.
These council propaganda publications are too often in competition to genuine journalism in the local area – the kind of journalism that exposes local council blundering, waste and empowers residents to hold local politicians to account. In the November edition of Cardiff’s Capital Times, it was noted on page three that the Council had appointed a new Chief Executive. Nowhere mention what his targets are and how much he gets paid to do the job, however it does mention how he is happy to take the position moving from his current position in New Zealand. In other words a puff piece designed to big up the new appointee. Surely an interview with a local journalist would have allowed the council to announce this appointment and give residents a better, independent, take on new chiefs priorities
This focus on council spin is played out throughout Wales, with Rhondda Cynon Taff’s (RTC) publication Outlook. On the front page of their last edition the headline is ‘UK GOVERNMENT AUSTERITY MEASURES WILL FORCE COUNCIL TO MAKE MANY ‘TOUGH DECISIONS’. The article attributes all spending cuts to the UK Government’s deficit reduction plan and doesn’t actually mention that the local authorities in Wales receive their funds directly from the Welsh Government.
Throughout the RTC publication there are again and again, the same old stories of regeneration scheme success. When readers reach page ten though, the reading does become interesting. On page ten a record of payments made to Council members has been published. I am sure the residents of RTC would be more interested in finding out why the council leader, Anthony Christopher, earned £52,213.43 in the 2012-13 financial year from his council role. Of course he has special responsibilities above the normal role of a councillor, but what exactly does he do to earn his money? How many hours does he work? As the leader doesn’t appear to publish his diary in Outlook, this is something local residents don’t know.
These propaganda rags are nothing more than a self-indulgent ego boost for local politicians. Taxpayers’ money is spent telling local taxpayers how wonderful the council is. It is about time these publications were scrapped to save taxpayers’ cash and invest the money into front line services.
Cornish councillors have voted against a call for an eye-watering Council Tax increase of 6 per cent. They rejected it by 79 votes to 33, with two abstentions. ‘I don’t think it’s right to ask people in Cornwall to pay more than they have to,’ said Alex Folkes, cabinet member for finance and resources. ‘A 6 per cent hike in the bill would be a wrong one.’
The councillor who suggested the massive hike was ‘surprised at how few of the councillors were prepared to think about a more significant rise in Council Tax.’ But that’s not the pain over for Cornish taxpayers. Cornwall Council will now debate a 1.97 per cent increase in November. Of course, having won plaudits for rejecting such a massive increase, many councillors will now see the just below 2 per cent increase as a more reasonable request—and hope taxpayers will do too. Call me cynical, but maybe that was the plan all along—first frighten the taxpayers and then slip in a lower increase, one that is just below the threshold for a public referendum.
In a further gesture towards good housekeeping, the council cabinet voted to stop claiming free meals while they are conducting council business at Truro County Hall— a saving of £15,000. Again, we should applaud this, but only if it is carried out in a genuine spirit of cost reduction and not merely part of a propaganda-drive towards putting up Council Tax. Still, any cut is a good one, especially of such an indulgent perk.
In a bizarre bid to be seen to be more open—or maybe just a sign of plain desperation—Cornwall Council has put a budget simulator on its website asking for local residents to come up with their own ideas for balancing the council’s budget and making cuts of £24m. Call me old fashioned, but surely that’s why locals vote for and pay councillors—to sort that out for them. Otherwise, what is the point of them? Besides, when one looks closely at the budget simulator there is no opportunity to suggest more outsourcing and better procurement, or cutting council workers’ generous pensions.
When the TPA kindly suggested that Cornish councillors look for further inspiration at Harry Phibbs’ ‘100 Ways to Cut Council Tax’, Councillor Alex Folkes was less than grateful, saying, ‘We’re more interested in hearing ideas from local residents than lobbyists from 300 miles away.’ But then, fearing this might seem a tad unfriendly, quickly followed up by saying, ‘As for the 100 ideas, we have already done most of them, are doing some more and most of the rest don’t apply.’ A guarded hooray then!
Folkestone Town (parish) Council has put £400,000 towards a World War One memorial arch organised by a group called Short Step. The charity has failed to raise its part of the money, so taxpayers face the prospect of being lumbered with another £19,000. It’s a worthy idea, but is it really the best use of taxpayers’ money ? Surely this is something better left to private charitable donations rather that spending huge amounts of taxpayers’ money without necessary safeguards. Local feeling is running high and the Folkestone Herald newspaper has launched a readers’ poll as to whether their money should be spent thus, or the project abandoned – Folkestone already having several war memorials. At the time of writing the poll is about to close and the “no’s” stand at 72% (over 1,200 responses).
However, the MP, Damian Collins, is behind the plan, and the council has said it’s going ahead regardless. Interestingly, the rival local paper, the Folkestone & Hythe Express, has come out in favour of the project, which it regards as good for Folkestone, and quotes a different website petition that has had a poor response.
Down the road at Dover District Council, it’s been reported that £12.5m that was ring fenced for repairing council properties has been moved from the housing revenue account to a general fund for all services. Tenants (and council opposition) are livid, claiming the cash is needed for urgent repairs to dilapidated housing. It transpires that the government disapproves too, because new rules have just come in on 1 October outlawing the practice. Dover acted just days before this rule change came into force. A political row has since erupted involving Dover & Deal MP Charlie Elphicke and the Labour group on the district council, who abstained rather than oppose in the crucial council vote.
Canterbury City Council (a district council) have gone and done exactly the same thing, transferring £1m from housing revenue at the last moment before the new rules took effect. This time it was condemned and opposed by the LibDem opposition, who described it as “an act of theft” in the Kentish Gazette.
On Saturday we launched our campaign against Cardiff Council’s barmy proposal to introduce monthly bin collections. Local TPA supporters gathered signatures to our petition opposing the idea, and even though parts of Cardiff were flooded, the residents of Llandaff and Whitchurch turned out in force to add their support. Over 300 signatures were collected in just over two hours.
Many local residents were shocked to hear of the proposal, with many asking why their local representatives weren’t standing up for them. They also expressed concern at potential infestations of rodents and fly tipping. One resident, Mrs Rosser, said:
I understand that this is an attempt to save money, but this is simply a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I pay my Council Tax bill on time and expect essential front line services to be protected.
Other residents throughout the day highlighted various elements of Council waste and posed the question why hard working residents who pay their Council Tax are now being threatened with a reduced service. They also questioned the inactivity of other local ‘out of touch’ politicians in opposition.
Over the course of the next three weeks the TaxPayers’ Alliance will be collecting further signatures against this proposal at the following venues:
Saturday 26 October
11.00am – Ty Glas Shopping Precinct, Llanishen
1.30pm – Albany Road (Outside Tesco Metro), Roath
Saturday 2 November
11.00am – Cowbridge Road East (outside Tesco Metro), Canton
If you would like to help at one of these events, please get in touch.
It was confirmed yesterday that Daryll Stephenson, Hull City Council’s part-time interim Chief Executive, is now the permanent council boss. He will work two days a week for a salary of £65,000 a year. It is also worth noting at this point that Mr Stephenson is the former Chief Executive of neighbouring East Riding of Yorkshire Council. He took early retirement from that post in 2005 – and his time there was not without controversy. His wife, Sue Lockwood, was also embroiled in controversy in 2010, when East Riding Council allowed her to retire early and her pension pot received a taxpayer funded top-up of £364,205.
The council also wants to create the role of Chief Operating Officer. It was originally thought this would be recruited internally. This would have meant an existing director receiving a pay rise for taking on additional responsibilities when Mr Stephenson was not at his desk. It now appears this is not so. On Tuesday, the council advertised externally for this new role on a negotiable salary.
“Why have a Chief Executive and a Chief Operating Officer?”, you may ask. I have asked the same question and haven’t got any definitive answers, other than it is possible Mr Stephenson will deal with the big projects and talk to ministers, and the Chief Operating Officer will deal with the day-to-day management of the council. This is just speculation though.
You would think that the job of Chief Executive could be scrapped entirely. This is what happened in Windsor & Maidenhead when the Chief Executive’s role was scrapped and one of the existing directors became Managing Director. This saved taxpayers over £200,000 a year. Surely a new Chief Operating Officer will have the experience to represent the city at a senior level and talk to ministers?
So it looks likely that Hull City Council is going to increase its senior wage bill and add another layer of management. It’s unclear why the politicians think this is necessary, and they are keeping their cards close to their chest. One thing is for sure though, this story is going to keep on running.
In our report on the recording of council meetings in Yorkshire & Lincolnshire, published earlier this week, we revealed that Scarborough Borough Council does not record its meetings, doesn’t allow members of the public to record meetings, and doesn’t have a policy in place on members of the public blogging and tweeting at meetings. This has angered local councillor Michelle Donohue-Moncrieff. Speaking to Yorkshire Coast Radio, she said:
It concerns me that Scarborough Borough Council said (in response to Freedom of Information requests) that it had no policy whatsoever on these matters. Many councils are already recording and broadcasting meetings and I don’t see ant major obstacles stopping Scarborough Borough Council doing the same.
There will be those who see the recording of meetings as a unwelcome intrusion into council meetings which will be open to abuse. For too long now activist websites have been able to put their skewed slant on the conduct of SBC meetings. I am of the view that I would prefer to be judged for what I actually say than rather than what I am reported to have said.
Please bear in mind that many of our residents cannot attend council meetings. Many people have a perception that the council chamber is a closed shop that they are excluded from. I believe that those who pay for SBC should have the opportunity to see it’s decision making process for themselves.
I couldn’t agree more with her. Recordings of what councillors actually say is of great use to local residents. It shows exactly where they stand on the issues. Councillors should not be frightened to open themselves up to greater scrutiny if they have nothing to hide.
Cllr Donohue-Moncrieff’s words did prompt the council into a reply:
While we do not have a formal policy in place about members of the media and the public tweeting and blogging from council meetings, these activities do take place and we do not place any restrictions on them. We don’t currently allow filming or voice recording at council meetings but this is currently under review and we are exploring how we can make our meetings more widely accessible in the future.
So, at the beginning of this week the council did not have a policy in place on blogging and tweeting at meetings, but now they seem to have adopted one. Members of the public can now freely blog and tweet, and the council will not stop them. Not having a policy in place doesn’t mean you will not be stopped by a council officer making up the rules as they go along. Saying you will not place restrictions on them, means something different.
The council needs to go one step further and allow councillors the opportunity to debate allowing filming and voice recording at council meetings. Under review is not good enough – they need to change their policies now!
The TaxPayers’ Alliance in Wales is today launching a campaign against Cardiff City Council’s proposals for monthly bin collections. These proposals, if implemented, would mean local residents getting a much poorer service for the huge amount of Council Tax they pay. The proposals also risk damaging the environment with the inevitable increase in fly-tipping and vermin that will result.
The Council is also planning to impose draconian fines on those residents who may accidentally place recyclable waste in their normal rubbish bin. How the Council plans to administer this is not clear, however such a measure will only serve to anger residents who make an honest mistake and are penalised for doing so.
Local supporters will hold street stalls in various locations across Cardiff and will ask local residents to support our campaign by signing our petition against these proposals.
Here’s where we’re going to be over the next three weeks:
Saturday 19 October
11.00am – High Street, Llandaff
1.00pm – Merthyr Road, Whitchurch
Saturday 26 October
11.00am – Ty Glas Shopping Precinct, Llanishen
1.30pm – Albany Road (Outside Tesco Metro), Roath
Saturday 2 November
11.00am – Cowbridge Road East (outside Tesco Metro), Canton
Please come along and say hello, and if you can spare 20 minutes to give us a helping hand, please let me know. We also have an online petition (below) which you can sign.
An internal audit has revealed a worrying level of financial mismanagement within Bristol City Council (BCC). It presents a grim picture of taxpayers’ money being exploited both within and outside the council. Some £220,000 has been wasted in bills being paid twice. A council employee and a contractor have each been sentenced to prison for eight months for dishonest acts against the council. Overall, the council’s performance and level of risk has been put at ‘Of concern’.
Bristol council’s capital accounting, bank reconciliation, cheque control and payroll system have all been criticised for being at moderate risk or ‘concern risk level’. Non-compliance with procurement regulations is said to be widespread and part of the council’s accepted culture. Poor contracts monitoring has resulted in large overspends of taxpayers’ money on capital projects, such as Bristol’s M Shed museum, and poor value for money in services delivered to the council. The use of consultants and agency staff was cited as being particularly poor value for money with inadequate supervision of their tasks.
The report reveals a culture of widespread abuse of welfare payments. Some £900,000 was fraudulently claimed in student exemptions from Council Tax charges, while £104,000 was falsely claimed in Housing Benefit.
A whistleblower was praised for revealing the criminal exploitation of council procurement, including the favouring of certain contractors over other suppliers by council officers, and the alleged inflation of contracts, that is, fleecing more money out of local taxpayers, some of which has already resulted in criminal prosecution. Then, within the council, there are ongoing investigations into the misuse of council property, council credit cards, telephones, council cars and misappropriated mileage claims. Then there is the issue of council employees making the most of their work-place rights. ‘[HR] resources going forward will be severely affected by sustained long-term sickness, maternity leave and the loss of a further member of staff,’ highlights the report.
It is a sorry state of affairs that shows a council riddled dogged by allegations of corruption and lax controls. Bristol taxpayers deserves a lot better and certainly should not be footing the bill for financial mismanagement.
Bristol councillor and former mayoral candidate Geoff Gollop says he ‘recognised the limitations of our old system which had become outdated” and was hoping this openness would encourage ‘people to blow the whistle when they’re concerned about something.’
Important update at the bottom of this post.
Last week I wrote about Rochdale Council’s Chief Executive, Jim Taylor, being in line for a £40,000 pay rise. The good news this morning is that, under pressure, the council leader has backed down and the pay rise will not be awarded. However, the leader has not relented on planned rises for other senior staff.
Mark Widdup is Director of Economy and Environment, and currently earns £71,376 a year. He is in line for a pay rise of almost £30,000 taking his salary up to a massive £101,062. Add employer’s pension contributions and Employers’s National Insurance contributions on to that, and the figure is, of course, much higher.
Mr Widdup isn’t the only one though. Linda Fisher, the current Deputy Chief Executive, earns £84,911 a year, and she is line for a pay rise of over £6,000, taking her salary to £91,087.
So although the good news is Mr Taylor isn’t going to get an egregious rise, others may just slip under the net at tomorrow’s meeting of the full council. Those councillors who said they couldn’t support the leader regarding Mr Taylor need to go one stop further and say they are not going to support other large rises for senior staff. I’m sure they know it’s the right thing to do.
UPDATE: Although the news of Mr Taylor not getting a pay rise was confirmed by multiple sources, there has been growing confusion over the issue. Simon Danczuk, Rochdale’s MP, has been in touch and said, “He is going to get it. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Watch outcome of council meeting tomorrow.”
If this is true, then just under £100,000 of local taxpayers’ money is going to be spent on pay rises for the chief executive and some senior officers. I think the full council meeting tomorrow evening is going to be very lively, unless the council leader plans to silence the opposition.
Small shops and cafes in the Royal Borough of Greenwich are being hit by new street trading licensing charges introduced by the council this summer.
Many small businesses are under cost pressure with Business Rates and rents creeping up and sales figures are struggling to keep up with the taxman’s demands.
The council’s new pavement tax only makes things harder. Florists setting out flower displays, grocers’ fruit and veg stalls, and cafes with outdoor seating areas have all been hit.
“I have three square metres of outdoor space. I have to pay for that every week, as well as a £35 admin fee every six months”, says Jason Hunter, owner of the Creaky Shed grocery shop. “It’s a cost that is nearly unbearable for me. I don’t want to put the cost onto my customers. But I’m left with little choice – either I hurt my business by taking down my outdoor display, or I sack my weekend assistant, or I put up my prices.”
The pavement tax is collected weekly and starts at £7 a square metre. It will cost affected businesses between £500 and £1000 each year according to Lorraine Turton, Greenwich Borough Representative for the Federation of Small Businesses.
But the measure is only expected to bring in £20,000 each year for Greenwich Council given the enforcement and administration costs. So despite hitting business hard, the amount raised won’t even cover the council’s contribution to theire Director of Culture, Sport and Media’s generous pension pot.
The council insist that the new policy puts them in line with other London Boroughs that impose similar street trading charges. But Jason rightly asks “why does that mean Greenwich should do the same? Rather than following the herd, Greenwich Council should be standing up for small businesses.”
Maureen O’Mara, the council’s environment cabinet member, claims that the aim of the policy was “not to make money, but simply to give businesses clarity as to what they can and can’t do.” If this were true, the council should look into other ways of clarifying rules before reaching into businesses’ tills.
Greenwich opposition leader Spencer Drury is proposing a motion to abolish the charges at the end of October. A petition launched by the Federation of Small Businesses calling for the removal of the charges has already attracted 1000 signatures and the campaign to abolish the pavement tax is building momentum.