Lancashire taxpayers left with £250,000 bill for botched office move
Jun 2012 19

Attempts by Lancashire County Council to make essential savings have stalled. Just three months after moving into a newly refurbished building, costing £250,000, the offices have been abandoned.

More than 400 Lancashire County Council employees were moved to the building in an attempt to cut costs and bring smaller, fragmented teams under one roof. But when BT showed interest in setting up a call centre in the county, the council was more than happy to hand over its freshly revamped building. But as one of the office workers has described, much of the furniture is now either being sent into storage, donated to charities or thrown into skips.

For Lancashire County Council to spend a quarter of a million pounds kitting out their new office block, only to hand it over to BT three months looks like poor judgement and is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. It is hard to believe that there weren’t any other vacant offices in Lancashire that BT could have taken instead. Lancashire County Council wasted a fortune in what should’ve been a straightforward money-saving move. In future the council must more careful with taxpayers’ money to avoid repeating the same costly mistake.

Scottish government simplification plans not so simple – and taxpayers pay the price
Jun 2012 15

An attempt by the Scottish government to reduce its bureaucracy may have a sting in the tail, Audit Scotland has revealed. The plans, begun back in 2007, aimed at simplifying public services and were designed to save taxpayers £63 million. They could in fact have cost an eye-watering £80 million to implement. The news comes as a shock to those who initially praised the plans aimed at reducing public expenditure. The actual savings are now forecast to be only a fraction of those the government initially hoped for, perhaps only around £15m, a far cry from their initial figures almost five times that amount. Still savings of course, which are to be welcomed, but clearly the initial costs were well understated.

The most alarming aspect of these findings, is what they forecast for the Scottish Government’s next major simplification plans early in 2013. Particular concern is addressed to the now ominous project aiming to merge the police and fire service into a single body. This vast reshuffle of public services on a national scale is hoped to save taxpayers £1.7 billion. Serious questions should now be asked of whether these ambitious plans can be delivered within budget or if they can deliver the savings that the Scottish Government expect. The Scottish Government should tread very carefully in order to avert a catastrophe at the taxpayers’ expense.

Non-job of the week
Jun 2012 13

I remember working in an office where stickers were placed underneath the light switches reminding staff to turn off the lights if they didn’t need to be on. Managers would also occasionally turn them off when they felt it was still light enough to work.

Energy consumption was also reduced by turning the thermostat down a couple of degrees. No-one really noticed, however bills were significantly lower. Turning a computer off when you are out of the office is another way of lowering bills. Simple measures that don’t require a BSc in Carbon Reduction.

Of course these days you can also use smart meters that give real time information on your energy use. When the Windsor and Maidenhead Council installed these in council buildings energy consumption fell overnight by 15 per cent. 

Perhaps Conwy County Borough Council should be reminded of these things before they hire an Energy Officer. According to the job advert the successful applicant will need:

  • a keen interest in energy conservation matters and an ability to motivate others to understand their role in reducing energy consumption??
  • to be proactive in raising awareness of practical conservation measures, recommending energy consumption saving projects whilst ensuring that all undertakings comply with Local Government legislation and statutory requirements.
  • to have the ability undertake comprehensive energy audits in order to identify and make cost recommendations for potential savings
  • advise on appropriate technical solutions in conjunction with technical officers, and provide advice on improvements to the fabric of buildings in line with Conwy County Borough Council, Welsh Assembly and EU guidance

After reading that you can imagine bored council workers sitting through a seminar as the Energy Officer launches their latest consumption saving project.

None of this is rocket science. It’s what people do at home every day of the week as the cost of gas, oil and electricity continues to rise. If Conwy Council wants to reduce costs, don’t hire an Energy Officer. Buy a few smart meters instead.

Sheffield Council’s £400k consultants bill
Jun 2012 12

Sheffield City Council is back in the spotlight. I have already written about massive hikes in the cost of parking permits, the introduction of new green waste collection charges, and also the introduction of fortnightly bin collections. All of these measures have come about because the council needs more money – or so it says. So how does it spend some of the hard-earned cash council taxpayers are forced to hand over?

Well, in just one single month it managed to spend £411k on consultants. Over £80k on management consultants, £209k for IT consultants, and even £1,187 on two ‘ergonomics’ consultants to check whether working environments complied with health and safety guidance. 

The council’s excuse for spending all this cash is it will save over £1 million in the coming year alone. How many times have we heard this before? Why does it need expensive consultants to slash the number of managers? We are constantly being told that councils have to pay inflated salaries to senior managers in order to recruit the best. A quick glance at our Town Hall Rich List will tell you the remuneration for the chief executive in 2010/11 was almost £218k. Does he not have the necessary skills?

If Sheffield City Council is serious about reducing costs,  it could stop the taxpayer funding of unions which costs over £631k a year.  Councillors even agreed to spend £400k on a communications campaign to ensure residents understand fortnightly bin collections. I can do that for them. It’s simple – your bins no longer get emptied every week, despite the offer of a Government grant to protect this basic service. What else is there to communicate?

I’ve just identified over £1 million worth of savings without breaking sweat, and I didn’t bill the council over £400k in consultancy fees to supply the information!

Savings are there to be made. Councils just need to look hard enough, and they can do it without racking up expensive consultants bills.

PAC report on mobile technology in policing reveals “woeful” savings
May 2012 31

A new report was released yesterday by Public Accounts Committee assessing the cost effectiveness of high-tech devices given to police officers. The verdict is not heartening for taxpayers. As the Government spends our money upgrading technology for MPs, police officers have not been left out: £71 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on hand held devices like Blackberries for the police forces. This does not include the £9 million spent on managing the contracts and the £23 million that was contributed by police forces themselves. The grand total comes to £103 million of taxpayers’ money spent for a “woeful” saving of £600,000, according to Margaret Hodge, the PAC Chair.

The police force have protested over major reforms to pay and conditions recently, so officers may not receive this report well. It’s always crucial to spend taxpayers’ money wisely and especially so when savings need to be made. So how effective has our £103 million been at putting bobbies back on the beat? On average the expensive devices have yielded an extra 18 minutes spent out on patrol per officer, according to figures from the National Policing Improvement Agency. Again, this is an average, and some officers actually spent more time in stations after being given Blackberries. Poor delivery was also a major issue as some station found themselves with more devices that they could use while others were left short.

Even after such a poor record using technology to improve efficiency, the Government has decided to continue the programme. The Home Office has also announced plans of starting a new company for the procurement of computer systems for the police. But as this report shows, they have to work a lot harder to get results with so much taxpayers’ money at stake.

Scrapped FiRe Control Centres still costing us £millions
May 2012 31

In 2004, the last government embarked on a plan to set up nine regional fire control centres. This was supposed to speed up the response times to major events such as fires, flooding, and terrorist attacks. This scheme was eventually scrapped in 2010, leaving empty buildings, huge bills, £6000 Brasilia coffee machines, and taxpayers £469 million out of pocket.

The story didn’t end there though, and this week Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire highlighted that taxpayers are still paying £5,000 a day in rent for a building in Castle Donnington. This building was going to be the FiRe Control Centre for Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, and Northamptonshire. The building was completed in 2007, but has just been put up for sale. Mr Bridgen told the BBC, “We need a company to buy those premises, and create some jobs, and get this millstone off the backs of the taxpayer.” No-one would disagree with him.

This is what happened to the FiRe Control Centre in Merton. This too was a millstone around the necks of taxpayers, having never been used. Emma Boon commented last year that rent for office space in Merton is around £15 per square foot. The Government at the time managed to strike a deal that saw us paying over £80 per square foot, which is what hedge funds pay for office space in Mayfair!

Thankfully, in February this year the building was eventually used for the first time. It became the fire service’s new National Co-ordination Centre. This has delivered an estimated £600K in savings to taxpayers. At long last, it has been put to some worthwhile use.

Until all of these buildings are sold off, taxpayers will have stump up tens of millions of pounds to pay for rent, management fees, utility bills, and rates. In the South West alone, the bill is over £13 million.

This is an ongoing problem the Government must deal with. This unnecessary burden must be lifted from taxpayers.

Non-job of the week
May 2012 30

A company called Economic Solutions is advertising for three Sustainable Growth Advisers. They will be based in the North West of England. Here is part of the advert:

Economic Solutions is a major not-for-profit group of companies delivering a wide range of business growth support, skills and recruitment services to employers. It is at the heart of Greater Manchester’s strategy for determining and delivering business growth services and supporting partners across the North West. Our challenge is to harness the skills and expertise of public and private partners to deliver cost-efficient services for growing businesses.

We are seeking to recruit 3 talented individuals to develop and manage a new initiative which will support the 5 North West Local Enterprise Partnerships in understanding and capitalise on environmentally sustainable economic development including shaping future projects and funding opportunities. The role, based in the ENWORKS team, www.enworks.com will include supporting our partners to develop and deliver environmental sustainability action plans for the LEP which will be operational until 2015.

At the bottom of the advert it states ‘this post is part-financed by the ERDF and the Environment Agency.’ How much money comes from the European Regional Development Fund and the Environment Agency I do not know.

I’m not saying all the work done by Economic Solutions doesn’t have any merit. Clearly many businesses use its services, therefore they must be doing something right. It is interesting to note  Economic Solutions is one of the organisations the Government is using to help administer its business start-up scheme, costing £82.5 million.

At best, this is about increasing energy efficiency. All businesses are looking to reduce costs. But if they want to reduce energy costs, there are plenty of resources freely available to help them. If they feel they need to bring in experts, they are free to do so, but there is no reason why taxpayers should be picking up the bill.

Part of the job of a Sustainable Growth Adviser is to help businesses find funding opportunities for green projects though. That sounds horribly like chasing grants and other subsidies. Sustainable Growth Advisers partly funded by taxpayers will help others to get more money in expensive subsidies. That is an expensive vicious cycle.

Taxpayers pick up the bill for ‘top cops’ trade union
May 2012 30

I wrote on Monday about the Chief Fire Officers’ Association (CFOA). This is a group that represents the top brass in the fire service, and in the last three years received over £1.7 million of taxpayer funding.

It was revealed in the Yorkshire Post last Saturday that senior police officers benefit in the same way. The Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association (CPOSA) is not an organisation you hear of very much – if indeed you have heard of them before. It was formed in 1995, and has received millions of pounds of our money, yet it does not publish its accounts, so we don’t know how our money is spent.  

This is from the report in the Yorkshire Post:

In the current financial year, the public is paying £2,197 for CPOSA’s legal insurance policy for each of its 350 members who are made up of every officer from assistant chief constable upwards in each force, plus some senior civilian officials.

As well as more than £750,000 for legal fees, many police authorities – including all four in Yorkshire – are also paying the £275 individual subscription on behalf of each CPOSA member in their ranks.

It can be argued the CPOSA offers protection to those senior officers who may get sued (at times mischievously) whilst doing their job, and it is only right to insure against that risk. However, the insurance policy also pays the legal bills for those officers facing disciplinary action, such as the former Chief Constable of North Yorkshire who was disciplined for gross misconduct. When setting insurance premiums, risk assessors will take into account claims like this, and of course that pushes up the cost of premiums for all police authorities.

If a rank and file police officer was  facing disciplinary action for misconduct, they would either have representation from the Police Federation, or alternatively pay for representation themselves. Because very senior officers do not pay their own membership fees of the CPOSA, they get all their legal costs paid for by us.

What the CPOSA and the CFOA have in common is that taxpayers  pay for the individual membership fees for well paid senior officers. This is what Julian Smith, the Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, had to say:

CPOSA is essentially the unofficial trade union of the country’s top police officers. I simply do not understand why they should not fund their membership from their own salaries as police officers of other ranks do.

Mr Smith raises an important point. We pay the membership fees of chief constables, who will hardly be short of £275. If a doctor wants to become a member of the BMA, they pay their own fees. They don’t expect taxpayers to pick-up the bill.

It is fair to say the majority of senior police officers were/are opposed to the introduction of elected Police and Crime Commissioners. The TPA on the other hand believes this is an important step in making the police more accountable to the public, and in time will reduce the policing bill. The difference is we do not take a penny of taxpayers’ money when presenting our opinions. You can disagree with us, but at least you know you haven’t helped pay for our campaigns.

Both the CFOA and the CPOSA receive our cash to lobby government. They can spend their own money in any way their members see fit – but not taxpayers’ money. When we pay our precept for the fire and police authorities, we expect as much of it as possible to go on the front line – not to prop up taxpayer funded lobbying.

Don’t get me started on ACPO…

Taxpayers stump up over £1.7 million to the Chief Fire Officers’ Association
May 2012 28

Last November I wrote about the Chief Fire Officers’ Association (CFOA). The name suggests this is an organisation paid for by those at the top of the fire service. As I pointed out, this is far from the truth. It is taxpayers that prop-up the CFOA as it gets subscriptions from fire authorities across the country. Those same fire authorities even pay for the individual subscriptions of well paid senior fire officers.

I now have a list of what has been paid to the CFOA for the last three financial years by fire authorities across the country. I must stress this is a conservative figure as two authorities – Mid & West Wales and West Sussex – failed to respond to a freedom of information request. The figures also do not contain other costs, such as staff being diverted away from their duties to organise CFOA events. In total, taxpayers contributed £1,730,589. 

Topping the list is my own Fire Authority, Humberside. It paid CFOA at total of £61,856.87. Regular readers of this website may remember this was the same authority who managed to waste tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money in increased pension pay-outs to senior officers it gave temporary promotions to.

In the Yorkshire Post this morning, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service (HFRS) confirmed it paid the membership fees of around seven senior officers. You would think they would know the exact figure, but apparently not.  It also insisted its membership of the CFOA was good value for taxpayers’ money, but not all Fire Authorities agree. London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority pulled out of the CFOA after it faced a 20% hike in membership fees. Commenting on the decision, London Fire Brigade commissioner, Ron Dobson, said:

At a time when public sector organisations are being challenged to make huge savings across the board, we believe this increase shows a lack of empathy with the financial situation facing all the fire and rescue services that CFOA is there to support.

“In the current economic climate we believe they should be leading the way, rather than simply passing on the cost of savings that we are all being asked to make.

We pay precepts to fire authorities so we are protected if the worst comes to the worst. We expect our money to spent wisely. We certainly do not hand over our hard earned cash for it to be spent on what is in effect a lobbying organisation for senior fire officers.

Non-job of the week
May 2012 23

Ealing Council is advertising for a new Media Officer paying £144.00 – £148.34 per hour. At least that’s what the advert says. Having checked with the council, I can confirm the figures quoted are the daily rate, and not the hourly rate.  The council told me they have informed the recruitment agency of the error, however it has not been rectified. No wonder there are so many expressions of interest! 

Lincolnshire Police Authority is advertising for a Chief Finance Officer, paying a pro rata salary (based on a four-day working week) of £65K-£70K per annum. This is an interesting appointment as the police authority will have a new Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) in November. The police authority should not be making permanent appointments six months before the PCC elections, however sources tell me it is making sure its people will be there when the PCC arrives, and firing them will, of course, be difficult.

The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames is looking for a Low Carbon Communities Coordinator. Here’s part of the job advert:

The Low Carbon Communities Coordinator will build upon knowledge gained from previous domestic and community energy efficiency pilot projects to implement borough-wide projects to realise carbon emission reductions and reduce fuel poverty. You will have responsibility for inspiring and supporting local groups to set up and raise awareness of new projects via a comprehensive communications programme.

How the council thinks it’s going to reduce fuel poverty is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it should write to the Secretary of State of Energy and Climate Change urging him to abandon the Government’s policies on alternative energy, such as wind turbines, that are responsible for pushing up household fuel bills?

None of us deliberately waste energy. We can’t afford it, and simple measures in council buildings can easily reduce carbon emissions. Taxpayers will see the role of a Low Carbon Communities Coordinator for what it is – a non-job.

Police chief leaves the force with £247K payout
May 2012 17

We are used to senior public sector workers departing their post with more than generous payouts. There are some who leave one council with a large redundancy cheque, only to start work for another council or quanqo shortly afterwards. Mark Hammond is a prime example. He was made redundant from West Sussex County Council, trousering a juicy £256K for his troubles. Eight months later he pops up at the Equality and Human Rights Commission on a £130K a year job supervising inquiries into whether the Coalition spending cuts are being made fairly.

Today, Grahame Maxwell, the former Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police, comes under the spotlight. He narrowly avoided being fired last year for gross misconduct. He admitted trying to unfairly help a relative during a recruitment exercise. Instead, the police authority decided not to renew his fixed-term contract, and he retired from the police force on Tuesday. He didn’t leave empty handed though. He cleared his desk, and walked out of the door £247,636 richer.

This is because he had spent a total of twenty eight and a half years as a serving police officer, and under existing rules, he is entitled to receive compensation because his contract was not renewed, and was therefore unable to hit the magic figure of thirty years service. This is what Jeremy Holderness, the police authority chief executive had to say:

It is important that the public understand that the authority had absolutely no discretion in this matter whatsoever. Mr Maxwell became entitled to receive this payment as a matter of law, following the authority’s decision not to extend his fixed term appointment.

Most conditions of service of police officers are determined through national agreement and, once agreed, are enshrined in statute and this requirement is no exception.

The police authority certainly had discretion on whether or not to fire Mr Maxwell for gross misconduct – a charge to which he freely admitted. He misused his position to try and get a relative a job, and fundamentally  that is the reason the police authority did not renew his contract. Mr Holderness also commented that a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) would have to work under exactly the same rules. Whilst this is true, an Elected PCC would also have probably fired the chief constable, and therefore the situation would not have arisen.

Not all the blame lies with the police authority though. The Government is looking to review this regulation, and it should do so as a matter of urgency. No doubt this will be greeted with a chorus opposition from the usual vested interests such as the  Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association. Unsurprisingly, both of those organisations declined to comment on this payout.

In the meantime Mr Maxwell is free to play golf or whatever else he desires knowing that hard-pressed taxpayers are subsidising his lifestyle.

Non-job of the week
May 2012 16

Last week I wrote about a major management reorganisation at Hull City Council. The council leader, Cllr Steve Brady, said he was looking to make at least £1 million in savings. He also added that the council has ‘a top-heavy structure’ which needs to be addressed.

This is good to hear (although we don’t know the full details yet), and on face value, Telford and Wrekin Council were trying to do something similar. Last year the council made the post of Chief Executive redundant, saving taxpayers a salary of £149,000. For a while, the Chief Executive was also in charge of Children’s Services.

All is not what it seems though. The council then employed its first Managing Director on a salary of £137,000, and in addition to that appointment, it has also created the new post of Head of Children’s and Family Services, paying £109,000 a year, plus benefits.  

No-one doubts the importance of child protection, but if the former Chief Executive managed to do the job, why can’t the new Managing Director? When the council is looking to save money, why is it creating new senior management jobs?

It is not just me asking these questions.  Here is part of an editorial written by the Shropshire Star newspaper discussing the newly created post:

The twists and turns leading to the new post are interesting. For a while, in a move to cut costs, the council chief executive Victor Brownlees doubled up on roles and became the borough’s children’s champion. The roof did not fall in.

The newspaper also comments on high senior pay in town halls:

Councils love to justify high salaries by making some sort of comparison with the private sector. That works both ways.

Currently, outside the council bubble economy, the private sector is feeling the full force of the harsh winds of austerity. Pay is being frozen, jobs are being lost, and cutbacks are being made.

It is hard to believe that in the current climate a six-figure sum is necessary to attract somebody motivated to help children and young people. It would be illuminating to see how the figure is arrived at, apart from it being some sort of going rate agreed by councils.

Hull City Council is going to cut the number of senior managers, and I am sure the roof will not fall in. Telford and Wrekin Council have had the opportunity to do the same, but have failed to grasp the nettle. Creating new six-figure salaried jobs cannot be justified.

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