DCMS to spend £2 million replacing “boring” boundary signs on the back of the Olympics
Jul 2012 18

With only ten days to go until the Olympic opening ceremony and London already grinding to a halt, it will be months until we know the true cost of hosting the Games.

But the direct costs of stadia, accommodation and security aren’t the only things for which taxpayers have to pick up the tab; lots of hidden costs are cropping up too. Only yesterday the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced plans to revamp county boundary signs in Cornwall, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon, Norfolk and North Yorkshire “to boost the country’s tourism industry on the back of the Olympic and Paralympic Games”. These six counties have been selected for a pilot scheme which is estimated to cost taxpayers a cool £2 million.

Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State in charge of the department, says the current signs are too boring and just aren’t enticing enough for tourists. But a picture of a windmill on a motorway sign marking the border for, say, Norfolk is hardly going to stop drivers from taking their holidays in Thailand or Tenerife. It’s this sort of naivety that inevitably means massive bills for taxpayers. Throwing money at unenticing signage won’t suddenly ignite the tourist industry in destinations across the UK.

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to fork out £2 million just because the minister finds the signs “boring”. If he’s right, let the local businesses who would supposedly benefit from a change pay for them. Why not approach private businesses to help cover the costs – because if they really believe they will benefit from the increased tourism they’ll surely help. Throwing more taxpayers’ money at projects in the name of the Olympics is insulting to taxpayers. The Government needs to be more imaginative in how it funds these schemes instead of always fleecing taxpayers for their pet projects.

Crawley Council spend £600 to translate one publication into Urdu
Jul 2012 13

Taxpayers in Crawley have been left to pick up a £600 bill for translating just one copy of their quarterly magazine into Urdu. The 12-page publication, which is sent to all Crawley Homes’ tenants, contains advice on renting and lifestyle tips, ironically including advice on prudently managing finances.

Of course translations are sometimes necessary to publicise vital services like the police or hospitals; but to spend over £600 of taxpayers’ money translating a booklet doling out patronising advice for a single resident is wasteful. But don’t take our word for it; another resident claimed that the magazine was “routinely just put in the bin”.

This isn’t the first example of councils wasting money translating pointless publications. Back in 2009, we came across an equality leaflet which Southwark Council had translated into Bengali, Chinese, French, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese.

Glossy magazines are an expensive waste of money in English, let alone translating them for one resident. Crawley Council has a responsibility to spend taxpayers’ money more responsibly and should learn lessons from this costly case.

Non-job of the week
Jul 2012 04

We know through our research, when it comes to matters of equality and diversity councils respond in different ways. The Equality Act 2010 imposed heavy burdens on employers, however we also know hiring specific staff is not necessary. For example, Birmingham City Council employs 28 Equality and Diversity Officers at a cost of almost £2 million. Manchester City Council doesn’t employ any.

Thurrock Council is one of those councils that feels it needs to create a mini-department. Our research in 2010 showed it employed five Diversity Officers, and now the council is looking for two more – one for maternity cover and another on a full-time permanent contract. Here’s part of the job description:

The primary purpose of this post is to support the implementation of the council’s Equality and Diversity Strategy. You will take proactive responsibility for supporting developing workforce and community projects, tracking progress against action plans and ensuring that these are congruent with organisational needs and priorities, good practice in local government and current employment legislation.

As it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, disability, race, gender, etc., my question to Thurrock is: if other councils can manage without diversity officers, why can’t you?

Regular readers will remember North Lincolnshire Council’s advertisement for a Future Shape Programme Manager in 2010. Not that North Lincolnshire was alone in advertising for such a role. Other councils have also done the same. This week it is the turn of Copeland Borough Council which is looking for a Transformation Programme Manager.

As Transformation Programme Manager, you will be responsible for managing the delivery of a programme of high profile projects within the Council. You will work with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that the programme delivers the necessary outcomes on time and to budget.

The programme encompasses a wide range of projects designed to change the way in which services are delivered and bring about lasting organisational change. This is an exciting portfolio of work and for the successful candidate, will be an opportunity to work within a dynamic environment at the heart of change.

Copeland is a small district council serving a population of around 70,000 people. It already has enough well paid officers to know what needs to be done to reduce costs and getter better value for taxpayers’ money. Surely one of these people can do the job?

NHS quango provides staff with fleet of luxury cars costing £1 million
Jul 2012 03

A Scottish NHS quango has spent more than £1 million on a fleet of luxury cars for its employees. National Procurement spent £971,000 on leased executive cars for staff deemed “regular users” since October 2008.

In response to a Freedom of Information request, National Procurement revealed that 40 employees, or one in eight of their total headcount, had used flashy, taxpayer-funded cars for work. This included £27,000 for a Mercedes, three S-Line Audi A3s, each costing £23,000, an Audi TT costing £28,300 and three Range Rover Evoques each costing £29,500. On top of the leasing costs, taxpayers are also liable for much of the costs of insurance, fuel and vehicle excise duty.

We have already revealed that mileage reimbursement rates in the public sector are way above the actual costs of fuel and reasonable wear and tear. Quangos like National Procurement have an obligation to taxpayers to only reimburse staff for essential travel and where cheaper alternatives such as video conferencing are not suitable. To rub even more salt in taxpayers’ wounds, one employee even revealed that there is a company pool car available and that often public transport is a viable alternative.

The costs have also been slammed by Jackie Baillie MSP, Labour’s Health spokesman in the Scottish Parliament, who said:

The NHS in Scotland is suffering from severe pressures and it seems that officials have no proper sense of financial priorities. Staff who are in genuine need of transport to do their jobs is one thing, but these are status symbols for managers whose jobs are predominantly desk-based.

It is very worrying that a quango whose sole responsibility is procurement for the NHS views this as a sensible use of taxpayers’ money. The NHS in Scotland need to work much harder to ensure taxpayers are getting value for money and the leasing of expensive cars shows more can be done.

Non-job of the week
Jun 2012 27

It has been some time since I last wrote about Oxford City Council, but once again they have come on to my radar. The council is looking to recruit a Workplace Travel Coordinator. Here’s part of the advertisement:

Main Duties & Responsibilities

• To be responsible for the development, promotion and implementation of the Council’s Workplace Travel Plan, in line with the travel hierarchy, to deliver modal shift to more sustainable choices
• To work with public transport providers, other appropriate organisations and businesses to facilitate improved opportunities for sustainable travel choices.
• To forecast, collect, record and report data on reduced CO2 emissions from the implementation of sustainable transport choices.


I wonder what our friends from the Plain English Campaign make of that? I believe “deliver modal shift to more sustainable choices” means “don’t use your car”, or perhaps “don’t use a car unless you car share”. “Facilitate improved opportunities for sustainable travel choices” should read “get them to provide more buses”.

The facts are simple though: if you live in the country, need to get your children to school, and then get yourself to work, you don’t have a choice but to use your car. Even if you live on a bus route, your place of work may not be in a central location, meaning you have to travel into the city centre and then out again. Anyone who has tried that will tell you how long it takes.

We don’t sit in traffic jams for the fun of it. We do it because we don’t have an option. Many people commute to work using public transport because for them it is the best option. Others choose their car. It is up to us how we travel to work, and has nothing to do with councils. Less meddling please, and concentrate more on the core front-line services we pay our Council Tax for.

 

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.

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