Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet
Mar 2012 27

Some readers may remember Alan Bradley, a Coronation Street character who met a sticky end in front of a Blackpool tram. It seems Blackpool Council is concerned something similar could, erm, happen again.

Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet was unveiled by Ken Dodd last year, and was constructed at a cost of £2.6 million. Now just five months on, part of the granite and concrete carpet has been destroyed by council contractors because it was too close to the tram lines. You would have thought this would have been obvious to council officials before the carpet was installed. Apparently not, and this week’s award for stating the obvious goes to Alan Cavill, assistant chief executive at Blackpool Council.

“After observing how visitors interact with the carpet, many are seen to look down while reading the phrases and frequently step back to look at the comments.

“Regretfully if a visitor to the carpet was to step back off the very end of the carpet into the line of an oncoming tram then this could potentially be very dangerous.”

Indeed it could be very dangerous, although I don’t think we needed Mr Cavill to tell us that. Leaving aside whether or not laying the carpet was a good use of public money, you would have thought the council would have attempted to remove the area that was destroyed, and place it elsewhere? According to the council, the Comedy Carpet Company quoted the council £50,000 for the work, however this has since been revealed as not true. The company quoted somewhere between £3,000 – £3,600 in an email to the council last year.

Questions need to be asked of planning officials. Surely they should have realised what was going to happen placing the carpet so close to tram tracks? It seems once again the joke is on taxpayers who have to pay for the council’s incompetence.

Away-days at BIS cost taxpayers over £100,000
Mar 2012 27

It has been revealed that taxpayers have paid £137,000 for staff members at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to take 64 away-days in the past year. There’s a real need to find savings and cut unnecessary spending, but BIS has spent an exorbitant amount on corporate away-days. A shocking £25,000 was spent on a single event, held at the QE2 conference centre in London.

For readers living outside London, the QE2 Conference Centre is across the road from the Department’s huge head offices. Surely they have ample room in their own building to hold events, without having to pay handsomely to go across the road?

A statement from BIS claims that,

“a change of environment can help teams to focus on the objectives of the day, to ensure they are successful. Officials at all levels of the department make every effort to ensure that all such spending is clearly value for money for the taxpayer.”

It seems unlikely that there is true value for money in spending so much to send staff members to Kew Gardens and the National Archives, or even to a hotel next-door to BIS, which is where 23 of the 64 away-days since May 2010 were held.

If BIS really cared about giving taxpayers value for money, they would find more cost-effective ways to help their teams “focus on the objectives of the day.” In fact, if finding savings was one of those objectives, maybe they wouldn’t waste £100,000 of taxpayers’ money on corporate picnics.

Taxpayers foot the bill for Olympics chopper opera
Mar 2012 19

Another report emerged last week that the Olympics budget will vastly exceed initial estimates. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) recently came out with a report which claimed that the Olympics will cost over £11billion. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), of course, claims that costs will remain under the current budget of £9.3billion. This estimate, however, does not include many additional costs – the cost of land is £766million alone!

There have been hiccups in the plan for months now. Just before Christmas, it was revealed that the cost of security has soared. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) originally estimated that it would need 10,000 staff members, but now finds that it will need 20,000. This puts the price tag for security at well over £1billion, over twice the original budget.

The £9.3billion budget also does not include “legacy costs,” which are estimated to be an additional £826million. This additional cost includes the many cultural events that will be happening under the Olympics banner up and down the UK, including an opera being staged in Birmingham.

Birmingham Opera Company announced that it will be putting on an opera in August as part of the Cultural Olympiad. This is no “Don Giovanni,” however – the Daily Mail reports that Stockhausen’s “Mittwoch Aust Licht” will last for five hours, require 150 performers and will include four helicopters. The opera will be performed four times for a total of 2,400 guests. It will cost £1million, and it will largely be funded by taxpayers.
It will be the first time that this opera has ever been performed in its entirety, and it’s not too difficult to see why, considering the huge expense. The four helicopters will be used for a string quartet, with one member of the quartet in each helicopter. They will play in sync for 40 minutes, with the sound of the whirring helicopters as a backdrop for the piece.

Emma Boon, our Campaign Director gave her reaction to the piece:

“It is incredible that huge sums of taxpayers’ money are being spent on this absurd opera at a time when the public finances are in such a mess. Details like the four helicopters will all make for a hugely expensive and over-the-top spectacle that many hard-pressed taxpayers will view as a self-indulgent and grotesque use of their money. If opera fans want this and it is going to be such a success then the creators should have no problem finding financial backers for it. Looking at the details it’s no surprise that the only mugs who’d pay to put on something like this are those who are spending taxpayers’ money, not their own.”

Non-job of the week
Mar 2012 14

Surrey County Council was one of those councils who recently increased council tax. We have commented many times on how Surrey wastes taxpayers’ cash, so perhaps it was not unexpected the council increased the tax burden on its residents.

Now the council is looking for a Development Manager as, to quote the job advertisement, “It’s all change at Surrey County Council right now.” It also goes on to say it is aiming to become an even more efficient and effective council.

With a 72% rise in council tax over the last 10 years, efficient isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Readers may also remember this is the same council that spent over £15,000 on this pointless video.

This is also the same council that has been hard at work creating a mini change department, including a Senior Performance and Research Manager (Intelligence), Performance Manager, Performance Officer, Intelligence Officer, Change Officer, and Senior Change Manager; they are the ones we know about.

I don’t know if this is an admission of failure on behalf of the council, an admission that its existing senior managers don’t have a clue. If it is, then surely a clear out at the top should be the top priority? There has to be a reason for inflation-busting council tax rises over the last decade. Is this it?

Just in case the council didn’t get the message we sent them last month, here are some areas of spending that if reduced would provide some change to the council tax bills Surrey residents are forced to pay:

  • The Chief Executive at Surrey County Council received total remuneration of £253,133 in 2010/2011. There were at least 19 staff who received more than £100,000 at the authority in 2009/10. Some change there?
  • Councillors’ allowances at Surrey County Council cost taxpayers £1,582,000 in 2010-11. More change there?
  • The estimated cost of union officials at Surrey Council is £284,743, these are staff paid for by taxpayers but work for the trade unions. This does not include the cost of other support provided such as office space or the administration of union fees. Even more change there?

Just three examples of many changes that could happen. Instead to talking about change and employing more people in an attempt to deliver change, it’s about time Surrey County Council really changed and delivered better value for money for council tax payers across the county.

Council openly advertising union jobs
Mar 2012 12

Reading Borough Council’s Directorate of Corporate Resources is looking for a new Administrative Assistant. Not interesting on a first glance, but when you read the advertisement you realise it is not council taxpayers in Reading who are benefiting.

We are seeking an organised and reliable person to provide administrative and clerical support at our UNISON Branch Office, initially for a 6 month period.As well as having previous administrative experience, you will be self-motivated and capable of using your own initiative, with the ability to plan, prioritise and organise your own workload. As the first point of contact for people accessing the service, you will have the ability to communicate effectively at all levels.

On a day-to-day basis your duties will include: 
• providing clerical support to the Branch Officers, taking messages and diary management
• maintaining records, files and memberships
• assisting in the producing and distribution of minutes and reports.You will need to be conversant with Microsoft Office packages and be familiar with using a range of information technology databases.

Once again, another trade union is subsidised by taxpayers. UNISON in Reading Council already benefits from one full-time equivalent officer, costing over £28K. Now it is getting secretarial help paid for by taxpayers, on top of having other perks such as offices, access to e-mail, and telephones.

At a time when every penny counts, it is time the political leadership of the council did the right thing, and ended this practice. Staff have a right to union membership. No-one can take that away from them, but jobs like this should not be paid for by taxpayers already struggling to pay their council tax bills.

If you agree, why not write to the leader of the council, Cllr Jo Lovelock. I’m sure she would welcome your views!

Tell the Government to stop aid to Argentina
Mar 2012 01

Over the weekend, the Sun on Sunday reported on the huge amounts of aid money going to Argentina, while their government threatens the right of people in the Falkland Islands to remain British.  Partly through the World Bank and partly through the European Union.  I looked at some of the financial details last year.  The United States is voting against fresh loans because of how poorly the country treats its creditors, despite having substantial reserves.

Nancy Soderberg, formerly a senior US diplomat and now co-chair of the American Task Force Argentina, wrote for the Telegraph that “the ease with which Argentina has flouted its obligations encourages its government to think it is able to behave however it chooses. But if Britain were to take action and stand up to Argentina financially – by, for example, joining the Obama administration in voting against World Bank loans for the country – it would send a strong message that its G20 partners are no longer willing to overlook irresponsible behaviour.”

Taxpayers money shouldn’t be spent paying for projects in Argentina, when that country is threatening the people of the Falkland Islands and refusing to accept their clear right to remain British.  If the Americans want to get tough with Buenos Aires for once, our government should support them and vote against new loans.

This is a chance to save some money that could be better spent and make it clear that no country which questions Britain’s sovereignty should be supported by the international institutions we fund.  If the Government want people to trust that the foreign aid budget is well spent, it is vital that they take action on funding for Argentina.

There is mounting pressure for the Government to do something about this, if you want to help, please write to your MP.  It can really make a difference.

Non-job of the week
Feb 2012 29

Two weeks ago, one of my non-jobs was a Senior Travel Awareness Officer in Enfield. This week Darlington Borough Council is searching for a Local Motion Travel Advisor.

According to the job description the successful applicant ‘will provide information and advice on walking, cycling and using buses and trains. Much of this work will involve calling at houses within an area, engaging in a conversation about how people currently travel and identifying where there are opportunities to make changes to help people get fitter, save money or reduce their carbon footprint.’

But where does the funding for this non-job come from? Officers paid for by Darlington council taxpayers spend their time looking for grants to chase. By this example, it doesn’t seem to make any difference which grants they chase. The money for this role comes from the Department for Transport’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund.

A total of £560 million is being made available over a four year period, and according to the DfT, the purpose of the fund is to enable the delivery by local transport authorities of sustainable transport solutions that support economic growth while reducing carbon.

In 2004 Darlington was chosen as one of the Sustainable Travel Demonstration Towns. The initial funding was £3.24 million over a five year period to deliver ‘Smarter Choices.’ This involved encouraging residents to make just one journey a week on foot, by bike, or by bus.

Last year the council was awarded an additional £4 million. This money covers a period up to 2015.

Anyone who drives will know there is nothing worse than being sat in a traffic jam. If you are anything like me, you will spend much of it tapping the top of the steering wheel in frustration, looking at the clock, and wondering what time you will reach your destination. I don’t to this for fun. If there is a public transport option that fits in with my time scale, I take it. If I have the time to make a short journey on foot, I do. If I have a meeting in a city centre with a railway station nearby, I go by train. I make these decisions without the government pouring millions of pounds of our money into a local scheme. I don’t need anyone to knock on my door and run through the options available to me.

According to Darlington Council, the ‘Local Motion’ scheme has caused a 9% reduction in car journeys. Of course, they can’t prove this. All of this could have happened naturally as frustrated drivers opt for quicker and easier ways of getting to work.

Councillors in Darlington are meeting tomorrow to decide whether or not to raise council tax by 3.5%. Not spending money chasing grants and not employing a Climate Change Officer are perhaps more ways the council could save money and not increase the financial burden on local people?

Non-job of the week
Feb 2012 22

Last year I commented regularly on the amount of improvement managers and officers Oxford City Council was advertising for. The council has previously advertised for a Business Improvement Manager, a Performance Improvement Manager and a Business Improvement Manager (both twice), and a Business Improvement Partner. It is now advertising for a Business Improvement Officer. This is a permanent, full-time position, paying between £25,472 – £28,636. 

It will be interesting to find out how much money the council has spent on this new mini-department, and how successful it has been. How much of the work of the new officers and managers could and should have been done by existing well paid staff?

Elmbridge Borough Council is looking for a Recycling Advisor. The salary is modest and it’s only for a four-month fixed contract, however why does the council need to employ someone to knock on doors offering recycling advise? When my council rolled out a new recycling scheme a couple of years ago, all residents were informed of what they could and could not recycle. Since then recycling rates have increased.

In many ways I have sympathy with councils. The more they put into landfill, the more we have to pay in landfill tax. The former leader of my council told me when it comes to recycling his only interest is to reduce the amount paid in landfill tax in order to keep council tax bills down. It’s very difficult to argue with that statement.

I have two issues with Elmbridge. The first is if they had informed residents properly in the first place, they wouldn’t have to employ someone to knock on doors. In this instance it would have saved a salary of around £5K. That doesn’t sound a lot, but as we know, a few thousand here and a few thousand there starts adding up to sizeable sums of money.

The second problem I have is although I accept councils want to reduce the amount of landfill tax that is paid, knocking on people’s doors is not a cost effective method of communication. It also smacks of the nanny state.

Give residents choices by all means, but we don’t pay our council tax to be lectured on our doorsteps.

Top cop receives pension payout and returns to the same job 24 hours later
Feb 2012 17

Another week, another highly-paid public sector worker returns to work after supposedly retiring with a massive pension payout. John Geates, a police chief, has resumed his role as Director of the Scottish Police College in Fife just 24 hours after leaving with a £300,000 lump sum. Mr Geates (aged 49) will also be entitled to an annual pension of over £55,000 a year when he turns 55. Even then, he will still be able to continue his job on full pay. And all of this apparently on top of a taxpayer-funded residence in Tulliallan Castle.

Such convoluted and scandalous arrangements are not unusual in the public sector. Often the problem lies with mismanaged redundancy schemes. In October 2011, it was revealed that a series of NHS executives had accepted large severance payments only to be reemployed on short-term contracts, often costing more than £1,000 per day. Also in October 2011, Stoke-on-Trent Council paid out £330,000 in redundancy payments to 25 staff and then rehired them in new jobs. But a variation on Geates’ retirement arrangement is also widespread. It was estimated in June 2010 that 10,000 public sector workers are paid a pension on top of their salary, a practice derided as double-dipping.

The rationale behind these schemes is often to save taxpayers’ money. Geates got £300,000 because his role has been ‘civilianised’ to save £22,000 a year. But the public sector is not always careful that cost savings are well-planned or well-executed. The Government claims that it takes this seriously and Eric Pickles has promised a crackdown on the practice of double-dipping, but the Geates example suggests that not enough has been done.

These shady pension arrangements are unfair and they lack transparency. Geates was immediately reemployed by the Scottish Police College, his position was not advertised, and no other candidates were interviewed. It may be true that he was the best person for the job, but taxpayers will want to know that a proper process was followed and that this deal was not stitched up behind closed doors.

It’s similarly unfair that some highly-paid public officials can receive full pensions at only 55. Public sector workers are already significantly better paid on average than those in the private sector and they get substantial taxpayer contributions to their pensions. Most taxpayers could never dream of retiring as early as 55.

Furthermore, it is morally wrong that public sector workers should seek to maximise their financial gain at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. In the face of necessary spending cuts, Geates and his like are leeching away money that could go towards more frontline police or a helpful tax cut. As Director of Scotland’s leading police training centre, Geates should set a better example to his recruits.

Non-job of the week
Feb 2012 15

Camden Council is looking for four (3 full time, 1 part time) Outcomes and Development Officers. Here’s part of the job description:

We are seeking dynamic and motivated individuals to take up the roles of Outcomes and Development Officers within our Communities and Third Sector team. These roles will be integral to the implementation and development of Camden Council’s new Investment and Support Programme for the local voluntary and community sector (VCS).

Camden Council is moving towards a more collaborative approach with local VCS organisations based on investing in social outcomes for Camden residents. This new approach brings with it new challenges for both the council and supported organisations;

  • how do we better understand the value of our work?
  • What can we learn from each other’s experiences?
  • How do we create robust sustainable solutions in a difficult financial climate.

Your role as an Outcomes and Development Officer will be to help VCS organisations find practical solutions to these questions and more.

Involving charities and the voluntary sector more is great, but do they need the council to help them to assist in finding practical solutions to those three questions? If anything, the voluntary sector, which works on much tighter purse strings, could teach the council how to do it.

Enfield Council is searching for a Senior Travel Awareness Officer. After reading the hyperbole, you will see the purpose of this job is to reduce CO2 emissions. If you live in Enfield the travel awareness team will attempt to lecture you in how you travel. You will be told to walk and cycle more. You should leave your car at home and use public transport.

No doubt the council will say it is failing residents if it does not inform them of the choices available. I’m sure the able bodied people of Enfield know how to walk. If they have a bicycle, I’m sure they know how to ride it, and if they want to purchase a bicycle, I’m sure they can find someone who will sell them one. As for public transport, is there anyone living in London who is not aware of the options available to them?

When you hear people say they want the council to stop interfering in their lives, this is one example of what they mean. By all means have a transport policy. If new housing is built in one area it may mean additional bus routes will have to be created, but we are supposed to be living in a free society. How we travel is our business, not the business of councils.

Non-job of the week
Jan 2012 25

If you have ever wondered what some people do in council communications departments, here is a an example. Waverley Borough Council is looking for a new Strategic Director, and the beginning of the following job advert has certainly been written by someone with a creative imagination:

Could you weave gold into our services?

We don’t really expect you to possess the skills of a tailor. But if you have the gold thread needed to connect our services and communities, you could be ideal for this role.

Talking about communications departments, Islington Borough Council is searching for an Interim Head of Communications, paying £62,460 – £66,366 per annum. If Islington is anything like some of the councils I deal with, they should rename the post as Head of Miscommunication, as there are times when getting a straight answer to a straight question is virtually impossible.

Of course councils need communications officers, and therefore someone to manage them. To justify the salary on offer, the Head of Communications must be managing a fairly large team, and that raises questions in itself, but when you read the following in the job description, you begin to wonder what messages we are paying for:

The council is focused on making Islington fairer by reducing the gap between rich and poor and making a difference to the lives of those in our community who most need our help

The council is there to provide the services we pay our council tax for, therefore those in the community who require the most help should be helped. We do not pay our council tax so the council can try to reduce the gap between rich and poor. That is overtly political, and has nothing to do with its primary purpose. It seems as if Islington regards itself as the North London equivalent of Robin Hood, although it may find that if it tries to steal from the rich to give to the poor, many of them will up sticks and move to another area where the council does not adopt such a policy.

We’ve had Future Shape Programme Managers; Business Improvement Managers; Change Programme Managers. This week Merton Borough Council wants Business Improvement Advisors. Paying between £38,070-£40,716, the council is looking for an unspecified number of these advisors to ‘change the way it operates, leading to a leaner and more efficient organisation by 2015.’

What a pity those in charge didn’t think the council should have been  leaner and more efficient in the first place. With many senior officers receiving generous salaries and pension benefits, they should have been been seeking ways to make sure the ship was sailing in the most efficient way possible. It shouldn’t take reduced funding from central government grants to get them to start thinking of ways of saving taxpayers’ money.

Councils are supposed to be the most efficient part of government. It does make you worry just how bad the rest are!

UNISON response to council pensions report
Jan 2012 25

Today we have released a report on council pension contributions, you can read it in full here. We found that council employer pension contributions were equivalent to £1 in every £5 of council tax receipts in 2010-11.

UNISON issued a lazy response to this earlier, strewn with factual errors. They claim that:

Actually, the local government pension scheme costs the taxpayer just 5p in every £1 paid in council tax.

No, it really doesn’t. What UNISON seems to have done is calculate employer pensions contributions as a share of total council income. The response is so bad, that they even go on to explain their own miscalculation in the next line:

Councils get only 25% of their revenue from council tax, 75% comes from other sources, including business rates and local government grants.

Yes, councils get their revenue mainly from central government (that is still taxpayers’ money of course). But employer contributions are equivalent to a fifth of the revenue they receive in Council Tax.  If employer contributions were reduced by ten per cent, local authorities could afford a two per cent cut in council tax rates. This is all just simple maths.

Then they wheeled out this tired old line:

When dinner ladies, social workers and care staff retire, on average they will get just £4,000 a year, dropping to just £2,600 for women.

I wrote about this nonsense in a blog in November, when public sector workers were out on strike. But to repeat: if someone works for a council for a year, their pension pot will be small.  But they’ll have worked in other places for years and can accrue other pension entitlements while they’re there. That average is meaningless and a dishonest attempt to mislead the public about the value of public sector pensions. Those who spend their career in the public sector do very well out of their pension schemes.

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