In our time the WMTPA have had a fair few run-ins with Sandwell Council, from The Public (that major white elephant they’ve continued to support with our cash) to a plethora of press stories highlighting their frivolous use of taxpayers’ money. Now Cllr Steve Eling was to present next year’s budget to non-domestic ratepayers in the borough who are often similarly beleaguered by the council’s lack of initiative.
But hold on…one might expect a consultation with non-domestic ratepayers to include some…well…non-domestic ratepayers. But oh dear, none turned up.
That’s right, no non-domestic ratepayers were present last Thursday. Such is the feeling of disenfranchisement, or is it disregard; the meeting only actually had exactly two attendees – myself and a gentleman from the Black Country Chamber of Commerce. We were joined by two of the council’s accountants so our number blossomed to five. But that includes Cllr Steve Eling.
So what’s to report? Well most of us will breathe a sigh of relief to learn that Sandwell won’t be investing in balloon animals or decorative ice sculptures (well not this year anyway) and are at least attempting to be prudent in 2010/11. But of course, that doesn’t mean everything is perfect and as in previous years, in amongst the necessities were some rather strange priorities considering cash is becoming more and more precious.
Initiatives involving business rate relief for those who take leases on empty retail units were counterbalanced by what sounded like expensive talk of “business start-up support packages” and “incubator units with on-site support” – presumably intended as a stimulus in a borough that is no doubt sharply feeling the pressure of the current economic climate. To some extent we do also have to sympathise with local authorities who now have to find the money to repair potholes and other road damage caused by recent adverse weather conditions, more limited availability of cash from central government, and who have to deal with costly incidentals – like for Sandwell who have recently acquired a 13th century Manor House that now needs maintaining. The recession and weather have, no doubt, placed a strain on public finances and that’s something we have to acknowledge.
But then there are the schemes that you can’t fault the authority for pursuing, yet wonder if they couldn’t have been more dynamic in how they’re done. A swimming baths in West Bromwich is something the locals have wanted for a long time and now it’s on the cards, as are major structural repairs that should secure the future of Tipton baths. With added fitness suites these projects combined are set to cost £21m, and with a £7m down payment this looks to be another pricey project that residents will be bankrolling for a good long while (25years to be exact!). Could Sandwell Council really not have enticed private money into this venture? Sure enough they failed with The Public, but that was a blighted endeavour, resented by the very audience it was intended to woo. People in Sandwell are enthusiastic about leisure facilities, on the face of it it certainly looks as though they’d be incredibly popular in an area devoid of wholesome recreational activities, and yet Cllr Eling claimed that they’d found themselves ‘up a cul-de-sac with external funding’. Three words – not good enough. It looks as though the council dropped the ball here and consequently landed ratepayers with a higher bill than was necessary.
And finally there are the downright bizarre decisions. Priorities presumably plucked out of the air at the end of tiring budget meetings and brainstorming sessions. The sort of ideas that you’d have flagged up as the first ones to ditch when cash is tight. Or, indeed, even if it isn’t.
See, Sandwell Council found themselves with a £3m cash surplus last year (partly because the single status pay deal hasn't had an effect on their finances yet and partly because they paid less interest last year on borrowings) and now have £500k pegged for recurring costs (like the manor house mentioned earlier) and £2.5k to spend on…well…whatever their little hearts desire.
How about £470k on a graffiti removal project or deep cleanse? And this isn’t just for municipal buildings, but actually contributes to the establishment of a free reactive graffiti removal service available to all local businesses.
“Why?” I ask Cllr Steve Eling.
“Because it looks grubby and puts people off shopping”, he replies.
“But if a retailer was burgled and their front windows were smashed, that’d look off-putting too but you wouldn’t replace their window would you? Shouldn’t it be their responsibility, as they too have a vested interest in attracting shoppers?”.
It’s worked in Belgium, he replied. In suburbs of Brussels with massive graffiti problems where teams come out to scrub out graffiti almost before it dries. It has a psychological impact apparently. But a) it sounds massively expensive in the long run if it’s really going to have this effect on vandals and irreversibly change their behaviours, and b) Cllr Eling admitted that graffiting wasn’t actually a huge problem in the Borough. I’m sure there’s some logic somewhere, or maybe someone just fancied a trip to Brussels to ‘investigate’ such experiments…
Then came the inevitable £500k to spend on energy efficiency, including subsidising house insulation and creating ‘cashable efficiencies’ by changing street lighting and improving ‘energy efficiency’ at the council itself. Alas here's yet another council voraciously banging the drum for the environment whilst subsidising car parking for employees and paying out thousands in mileage expenses. Not to mention flying abroad at the drop of a hat. Oh well, green looks good, even if it is about as sincere as a pimp in church.
Lastly there’s the consistently alarming ‘invest to save’ budget of £1m. What will that go on to ensure it really pays the taxpayer back, I hear you ask? The vagaries were worrying – “perhaps IT?” we were told (and we all know how successful that’s been for Birmingham City Council so far...ahem) and “perhaps working practices”, which is obviously open to interpretation. This is most definitely something worth keeping an eye on. If Sandwell are ‘investing to save’ then they simply must save money, within a clear and committed timetable, with all expenditure transparent and traceable.
I did ask about the 3% efficiency savings that they’ve already made according to the ‘pre-budget’ we were being talked through, but received similarly vague responses that I felt might have been catered toward what they thought I wanted to hear. Mutterings of ‘back office’ and ‘support services’ came from the two accountants at the table. Hmmm, it’d be revealing to see exactly what that means in English.
At the end of the day the attendance at this meeting said it all. Our local council works on our behalf, and shouldn’t be in the business of trying to sugarcoat or ‘sell’ their achievements to us. They should be honest and upfront about how cash is being spent, yet too often here plans for the future were punctuated with self-congratulatory language intended to convince us of what a great job they were doing, but the fact is, that’s for residents and taxpayers to decide themselves, not for councillors to rattle-off as though it’s unassailable fact.
It certainly seems that local non-domestic ratepayers have lost faith in Sandwell Council, be it because of this distracting and off-putting attitude that looks and smells like patronising spin, or because of their long-running record of throwing good money after bad and sinking much-needed public funds into fly-by-night projects. Either way, any good news for next years budget was counteracted by the fact that no-one but us few were there to hear it, and for as long as that continues at the point of consultation Sandwell Council will continue to be unaccountable, unchecked and potentially reckless with our cash.