Surrey Campaign Diary September/October 2009

The FOI question to Surrey Police concerning the non-officer numbers increase was received but gave only the narrative explanation of deep change in working practices under Home Office guidelines. A reply on re-billing costs from each borough awaits the completion of individual invoicing and settlement. This needs following up.


My call at the beginning of October for a copy of the 2008-09 Audited Accounts  of SCC produced - at the last minute allowed by law - an online version of 95 pages which incroyablement gave an “unable to complete” 4 page certificate by the District Auditor.


My letter was published on 9th October which described the incomprehensible (to lay people) wording and went on to report the increased pension deficit at £729,000,000 which again wiped out the net asset value of the whole Authority.


On 11th I wrote to the District Auditor (DA), pointing out this failure to honour accountability requirements and asking for clarification. He chose not to comment when replying with a ‘translation’ of his certificate. Such is the expanding scope of the audit responsibility and content of the Accounts package that while they are legally and technically sound they are useless for their basic purpose.


After taking this up (again) with the SCC Chief Finance Officer at our meeting recorded below, and with his agreement, I have written to the Audit Commission MD Audit on principles and shortcomings involved. A big obstacle is the refusal of the DA to start the audit earlier than July and join in the project planning exercise necessary to advance final completion by up to 5 months.


The postponed meeting with Deputy SCC leader David Hodge and new Chief Executive David McNulty took place on 5th October. I was accompanied by Mr John Glanfield our supporter and highways campaigner. The main topic was the Frater report and our concerns arising summarised in a short written statement. In addition, John discussed ‘a taxpayer’s misery at the delivery end’ recounting his experiences of inept highways management while trying to investigate comparative costs with West Sussex Council.


Firmer contact has been established with a reporter at the Surrey Advertiser both by JG and myself. On 11th a statement and quote about Frater was submitted. Both this and highways have been frequent topics reported with input from us.


On 17th I was Peter Rauch’s guest at a Conservative Party branch meeting to meet and hear from new SCC Leader Dr Andrew Povey. This provided both  the opportunity for close conversation with him and a question from the floor regarding his frequently expressed vision of SCC as “world class”: “What does a council have to do to be world class and when will we know when that moment arrives?”


He replied that SCC had started to completely upgrade all street lighting with ‘high tech’ features. The response had to be “does that mean that “world class” will be displayed on County Hall in flashing lights ?”  (illuminating ?).


On 26th my colleague John Bosten and I met to discuss the progress on our case for a credit of £200m from surplus invested cash. He will do more research. Our difficulty is reconciling the SCC (chief Finance Officer) view of things in the light of claimed prudence and eg CIPFA guidelines for reserves, with the visibly confusing character of financial information (see above) viewed by industry experienced accountants used to more practical concerns.


Preparation then ensued for an enhanced 90 minute budget consultation meeting with Cllr David Hodge and Chief Finance Officer Philip Walker set for 3rd November and to be followed by a second on 6th January.


This took place with STPA represented by myself, John Glanfield, Peter Rauch, John Bosten, Gerald Gilbert and Tim Craig. Pre-issued documents by SCC were made the subject of a written response. A bullet point official response to that has been requested. We meet again in January as the 20010-11 budget nears completion.


There were introductory remarks by Council Leader Dr Andrew Povey to which I responded.  There was no agenda, which allowed a fully flowing exchange of views, facts and calls for certain changes. We stressed the zero council tax target.  We were encouraged by information about the activities currently going on to rebuild and streamline front-line activities.


One particular intervention was pleasing. Our Tim Craig (his company is selling telecare to Local authorities co-operating with PCTs) declared his interest and was able to report that Surrey CC appeared not to have followed others in carrying out evaluations or connecting with PCT. He was invited to and has subsequently put in a note of  estimated significant cost savings based on experience elsewhere.


As known about beforehand, and with the hand of JG very visible, the Surrey Advertiser published a report on 6th November revealing the emerging highways fiasco and decision not to renew the Ringway and Carillion contracts in 2011.


The revelations laid bare the degree of management incompetence over several years which even the contractors could not cope with. (“..the contractors had not placed their best staff in Surrey during this time due to a poor relationship”) I feel sadly vindicated.


It was five years ago that the  smell of decay started to assail our nostrils. I have kept a record of all efforts to address councillors, former Leader Nick Skellett and former Chief Executive Richard Shaw who responded either with complacency or more usually silence and unanswered correspondence.


Then there was the unreal recruitment process for the 17-page job description Head of Surrey Highways the very strange (observed as,politely, a square peg) result of which seemed to go un-noticed until very recently. What is criminal is the time it took for self-recognition by a blind leadership  and hence the continuing  wastage of our money and loss of service. Another example of the need for Better Government.


Peter Webb

9th November 2009


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