Information is not Knowledge

BureaucracyOne of my favourite Babergh District Council committees is the Joint Audit & Standards. It last met on the 22nd January and paper JAC68 tells us of the current state of play with complaints against councillors.
We are told that since the last meeting there have been 11 new complaints. There are four complaints outstanding against District Councillors and 42 against Parish Councillors. No complaint investigation resulted in action being taken and seven complaints were deemed either not to have breached the Code of Conduct or required no action. Thirty-nine complaints were carried forward and are still outstanding.
This is just Information – not Knowledge and only hides what should be known. There was no update in October to the August 2015 report (JAC 59) which told us about three Mid-Suffolk District Councillors and various Parish Councillors in Stoke by Nayland, Felsham, Elmswell, Beyton (& Tostock), Bentley, Stradbroke and Long Melford who were the subject of complaints.
Why does it matter – well for one thing the disinfectant of transparency is a powerful boost for government to be answerable to and controlled by the people.
I would like to know whether the complaints against the three Mid- Suffolk Councillors were resolved. Have there have been four new complaints and if the three Mid Suffolk Councillors are still hanging around awaiting findings, what is holding matters up?  Who is the fourth Councillor to be the subject of a current complaint and what have they done?
Hopefully we might find out about all these things at the next meeting of the next Joint & Audit & Standards Committee.

Meanwhile on Planet Babergh

BureaucracyI sometimes reflect how life in/on Babergh District Council seems how life might be on a distant planet/country where rules and standards as we know them do not apply.
So I was intrigued to read that on Thursday 16th December the Joint Scrutiny Community are to look at Council Grants and External funding and resolve that the following be the subject of further investigation:
(a)    To   include  the   external   funding   offer   in   the   work   of  the   Grants   Review Project to maximise opportunities for our Districts through externals funders  and opportunities locally, regionally and nationally.
(b)    To research the reduction of our Communities Grant spending from 2017 to 2020 and align internal budgets for non-grant allocations.
(c)    To   pay   the  Annual   Revenue Grants   in  interim  stages  to  ensure  robust monitoring, evaluation and meeting of strategic priorities.  (my italics)
My initial thoughts were that this business was ultra vires. Scrutiny is a reactive committee and does not promote policy – that is the purpose of the Strategy Committee. At a stretch you could say that this activity comes under the role and function heading of “undertaking the Council’s responsibilities in relation to financial governance issues”. But it is a stretch and my earlier point stands, Scrutiny does not promote or formulate policy – that is the purpose of the politicians on other committees.
The paper for discussion on Thursday tells us that grants in Babergh total £419,000. We are not told what the criteria are for successful applications, where the money went, who proposes recipients and who approves the applications.
I get concerned when I see that grants will be paid in interim stages. As a former lending banker I am familiar with stage payments in building projects. These are usually predicated upon surveyors’ certificates and let builders (and bankers) access the credit ratings  of the principal parties. There is unlikely to be a valid comparability with District Council grants.
I get concerned when I see that the stage payments are to  ensure  robust monitoring, evaluation and meeting of strategic priorities. How many extra people do we need to employ to robustly monitor and evaluate? Why can’t we be happy with the ability of the recipients to employ the monies properly? If we are that concerned with the  probity and abilities of the applicants, then we do not advance the funds. If we really need to copper bottom the proposals then let the local Councillors recommend the grants and monitor their usage.
I get concerned when I see the  Tory party of smaller government being lead by the officers into the bogs of greater bureaucracy. The Joint Scrutiny Committee has no business in this matter at present and it begs the question as to who is giving leadership in Babergh District Council. When none of Babergh’s political parties had overall control, decisions were (in theory) directed by the Political Leaders  Group. Since there was no overall control, the executive and officers of the Council felt obliged to provide the leadership that was lacking.
Despite the Conservative Party’s successes of May 2015 that position seems to continue.

Small Successes – Christmas Lights

Christmas Lights cI have been very pleased to assist Kieron Ruddy & Mark Snowling in persuading Suffolk County Council to turn a street light off so that they can mount a Christmas Lighting Display in Long Bessels, Hadleigh as a fund raiser for the Brendan Oakes Trust. Kieron and Mark’s community initiative should be applauded and fully supported – better still visit the display and support the Trust

 

Corks Lane

Flag by BaberghLast year the Leader of Babergh District Council indicated that the future of Corks Lane would be decided by the post May 2007 administration. As we know, the Conservatives romped home thirty one seats out of forty three thus celebrating being in full control for the first time since 1974.
On 11th May the Leader of the Council was quoted as saying that the new regime would press ahead with a joint review of Babergh’s headquarters in Hadleigh and Mid Suffolk’s in Needham Market.
And then a period of silence ensued until early September when Babergh decided that it would produce:
a plan for our short-term accommodation usage which will be implemented over the next six months that will rationalise the usage of our existing accommodation, build greater integration and co-location of teams across the two sites and develop some “spokes” within our market towns.
an accommodation strategy (and the necessary complementary workforce development strategy) that is cognisant of and flexible enough to reflect emerging local and national policies and public service reforms.
So, where was the driving force? Certainly it doesn’t appear to be in the controlling party. There was no indication of hitting the ground running. After all this deliberation, discussion and decision making, it definitely looks like a case of the mountain belching and bringing forth a mouse.
What’s being overlooked is the potential for saving ₤1,000,000 a year in accommodation costs if Babergh’s and Mid Suffolk’s operations are concentrated in Corks Lane. To ignore such a savings opportunity is disgraceful and not what the residents of Babergh expect and deserve. Are Mid Suffolk resisting the logical conclusion of the full merger which they voted for in 2011?
Or will the devolution of powers into a Suffolk/Norfolk powerhouse result in the District Councils becoming irrelevant and ultimately being disbanded with their powers and responsibilities being absorbed and redistributed elsewhere?
Only time will tell, but I look forward to 2016 when hopefully we will be seeing the plans and strategies and stop asking ourselves what’s taking so long?

No Sh*t Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes 1894The week end press reports that following the destruction of parking meters in Cardigan (Wales) high street sales increased.
Marcus Jones, the Government High Streets Minister has suggested that small town centres could become “parking meter-free zones” in an effort to save shops from closure. The Government is growing increasingly concerned that punitive parking costs and fines are deterring shoppers from using their local high streets.
Small stores are going out of business as people increasingly shop online and use supermarkets to avoid parking charges.
At last the penny has dropped, people prefer the free parking at supermarkets to paying for parking at Council car park sites. Hadleigh High Street is a good example where parking at Morrison’s is simple and free whereas when one uses the Co-op and the Council car park you have to get a free ticket to show your latest permitted  time of departure.
And yet, even as late as last year, a senior Babergh District Conservative Councillor told me that parking charges would have to go up in 2016/17 because of budget gaps. These are the people for whom there can never be enough evidence to overturn an entrenched view.
Where is the application of the Primum non nocere principle which means “first, do no harm?”  In practical Local Government governance this means that it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.
Ministers have warned, “The law clearly states that parking fines should not be used as a way of generating revenue.” The Department for Communities and Local Government has advised that  any local authority found to be using parking fines as a way to make money could face reduced levels of government funding.
(Of course parking fines and parking charges are two different things, so I do not rule out Babergh bringing in short term car parking charges in the belief that this time it will all be different!)
More details can be found on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/society/11747831/Free-parking-in-town-centres-to-save-the-high-street.html

Cock Up, Conspiracy or just Business as Usual?

EaCoxs Park 120915 rlier this month the enquiry into the status of Cox’s Park in Hadleigh was adjourned on its first day after additional evidence was submitted by Babergh District Council. Babergh wishes to build housing on the parkland and since 2013 residents have been trying to have the park designated as a town green.
The inspector quite rightly adjourned the enquiry for four weeks to allow the residents to inspect the 60 pages of new evidence presented by Babergh and this evening (Thursday 25th) there is a meeting of Hadleigh Town Council to review the situation. The meeting is open to the public.
This is all very well, but what were Babergh thinking of dumping over 60 pages of evidence on the enquiry on its first day. Did they think they could disrupt the decision process by denying the residents the chance to review the evidence? Did they think that such a manoeuvre would work in their favour?
No explanation has been made as to why this stratagem was adopted by Babergh. The quotation from Babergh’s Strategic Director (People) merely refers to their awareness “of the strength of local feeling for East House and the surrounding land.” This of course begs the question why did they use this tactic. Was it deliberate? Was it happenstance? Or is it an example of what they usually do –  blunder onwards? Is this Tesco all over again – blindly going forward when the evidence indicates that the well being of the town and the wishes of the people demand otherwise?

Treasury Management and Pies in the Sky

CoinsOn Monday I attended a meeting of the Babergh & Mid Suffolk District Councils’ Joint Audit and Standards Committee where the main item on the agenda was the Joint Treasury Management Strategy for 2015/2016. Having established the criteria for choosing counter parties at the last meeting I thought that this strategy paper would be a gentle formality. But as always when you think it’s all under control the land mines and elephant traps start appearing. Page 3 of the strategy paper advises that included in the future borrowing requirements is £25 million relating to delivery plan projects. Any use of this borrowing will be subject to a business case and will achieve a return on that investment and produce additional income to help towards the council’s medium term funding gap.
So much for fine words but further on page 33 indicates that borrowing costs as a percentage of General Fund (income) will rise to 32.74% in 2016/2017 and to 35.07% in 2017/18. When asked why we looked as though we were committing over a third of our income to debt servicing costs – we were told that projects has not yet been identified and that the inclusion of the costs were merely being prudential. Except that we were being asked to approve this situation and as any fule noes such a level of debt servicing can only mean a reduction in services or a culling of staff or both. We declined to approved the strategy without serious amendment and reservations.
I went to bed asking myself what sort of project would it be that would have a long initial period of no income. And then I woke with the answer – a very nice new headquarters could quite easily soak up £25 million with the borrowing being repaid from the proceeds of sale of the existing and consequently redundant buildings.
Not that the District has a happy history of business cases coming to fruition in the manner first proposed and we certainly do not have a good reputation for managing our real estate portfolio.
What’s my next step – let’s see if I can get an unequivocal statement that none of the £25 million is intended for a new headquarters.

Treasury Matters

CoinsLast Monday I achieved a small success.
It was the occasion of the Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Council’s Joint Audit & Standards Committee discussion on the Mid Year Report of Treasury Management 2014/2015.
Normally these meetings are a gentle breeze through the agenda merely noting what has happened and making the odd recommendation – all written and suggested by the officers.
Except that the recommendations included allowing deposits in banks and other organisations whose credit rating was BBB+. Additionally although recent regulatory changes approved by the European Parliament changed the eligibility of certain deposits (for compensation), public sector and financial organisations, remain ineligible for compensation. Anyone responsible for money management knows that in times of difficulty you chase security over yield – and I wasn’t going to let the investment profile move southwards.
Fortunately my view prevailed and the proposal to use BBB+ counterparties was withdrawn.
Which makes one ask, why it was suggested in the first place?

Old Models – Poor Directions

Yesterday’s E.A.D.T., published the following letter:

New council H.Q. in Hadleigh will achieve the most savings

???????????????????????????????It’s all very well for the Leader of Babergh District Council to say that it is unlikely for Babergh’s and Mid Suffolk’s headquarters to be based in Hadleigh (EADT 25th October) – but this is precisely the direction indicated by the consultant’s report. Locating the main activities in Hadleigh and disposing of surplus sites and space will achieve a 50% reduction in costs. Relocating activities to the County’s building in Ipswich will achieve savings between 11% and 13%. Putting a new hub in the Ipswich fringe will only yield a 32% saving. The hub and spokes business and governance model is seductively simple but only suitable for banks, building societies and estate agents. It is recipe for senior management to distance themselves from the reality of the everyday lives in the areas they are supposed to be managing and directing. This is not a desirable way forward. Instead, both councils should focus on how value for money can be delivered to the residents because if monies are not spent wisely council taxes will rise.
Yours faithfully,
Brian Riley
District Councillor – Hadleigh North
County Councillor – Hadleigh

So far reaction has been favourable

Falling Leaves

October is now upon us, which means the trees will be shedding their leaves over the coming weeks and months. Due to the large number of trees in the Babergh district (there are over 12,000 on Babergh District Council land), there is inevitably an issue with leaf-fall in the autumn, particularly as the leaves fall quicker than they can clear them up and often continue to fall after they’re cleared! The removal of fallen leaves on public highways and Babergh grounds is included as part of the routine street cleansing and maintenance of these areas. Where Babergh receives a report of fallen leaves between routine cleansing of these areas, they will endeavour to arrange an additional cleanse of these, with the priority being leaves which have broken down into detritus. Babergh does not clear leaves from private property (even if the leaves have fallen from Babergh trees) nor do they clear leaves from grass areas – the only exception to this rule are leaves in Babergh parks and Babergh sheltered housing sites. Any enquiries or reports regarding fallen leaves on public highways and Babergh grounds, should be reported to their our customer services, by calling 01473 826622. Alternatively reports can be emailed to  public.realm@babergh.gov.uk or reported  online http://www.babergh.gov.uk/report-it.