Monday, 6 January 2014

What's My Line?

Don’t Call Me Dave was browsing Essex County Council’s website when he was reminded of the 1950s game show What’s My Line? hosted by the late, great Eamonn Andrews. In this show, celebrity panellists would try to guess the occupation of contestants from a series of cryptic clues.

DCMD happened upon the biography of senior officer Dave Hill, who is paid £175,000 per annum for his services. Mr Hill is described as Executive Director for People Commissioning. No, DCMD didn’t know what this meant either; but fear not, dear Reader, because his duties are listed on the website and include: (DCMD’s comments in blue)

  • To be accountable for managing the statutory role of Director of Public Health and have responsibility to ensure that statutory obligations are met. [That’s nice and clear]
  • Through understanding the needs of Essex residents, ensure the most efficient and effective allocation and use of resources (financial and non-financial) in order to reach the desired outcomes. [Still relatively clear, but slipping into management speak]
  • Bid for budget from Cabinet to deliver against specifications and select potential delivery providers and allocate a budget envelope for delivery. [Allocate a budget envelope? Is that more management speak or a shopping list for Lidl?]
  • Through subject matter expertise, understanding of National developments and best in class thinking across the public and private sectors design the specifications to commission and achieve the required outcomes. [This is meaningless bollocks]
  • Be accountable to the CEO and Members of the Council for the achievement of people related outcomes, including evaluation of providers to select optimal partner in each case. [DCMD is losing the will to live]
  • Be accountable for safeguarding for both vulnerable adults and children. [See, it’s not hard to be clear and concise if you put your mind to it]

Apparently, Mr Hill manages an FTE of 3,588. What is an FTE? Florida Tomato Exchange? Flight Test Engineer? Ford Truck Enthusiast? Why do public bodies insist on using incomprehensible management speak and unidentified acronyms? Are taxpayers not entitled to know precisely what it is that highly paid officers do? To his credit, Mr Hill has responded favourably to DCMD’s request for his biography page to be re-written in plain English.

What is crystal clear from the web site is that Mr Hill carries out two vital statutory roles - Director of Children’s Services and Director of Adult Social Services. This is quite a substantial workload and, arguably, justifies his £175,000 salary. But, equally, there is a valid argument that these two functions are too important to be under the control of just one person.  

DCMD supports councils cutting out waste and bureaucracy. There is little doubt that most local authorities employ a surfeit of pen pushers who can safely be put out to pasture. But given that Mr Hill’s job entails risk management, perhaps he should carry out an immediate review of his own position to determine whether combining two statutory functions under the control of a single person increases the risk to highly vulnerable people who rely on council services.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Money For Nothing

Don’t Call Me Dave has now established why Chigwell Parish Council increased the precept by 27% (£60,000) for the 2013/14 financial year. He is grateful to the parish Clerk, Kay Canning, for directing him to the council meeting of 9th January 2013.

Under agenda item 2b (Budget – Finance and Precept) it states that the council had received a petition from residents asking for a £10 per household increase in the budget to: “Provide funding to allow for the best interests of Chigwell and its residents to be met, in particular in relation to Epping Forest District Council's proposals to build houses on various sites around Chigwell as cited in the Local Plan: Issues and Options (2012).”

The council debated the matter and agreed to the request. DCMD wholeheartedly supports the right of residents or resident groups to petition the council over any issue of concern to them. In principle, he also supports any campaign to prevent over-development and building on the green belt. However, due to a lack of information on the council’s website, the circumstances surrounding this petition and the consequential tax increase leave many questions unanswered:

  • How many people signed the petition?
  • What percentage of the electorate does this represent?
  • If only a small percentage of the electorate signed the petition, what steps did the council take to establish the views of the majority?

DCMD is particularly concerned that the wording of the petition is somewhat vague. There is no indication as to how the council intends to spend the money. Is it to lobby the district council? In which case, why does the parish need to raise money at all? 6 of the 11 parish councillors also sit on the district council. You don’t need to spend public money to lobby yourself! How will the council measure the effectiveness of the expenditure?

There is a further question as to whether the council’s constitution allows it to spend money on what would effectively be a political campaign, without a mandate. Despite two written requests, DCMD has yet to receive a copy of the constitution.

Unsurprisingly, DCMD has been advised by a parish councillor that the council has yet not spent the money, which raises further questions:

  • Have the funds been deposited in a ring-fenced account?
  • If the money is not spent, will it be returned to taxpayers or put into the general fund?

Chigwell Parish Council has an absolute right - arguably a duty - to stand up for residents on planning matters, in particular those which may be imposed by a higher local authority such as the district council. But it also has an obligation to spend taxpayers’ money wisely and lawfully.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Wasting public money

Earlier this month, Don’t Call Me Dave posted a blog about the Chigwell Parish Council newsletter Chigwell Pravda This is Chigwell. He questioned whether it was appropriate to spend 2.5% of the council’s annual budget producing this magazine. The answer is simple. No!

On 22nd December, DCMD received a copy of the Winter 2013 edition. The magazine listed a whole series of events taking place in November. It also carried an advertisement for a public Chanukah Menorah lighting on 4th December (a joint project of Chabad, the Chigwell & Hainault community and the parish council). What is the point in producing a magazine with event listings that are out of date before residents receive it? If Chabad was charged for the advertisement, DCMD hopes that the council will issue a full refund.

An article on page two contained a photograph of councillors Lesley Wagland and Brian Sandler at St Mary’s Church, and listed the Remembrance Day services attended by various other parish councillors. In the UK, Remembrance Sunday is one of the most solemn days of the year, respected by the overwhelming majority of the public in grateful thanks to those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

However, given that these services were reported at the time in the local and national media, the article gives the appearance of councillors using a taxpayer funded magazine for self-promotion. We rightly expect our elected representatives to attend these services, but do we really have to pay to see pictures of them performing their civic duty? A more fitting and appropriate article would have mentioned the names of some of the Chigwell born service men and women who died in the service of their country.

Councils perform a wide range of statutory functions, but magazine publishing is not one of them. This is Chigwell should be scrapped to save money and trees.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Who do you think you are kidding Essex County Council?

The spin mentality is alive and well at Essex County Council. On 18th December, the council posted the following Tweet:

This is political shorthand for “We are going to cut your services next year, but don’t blame us. Blame the horrible government instead. Nothing to do with us Guv.”

The Council’s position was fatally undermined, however, by an article which appeared the very same day in the Chelmsford Weekly News highlighting expenditure of over £90 million on consultants and temporary staff over a three and a half year period.

The article states that “Essex County Council spent £50.6million on consultants and just under £39.6 on temporary staff”.  

Don’t Call Me Dave rarely agrees with Liberal Democrats, but on this occasion he shares the view of Cllr David Kendall who described the figures as “shocking”.

Council Officers are very highly paid. The Chief Executive, Joanna Killian, received a salary package of £210,819 last year plus a pension contribution of £25,830. The eight most senior officers in the council cost taxpayers a total of £1,433,819 – an average of more than £179,000 each. Essex is not alone in paying sky-high salaries for chief officers. The justification is always that you have to pay the best salaries to attract the best qualified staff. But if we are already paying top dollar for top staff, taxpayers are reasonably entitled to know why we need to spend a further £50 million on consultants?

The council can't have it both ways. If the existing staff cannot provide the necessary expertise, they should either be replaced by better qualified personnel or have their salaries reduced to more appropriate levels for their skill set.

The leader of the Council is Cllr David Finch who, last year, was paid allowances totalling £58,108.32. He needs to get a grip of this situation, otherwise residents might start to question whether he, too, provides good value for money.

Until then, the government is to be applauded for reducing the grant. It might actually help to concentrate the council’s mind. The reduction in grant is less than the amount the council spends on consultants and temps annually. Taxpayers are not a bottomless pit of money and Essex County Council clearly needs a lesson in financial discipline.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Look after the taxpayer’s pennies and the Pounds will look after themselves

Anyone who has to live on a budget is familiar with the old adage about looking after the pennies. Sadly, this is not a concept readily understood by politicians when it comes to setting council tax. A few Pounds here or there won’t matter to them and they assume that it doesn’t matter to the people who have to pay the bills.

When your total council tax bill is running into thousands, who is going to complain about a measly few extra quid? At least, this is what our elected lords and masters hope. But it amounts to taxation by stealth and in these times of austerity, every tax penny must be fully justified.

Don’t Call Me Dave was therefore disappointed to receive a copy of ‘This is Chigwell’ - a glossy, full colour, eight page A4 ‘newsletter’ produced by the parish council. DCMD remembers the day when a newsletter was printed on one sheet of paper in black and white. Councils are not supposed to be magazine producers and DCMD shares the view of the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Eric Pickles, that local authorities should not be wasting taxpayers money on such publications.

According to information provided by the council, the cost of producing the newsletter for 2012/13 was £6,935.10. Advertising income was £1,400, so the cost to taxpayers was £5,535.10. DCMD suspects the actual cost to taxpayers was higher as the council’s figures cover printing, delivery and postage only. No figures were provided for design, copywriting and production costs.

Now in the grand scheme of things, does this really matter? Essex County Council, for example, has a budget of over £2 billion and they probably spend more than £5,000 on tea and chocolate biscuits for Director meetings. But Chigwell Parish Council has a somewhat smaller budget. For the year in question, the budget was £223,000 which means that nearly 2.5% was spent on the newsletter alone. Is this really an appropriate use of scarce resources?

Councillors will undoubtedly argue that in monetary terms it is not a significant sum. And it is precisely this flawed logic, which politicians regularly use to justify their profligacy, that enabled them to hike the parish precept this year by 27%.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Show Me The Money!

Don’t Call Me Dave is now a resident of Chigwell, served by Essex County Council, Epping Forest District Council and Chigwell Parish Council. Time will tell whether it is a case of being over-governed.

According to the council tax demand he received, the County Council, District Council and Fire Authority have maintained their charge at the same level as last year. The Police & Crime Commissioner has increased his charge by 3.5%, whilst the Parish Council has increased its charge by an inflation thumping 27.7%.

Needless to say, DCMD considers this increase worthy of investigation. However, any resident following the 'Financial matters and accounts' link on the Parish Council’s website will be met with a blank page containing no information whatsoever. Undeterred, DCMD hunted through the District Council’s website and found the following table:

The Parish Council has increased the amount spent on recreation by a modest £2,000. Environmental health expenditure has increased  by £8,000 but the largest increase, in monetary terms, is a rise of £52,000 on ‘other  services’. This is completely meaningless information – as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot. The council’s highest category of expenditure has all been lumped together in a way which makes it impossible for residents to know how their money is being spent.

It may well be that the increase of £52,000 is reasonable and desirable, but without an itemised breakdown of expenditure, how can residents reach an informed opinion as to whether this represents value for money?

Chigwell is part of the Epping Forest parliamentary constituency. The neighbouring seat of Brentwood & Ongar is held by the Rt. Hon. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Known as ‘Uncle Eric’ to his supporters, Mr Pickles has made it clear that he strongly believes in open and transparent government and, in particular, scrutiny of all public expenditure. He takes a very dim view of local authorities which do not open up their books to taxpayers, as does DCMD.