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 What is the point in producing a magazine with event listings that are out of date before residents receive it?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.