Eric Pickles has it right on secret payoffs by bodies like Shropshire Council

I confess I don’t often see eye-to-eye with communities secretary Eric Pickles.

As supposed champion of localism, he has done so much to undermine local decision making in the last couple of years. He just doesn’t have a grip on how decisions in Whitehall and at the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol undermine public confidence in the planning system and betray communities who have worked hard to get a local consensus.

But on one matter I am in total agreement with him. He has challenged councils to publish details of how they spend their money.

Shropshire Council has joined in with the majority of councils to publish information on bills above £500 – though the process does not work smoothly. I am still waiting for the financial information for October to December last year – nothing at the moment gets published unless it is chased.

Shropshire Council keeps too many secrets about the way it spends our money. We may not know for thirty years what the council’s Audit Committee thought about the huge consultancy bills officers and the Leader of the Council have run up in the last couple of years. We will not know for months how much the “compromise agreements” signed for the director of places and head of finance and commerce were worth. I doubt we will ever know why so many talented staff have been shown the door at a time when the county needs all the expertise it can get.

This persistent refusal to publish information – and the lackadaisical way it does so – undermines democracy and weakens confidence in Shropshire Council as a competent body to run the county’s affairs.

Excuses are always made for not publishing financial information. But I believe the real reason for hiding information from the public is that so many of the payments will not stand up to pubic scrutiny.

It is very straightforward. This is taxpayers’ money. We are entitled to know how every penny has been spent.

This is a Conservative run council. For decades, the Conservatives have claimed that “only they” can manage public finances well. But we do not know whether they have run the finances in Shropshire well because so much is secret.

That’s I think that Conservative minister Eric Pickles has it just right in demanding that councils across the country abandon “compromise agreements” – where departing staff get a healthy bung of cash in return for signing a pledge of silence.

The Conservatives on Shropshire Council should listen to him.

County’s Tories reject affordable service improvements

The Conservatives on Shropshire Council have rejected out of hand Lib Dem proposals that would have repaired the county’s roads, supported small businesses and young people, and improved transport for disabled people.

Nigel Hartin, leader of Shropshire Liberal Democrats, says he is angered by the council decision.

“When will this council begin to use its budget wisely? It splashes out hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants, but it won’t make sensible changes to its budget that will help the boost the local economy. It piles money into reserves but rejects out of hand proposals that will help the elderly, the vulnerable and the young.”

The Liberal Democrat proposals, rejected at this morning’s Council meeting, would not add a penny to council tax. The £4.185 million cost of the proposals can be found within existing resources [1].

One proposal rejected by the council was £2 million boost to the roads maintenance budget. As Nigel says: “Shropshire’s road network has suffered terrible damage in recent months. Our wrecked roads are dangerous for drivers and pedestrians alike. But it seems that council leaders are oblivious to the state of our roads. Do they drive around the county with their eyes closed?”

The Liberal Democrats also proposed extra funding for:

  • Rural transport pilots (£225K)
  • Road safety, including to measures to reduce speeding (£385K)
  • Support for market towns, small businesses and apprenticeships (£500K)
  • Twenty-one additional cardboard recycling banks (£200K)
  • Bring back concessions on park and ride after 9.30am (£250K)
  • Reinstating cuts to Targeted Youth Support (£285K)
  • Increasing Disabled Facilities Budgets to support new Occupational Therapists (£100K)
  • Reinstating cuts to post-16 travel support (£210K).

All this much needed spending is fundable from existing budgets.

Nigel Hartin says that it is Shropshire Council’s approach that is wrong: “The council is pushing up reserves massively while ignoring the damage being cause to service delivery on the ground. There is money available to fund service improvements and boost the local economy but Conservative councillors seem totally disinterested in allocating it.”

[1] The Liberal Democrats recommended that additional resources of £4.185m are allocated in 2013/14 on a one off basis, funded by surplus resources of £2.185m already identified in the 2013/14 budget and a reduction of £2m in the contribution to the general reserve in 2013/14.

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Shropshire Council consultants, Joan Armatrading and accountability

The Shropshire Star published my letter “huge bill for consultants” today. Thanks guys!

The essence of the letter is that despite council leader Keith Barrow telling us that his council is completely open about how it spends its money, it had stopped publishing detailed financial data in April 2012.

Keith was unaware of this when he told BBC Radio Shropshire last week that freedom of information requests about payments are unnecessary because “it’s published on our website”. The lack of data was raised on Twitter and later he tweeted: “@libdembodders I’ll make sure this is addressed, thanks.”

Not long after today’s digital edition of the Shropshire Star hit the desktop, the data for April to October 2012 was published online. Thanks Keith!

I am still puzzled about why so much spending is classified as miscellaneous expenses. In 2011/12, a whacking 8,287 items were classified miscellaneous, adding up to a cool £17.9 million of spending. These are payments that are so central to the council’s operations that it does not know how to classify them! How can an organisation keep tight control of its spending when nearly £18 million pounds is dismissed in the accounts as “miscellaneous”?

Things haven’t improved in the latest financial data. An astonishing £11.1 million was classified as miscellaneous expenses in the first six months of the 2012/13 financial year.

I have yet to study the 10,104 items classified as miscellaneous expenses in detail, but one payment caught my eye.

This was a payment of £20,000 to Giftwend, Joan Armatrading’s company. I have long regretted not being able to get to Theatre Seven to see her performance last September. Indeed, I last saw her perform way back in 1978 at Blackbushe, where she outshone Bob Dylan.

I have always dreamed of getting her to perform at a birthday party. But alas, at £20,000 a show that wish is set to remain a pipedream!

Council consultancy bills point to weak leadership

This morning, BBC Radio Shropshire called council leader Keith Barrow into the studio to justify spending £619,000 on consultants (begins at 2:07). The interview was very revealing, not just on the huge consultancy bill but also on his leadership.

It was fascinating and disturbing in equal measure to hear Keith explain how he had no control over consultancy costs for three years and only got a real grip when the council’s chief executive moved on.

In trying to justify the bill, Keith more than once pleaded that other councils were spending more on consultants than Shropshire. Anyway, “it’s only one-thousandth of the gross budget,” he said. “It’s like someone who earns £30,000 a year spending £30 on a meal.”

I don’t run with the argument that because other councils are splashing out on something, it’s okay for Shropshire to do so. Neither do I believe that because overall budgets are big, small amounts are trivial. No matter how large Shropshire’s budget is, every £30 counts.

As Keith admitted, matters used to be a lot worse. Until controls were implemented in March 2012, consultants seem to have been employed rather willy-nilly.

The March 2012 controls did not, however, order a review of consultants already retained by the council. As Keith told Radio Shropshire this morning: “When the previous chief executive left, we got rid of two consultants who were on substantial sums.” It seems that at least one consultant at this point was on £1,500 a day. “We terminated that contract immediately the week after Kim [Riley] left us.” Riley departed five months after the policy was introduced. Five months in which tens of thousands were spent on consultants that it seems were not necessary.

Why did it take nearly three years to get a grip on consultancy costs? Keith Barrow did not explain that. Why were consultant’s contracts not terminated earlier? Again he offered no explanation. Could he not have shown leadership and told the chief executive to get rid of the consultants?

None of this bodes well for Shropshire Council’s future plans.

The council is ploughing onwards with its plan to transfer staff and services to a new company known as ip&e – though the project timetable is slipping fast. The company, underpinned by a £800,000 council loan, is predicted to make money. But when a council takes three years to get a grip on its consultancy expenditure, what faith can we have that the new company will be launched and managed effectively? And what happens if it does not make money?

ip&e is a huge and risky gamble with council funds and services. We can only guess what might happen if the company fails. But one thing we can perhaps be certain of. There will be jobs for consultants!