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Being Labour, Cotterill on the Council, Leisure and culture

Power and irresponsibility: the rottenness at the heart of Tory government

05.04.10 | Comment?

This was written for www.torystories.com but I’m not sure it’ll get posted there. 

In what was hailed as a land mark speech on local government In February 2009, David Cameron said:

‘We’re going to give local councils much more power and responsibility. We’ve got to recognise that the central state can’t have the imagination and flexibility to tailor all of its services to local needs. I am convinced that if we have more local discretion – more decisions made and money spent at the local level – we’ll get better outcomes.’

With power comes a responsibility to act, to spend money where it’s needed, and to get things done.  Labour councils up and down the land have done just that.  They might not have got everything right, but they’ve taken responsibility, and they’ve got on with the job of running a council.

With the Tories, it is different.

This is the story of just one Tory council – an ordinary council in an ordinary part of northern England – but which reflects the rottenness of Tory fiefdoms up and down the land.  This is a taste of the kind of rotten, self-serving government you can expect nationally if the Tories gain power on Thursday 06 May.  All that follows is sourced and evidenced.

Here in West Lancashire, the Tory administration has taken  a a quintessentially Tory approach to local government. 

Round here, the question Tory councillors ask themselves is not ‘what can we do to make thinks happen?  It is ‘what can we get away with not doing?’

It is an approach to political administration which ends with senior council staff – good people who have come into public service to serve – being ground down to the extent that they no longer look outwards to the people they should serve, but inwards towards the somewhat desperate defence of a failing administration, and ultimately to actively concealing the truth about the council’s poor performance, by making out that its 2007 Audit Commission rating remains valid even after receiving a much lower rating in 2009 (see below).

This is a story of Tory irresponsibility and arrogance.

Irresponsible  on jobs and services

In July 2009, the council slashed 57 full-time council jobs, many of them front-line staff.   That’s around 12.5% of the workforce.

In its budget in February 2010, it admitted to having £22.6 million hoarded in reserves.  While the council calls this ‘prudent management’, what it really means is staff without jobs, and people without services, when they need them most.  (Labour’s counter-proposals were published in full, setting out how the reserve might be used judiciously to provide continuity of service for the long term.  The Conservatives’ budget speech has never been set down for the public record.)

Perhaps the most shocking job cuts of all came in the shape of the Sports Development Team, which it was perfectly possible to fund from external sources (except that the External Funding Officer post had already been cut!).  As late as October 2008, the work of this team had received high praise for its work from the cabinet member for leisure services, who gloated in a press release that the team’s activities were directly responsible for cutting crime in deprived areas:

[O]ur Street Sport Project has made a real difference this year. It is a fantastic initiative that gives youngsters something positive to do in their spare time and now we know that it’s working. The latest police figures show that sport really is helping to kick out crime!

Just a few months later, the team’s activities were considered entirely expendable, and the posts, and the staff who filled them, were consigned to the ‘downsizing’ scrap heap. 

A senior sports development worker made redundant in January is now standing as a Labour candidate in the local elections.

Irresponsible on Leisure services

In 2005, the council privatized the management of its five leisure centres, handing them over to Serco Ltd on a fifteen year contract, along with an index-linked £1million per year taxpayer subsidy.  It also set up and subsidizes West Lancashire Leisure Trust to oversee the operations of Serco on the council’s behalf, and so that when it gain charitable status it would make overall savings because of its VAT status.

Five years later, this Leisure Trust has failed to even apply to the Charities Commission for charitable status, and there is doubt that it will ever do so.  The council has done nothing about it, and a report on the ongoing delays was only brought forward to councillors at the demand of the Labour group.

A detailed assessment of Serco’s mismanagement of the services, and the Leisure Trust’s failure to oversee Serco’s work, is available here.

In essence, the Leisure Trust has consistently failed to oversee Serco’s performance, while doubling its grant support overnight, and has allowed it to grow leisure usage in the wealthier areas of the borough while allowing massive falls in usage in the poorer areas. 

Serco has also provided information on its price rises which use mathematically invalid average techniques, allowing it to present much lower average increases than are experienced by customers.  Again, the Leisure Trust has done nothing to challenge this situation, and the council used its constitutional powers to ban me from presenting a report on the matter to its overview and scrutiny committee. 

Meanwhile the council is one of few (Tory) Councils in the country to have refused to accept government grants towards the cost of making swimming free for everyone aged 16 and under.   

So while neighbouring Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council was then able to go and successfully apply for £600,000 in government funds for enhancements to its pools, the Tories in West Lancashire decided to forego this opportunity, and so have just had to shell out £200,000 if its own funding  – much more than it would have cost to fund the free swimming – to repair the decrepit roof at the Skelmersdale pool which it is bound to maintain on Serco’s behalf (because of its poor contracting).  That’s the Tory logic of responsibility for you.

And the result of this for the young people of West Lancashire?  Swimming usage has risen by 40% in Wigan since the introduction of free swimming there.  In summer 2009, it fell 8% amongst West Lancashire’s under 16s.

Irresponsible on housing

The Tory Council approved its own planning application  for a development, which it acknowledges in its own report does not meet the requirements of its own development brief in respect of affordable housing requirements,  and falls outside its own local development plan.  By doing so it totally ignored its own stated priorities, and the well-researched housing needs of its residents, in order to build itself new council offices.  New council offices are not, needless to say, a stated priority.

But this is just the start of it.  The council has recently been set at 4th lowest in the country in Shelter’s league table on provision of affordable housing, providing just 2% of what is needed in the area.  When challenged on this by Labour (agenda item 19), it prefers to argue the toss about whether the data used by Shelter was totally accurate, which might move them one or two places in the table, rather than accepting that it has failed and setting about doing something.

In the end, the reality is that the Tories are just not interested in social housing.  That’s why they tried to sell of all the housing stock in 2005 to housing associations through the stock transfer process.  They failed to do so, because tenants realized what they were being let in for and voted against it by a 59% NO vote, despite a massive campaign in favour of stock transfer.  By voting against tenants, residents have same themselves thousands of pounds a year that would have come in increased rents (see tables 702 and 704 on the average rents in council and housing association accommodation).

Yet despite this vote from tenants telling the Tories exactly what they should do with their plans, the Tories continue to plot for a further attempt at a sell off.

Perhaps though, the best evidence of what the Tories think of public housing, and the people that live in them in West Lancashire, are the words of a backbench Tory councillor querying money spent on keeping its rented accommodation inhabitable:

‘What happens in these houses?  Do they take the doors off and burn them?’

Irresponsible on regeneration and community development

The Tory council’s attitude in this might best be summed up by the way the council’s Chief Executive ‘misinterpreted’ the mean of the now fairly standard policy wobk  phrase ‘place shaping’ as meaning ‘local people helping their neighbourhood.’  In fact the term is used to describe how local authorities should take overall ‘responsibility for the co-ordination and direction of regeneration efforts. 

It is not surprising he got it wrong, as actually taking responsibility such matters is not something that occurs to the council.

That explains why the council simply failed to submit a £290,000 final round bid for young people’s activities, saying it was simply too busy to do so, despite having given assurances to me personally that it would do so, not least because I had personally organized, drafted and submitted the first stage of the bid.  Had they told me they were not going to do what they had promised, I would have submitted the final bid myself, but they didn’t even bother to contact me till it was too late.

That also explains why the Tory council, having paid a consultancy thousands of pounds to draft its new Open Space strategy in 2008-09, delivered it 15 months late.  This is despite the strategy being essential to informing the provision of playing field space for the next 10-15 years, for example, and an essential component of the wider planning process.

Irresponsible on transport

The Tories in West Lancashire specialize in not really bothering about public transport.

Let’s take trains.   They simply forgot to make provision in the ‘masterplan’ documentation for a new railway station into Skelmersdale – one of the biggest towns in England without a rail link.  This was despite there being ample information that there was a real possibility of a new rail link being provided. 

This incompetence is compounded by the refusal by the Tories even to consider funding free rail travel for pensioners, as is done by local authorities in neighbouring Merseyside.  This in turn is tied to the fact that the administration has simply failed to carry out the instructions of Full Council, following a Labour motion passed by it in July 2009, around investigating the possibility of joining with the Merseyside Public Transport Executive ‘Mersesytravel’ (and/or the Greater Manchester equivalent as a way of becoming gaining easier ‘buy in’ to this free provision.  When reminded of the administration’s obligations (agenda item 18) actually to do what Council tells it, the Cabinet member simply said there was a meeting about it quite soon…..a mix of incompetence and arrogance that takes some beating.

It’s not just trains.

It’s the same with the buses.  The council spent thousands of pounds on getting consultants to advise them on public transport needs and solutions in West Lancashire. The consultants recommended a community transport scheme for Skelmersdale, with a focus on getting people to and from work in an area of low car ownership. 

The council then spent thousands of pounds on other consultants to develop a business plan, so that it could be taken to cabinet for a decision. This was Local Strategic Partnership money that should have been used by voluntary sector organizations  to deliver local projects, not to waste on getting consultants to do a job the council should have done months before.

A report to cabinet has now been deferred nine times, and the business plan is not yet finished.

Irresponsible with transparency

The council has hoarded £22.6 million in reserves, much of which it should have been spending on services for its local population.

With this in mind, I applied for a grant from the North West Employer’s Organisation Member’s Development fund for £4,500, with the intention of bringing in specialist, non-party political facilitators to host specifically designed, ‘participative budgeting’ public meetings around the borough to discuss and then make recommendations to council on what should be the broad spending priorities for the council, and what a reasonable level of reserve might be.  The project was to be cross-party, with equal representation on a small co-ordination group. It was a small amount of money, and I intended to make it all happen through engagement with a local university, offering a bursary to a student who might like to use the whole exercise as part of his/her academic thesis.  There was no cost to the council, and no council officer time sought.

I approached the council to get it signed off as the money needed to go through the council’s account.  They’d not been able to do so before I submitted because they said they didn’t have time to read it in the time before the deadline.  It was four pages long.  They had two days.  This was the same council which had just previously given councillors one working day to respond to a draft consultation response to the North West Development Agency about spending of many millions of pounds over the next few years.

The bid was successfully appraised. The Members’ Development Fund administrators were so keen to see it go forward that they gave additional flexibility to the council to sign it off after its submission.  The council still refused to sign it off.  The offer of funding was withdrawn.  I submitted the bid to the council again with a view to it being submitted for the next round of funding.  This time the council said it couldn’t sign up to it because it couldn’t be guaranteed that officer time would not be spent on it, because this was a matter that should be dealt with by the Overview and Scrutiny process, and because the council were unhappy with the process I’d gone though the time before (even though this had been the one advised by the Members Development fund administration).

This was, in short, a smokescreen.  The Tories don’t want the way they run the council scrutinized and are prepared to go to considerable lengths, including refusing grant funding, to avoid it.

Astonishingly, this is the second time this has happened.  They had earlier refused to support a £5,000 bid for research into equity of service delivery in the borough, on the basis that this would bring no ‘practical benefit’ to the community

Irresponsible with reality

Not just once, but twice in a year, the Tory council has been caught simply making things up about its own performance.

First, in late 2008, it spent taxpayer money adding five stars to the livery on its bin wagons, next to its Audit Commission rating.  The only problem is that there are only four grades in the Audit Commission rating.

That, though, was just a trial run for completely making things up and losing touch with reality.  In December 2009, the Audit Commission published its assessment of West Lancashire Borough Council’s performance in it Comprehensive Area Assessment.  It scored badly, with a number of areas found to be weaker than they should be – especially in housing.

Astonishingly, the council has simply refused to acknowledge anything is wrong.  Instead, they have kept their 2007 Audit Commission on their letterhead and their website. 

In about the weakest defence you could possibly imagine, they have claimed the right to do so because the methodology for the 2007 assessment and the 2009 assessment were different, and that they were therefore entitled to refer to their previous rating.

Imagine a school doing that with its Ofsted reports. There would be uproar.

But these are West Lancashire Tories, and they’re not going to let anything as inconvenient as reality get in the way of their drive for irresponsibility.

Irresponsible with the future

And on it goes. There is plenty more evidence.  Here’s a top 20 I compiled earlier

The Tories, though, are far from finished with their irresponsibility, and continue to play fast and loose with the lives of the citizens they were elected to serve.  Here are two final examples of what their failure.

First, they have agreed to be part of a £1.9 billion service sell-off process being run by their Tory colleagues at Lancashire County Council.  They are named in the Official Journal for the European Union as a prospective partner.  They’ve not told anyone at all about it, and are intent on keeping it secret to the last possible moment.  They have now failed to make any statement for over 5 months after they promised to do so.

Second, the Tory administration continues to fail to act upon an instruction for the clearance of a caravan site give to it by its own duly constituted Planning Committee in January 2008, in a cynical attempt to avoid having to fulfil the obligations that all local authorities have to provide reasonable accommodation for the traveller community.

Finally, they were asked to consult on their Tory County colleagues’ plans to impose new waste facilities in West Lancashire.  In their response, they failed even to mention the plans for an incinerator in one part of the borough, or the plans for waste transfer into the area in another. 

They just couldn’t be bothered. 

That’s the Tories.  When in power, they don’t take responsibility, because they are only interested in themselves.

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