A Head in the Sand, or Ahead of the Game?

1.  General.

Well, here I go again, just a few months into my second year as political Leader of the coalition of Independent, Liberal Democrat and Conservative county councillors forming the administration that, currently, has control of Flintshire County Council.

In my acceptance speech in May of 2008, I set out that this administration would be open, transparent and accountable.  Only you, the residents of the ward, and the county, can make up your minds on that score and measure our success or failure on that promise, but, following that theme, let me set out my own rewards and my workload for sitting in the hot seat.

In attempting to sort out the arguments about what county councillors are, or may be, worth, last year the Welsh Assembly Government set up an Independent Remuneration Panel to advise councils on the value of councillors and make suggestions as to what they should be paid by way of the Basic Allowance that every county councillor receives and the Special Responsibility Allowances that go to those who have  positions carrying additional workloads and responsibilities, such as I hold.

Councils are lumped together in Groups, by population size.  Flintshire fits into the Group with between 100,000 and 200,000 residents.  For that Group, the Panel recommended a Basic Allowance of £13,356 for the 2009-10 year.  In Flintshire, where councillors have, to their credit, habitually accepted BELOW the maximum, our basic allowance is £12,870.   For being the Leader of the council, I also receive a Special Responsibility Allowance.  The Panel recommended £35,462 for this year.  However, my SRA for this year will be £32,700, which is still not to be sneezed at.

I should add that for this current year, Flintshire’s county councillors have  decided that we shall take no increase in allowances, aside from the same percentage of increase that may be awarded to our working staff, whenever that agreement is sorted out.   If we are not as one with our employees, one and all, what are we?

So, what effort do I have to put in?   Well, in the year from May, 2008, I clocked up a total of 2991 logged hours in the office. That is an average working week of 57.5 hrs.  For those of you who prefer hourly rates, that works out at £15:23 per hour.  You can add a few more hours each week, sitting quietly at home, reading the mountains of paperwork that all county councillors have to try to wade through, often at short notice, to stay abreast of current county reports and the ever flowing stream of documents descending upon us from Cardiff and Westminster.

2.   What’s In It For You? (1)

The administration I lead is determined that a continuous drive for efficiency and value for money will be behind everything we do.   One of the first things we did was to give our Chief Executive, Colin Everett, the go ahead to radically re-structure the county’s organizational tree. That task he has under way, already to good effect.  Where there were 6 Departmental Directors, there are now 3 Corporate Directors. Where there were 22 Heads of Department, there are now 15.   Recognition of those steps in the right direction came some few weeks ago, when Flintshire received the only Highly Commended Award presented by Excellence Wales at an event in Llandudno.  That restructuring will continue.  Presently there are 39 Divisional Restructuring Exercises to be worked through over the next 18 months.   The county’s management profile will slim down.  That is inevitable.  It is not only inevitable, but essential.  Indeed, from where I am, as a qualified Manager and one with Consultancy experience, despite the commendable hard work over long hours of many supervisors and managers, Flintshire County Council has the structural outline of a portly middle-aged gentleman, contentedly strolling along, ignoring the “spare tyre” around its middle.  I am convinced that the judicious removal of that spare tyre will do the corporate gentleman no harm at all.

Let me emphasise that I will not willingly allow the compulsory departure of one single employee in any position that I describe as “a coal face activity” before the Supervisory and Management Structures have been sorted out and every last possible efficiency has been worked into the county’s systems.   It is the guys and girls actually delivering the services who are the most important employees we have, not any mountainous column of outdated bureaucracy that may or may not be behind them.

Incidentally, returning to the matter of what the county does that is right and good, the newspapers never seem to care what successes the county has.   Recently, Flintshire won an IBM European International award for the re-organisation of its entire computer services department in terms of Carbon Emissions Reduction and Efficiency.  The county was the ONLY winner from the United Kingdom.  Not a bad feather in our collective cap and good work by all of the officer team involved.  However, as usual, the newspaper reporting of that was weeks late and a bare mention in the middle pages.

In addition, the county has also been awarded one of the major prizes in this year’s International Green Apple Awards for work being undertaken by the Townscape Heritage Initiative at Holywell.  That award was won in the face of stiff competition from 200 nominations from all around the UK.  Recently, we have gained another Green Flag Award, this time for Loggerheads Country Park and the AONB we share with Denbighshire and Wrexham.  Well done all!

3.    What’s In It For You? (2)

So far, this administration has, at a 3.3% increase, provided one of the lowest Community Charge annual rises the county has seen in many years.   We have provided an additional £650,000 for Education, above the planned budgetary level.  We have also started to deal with the commonest complaint from street level, that of the dog dirt fouling of pavements, pathways and grassy areas.  By September, we intend to have the  enabling law in place.   We are working closely with the North Wales Police to sort out the best way of getting the most “foot on the pavement” hours for your money.  It may be by a dedicated, trained and authorized county officer, someone who will be able to tap inconsiderate dog owners on the shoulder and hand out £60:00 spot fines.   By involving  North Wales Police, Police Community Support Officers could become designated officers, so that they too can deal with offenders.  It is our intention to also authorize the Countryside Rangers and Parks Officers.  Beyond that, we are beginning to look towards re-introducing dog licenses to the county.

From August we are continuing the Clean Team experiment that we launched last year. That team will deal with the pro-active clearing of “Grot-Spots” reported by councillors, or members of the public.

We have also remembered that people like to walk cycle and ride.     Another 3 km of walk/cycle way has been completed along the Dee Coast, between Station Road, Talacre and Shore Road, Gronant.

Those of course are additional bits on top of providing all of the statutory activities such as Education, Social Services, Highways, Refuse Collection, Housing and Homelessness Services and the full Planning Service, plus many more.

We are also tackling the issue of those who insist in drinking alcohol and becoming troublesome, in public places.  That is being done by a county-wide order that will enable police officers and other designated officials to confiscate alcohol in situations where individuals are causing nuisance and annoyance to others.   Notices to that effect will start appearing in due course.

4.     What’s In It For You? (3)

Times are hard.  Everyone is struggling.  Small businessmen are trying to survive the downturn and keep heads above water until some improvement appears. To help towards that, this administration has earmarked a “Crisis Fund” of £15,000 for specialist consultancy support to small businesses seeking to raise finance.  We do not intend to prop up non-viable businesses, but we do intend to offer support to clearly viable businesses that have temporary problems caused by the lunacy of national government and what is hoped will be a temporary downturn in commercial and industrial activity.

By the way, the county has also obtained, from the WAG, the necessary funding of £4.5 Million for the brand new combined school at Custom House Lane.  Now I know that is not a ward affair, but it is very good news for the county. That is not the only educational good news.  We have also managed to obtain a further £1.298 Million for school improvements.  Among the list of 6 schools that will benefit from that is our own Elfed High School, where a new Additional Learning Needs unit will be constructed.

5.      Paying for Care in Wales

I do not intend to dive into the middle of the argument about what is and what is not fair in the matter of paying for the care we need, or may need, in future years as we each grow older and, sometimes, more frail.   Fortunately, we are an ageing population.  Overall, our life expectancy is growing.  That will continue for a few decades, despite some of our juniors’ bad habits of too much booze at an early age and too much rich food alongside too little exercise.  Obesity, liver disease and diabetes will eventually take a toll on that younger element.  If they do not get wise rapidly, they may not enjoy the lifespan that should be available to them in years to come.  Meanwhile, for the next couple of decades or more, the problem of a need for a lot of care is running into the difficulty of not a lot of government money available to provide it.  A £6 Billion a year shortfall has been headlined by assorted media.  Whatever the real figure is, there is a need to tackle the problem.  Currently we have a national situation where we have 4 working persons for every retired person.  In a relatively short time that figure will dwindle to 2 in work, for every retired person.  From that it is not possible to look to “workers” to financially support the retired element of society in the long term.

Because of that, the Welsh assembly Government has looked to consider what might be done over the next 10-15 years.  They set up an “Advisory Group on Paying for Care in Wales.”   That Advisory Group has now produced its Report.     You can find that report on the Welsh Assembly Government’s website at:-


It is also available on the Paying for Care in Wales website at:-


The 58 page report makes 28 recommendations.  You all need to read them, because you are all likely to be affected by them and the decision that will eventually be made.    Please read the report and, if you are so minded, tell me your views, or submit your own comments on what is being proposed, by 22nd September, 2009.

6.   The End of the Days of Plenty!

Remember what I promised? That this administration would be open, transparent and accountable?   Well, when the last administration were in power in 2007-2008, they reached the end of that financial year with a £4.7 Million underspend!

Sadly, the days of relatively generous support from the Welsh Assembly Government are a thing of the past.  This current year’s less than generous settlement, plus the international financial crisis, has allowed this new administration little opportunity to do any more than carefully control and manage our budget and work to the expectation that for this 2009-2010 financial year our accounts will be at balance, or a small percentage overspent when the accounts are eventually finalized.  For future years we cannot allow any overspends to occur.

That is because there are even harsher financial times ahead.  The Banking Crisis, The Global Recession, UK Governmental Failings, call it what you will, the basic fact is that UK plc is skint.  Our Gross National Debt is at a level usually associated with Banana Republics.    Our Government Borrowing level is so high that it is giving concern to the International Monetary Fund.   Even the head of the Bank of England has warned Government that it cannot borrow any more without doing damage to our international financial good standing.  That is why Westminster is calling back some £416 Million from the WAG funds in 2010-2011.    That £416 Million is to be recovered by way of £200 Million from proposed Capital Expenditure and £216 from Revenue Expenditure, just in that one financial year.   That actually means a deduction from the annual support grant that the WAG gives to county councils.  Regrettably, there will be worse than that to come in the following years, right up to 2017-2018, when the actual level of support for counties is expected to have fallen right back to the same level that it was in 2002.  That is far from good news. To match that, we really should be able to also go back to 2002 for Pay & Conditions, as well as Tax Levels, Price of Petrol, or a night out and all else.  Sadly, we live in the real world, so such a thing is simply not possible.  What that really means is that it is the ordinary persons, the you and me of the nation, who is going to have to tighten our individual belts all around and try to still stay financially afloat and live a tolerably comfortable life.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has indicated that the nation is in for “Two Parliaments of Pain.”    I have no reason to believe that that statement is wrong.

What that means is that there will be less cash to share out around all of the competing demands for services within Flintshire.   We have an aging population, we are facing some years of depressed employment opportunities and rising levels of personal debt.   Demand for county council support will escalate.  Priorities will have to be set and every request for expenditure, right across the board, will have to be minutely examined before being allocated any of what limited cash we will have available.

It is not going too far to advise you that we are now facing the most serious financial situation that the UK has had to face since the end of World War II

You Have Been Warned

7.  Anti-Social Behaviour

A thoughtful doctor once told me that the best medicine that anyone can have is a good neighbour.   I have no reason to disagree with that observation.  Conversely, anti-social behaviour by neighbours hits hard at the nervous and physical well-being of those on the receiving end of it.  Nobody, individually, or as a family, or as any grouping, has the right to make life uncomfortable, let alone unbearable, for other members of our community.   As a responsible county councillor, faced with 5 years of complaints from an assortment of law-abiding residents, I recently invoked the process of placing Criminal Injunctions on a small number of ward residents.   I make no apology for taking that action. Those involved are now subject to arrest by the police if they breach any of a set of conditions imposed by the county court in Mold.  It is now up to those individuals to moderate their disruptive and offensive behaviour and learn to live at peace with their neighbours.

8.   Matters of Fairness (1)

In North Wales we tend to say quite often that we are the forgotten people as far as Welsh Assembly Government funding is concerned.  Not a lot of support comes our way.  Indeed, had it not been for the sterling efforts, a few years back, of Lord Barry Jones, we have to wonder where Aerospace would be now if it had been left to the WAG alone to come to their aid in a difficult time.  So, we do tend to look closely at where the WAG money is going to and for what.  One area of our interest is in the Regional Transport Consortia.   Over the past 5 years, the South East of Wales (SEWTA) has received £4.1 Million and the South West, (SWWITCH) has received £3.1 Million, against £1.1 Million provide to us in the North through TAITH.   Everyone can register that the South East is larger, more populous etc, so it is no bother that they have received more than us.  However, that South West Group is remarkably similar to us in area, population and balance of rural and industrial activities and even the balance of road and rail networks.  It is therefore quite right to question why that uneven picture exists.    I did just that at a meeting with the Deputy First Minister at St. Asaph on 10th July, 2009.  Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones, AM, has promised to look into the why and the how of those figures, which he certainly had no immediate answer for.   I shall let you all know what he eventually advises me of on this point.

9.   Matters of Fairness (2)

Our residents might be forgiven for thinking that when Westminster dishes out the UK funding each year that that funding would be evenly and equally distributed.  After all, our children all need educating, whether in Wales, England, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.  Common sense and logic would tell us that each child should get the same amount of funding.  Ah, well, there I go again, confusing common sense with politics.  Silly me!   What we actually have is a “formula.”  The Barnet Formula, no less.  Now, I don’t want to get too technical, so I shall avoid going into the details.  Suffice to say that by that formula, over the next few years, Wales will lose out to the tune of £8.5 Billion.  The three other bits of the UK each receives more, per person, than we do here in Wales.  So much for matters of fairness and equality!

10.      It Makes One Wonder!

In these newsletters I usually do manage to find some debacle or other, perpetrated by our own management or workforce, that tells us more about how to do everything wrong than about how to do it right.   This edition features a council house that suffered significant fire damage some months ago.  Repairs were carried out under the control of the county’s insurers, whose assessor supposedly listed all of the items that required repair, chose a contractor and said “Get on with it!”  Recently it was advised to the housing department that the house was all ready for re-occupation.   A young mum with a two-year-old child, presently in temporary accommodation, was presented with the keys by a county housing manager, advised that the rent was her responsibility from the following Monday and left to get on with it.

The young lady’s parents looked at the house, decided that all was not well and telephoned me.   My wife and I duly took a look at the house.  Without any great effort and without being really picky, I rapidly filled two A4 pages in my notebook with defects.  There was no front garden fence and no gate.  Dry rot was evident in the woodwork of a bedroom floor. Window panes were missing.  Paint had been delivered over soaking wet plaster.   As a result, it was peeling.  White mould was evident on one wall in the kitchen.  In one area the outside wall had half an inch of moss growing on the pebble-dash because the outside wall, from top to bottom was soaking wet.  Why was the outside wall soaking wet?   That was because a perishing “Tryfid” was growing out of the rainwater down-pipe, totally blocking it so that the gutters to the roof overflowed..  Clearly that plant had been there some while because it was doing very nicely thank you.  There was also a few hundredweight of builder’s rubble in the front and back gardens.

I could go on, but by now I hope you will have got the idea.  The place was totally unfit for occupation, yet it had been handed over and rent demanded.  You may take it that I have had words with the housing manager who handed over the keys to the potential tenant.

Let me say, in defence of the council’s  housing repairs department, that once I advised them that I was not a happy councillor and explained why, the housing repairs manager himself went over the house and, figuratively, went right up the very damp wall!. Whatever, the Tryfid has been removed, the soaked pebble-dashing and external plaster, along with the soaking wet internal plaster has been stripped back to brickwork and all will be put right.   The liability for payment of rent has been waived until the house can be properly handed over in fit condition and a few words are being had with an insurance company and a building contractor.

11.     The Future of County Council Housing Stock

In my last newsletter I did advise that we were investigating the options we might have available in relation to the matter of keeping or losing our housing stock, all 7,000 or so units.   Discussions eventually led to the firm decision, formally made early this year and advised to the WAG, that this county currently cannot afford to keep its housing stock.  That is a cold hard business decision, based on the fact that the county’s housing stock has not, in past years, had anywhere near enough invested in it so as to move it towards the Welsh Housing Quality Standard that it is required to meet by 2014.

The result is that the county will be going out to a formal Ballot of every one of its Council House Tenants.     It is not likely that Ballot will take place before the autumn of 2010.    However, before then, there will be an intensive communication process.

A Project Board will be established, led by a qualified but independent person, with a membership formed of Councillors, Council Officers, Tenants and Union Members.  Each household in our council owned housing will be fully informed as the county seeks to find the best offer from a Registered Social Landlord, so that tenants can best compare their future, whether they decide to remain with the county council or decide to become tenants of a Registered Social Landlord.

The matter is complex.  Many residents fear increased rent charges and a more mercenary attitude towards rent arrears from a Registered Social Landlord.   Against that, many tenants are clearly concerned that the quality of their council-owned home is not quite what it should be and are puzzled as to how the county itself might improve their housing and still keep rents to an affordable level.

Meanwhile, there are certain difficulties within Flintshire that other counties have not had to work through.   The Maisonettes at Flint are time expired.  In a very few years they will become unfit for habitation.  Many Millions of £s are needed to put those matters right.  Flintshire does not have that money and no Registered Social Landlord is going to take on those properties until and unless they have an assurance from the WAG that money will be put on the table.

All of these issues and others are being negotiated over between Officers of the county and officials from WAG.  Options are being investigated and solutions are being shaped.  It is all a slow process, but one that is moving along.  I can assure you that the entire Executive Committee are all watching the process like hawks and so are the other 60 non-executive members.   They and you, whether you are a council house tenant or not, will be kept fully informed, although only the council house tenants will have the right to vote in the Ballot, whenever it comes about.

12.       Core Functions

This county authority has a statutory duty to provide certain services to residents.  It has to deliver Education, Social Services, Planning, etc.  However, it is involved in many areas, such as The Arts and Recreation, where it provides, but has no statutory duty to do so.   Some of those non-statutory duties bring money into the county coffers, others are a drain upon what money we have.  I need to warn you that in the face of the stringent financial limitations ahead of us, I have instructed a full examination of Statutory and Non-statutory Services that we currently deliver.  As a business, which we are, Flintshire County Council cannot allow itself to be drained into financial trouble by services it is not legally obliged to deliver.   Changes are likely. A careful re-organisation back into our core functions during the coming hard times is almost a certainty.

Please remember that although I am Leader of the council, my first loyalty is to you, the ward voters and residents.  If you have a problem, you can contact me at home during evening times on 01244 549421, or at the office during the day on 01352 752108, or via email at arnooldwoolley@outlook.com or arnold.woolley@flintshire.gov.uk


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