Going Concern or a Gone Goose

1.   General

                       It has often been remarked that in politics, a single week is a long time.  For me, never was that more true than in relation to the second week of May of this year.   Thanks to you, I was one of those county councillors who was re-elected on 1st May.   I owe you much for that support and I thank you sincerely for it.   That local election result saw Labour’s previously commanding number of councillors considerably whittled down, while the other groups all increased their own representation.     Formally, our county’s tally ended up as:-

                      Independent          25
                      Labour                  22
                      LibDems              12
                      Conservatives       09
                      Others                   02    
                                    Total       70

                      It fell to the Independent Group, led by Cllr Patrick Heesom, to attempt to form a Majority Administration, with a 10 member Cabinet.   Cllr Heesom asked me to undertake an Executive Role, with responsibility for Finance, in a Cabinet that he had designed.  That position I was willing to accept.   That was the way matters remained, until the 8th May, when it became clear that Cllr. Heesom’s wish and intention to lead the county council was not acceptable to a majority of elected members. 

It was then that I learned that my name had been mentioned as somebody who might be acceptable to the non-Labour councillors, in the role of Council Leader.  To cut a long story short, there followed a week of intense negotiations.  That resulted in me being formally elected on 13th May, 2008, to lead the county for this council year; at the head of a coalition of Independent, LibDem and Conservative councillors, forming a majority of 46 out of the total of 70.

2.   The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!

In my acceptance speech as Leader, I declared that this administration would be open, transparent and accountable in all that we might do.  I have also pointed out, on many occasions since, that this local authority is NOT a political football to be kicked about to left or right wing, or even driven straight down the centre ground. In my view, it is a BUSINESS; one with around £350 million of annual turnover, a workforce of close to 7,500 employees and a client population of give or take 150,000 residents. If that is NOT the outline of a business, I know not what is.

So, this administration is determined to get the organisation re-shaped, better led, better motivated, better performing, better recognised and better rewarded.  All of those things for the purpose of delivering the better services that you all deserve.

For the moment, the good thing is we now have in place, under our Chief Executive, Colin Everett, 3 new Strategic Directors,  Sue Lewis, (Community Services, Housing, Social Services),  Ian Budd, (Education & Recreation) and Carl Longland, (Environment, Planning, Highways).  That now gives us a strong strategic management element, well able to team up with the Executive Members who form the Cabinet.

The bad bit is that with rising inflation, an economic maelstrom around us and less than adequate support funding from WAG, our combined management skills will be fully tested at every turn for the foreseeable future.

The ugly bits arise from a few pieces of work that should have been completed long back, but which the previous administration did not deal with as they should have done.  First there is the “Single Status” review; then the issue of whether the Housing Stock owned by FCC is to be retained, or handed over to an outside body.  Alongside those, a possible need to rationalise school seating capacity, as well as to find something like £40 Million needed to bring our school buildings up to a decent state of repair.   These are all issues that this new administration will now have to get on with and resolve, which is exactly what we intend to do.

3.    The Dog Dirt Problem   

Yes, this administration is aware that despite the major problems, cost-wise, as stated immediately above, the most irritating and commonly complained about nuisance is that of the owners of dogs who allow them to foul the ground in public places, on pavements, along lanes, footpaths, recreation areas and so on.  Apart from the smells, the mess that dogs leave has health implications, for young and old.   Wheelchair users, parents pushing prams, kids on cycles, all know full well the problem of dog dirt on wheels, on shoes and eventually on hands.

I can fully understand the frustrations of residents.   However, presently, Flintshire does not have either the regulations or the authorised and trained staff in place to deal with dog owners who flout the “tidy up after your dog” rules that do exist to be enforced.   Such rules and the officers to back them exist in Denbighshire and in Wrexham, where the patrolling officers are not shy to hand out £60:00 penalty notices to dog owners they catch failing to clean up as required after their dogs.   

The problem that this administration has is that the previous Labour Administration failed to take up the options to fine and control the unthinking and unlawful dog owners
causing the problem.   Now however, as this new administration would wish to get moving to adopt the necessary regulations and appoint, train and turn loose the necessary officers, there is a whole fresh change coming about shortly, with new regulations, arrangements and procedures.  We find ourselves in the situation where if we enact under the present rules, by the time we have gone through the processes, we shall have to do it all again, to conform to the new regime. That would be wasteful of money, effort and time.  Because of that, we find ourselves needing to wait a few months more.

4.   Housing Matters (1)

Flintshire County Council owns a whole lot of houses and flats that it rents out.  Give or take, something around 7000 dwellings.   There is a split of properties allocated for able-bodied individuals and families and others that are generally known as “sheltered” accommodation units, some of them with resident wardens.   All of them are required to be of good standard, reaching what is known as the Welsh Housing Quality Standard by 2012.  That requires a whole lot of material work, by way of upgrades and necessary modernisations.  There is a massive cost involved. Around £450 Million over 30 years.

The Welsh Assembly Government has indicated that it does not want local authorities to be involved in the Landlord Business.  The WAG has not actually come out with that firm decision in so many words, but has set rules that require counties to decide whether they wish to keep their housing stock, or to “give it away” so to speak, to a Registered Social Landlord.   To encourage councils to get rid of their housing stock, the WAG has announced that it will give multi-millions of £s in funding to such new RSLs, to assist them in carrying out any necessary upgrading work on the housing stock.  Perversely, or unfairly, whichever way you look at it, the WAG simply refuses to provide the same kind of cash incentives to any county authority that wishes to retain its housing stock.

The decision as to which way to go should have been made by the end of 2007.   Most counties managed that.  For whatever reasons, the previous administration did not manage to get moving on this issue, until way too late.  That resulted in Flintshire missing the set deadline.  Special negotiations had to be undertaken with the WAG, because the WAG threatened to withhold housing maintenance funding because of the lack of a decision.   Finally that threat was removed, on the condition that a firm decision was made, one way or the other, before the end of this year, 2008.

Part of the process concerned obtaining specialist reports, having evaluations of cost of upgrades carried out and estimates put up of what it might cost this county authority if it decided to try to keep hold of its housing stock.   A cost figure of £455 million over 30 years was established.  That sum is beyond the survivable financial reach of this local authority.  So, early this year, under the previous administration, a decision was made to go out to Ballot, in order to find out what the Council Tenants felt about being transferred away from council to a Registered Social Landlord.  That Ballot could have taken place before the May 1st Election, but it did not do so.  I leave you to consider why that was so!

Whatever, this incoming administration found itself faced with a serious need to get on with making a decision, well before we might run out of time in December.  We are now several months along the way, but still without any clear decision.  That is because efforts
are being made to seek what is known as a “Hybrid Solution” whereby some of the housing stock is kept and some given away.   We may be able to retain our entire Sheltered Housing Stock. We may be able to retain some modest portion of our Standard Housing Stock.  The Minister at the WAG has kindly given us extra time to investigate these possibilities.  We have to report back to the Minister by mid-January, 2009.

5.   Housing Matters (2)

While all of that at (1) above has been going on, issues of housing allocation, maintenance and repairs have still been cropping up day by day, creating a need to carry out routine, planned and unplanned maintenance on our housing stock.  Regrettably, the management capacity and performance in that area has been less than optimal for far too long.   We have had too many council houses standing empty and it takes far too long to get new tenants into a council property once one is vacated.  There have also been questions over the use of vehicles, reporting of mileages and lack of supervisory control.

Somehow, the previous administration showed no eagerness to get to grips with this area of poor performance.  Rather than that, when it received two very pertinent reports, in June of 2007, relating to these issues, instead of uttering the reports for reading and discussion by all councillors, the previous administration simply put them on a shelf and left them there, which is where we found them after taking over in May.

Since May, this new administration has acted swiftly to bring in a new Housing Director along with two other managers.   Changes have begun to be made, including the use of tracker devices in vehicles, for safety and efficiency purposes.  There is a whole lot more to be done, thankfully with the willing co-operation of the unions and the vast majority of the workforce who just want to be able to get on and do their jobs to the best of their ability, in return for a fair day’s pay under decent working conditions, along with some appreciation when they go the extra mile, which many of them do quite often, without much fanfare at all.

It needs to be understood by everyone that this council will no longer accept cosy employment positions existing where the sole reason for being there is to check the work of somebody, whose work is already being checked, by somebody else.

6.   County Finances & Lack of Support from WAG

 I doubt that there is a single adult in the county who does not know that this local authority is one of those involved in the Iceland Banks Problem.  We have £3.7 million in short-term deposits with Landsbanki, with the possibility, if not the probability, of that bank’s assets not being equal to its debts. Negotiations between the UK and Icelandic Governments are ongoing in order to guarantee the safe return of the invested monies. Let me be the first to leap to the defence of our financial staff over this item. All of the right UK financial rules were followed, for all of the right reasons of fiscal prudence.  Perhaps it might help if I put it this way, that the £3.7 million represents about 1% of our annual turnover.  Significant if we lose it, but not crippling.  Against that, with 5.2% officially announced UK inflation and a settlement from WAG for the 2009-2010 financial year of only 2.7%, we have a 2.5% shortfall immediately on our hands as a result of WAG policy. That is a WAG that is top-slicing 1% of the funding handout from Westminster before even bothering to share anything out among the 22 county councils in Wales.   In cash terms, that equates to a loss of £2.1 million to this county.  Add that to the 2.5% inflation shortfall and it can be argued that the WAG are damaging our finances more than the Icelandic Bank problem.   That might be less annoying if the WAG was as broke as us counties are.  WAG has been adding to its reserves year on year until it has now something approaching £300 million, yet is still demanding that 1% year on year “efficiency saving” from the 22 counties, which is a sum of £38 million to add to its reserves this year alone.

We do have in assorted investments around the world, some £65 million in total.  However, before you start asking why we are not doing this or that when we have all of that cash “stashed away” somewhere, let me add that we also have, over the years, under the previous Labour administration, built up borrowings of £174 million that we will be paying back over the next few years.  Why have we not used the £65 million to reduce the £174 million debt?  Simply because of comparative interest rates and our need to have some bulk cushion within reach IF something unforeseen crops up.  Again, I must stress that all of this money managing is strictly in accordance with the current fiscal rules, as set out by the UK Government. 

7.   Attitudes (1)  

If the new administration that I now lead is ever going to get any better efficiency and best value into the delivery of services for you, we really will need to change a few employee attitudes.   From my previous newsletters you will recall that I had a number of harsh words to say about the lack of control over fuel issues to county vehicles and plant.  Since that last newsletter, there have been crazy increases in all fuel prices. They have gone sky high. Fortunately petrol and diesel prices have started to fall a little just now, but gas, coal and electricity prices show no signs of falling.  Despite that, every economy made means £s saved, which is what is needed. Well, it does take time, but, changes have now been made.  Much better controls now exist.  As a result, one person is no longer a county council employee!
8.   Attitudes (2)

Continuing on the matter of attitudes, another little example of the kind of employee attitude that costs you and me money came to light when I decided to look closely at the ner in which the county handles its “confidential” waste paper.   For our safety, ANY administrative paperwork that has any personal details, names, addresses, etc., on it, which becomes waste, must go into special, secure, waste paper bins.   The contents of those special bins, many kilograms of assorted paperwork every working week, have to travel under secure courier van, to a specialist commercial document-shredding company quite a long way away from Mold.  The transport costs and service costs, charged per kilogram, are high.   My concern arose from a suspicion that lazy, idle and careless employees were NOT segregating “ordinary” waste paper from the essentially confidential material, thus costing you and me and the county a lot of money.   On 17th October along with a Senior Manager and the Chief Executive, I descended upon the twenty bins waiting to be carted away. At random I chose two.   A quick unlock and inspection revealed a right old motley collection of material.  There were many confidential documents, but they were alongside a whole lot of non-confidential paperwork. That non-confidential material varied, from an Avon catalogue, to newspapers and an “adult” magazine. 
It should not be the task of County employees to waste our money, so steps will now be taken to change the attitudes and behaviour of certain employees.


9.   Alyn & Deeside Waste Company Ltd.
       The saga of Alyn & Deeside Waste Ltd certainly requires some airing. It is, nominally, an independent company.  However, it has only one shareholder, which just happens to be Flintshire County Council.   As a Waste Disposal activity, for this county, one would have thought that there would have been very close and agreeable communication between all parties.  However, notwithstanding the fact that the previously Labour controlled county council has had a Labour county councillor sitting on the Board of Directors, there seems to have been a sad lack of effective management, sensible communication and necessary forward planning. 
       Whether it was the company’s management team who failed to do their forward thinking and planning homework and make the necessary representations to the then county administration, or whether that was done, but the then county administration failed or refused to take notice, appears an unknown factor at this moment.  Either way, that absence of necessary activity is largely what has brought us to where we now are  
       Effectively, what we have done, after sound and independent professional scrutiny of the company by KPMG, is to bring the company in house, in order to safeguard the county against foreseeable losses.  Those losses loom due to the fact that the landfill sites operated by A & D Waste, as it is commonly known, are very close to full and are at the end of their working lives, while the company itself is unlikely to be able to compete successfully, against the likes of SITA, Shanks, Biffa or Veolia, when the new Waste Management contracts are offered out, under “Official Journal of the European Union” terms in 2009.


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       What you can be assured of is that your household and garden waste will continue to be collected and disposed of, weekly, as always.    

10.   That “Laptop” Furore

      I am not going to bang on about the outraged comments of Carl Sargeant, AM and my predecessor, Cllr Aaron Shotton over money that this council has NOT spent.   Remember, please, that the two named public representatives screamed to the high Heavens about just the possibility of the council spending sums of £100k and £70k of public money in the present harsh economical climate.    
       However, the present Labour Government of the UK has, in very recent years, actually wasted the following sums of public money:-
       £1.7 Billion of taxpayer’s money wasted in settling Metronet’s debts, following the failed attempt to privatise London Underground.
       £300 Million wasted by Dept. of Works and Pensions over two cancelled IT projects.
       £140 Million on an IT scheme designed to streamline payment of Benefits, which was shelved because it never worked.
       £486 Million on a scrapped IT system for the Child Support Agency.
       £1 Billion on “The Pathway Project” which was designed to introduce a Benefits Payment Card by the year 2000. That was scrapped after 4 years of unsuccessful trials.
       If you really want to see the full list, the total wasted spend of which truly is horrifying, take a look at www.power-to-the-people.co.uk/2008/08waste-taxpayers-money-labour-government.  
       Cllr. Aaron Shotton and Carl Sargeant, AM, or their philosophically sympathetic newspaper friends have never had a single word to say about those significant and actual wastes of our public money.  I leave you to decide whether their silence is due to potential embarrassment, or a simple inability to understand reality.


11.   Caring for Your Money

      The WAG recently set up a “Remuneration Panel” to consider payments for all county councillors across Wales.  Many Councillors such as I believe that we should NOT be setting our own allowances.  We fully approve of the setting up of an independent body. One aim of the Panel is to seek ways of encouraging younger and more professionally qualified people to take up long term careers as county councillors. Presently, putting it simply, there are various levels of basic allowances and special responsibility allowances, payable to councillors, depending upon the population size in their particular local authority.   Most counties pay their county councillors whatever the maximum happens to be.  To the credit of this county council, it has always paid below the maximum level.


Because the Remuneration Panel was still looking and deliberating when April arrived, no county made any move to increase its allowances for the 2008-09 year.  Everyone waited to see what the Panel would recommend.   Now the Panel has issued an interim report.  The main recommendations are that all councils should improve
councillors’ allowances by 2.45%, which is in keeping with this year’s offer from Local Government to its non-councillor employees. However, the Panel also recommended that every council should immediately pay its councillors at top rate.

In Flintshire’s case, the current basic allowance for all councillors is £12,678:00, which is below the maximum possible of £13,100.  However, across the board, if we were to follow the Remuneration Panel’s recommendations, all councillors would have received a 3.2% basic increase and certain Chairs of committees would have received anything from 5.8% up to 50% pay increases, all backdated to 1st of May.

Those increases we have decided NOT to give ourselves.  It would have been quite improper to have done so, under current economic circumstances.  As it is, each councillor will receive the 2.45%, representing an additional £310:61 on their basic allowance for the year. My own allowances, totalling £44,475 for the year, will rise by £1,089:00 to £45,564:00.  I intend to give that rise of £1,089:00 to local charities.  

Incidentally, the Remuneration Panel also recommended that as far as Executive Members are concerned, they should be prepared to put in at least a full 37 hour working week, with their performance being appraised annually by the Leader.  I am fully in favour of that, but, before that remark is claimed to be an allegation that current members of the Executive do not put in that kind of effort at the moment, let me say that most of them do so.  Indeed some of us might wish that our necessary weekly hours could be limited to the 37 suggested!


12.   Christmastime

  I am not, and never will be, supportive of “Political Correctness.”    I refuse to re-label Christmas as the Festive Season or Gift Giving Day or any other idiotic title.   I wish for you, individually and collectively, a full measure of the Spirit of Christmas.  May you all be safe, warm, well, happy and comfortable, with family and friends around you and close by.   But, in the harsh circumstances of present times, do please remember the less fortunate in our society. Try to spare them just a little more than a thought as you go on your particular and personal way into the New Year ahead.

                                  MERRY   CHRISTMAS


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