An Open Door or a Closed Book?

The Christmas Season

It is nearly Christmas. A time that should be full of comfort and good cheer. For all of you who may read this newsletter my heartfelt wish is that you should all enjoy good health, wealth and happiness. Sadly of course, there will be many whose festive season will not be what it should be; those who are homeless, unemployed and those who are lonely, isolated, unwell or bereaved. If you can, please give them more than just a thought at this special time.



As you may recall from my last newsletter, in April of this year I had cause to first raise the issue of how well the county’s management team, (You know them, the ten Labour Cabinet Members and the Corporate Management Team of Directors), have been managing the £750,000 spent on vehicle and plant fuel each year. I contended that the current system is wide open to abuse. After two month’s of silence and some chasers from me, the internal audit team did begin to take a look at the matter. That was in June. The initial report, which was a brief one, contained, among other remarks, the comment that, “----- maintains records calculating MPGs for all vehicles on a monthly basis. However, this is dependent upon drivers providing mileage figures when refuelling using fuel cards. At the moment the majority of drivers don’t. A draft fuel policy in existence since 2004 has still not been implemented….”


That initial report promised further investigation and a more detailed report. That detailed report has now appeared. The only problem is that the authority has slapped a “CONFIDENTIAL” tag on to it.

The final report itself is detailed and sound. The investigating officer did a good job and I am grateful for that. As the initiator of the inquiry I did receive a personal copy two weeks before the elected members of the Audit Committee were allowed to see it. When it was seen by those members, the copies were handed out to them and then, after they had read it, they were required to hand those copies back.


There are several recommendations arising from that confidential report. Because it is confidential, I cannot tell you what those are, or I shall draw down a disciplinary action upon myself. I regard that gagging situation as outrageous, but typical of the manner in which Flintshire County Council behaves with respect to transparency and openness under its current Labour Majority. I have to be content that matters will improve if the recommendations are implemented. How can you or I be assured that the necessary recommendations will be implemented? Well, my set of the papers is filed in a bring-up diary for June of next year, by which time the recommendations should have been well and truly imbedded. Provided that you good folks who are the electors for the ward return me to council after next May’s local elections, which I sincerely hope you will do, please, one of my first tasks will be to ensure that the necessary changes have been made and that better management exists and that your tax money spent on fuel has been safeguarded.


Staffing and Structure

Most of you work in organisations. You know the ill effects arising from staff shortages, lack of job development, career progression or promotion opportunities and too heavy a work-load. Currently, Flintshire is burdened with something in the order of 14% total staff vacancies, euphemistically glossed over by the phrase “Vacancy Management.” The record shows that recently we have been losing 19.2% of our staff YEARLY, through staff turnover. Our current sickness absence record is higher than it should be.


Add to that the fact that we have had, for some many, many months, only two permanent directors out of nine, and an acting Chief Executive, only recently replaced with a permanent appointee and there is cause for suspecting that we do have a genuine “unhappy staff syndrome.” If we add to that suspicion the adverse effects on staff of the over-use of Agency Staff (£5 million cost this year and £14 million for the previous three years) and the suspicion deepens. If you then pitch in the adverse effects on the Housing Department as a whole, of not really knowing whether any or all of them will still have a job once the decision over selling off the county’s housing stock has been made, then you have good reasons for being convinced that moral among employees is not what it should be.


As a final make-weight, consider that the new Chief Executive will shortly be re-organising the top level structure, with a probable reduction from nine directorates down to 5 or maybe 6 as a guess. Who will be going? Who will end up where? Only time and the decisions of the new boss will tell. The staff, from top to bottom, deserve better than this, but better than this is unlikely to appear as long as the current political team has control.


Proposed Development of Spon Green South

I am not going to bore you with detail on this one. My fellow county councillor for this ward, Gareth Williams, is leading the opposition to the proposed development. I am backing him all the way. The intended development is not in the best interests of Buckley Town. The land is not, at this point in time, designated as within the existing UDP. Buckley Town Councillors recently voted to object to its inclusion and Flintshire County Council also objects. Hopefully, when the matter was considered by the inspector on 27th November, 2007, sound planning procedures and common sense will have prevailed and the land will continue to be green belt.


Financially Completed??

Many months back, I became involved in an effort to get a modest repair carried out within one of our council owned houses. Something weird went on, because, after a couple of months, with various assurances from management level about completion having been achieved, no repair had been affected. When I chased it some more, I was advised that a new work ticket would need to be issued. In a week or so, the job was done and I wrote the episode off as, “Somebody has lost the original ticket and does not want to admit it!” In the middle of this year, there was a similar incident.


Because the person concerned gets out and about quite a lot, I carefully gave to the housing repairs department her telephone number and advised them to first make contact with her to avoid wasted time and mileage. Two months, and two reminders after I had first initiated the work ticket, the job was still outstanding. In chasing it along somewhat vigorously, I was told, once more, that the work had been done. Remembering that previous episode, I determined to dig deeper. That digging brought to light that the work ticket had been terminated as “Financially Completed.”


When I asked just what that meant in plain language, I was advised that it meant that a contractor had tried to attend to the job, but had been unable to carry out the work due to the householder being unavailable. I was further advised that, in the case in question, two visits to the house had been made by a listed contractor. On both occasions the allegation was that the householder was not present. Under such circumstances, the contractor is paid for the visits and the ticket written off as financially completed. I pointed out that a telephone number had been provided so that sensible arrangements for access could be made, yet no use of the telephone number had, apparently, been made. I re-checked with the householder, who confirmed that she had found no calling card through her door at any time.


That raised the question as to whether any such visits had ever been actually made. Checking up on that point brought the information that no supervisory or management checks are made in relation to tickets closed in this manner. Nor is it a requirement to leave any form of calling card to tell any householder that a call has been made while they were out. A further direct inquiry with the department about how often work tickets have been written off in this way brought the cautious reply of “occasionally.” A different, more discreet inquiry from another direction brought the advice “quite often.” In September, I submitted a confidential report and called for a detailed investigation into the extent of this incredible arrangement and into how much money has been paid out to contractors over these “Financially Completed” tickets. I am still waiting for a reply.


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