Open Door or a Closed Book (June 2011)

1.  In General

On May 10th, at the county council’s AGM for 2011, I was re-elected to the position of Leader of the county council for the next twelve months.  I feel very fortunate and very honoured to be commencing a fourth year in that position.  However, I am very conscious of the workload and the responsibility that that position places upon those who occupy it.   That is especially so during these times of financial constraints, rising demand; greater expectation from the public and constantly malign and inaccurate criticisms from those whose personal and political ambitions have been thwarted.   


My first thought is to assure all of you in this ward and the residents of Flintshire as a whole that I shall put in the necessary effort and hopefully make the right kind of decisions that will guarantee that every penny spent on your behalf provides best value for your money as well as generally making your life better.


My second thought is to assure you that I recognise full well that it was you ward residents who had faith in me; enough to elect me as a county councillor in the first place in 2004 and again in 2008.  No matter how busy I may get as county Leader, any single one or more of you who has need of me will find that you will have my prompt attention and full support to sort out whatever it may be that is the cause of the trouble.


To that end, please make a note of the direct phone number for my office at Shire Hall.  (01352) 702108. That will keep you clear of the general switchboard.  If you can only make a call in the evening, after about 6:00 p.m. you can try my home number, where there is an answering machine available if needed.  That is of course (01244) 549421.  If you are computer equipped, emails addressed to or will reach me.


So, with lines of communication all set up, let me get down to the matter of telling you what is going on at shire hall and in your locality.


2.  Just a bit of History  

Whatever happened to the old wisdom that, at both personal and national levels, we all have to earn our keep and pay our way?


My personal view is that it began to wither and die during the 1980s.  Better than 30 years ago, other nations began to produce goods cheaper than the United Kingdom could.  Our own exports declined, imports rose and our share of world trade withered.  One of the ways that the governments of the day sought to keep down the rising unemployment figure was to encourage local government, mainly at county and county borough council levels, to increase its employment numbers.


The result of that, for us in Flintshire has been that, right now, this county council is one of the two biggest employers in the county.  That is not a totally good thing, because, unlike British Aerospace at Broughton, this local authority cannot produce high-value goods for export.  All it can do is to serve its community.  All that we councillors can do is to try to ensure that every penny we receive, be it from the Welsh Assembly Government, from you tax and rate payers, or from the modest amount we develop from the assorted services that we are allowed to charge for, is spent to best effect. That is unspectacular work, but essential.  So, no newspaper headlines from me; just a lot of hard work in and out of the office, trying to ensure that Flintshire puts its best foot forward, for you!


3.   The Budget for 2011-2012

Well, we finally got there!   After a process that began way back in October of last year and a great deal of nonsense and political posturing, your 70 county councillors finally managed to set the Budget on 1st March, 2011.   In simple terms, we need to save some £10Million during this current financial year, in order to balance the books without sacking staff or cutting services.   That is a tall order, but, one that we intend to live up to.  Despite the cuts in funding, we are increasing our spending on Education.  We also kept our word about keeping your Community Charge to the promised 3 to 3.5% annual rise for each of the four years that the Coalition has been in control.  That compares very favourably with the record of the administrations previously in control of this county. 


4.   Highways 

What can I say about potholes?   The last two winters’ periods of harsh weather demonstrated clearly that our road surfaces are less than robust, particularly where the original road surface has been intruded into by “road works” undertaken by any of the many utility service providers who have automatic right to dig into our roads, without even having to ask the county council if they may do so.


The county has done what it reasonably can but, quite frankly it has been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, to the extent where we are now some 90 days behind with the repairs.


Believe it or not, one of our problems has been caused because the Welsh Assembly Government chose to declare, in February, that they were going to give all counties in Wales some extra funding for pothole work.  That was fine, but, that money had to be spent before the end of March, so as to fall within the 2010-11 financial year.  Almost every company, large and small, capable of doing road repair and resurfacing work in Wales was promptly put to work.  That created a huge surge in demand for tarmac, which came to be difficult to get hold of.  That was why you may have noticed that old and potholed road surfaces were stripped away rapidly, but then, some weeks of delay occurred before new surfaces were laid down.


Keep on reporting those potholes, please.  Telephone number 01352 701200 but please be a little patient if what you report is not tackled and put right as fast as you and I both might wish.


5.  Pensions & Benefits

In 1948 the Welfare State was created. In simple terms, lots of working people paid into the National Insurance Fund on the first Friday, so that a far lesser number of retired people could then be paid a modest pension the following week and assistance by way of unemployment benefits and sickness benefits could be commenced.  The years have passed, the working population has dwindled and the retired population has grown and pensioners are living longer. (Hooray!)    As successive Governments have encountered financial problems, particularly over the past ten years, they have messed about with that fund. A dozen or so years back, it stood at £51Billion in credit.  Far too tempting a target for cash strapped politicians in Westminster.  So, under the previous Government the fund was transferred out of Gilt Edged Investments, which attract a decent rate of interest, which had to be paid by Government, into a “Call Notice Deposit Account” which pays a lesser interest rate.  It was also placed under the control of, or at the mercy of, a governmental committee entitled, “Commissioners for the Reduction of National Debt.”    That august body, which has existed since 1786, seems to have managed to reduce the fund to £38Billion as of March of 2011.


Why should we all worry, just a little bit?  Well, that money was always regarded as a contribution made by employed people to support a “fund” from which state sickness benefits, unemployment benefits and pensions would be paid, as needed. 


Gradually, our politicians appear to have come to regard the money as just another State Tax Fund, to be raided for other national needs.  More recently, Government has also found it convenient to change from the RPI (Retail Price Index) to the CPI (Consumer Price Index) for the calculation of how much the State Pensions should rise, year by year.  Government claims that the CPI is a more realistic indicator.  The unbiased observer might note that the CPI shows, year on year, a lower annual inflation figure than the RPI, thus providing the Government with another annual economic saving, at the expense of state pensioners.


Similarly, “Benefits” of all kinds have come under governmental scrutiny.
Yes, we do have “Benefit Cheats” out there.  They are street wise, but idle and avaricious. Sadly, we also have a whole lot of decent and very genuine people with real problems of short or long term duration.  It is not always easy for those in authority to sort the real from the false.  That is a fact of life.  Government’s Benefit Changes are kicking in now, partly in an essential effort to lessen the £120Billion annual welfare bill.  Also though, to better prevent fraudulent claims.  Altogether, when the changes are fully in place, our best estimate is that something in the order of £6.5Million of disposable income will vanish, per year, from Flintshire after April of 2013. 


Housing Benefit is being clamped down upon.  Need is now the watchword as far as the authorities are concerned.  Those who are claiming housing benefit will be required to match their accommodation size to their actual needs. If they wish to remain in a generously sized house, one which the authorities deem to be larger than that actually needed, then those people will be required to pay the difference between need and want.  A nine-month period of “supported payments” will cushion the shock to some extent, but for some, a shock there will be.  Flintshire county’s housing and benefits teams intend to be pro-active in trying to lessen the worst impacts of the forthcoming changes.  If any of the benefits changes impacts upon you, please communicate with the housing or benefits advice officers – fast!


6.  Loan Sharks

The first three months of 2011 saw a greater number and value of defaults on mortgage payments right across the UK than has ever been recorded before.  There are signs that Credit Card debt is rising, not falling.  Those are not pieces of good news.    Please, please, please!  If any of you find yourselves in financial difficulties, short term or long term, come and have a confidential chat with me!   I cannot print pound notes for you, but I have all sorts of connections that might just be able to help you stay afloat financially.   My last newsletter, which is available on my website <> under the heading “News” carried a list of financial advice sources.  If you do not care to talk with any of them, speak with me.  Whatever you do, stay away from the Loan Sharks.  They will rip you off, deepen your financial problems and just make matters worse for you, your family and the community you live in. Do not get involved with them!


7.  The New Medical Centre

In my last newsletter, I did express the hope that by early summer of this year we would see the buildings starting to rise, even if they were going into the wrong location as far as Buckley’s residents were concerned.   Now, I am just as puzzled as everyone else as to why there has been no movement at all.  I have asked all the right question down in Cardiff, but all that I can get by way of reply is that there are negotiations still going on “in order to sort out the details.”   By that, you may take it that despite assurances that the money is there, somewhere in the WAG, no final agreement has been reached between the developer, the Wales Government and the Betsi Cadwaladr North Wales Health Board.   All that we Town and County Councillors can do is to shake our heads sadly and wait until some final decision is eventually reached and advised to us.


8.  The New Superstore and The Buckley Masterplan

Some of you may have read the information in the newspapers recently that Sainsbury’s have bought the dis-used KwikSave Building on Chester Road in Mold and intend to develop a store on that site. That of course has to be a disappointment to all of us in Buckley, because Sainsbury’s was one of the “possibles” for the creation of a new superstore in Buckley.  One of the facts of life is that Flintshire County Council’s regeneration department and Buckley Town Council can only ask around, inquire all over the place and do their combined best to interest Developers and the Major Retailers to take a practical interest in setting up store in Buckley.


To assist in that task, the team involved has produced the latest version of The Buckley Master Plan.   It  was ratified as a formal Plan at County level, on 17th May, 2011, at an Executive Committee Meeting.  That Plan does of course include provision of space for a new Superstore, nominally to be located in the area that is currently the Precinct Car Park, the disused Legion Building and The Potter’s Wheel public house.


At county level we are busy trying to rationalise the decidedly fragmented land ownership issues into one consolidated holding.  That alone is not an easy matter to see through to completion. However, once done, it will assist in moving matters forward, which is what both Buckley Town Council and Flintshire County Council are desperately trying to do.    In that new Buckley Master Plan, the Library is proposed to be moved from its present location to a fresh site somewhere in the area of the Roberts’s Hardware and builders’ yard on Mold Road.  The present Police Station is destined to become a one-stop shop for local government business.  If you have not yet seen a copy of the  new Buckley Master Plan, I suggest that you make a visit to the Library in the precinct, where copies are available. If you have comments about the Plan, let me know.  It is really a sort of “wish list” of intentions over the next 5 to 10 years.  However, if the residents of Buckley do not like what is proposed, now is the time to say so – loudly!  It may be “developers” who will shape the future town centre, but it is the residents who will have to live with that shaping for years to come, so get looking and get commenting, or be stuck with it.  Your choice!


 9.   The Newspapers

On 15th March of this year, the then outgoing Welsh Assembly Government suddenly found some £104 Million of funding for capital expenditure all over Wales. Welcome news indeed in these cash-strapped times. 
                            In locational terms, they divided it up as follows:
                            All Wales items (Mainly railway)        £17Million
                            South West Wales                                £7      ,,
                            Mid Wales                                            £18    ,,
                            South East Wales                                 £62    ,,   
                            North Wales                                          nothing
I carefully reported that glaring absence of funding for Flintshire/North Wales to the Flintshire Chronicle and the Leader newspapers, because I thought it might just be of public interest, especially with Welsh Assembly elections then coming up.  They never used the information.  So, at least for you residents of the ward I represent, you now know.

More recently, in the Chronicle, one councillor chose to allege that the county could have improved its return from investment by hundreds of thousands of £s per year.  The article did contain a rather personally pointed slap at both our Director of Finance and at me.  Both of us replied, with full information, clearly rebutting the claims.  Those replies were in the shape of   formal individual press statements.   Somehow, the newspaper left the decidedly arguable claims of the councillor intact, but edited down those two press statements in a manner that made our two responses appear weak.    


When I questioned the right of editors to hack apart a formal press statement, I was told that they do have that right.  So, clearly, we have another example that proves that what you and I read in the press is “shaped” by a newspaper’s political policy and editorial inclinations.  One can only construct a mental picture of factual accuracy, whole truth and integrity crawling away wounded, having been struck down by the editorial pen.   


Perhaps that is part of the reason why newspapers seem to find less and less favour with the public in this day and age of alternative sources of information and advertising.  Long gone is the old belief that, “It must be true, because it is in the newspaper!”  That I can only reflect on as sad.


10.   Spon Green

For those readers who walk their dogs over or let their children play on the patch of green land at the bottom of Lyme Grove, please stop worrying. After a member of the community quite rightly got in touch with me about the amount of water clearly leaking out from the area and running away down Grassy Lane and a possible patch of sunken ground, I had the county council’s properly qualified engineers go to take a good look at what was going on. They carried out a full inspection.  The report back has confirmed that all is well.  There is natural water running in the area.   The flow will depend upon past rainfall and the geology, right back up to the top of Daisy Hill. However, the sewage system is safe, sound and intact and, the reinforced concrete cap, or float, sealing the shaft of the mine that once existed there, is rock solid, sound and safe to walk, run and play over.


11.   Padeswood Cement Works

On the afternoon of Friday, 6th May, 2011, I was driving down Bannel Lane, to attend to a piece of ward business.  With me in the car was my son John, who, like me, is a Buckley Town Councillor.  From Bannel Lane the buildings of the cement works can clearly be seen.  What we both noticed, with some concern, was the cloud of dust streaming out, at low level, from the Mill area of the works and wafting its way, on the apparently westerly wind, towards Pennyfordd.  I subsequently reported it to the Environment Agency, whose log entry 882943 refers.  That dust cloud could only have consisted of unfiltered cement process dust, before or after its Gypsum portion has been added.  In health terms it is undesirable, to say the least.  In regulatory terms, it should not be happening.   Subsequently, the Environment Agency were kind enough to feed back to me that an inquiry with Hanson Cement had confirmed that there had been, as observed, an unauthorised escape of process dust, caused during remedial work to correct a milling plant problem.


The cement works has been functioning as a Cement Kiln, producing cement, only on a periodic basis, since the national recession commenced a couple of years back. Actual production from Kiln 4 at the works has been limited to roughly two or three weeks per quarter.  However, the milling of cement clinker produced at other works, such as Clithero and Ketton, has remained a full-time activity.


I record that event as the lead in to an update for you on the current Public Health Inquiry into the possible or actual effects on the health of residents around that cement works from the emissions to air and water from the plant.


That Inquiry is continuing.  Public sessions have been held in Mold and in Penyfordd where various councillors, community group representatives and officials from public health organisations have all had their own particular statements to make.  Presentations have been listened to and their authors rigorously cross-examined, with some interesting results.   Despite strenuous presentational efforts on the part of “Officialdom” and the use of convoluted statistical calculations, no convincing evidence has been provided that the concerns of local residents are unfounded.   The recent newspaper headlines reporting that all is well in Cancer terms relate to national averages, which, at best, are only obliquely related to the local concerns that we are trying to get to the bottom of, one way or another.


It is now up to those of us who are representing you and your concerns, to set out clearly and in a well evidenced manner, the health detriment burden that communities around the works have, apparently, suffered over many years and to establish, once and for all, if it can be done, some causal bridge between activity at the works and ill-health impacts in the surrounding area.


That is no light-weight task, believe me.  That causal bridge linkage has never been directly established in the past, even by health and environmental professionals, backed up by dedicated local environmental activists such a my son and I and others whose names you well know locally.  That is not going to stop us trying!


12.  County Council Efficiency

I do, at times, wonder just how Flintshire County Council, as an organisation, actually works as well as it does.  If you find that a strange comment from the Leader of the council, please reflect that, aside from having served, at senior rank, in very efficient police forces.    I am a graduate level qualified Manager, one-time Lecturer in Management Studies at Wirral Metropolitan College and have run my own small business.


As an organisation, Flintshire County Council is, because of its staffing structure, cumbersome, fragmented, heavily bureaucratic and burdened to its eyeballs with what you and I recognise as regulatory and procedural red tape.  It is far from agile, nimble, lean and totally together, which is the way that you and I need it to be, if it is to provide top quality services and absolutely best value for money.


Even the best local government managers – and we have some – and the most willing and industrious of staff – and we have a lot of those too – struggle to stay afloat in a literal sea of disjointed activities.   Why disjointed?  Well, in real terms and real time, your local authority has a total number of work hours to undertake, each week/year. Those hours of work amount to the equivalent of 5,504 full time employees, including about 2,250 in the Education Department. (Teachers, class-room assistants, janitors, etc.) (As at 31/03/11) 


So, a totally “tidy” local government organisation would, in theory, have 5,504 employees to do the work.  That is simple, yes?  Well, actually, not in local government! Start by reflecting back to Item 2 above and my comments about the 1980s


At present, there are some 13,655 “Positions” within the structure of FCC. That is tasks that there are job descriptions for, into which the total work hours are split. That, clearly, means that we must have a good number of part-time jobs, which is exactly what we do have.   Okay you say, what’s wrong with a part-time job if that suits the employee and the employer?   To that question I would reply that there is nothing wrong with employing part-timers, which is exactly what we do.   In fact, we actually employed 9,480 members of staff, some of whom have just one position and others who have up to 4 different positions within county.  The county also has some employees on formal “Flexible Working” contracts, others on “Flexy Time” and some “Work from Home” arrangements, not to forget “Job Share” and “Casual” employees too.


That fragmented structure and changeable individual monthly working pattern, means that we have far more personnel files, pay and pensions records than 5,504 full time employees would merit. Then there is the matter of Supervision.  More employees, occupying more “positions” equals more supervisors and managers.  Then there are the Annual Appraisals requirements.   A proper annual appraisal, with correct advance warning, correct forward paperwork and a decently long and meaningful interview, probably consumes half a day of effort in total work hours. A Single full time employee might well cost the system 4 hours of work time for annual appraisal during a year.  An employee occupying four positions and needing Appraisal from four different supervisors or managers would, all matters being equal, cost the organisation the equivalent of 2 working days per year. That all adds bureaucracy as well as direct costs (overheads) and multiplies the potential for error in pay and personnel records.  With employees carrying out multiple jobs, it also means that when one of them goes down sick and misses work, not one, but a few, jobs fail to get done.


So, before you blow your stack and start demanding that us councillors should “do something” about this cumbersome and costly organisation, let me point out that that is not quite so easy as it might seem.  You see, the outline and figures that I have given you above are all legal and proper.  Not only legal and proper, but they have been created by the current employment Acts, Rules and Regulations placed on to the Statute Books at Westminster and in Cardiff, by successive governments, so that Mums, Dads and others, who want, or need, to work part time, for all sorts of legitimate reasons, can actually find a job that suits their needs.


That is why Flintshire County Council is, on the statistical face of it, overstaffed, cumbersome and fragmented.   It is also partly why, as a percentage of the total work force in Wales, the number in Local Government employment is uncomfortably high.


13.  The Old Buckley Swimming Baths

Just a quick update.   We are still in the process of setting up the charitable trust, supported by Buckley Town Council, Flintshire County Council and the Coal Industries Social Welfare Organisation (CISWO), that is needed to be in place before we can bid for Lottery and other funding to preserve and renovate the building and convert it into a multi-purpose community hall.  I will report progress as it occurs, but be prepared for it to be slow.


14.  Pity Us!

As an item of light relief to end with, try this one, which is the work of Peter Wilson from Gloucestershire Royal Hospital and originally appeared in the Cotswold Life Magazine earlier this year.


Be kindly to your councillor, he isn’t very bright
Or he wouldn’t take a job where you can ring him up at night
To tell him that your drains are blocked or that your garden gnomes
Have been pilfered by a fine arts thief, dressed up as Sherlock Holmes

Be Charming to your Chairperson, don’t make your language graphic
She doesn’t dig the roadway up to obstruct commuter traffic
She doesn’t sanction power cuts or sever sewage pipes
Or permit your neighbour’s children to behave like guttersnipes

Don’t vilify your Mayor when he attends official functions
His digestion’s being ruined by all those civic luncheons
Don’t make your hurtful comments when he’s robed up to the teeth
For all you know he might be drop-dead gorgeous underneath

Pamper local politicians.  Remember we elect them
And it’s in our vital interests to cherish and protect them
For if they feel so undervalued that they won’t get out of bed
The government might make us all be Councillors instead.



Until my next newsletter lands upon your doormat, may your dreams come true
And all of your fears prove unfounded


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