A Taste of Honey or a Waste of Money?

Please do take the time to read through my observations. They are intended as an initial report at the end of my first year as one of your two County Councillors.

First, let me once again express my thanks to every one of the ward's residents and voters who helped elect me in June of last year. As an Independent Councillor, I owe no loyalties other than to YOU, the population of Bistre East Ward. I have been known to firmly state that I am not a party political politician. I am a representative of the people. That again means YOU. So, please read on and find out what your County Council is and is not doing for you.

In fairness, let me record that Cllr. Gareth Williams and I both put aside any party political differences when matters of ward business appear. On ward issues we communicate frequently and often have the same view on how best to deal with individual and local problems. Aside from that however, there is, regrettably, ample room for us to disagree about how well the County is and is not doing and why.

The Matter of Political Balance

For a better understanding of how we are governed in local terms, I need to start this narrative if I may, with a little explanation, to ensure that you really do have a very clear picture of how the rule of “Political Balance” works in Flintshire.

At last year’s County Council elections, the Independents and other non-Labour members were unable to contest all 70 seats. That was for a variety of reasons - lack of funds, a public impression of too much centralized control detracting from the worth of local government, growing legal and administrative burdens on Councillors and a general disinterest in “getting involved”. Many very worthy individuals among the population refrained from engaging in the contest.

That situation provided Labour with a bank of 10 County Councillors who were elected unopposed. However, in the 60 contested seats, only 27 Labour Councillors were elected, against 33 others. (17 Independent, 10 Lib-Dems, 4 Conservative and 2 Non-aligned).

Although Labour lost the contest in the elected seats, by 27 to 33, the overall result was a narrow Labour majority of 37 to 33. From that result, a political balance of 52.8% to 47.2% is established. It is this political balance that has to be maintained throughout all committees for the lifetime of this Council. (Unless any circumstances requiring any review arise, such as a new member coming in from a by-election.)

Unfortunately, that modest majority has provided the Labour Group with continuing TOTAL and absolute CONTROL They have used that narrow majority and the Cabinet System to take 100% control of the County’s local government affairs. That Cabinet System is now the basis of the nation’s local government structure. It provides that the Leader of the Council shall come from majority party. In turn, that Leader selects and appoints the Executive Team, who form The Cabinet. The present Flintshire Executive is made up of the Majority Party Leader, his Deputy and 8 other Labour Party members.

You might well ask, “What happened to Political Balance?”

Well, surprise surprise, the answer to that is that the Executive is EXEMPT from the Political Balance rule. (In 16 out of the 22 Welsh Counties, each majority party has, purely voluntarily, included one or two “others” as a demonstration of inclusivity). In Flintshire however, the Executive is drawn solely from the Labour Party. All other opinion is deliberately excluded.

The situation is not helped by the fact that under the current local government arrangements, “The functions of the Executive are quite separate from the functions of the County Council.” That phrase is contained in a letter from one of the County legal officers to me, dated 15 th March, 2005.

Parallel to the Executive are 6 “Scrutiny and Overview Committees” whose task is to monitor, hopefully in an apolitical manner, the decisions of the Executive in service areas such as Education, Housing, Highways, Social Services, etc. Each has 12 members. Their workload is arranged and supervised by a ”Scrutiny Co-ordinating Committee” of 13 members. Within each of these committees the rule of Political Balance does exist.

In every one of the 12 person Committees there are 7 Labour nominees and 5 Other, which means that it is almost beyond belief that any of these committees might make any decision not approved of by the Majority Party. Given the existence of human nature and strong party political loyalties, anyone may be forgiven for suspecting, or believing, that something like the Party Whip system operates, even if it is informally.

The function of Scrutiny is only to monitor, advise and recommend. If the Executive wish to do so they may decide to take no notice of the views expressed during scrutiny activities. In fact, Scrutiny Committees cannot CONTROL the Executive in any way because that is not their function.

The Impact of Political Arrangements upon Council Decisions

A classic example of the way in which the Labour leadership has handled Council services has been the recent decision of the executive to authorize the expenditure of some £7,000:00 of ratepayers’ money, (which may not be the end of the cost to the County), on making up to adoption standard one particular cul-de-sac in Bagillt. Some weeks back the original Cabinet decision was scrutinized by a committee on which I sat.

Many questions arose. In the view of the majority they were not satisfactorily answered and it was quite clear that the scrutiny committee members, of all political views, appeared to be agreed that the matter should not proceed. At least not until the residents themselves, who had paid retention sums to the company, expecting adoption standard work to be carried out, had taken legal action against the development company. The company in question is still in existence, still trading in North Wales and, from the latest information available, is in a sound financial condition. There was also grave concern about what precedent and potential expenditure this could cause in relation to many other un-adopted roads all around Flintshire.

Whatever, part way through the scrutiny questioning, the Executive Member in question requested the opportunity to halt the scrutiny activity and take the matter back for further consideration. That was agreed. Subsequently, however, the Executive decided again to go ahead as originally intended. That decision was again called in by opposition members for renewed scrutiny.

On the 4 th July, the day before the scrutiny committee met, the Evening Leader carried an article declaring that the Bagillt residents were near to victory in their fight to have the Council pay the necessary cost of the cul-de-sac upgrade. The Labour MP, David Hanson’s name figured in the report, giving strong support to his constituents.

On 5 th July, this particular decision was again scrutinized. I again sat on the committee. From what I heard, nothing had changed from the information available previously. The County Secretary’s advice was that in order to avoid the risk of the County being taken to the Ombudsman and losing the argument and incurring costs in so doing, the County should approve the decision of the Executive. He conceded that he had no idea of the quantification of cost if this decision set a precedent taken up by other residents in the same position.

After deliberation, the scrutiny committee voted. Even with one of their members absent, the six Labour members proved to be of one mind and outvoted the five non- Labour members .

Rewards for Efforts of Persuasion

While on the subject of persuasion, control and influence, residents do need, I believe, to also remember that, for those Councillors who may be “approved of,” by the Council leadership, for whatever reason, there are definite rewards.

Only the Chairs and Vice Chairs of Audit and Licensing are required by the Constitution to go to the largest Opposition Group. All the rest of the positions of responsibility can go to the controlling Labour group.

Controversial and outspokenly critical individuals are unlikely to be found in any of the following positions, against which I have listed the appropriate responsibility allowance, which is, of course, on top of the standard allowance of £10,200:00 p.a. that each Councillor will receive over the coming year.

Executive Members £15,338

Chairpersons of Overview & Scrutiny Committees £9,203

Chair of Planning & Development Control Committee £6,626

Vice-Chairs of Overview and Scrutiny Committees £6,135

Vice-Chair of Planning & Development Committee £3,081

Chair of the Audit Committee (Independent) £6,626

Chair of the Licensing Committee (Independent) £6,626

Vice-Chair of Licensing Committee (Independent) £3,081

Vice-Chair of the Audit Committee (Independent) £3,081

Chairpersons of the 3 Forum Groups £4,602

Vice-Chairs of the above Forum Groups £1,657

Chair of the Pensions Panel £4,602

Vice-Chair of the Pensions Panel £1, 657

(Where Members hold more than one office, they are entitled to only one allowance)

Council Tax and County Budget

As one of your Ward’s Councillors, I have taken a good long look at the Budget figures for the past few years. Please bear in mind that I am not a financial expert. However, I am a qualified and experienced manager. More than the politics of the Council, it is the efficiency of its services that concerns me, because that is how service delivery gets to be good, bad, or indifferent. It is on that score that I have worries, as well as on the matter of political stranglehold. Once I began looking, two points came clearly to notice. Firstly, more money has been taken out of your pocket than has been spent. Secondly, it is clear that wise voices advising of what was likely to be a tightening of financial support from the Welsh Assembly Government for 2005-2006, (with worse to come beyond that) were totally ignored.

Sadly, the majority party took no notice of the wise voices from Independent colleagues and did not set aside monies that could have eased this year’s Community Charge Burden. That decision was not, to me, a prudent one. At this point I have to add that the demand on your purse in terms of this year’s community charge would have been greater but for the coincidence and misfortune of the “rebanding exercise.”

In that recent Community Charge re-banding exercise, the “average” up-graded number of houses in each County was 25%. However, in Flintshire, 41% of houses were up-graded, which was bad news for the householders concerned, no doubt including many of you, but was good news for those tasked with balancing the budget for Flintshire. Without that accident of statistics, the Community Charge for this current year would have been higher than it is. For me, when good fortune helps to balance the books, rather than sound financial planning, I believe that we should all be looking critically at the level of competence being exercised.

Questions of Performance and Efficiency

Now let me move on to how the Majority Party responds when faced with clear evidence of failing performance within a Department. For many months, there have been serious concerns over the performance of the Community and Housing Directorate. Recently, the concerns, voiced by assorted members from all parties, reached such a level that an examination of the

Directorate by the appropriate Scrutiny Committee was agreed.

The Director of Community and Housing, plus the Executive Member responsible for the Directorate, and others, appeared before a scrutiny committee. I was a member of that examining committee.

One area of concern was the often, and sometimes repeatedly, poor quality of repair work on Council owned houses. Some of that work being carried out by council staff and some by outside contractors. What rapidly became clear was that, despite continual complaints from council house residents, and their Councillors, from all over Flintshire, little or no improvement in performance has appeared over recent years. Not one single Contractor company had ever been removed from the approved list and communication between Management and Union Members left much to be desired. At top level, there appeared to be serious confusion between the roles and responsibilities of the Director and the Executive Member.

Four days of investigation concluded that there was a thoroughly unsatisfacory level of performance within the Directorate. Residents were suffering and unnecessary costs were being incurred. Clearly, some re-arrangement had to be undertaken, rapidly, to put things right. It was time for some accountability.

What happened in the end was, in my opinion, a fudge. An “Action Plan” was devised, which, in my view, as a qualified and experienced manager, failed to match the committee’s findings.

At this stage, in an apparent attempt to respond to the committee’s findings, the Directorate was divided into two, along with the Executive Member’s workload . An additional Executive Member was appointed to attend to matters of Community and Housing, at a cost in excess of £20,000:00 per annum to the ratepayers of the county. Altogether, it was not the decisive result that I, and some others on the committee, would have wished for. It was, however, the best that could be obtained, given the political balance on the committee.

This is of course, the same Directorate that is currently under scrutiny by the Audit Committee in relation to certain peculiarities and irregularities involving materials and contract documentation. That investigation has a way to go yet and it would be inappropriate of me to comment upon it any further at this point in time. However, this is the same Directorate that produced a Housing Strategy some two years before it had completed any Housing Needs Survey! How you set out your strategy BEFORE you know your NEEDS simply beats me – and most likely you as well.

I will also add that this is the same Directorate that, at the beginning of March of this year, finally produced its Housing Business Plan for 2005-2013. The plan has been “under construction” for about two years or more. When it finally became available, towards the middle of March, 2005, a number of councillors, including me, studied it and believed it to be seriously flawed and questionable. Accordngly, we ensured that it was “called-in” for potential scrutiny via a meeting on 18 th March, 2005. However, in the course of that meeting, it became clear that there was a regulatory requirement for this Housing Business Plan to be submitted to the Welsh Assembly by 31st March, 2005. As a result of that regulatory requirement there was absolutely no time for any meaningful scrutiny procedure. This should never have happened, yet it did.

Continuing on the theme of bad management and lack of joined-up thinking within the Housing Services, I have had to step in and prevent a number of evictions from council houses. Let it be clearly understood that I will not support anyone who earns a decent income, takes five weeks of overseas holidays a year and yet fails to pay their council house rent.

Where I have stepped in is where single parents, with young children, in difficult circumstances for reasons beyond their control, have been processed for eviction by the Housing Department over rent arrears.

Why have I stepped in to seek Court help in preventing such evictions? Well, one of my gravest concerns about Flintshire is that I see almost nothing of any “joined-up” thinking within the organization. Each Directorate and Department all too often does its own thing.

Certain of the attempted evictions over rent arrears demonstrate clearly what I mean. Take the instance of one single parent existing on Benefits only and owing a few hundred pounds worth of rent. The individual was unable to catch up on the outstanding rent and was therefore selected for eviction, to protect the interests of the Housing Department.

I regret to say that I found little or nothing in the way of any real help, guidance, or support offered by or from the assorted authorities. Just the threat of eviction. When I looked at the circumstances, I realized that if the eviction went ahead, the adult and child would instantly become classifiable as “Homeless.”

They would legitimately then have a priority need for housing and support; but, the Council has no spare housing. There are nearly 5,000 families already on the waiting list. So, accommodation in an Hotel, or Boarding House, in Mold or even Chester would have been the inevitable result of the eviction. At around £100:00 per day, up to perhaps a year before suitable accommodation might become available, the potential bill would rapidly become much large than the council house rent owed. That is NOT sensible corporate thinking, or sound corporate management. I am glad to say that a Judge agreed with me and an eviction order, in that and other cases, was not issued.

Lack of Accountability

In another direction, I am one of those Councillors authorized to undertake visits and inspection at Residential Homes, Nursing Homes, Children’s Homes and Sheltered Workshops. Mostly, I cannot speak highly enough of the care and support being provided. Lots of good work is being done, much of it by volunteers, as well as by County’s paid officers. However at one location, there was information and clear indication that three children of school age had, for nearly a year, simply not been going to school. Nobody seemed to really know why not. Nobody appeared to be accountable.

My requests for an accounting of why this situation has been allowed were made at high level, but discreetly, to protect the vulnerable children involved. Despite promises, three months of time has passed and my concerns have not been fully answered. That is unacceptable. It is also another failure of management within Flintshire.

I am also still awaiting the provision of a final structural report and disposal proposals on a listed building, located in Buckley and owned by the Council. This matter has been ongoing since November of 2003. I have been told variously that the reports were “being undertaken” and “had been carried out,” only to discover many weeks later that I “must have misunderstood.”

If officers are genuinely overburdened with workload – and some clearly are – they need help, support and assistance. The County Authority has a duty of care towards its employees, who should not be left, unsupported, in stressful conditions.

That last example helps lead me in to two topics of concern that also need to be reported. Absence caused by sickness and the total number of employees, measured against the County’s workload.

If efficient performance of service delivery is to be achieved, this kind of essential management information has to be readily available; yet in Flintshire that is not the case. Where one reliable set of figures should exist, it does not appear to be availabale. It has taken me since last October to get even “some idea” of how many people Flintshire actually does employ.

How many of the county managers, particularly at senior level, can claim to be in effective control of their responsibilities, with uncertain staffing figures flying around, I know not. I have a figure for sickness absence that records the loss of 14.5 working days per year per employee for 2003. That, six years or so after this present administration took over, is far higher than national averages. My own belief is that remedial action should have been taken far more swiftly A more recent report tells me the sickness absence figure is coming down and is now at 9.5 days per annum.. That is still higher than it should be.

In terms of full-time employees, I have official documentation that tells me the County has “the equivalent of 5250 people” and another one that says we have 4433, while another gives me “5247 Employees.” There is another figure available of 4,780 “full time equivalent” positions in the first quarter of 2005, while the Chief Executive has stated, in committee discussions, that there are “7,500 employees.”

How those assorted figures equate against the workload to be delivered, or against the quantity of employees being budgeted and paid for escapes me, because my efforts to get at the figures have not brought me very much clearly reliable information as yet. However, two things I do promise you.

Firstly, I will get some clear pictures and some proper accounting. Secondly, you will get a report back of what I discover. That may still take some time.

Meanwhile, after what has been a year of silence from me, while I looked, learned and listened, I felt a report back to you was clearly needed. Please accept this report as an update, with more to follow.


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