The Conservatives don't like scrutiny of Buckinghamshire Council's £1 billion budget - I wonder why?

Follow me @Linda Derrick1

2 March 2020

The local press reported last week on the budget plans for the new unitary Buckinghamshire Council (BC).

According to Martin Tett, the Leader of BC's Shadow Executive, there is going to be a "new era" for Bucks. This is a £1 billion budget which will "mark the start of an exciting new future" with more cash for maintaining roads and pavements, protecting vulnerable children, adults and older people, tackling homelessness, more social workers, more cleared drains, more school places, and more affordable housing.

And all paid for from just a "cost of living" increase of 1.99% in council tax and an additional 2% for adult social care.

It's a miracle!

All these promises, oven-ready for the local elections in May.

If residents complain during the election campaign about the roads, the lack of school places, social care, or anything else, here's the answer - there's going to be more money to cure all these problems and we are heading for an exciting future.

So let's have a look in more detail at some of these budget plans.

To begin with, as I warned in the blog below (8 January 2020), residents in Wycombe are going to have to pay considerably more council tax than other residents. Here's what I think the figures are:

Chiltern District - increase of 2.3%.

Aylesbury Vale - increases of 3.7%,

South Bucks - increase of 3.9%

Wycombe - increase of 5.5%.

The Conservatives promised that council tax would be "equalised between the districts at the lowest level". They have broke their promise; they are levelling up. No surprise there.

Then there is the promise of more cash.

Let's have a look at the budget for Children. Appendix 3 of the budget paper says the budget for Children will be £77.3 million in 2020/21. The budget will then be cut by about £4 million in the next two years.

There is no extra cash for example for Early Help for Children. The budget used to be over £10 million, now it is down to £5.8 million. That's not extra cash. I believe that's called a cut - and a pretty substantial cut at that.

Or what about the extra cash for school places? Well, the funding for school places comes from central government and goes straight out to Bucks schools and academies as block grants - nothing at all to do with Buckinghamshire Council. In fact, far from increasing, the BC net budget for education is reduced over the 3 years of the budget plan from £25.5 million to £25 million.

Do we even know if Bucks County Council broke even last year? Well, we do know because Robin Stuchbury, a Labour Councillor in Buckingham, asked. The answer is that BCC finished last year with a £86 million deficit on its revenue account and bequeathed this massive deficit to the new unitary authority. No wonder BC welcomed the reserves from the district councils to cover the deficit, including £200 million from Wycombe.

Do we know when we will see the annual £18 million savings which BCC promised it would get from unification? Well, no. The budget paper says it is getting more difficult to deliver any savings in the face of growing demands. Moreover, unification actually makes it harder to make savings, particularly as key staff will be lost. Any savings from unification won't be identified as such but just absorbed.

So another Conservative promise just disappeared with the fairies.

Now you would think that a budget of over £1 billion pounds would need some scrutiny and challenge. However, it is pretty obvious that the Conservatives aren't going to do much to scrutinise their own budget. So this is where the opposition Councillors have a very real job to do.

However, BC's constitution, drawn up and agreed by the Conservatives, doesn't allow the oppostion to do its job. All that the opposition parties are given is 8 minutes between them to respond to the budget. 5 minutes for the Lib Dems and 3 minutes for Labour to respond to a budget of over £1 billion of taxpayers' money. It's a farce.

Of course councillors can ask questions. But they are only allowed one question for each meeting, the councillor only has one minute to read the question and the question has to be submitted a week before the meeting. Again it's a farce. You have to wonder why the Conservatives allow virtually no scrutiny. What are they afraid of?

And before you ask, 34 questions have been submitted to the Shadow Executive. 27 of these were from Robin Stuchbury. So there is one councillor holding the Shadow Executive to account. Pity about the others.

3.99% council tax rise next year in Bucks – and more for Wycombe residents

Follow me@LindaDerrick1

8 January 2020

If you want to find out what’s happening with the local councils in Bucks, it’s a bit tricky at the moment. The district councils and the county council are closing down and the power and decision-making has moved to the Shadow Executive of the new Buckinghamshire Council (BC) which comes formally into being this year.

The Shadow Executive is chaired by Martin Tett, the current Leader of the county council. All the members are Conservative district or county Councillors.

On Tuesday, the Shadow Executive held a meeting. The Shadow Executive doesn’t seem to issue press releases, and the papers for the meeting were over 400 pages long. So perhaps you might not know what decisions the Shadow Executive made.

Did you know for example that our rates are going to go up again in 2020/21 – this time by at least 3.99% - the maximum allowed by central government?

I say “at least” because those of us in Wycombe district, where the rates have been lower than elsewhere in Bucks, are going to see a levelling up; all residents will pay the same rates wherever they live.

Three Conservative Wycombe District Councillors raised this issue with Martin Tett.

Councillor Watson, who is not a member of the Shadow Executive asked what impact the levelling up would have on residents in different districts. I didn’t understand the answer except I think residents in Wycombe face an increase in council tax over and above the 3.99% and residents elsewhere in Bucks face an increase below 3.99%.

Councillor Green, who is a member of the Shadow Executive, reminded Councillor Tett that the business case for the new council promised that council tax would be equalised between the districts at the lowest level. He asked Councillor Tett why he had broken this promise.

Councillor Tett said the promise had been made 4 years ago in 2016 and between then and now things had changed; the gap between the council rate for Wycombe and the other districts had widened. If the new council levelled down there would be a huge loss of revenue which would be “penal”.

So a promise made four years ago just doesn’t count – nor does it count if circumstances change. Makes you wonder what promises do count because time always passes and circumstances always change.

Councillor Wood read a statement saying she was not happy that Wycombe residents would be penalised, particularly as they were being penalised because of WDC’s financial prudence in keeping council tax down. She thought harmonisation of council tax between districts should be done over a longer period.

Well it’s good to see Wycombe councillors expressing their concern about the increase coming for Wycombe residents – but it was obvious that the decisions had already been taken and councillors were just getting their views on the record.

I’m still unclear why my council tax has gone up year after year – 5% last year and 6% the year before and now 4%. This is an increase of about 17% in 3 years. And yet the services we get are getting worse. Can Conservative councillors be that incompetent?

Moreover, unifying the councils was meant to make savings - £18.2 million in the first year - but still ratepayers are facing the maximum increase allowed. I couldn’t understand where the savings had gone and I was glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one.

Councillor Hogan – who had really done his homework – asked explicitly where the £18.2 million had gone. I couldn’t understand the answer so it was heartening to hear Councillor McPherson ask if there could be a clear explanation, in Plain English, for the residents.

Finally, it’s always worth looking at the financial risks in budget papers. Here’s three of them (in plain English) from the paper: -

- The Government still hasn’t made up its mind what it is going to do about adult social care. Unless central government picks up the tab for any changes, things will go pear-shaped (or more accurately, even more pear-shaped).

- If private sector social care providers close down (and this is quite likely), the council will have to pick up the pieces and provide care. This will require more money.

- BC has got an investment portfolio in commercial property which is meant to provide the council with a good income (actually it’s not that good). But the commercial property market is struggling so BC may lose a lot of money.

And the final risk is Brexit. An adverse Brexit could mean:

• a loss of knowledgeable employees as employees who are EU citizens leave the UK, which in turn might lead to an increase of council wages in order to attract replacements;

• a reduction in council tax receipts due to the emigration of EU citizens from Bucks;

• a reduction in business rate receipts through failure of Bucks businesses or their move out of the UK; and

• a reduction in national tax receipts due to the same cause requiring greater savings in local government.

So perhaps we should all look forward to a good trade deal with the EU and other countries as soon as possible.

But I’m not holding my breath.

The sale of the ground beneath our feet in Bucks

Follow me@LindaDerrick1

6 March 2019

I have reported (blog of 7 December below) about the property investments of the councils in Bucks. This blog is about the public assets which councils in Bucks have sold.

The data was published on 4 March by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and there is an editorial about the issue in the Guardian this morning (links below).

In 2016, the government gave councils in England new powers to sell community spaces such as libraries, playing fields and day care centres to help balance their books.

The Bureau obtained information about more than 12,000 pieces of land and property that were sold, transferred or otherwise disposed of by local authorities between April 2014 and July 2018. 

The information for councils in Bucks is below.

It is good in itself to have some transparency about the sale of land and property in Bucks, although it is disappointing not to have the same information for Bucks County Council.

You can make up your own minds about the rightness of disposing of these assets and whether the councils got value for money.

All I would point out is:

- two district councils have not sold anything in the period in question.

- Wycombe District Council, on the other hand, sold £13 million of assets. Over the same period it bought £12.4 million of property for investment purposes. So basically WDC has sold off public spaces and invested the money straight into property.

- In 2011 WDC sold virtually all its council homes. It has received about £52 million in receipts. Not one penny of that money has been spent on social housing.

WDC prides itself on keeping the rates down. It maintains it has been able to do this because of its prudent financial management.

Now you can see there is a different story. WDC has remained solvent and built up its reserves on the proceeds - over £60 million - of selling our assets.

The irony of course is that, with unification of the councils in Bucks, all these reserves, and the remaining assets of the district councils, will be taken over by the county council – a council that is in debt and financially incompetent.

 

Public spaces sold by councils in Bucks between April 2014 and July 2018

Bucks County Council – no data available.

Aylesbury Vale District Council

- Elmhurst Youth Centre sold for £415,000

- Circus Fields Footpath sold for £10,000

Total £425,000

Wycombe District Council

- Land north of Crest Road sold for £4,660,000

- Land at Hughenden Quarter (3 lots) sold for £6,250,001

- Computer House sold for £1,825,180

- Polish Community Centre for £90,000

- Land at rear of 30 High Street £62,500

- Land adjacent to 222 Hatters Lane for £34,000

- Mill End Car Park and toilets for £25,000

- Car Park adjacent to the Stag and Huntsman for £21,250

- 2 pieces of land at the Crescent for £2

Total £12,967,933

South Bucks DC and Chiltern DC did not sell any assets. 

https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2019-03-04/sold-from-under-you https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/05/the-guardian-view-on-the-biggest-privatisation-the-land-beneath-our-feet

BCC suffered least from the cuts and better able to absorb them – but still fails on pretty every count.

Follow me@LindaDerrick1

5 February 2019

Recent research* shows that cities in the north of England have been the biggest losers from government spending cuts. The cities most affected are economically weaker and less able to absorb the cuts. It is Barnsley, Liverpool and Doncaster which have faced the worst cuts.

Conversely, it is the shires in the South that have suffered the least from the government cuts, are economically stronger and better able to manage the cuts.

And yet, curiously, it is the Tory shires of Northamptonshire, Surrey, and Somerset who are in the most financial trouble. And you wonder why.

Hard on their heels in the race to bankruptcy is Bucks County Council.

A previously keen fan of austerity, it is now protesting loudly about the government cuts.

But they are a good deal less than the cities in the north. And isn’t Bucks a prosperous area? So shouldn’t Bucks be able to manage better than most?

So why is it, you may ask, that Bucks County Council is mired in debt, that my local taxes are going up and local public services are being run into the ground?

The answer must be that BCC is just incompetent.

And yet, it is BCC that the government has chosen to take over all the councils in Bucks. And it is Cllr Tett, under whose watch BCC has failed to deliver on so many things, that the government has chosen to lead the takeover.

Makes me wonder what will happen if we get a no deal Brexit and unification under Cllr Tett.

It really is a frightening prospect.

P. S. I was just finishing this when I noticed that the Deputy Leader of Milton Keynes Council said BCC “is another by-word for Tory incompetence and maladministration”. Too right I thought.

 

*https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/cities-outlook-2019/

BCC and WDC both play the property market and BCC borrows heavily to do so

Follow me@LindaDerrick1

7 December 2018

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism published some interesting data this week about the “Public Sector Gamble – Councils borrowing billions to play the Property Market” (link below).

What the data show is that Bucks County Council’s total borrowing as at June 2018 was a staggering £213.5 million. It has bought property investments at a cost of £79.2 million. BCC has borrowed deeply to play the market.

Wycombe District Council’s borrowing, on the other hand, is a remarkable zero, yes zero. It has property investments of £12.4 million. It hasn’t borrowed to play the market (although of course it has had the proceeds of selling virtually all of its Council houses).

It’s no wonder Martin Tett, the Leader of BCC wants to unify the councils in Bucks. Who won’t like WDC’s assets and lack of debt to bail BCC out?

If you want to see what the two authorities have invested in, the list is below.

 

 

WDC’s investments

9-10 Church St HP11 2DE bought 2014 for £44,500 from Dorothy Perkins

6-8 Frogmoor, HP13 5ES bought 2014 for £390,000 from Redcastle Ltd

Plot 1 Fieldhouse Lane, SL7 1LW bought 2015 for £275,000 from Chelton Ltd

4-5 Church Street, HP11 2DE bought 2014 for £523,000 from Skydeep Ltd

11 Duke Street, HP13 6EE bought in 2016 for £1,081,000 from a private individual

11 High Street, HP11 2AZ bought 2016 for £612,500 from a private individual

Sword House, Totteridge Road, HP13 6DG bought in 2016 for £6,600,000 from Citruz (AV) LLP

4- 5 Cornmarket, HP11 2BW bought in 2017 for £655,000 from Kent Kraft Estates

2-3 High Street, HP11 2AZ bought in 2017 for £290,000 from Leto Ltd 31-34 Oxford Rd, HP11 2ED bought in 2018 for £800,000 from Craj Investments

30 Oxford Rd, HP11 2EN bought in 2018 for £1,150,000 from Pineapple Corp.

 

BCC investments

11 Westfields House, Buckingham MK18 1DZ bought in 2017 for £287,000 from a private individual

12 Westfields House, Buckingham bought in 2017 for £275,000 from a private individual Clarion House, Maidenhead, SL6 4BY bought in 2017 for £10,250,000 from BNP

High Wycombe Business Park, Retail units, Genoa Way, High Wycombe, HP11 1FY bought in 2016 for £1,825,000 from Fletcher King

Knaves Beech Industrial Park, Industrial Units, Davies Way. High Wycombe, HP10 9QY bought in 2016 for £22,845,000 from CIP Property (AIPT) Ltd.

Knaves Beech Retail Park, Retail units bought in 2017 for £26,110,000 from CIP Property (AIPT) Ltd.

 

https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2018-12-04/councils-borrow-billions-to-buy-real-estate

 

Well blow me down – it seems I did have a better grip on reality than Martin Tett about BCC’s finances.

18 July 2018

 

Follow me @LindaDerrick1

 

In 2016, Martin Tett, Conservative Leader of Bucks County Council, wrote a Christmas message.  It sang the praises of BCC’s infrastructure projects, services, and commercial innovation. 

 

In January 2017, one of my ex- Labour Party colleagues responded by pointing out that BCC had consistently run at a loss under Councillor Tett’s leadership and the value of BCC’s assets had been significantly eroded in recent years.

 

He suggested Martin Tett should have fought for more funding from the Conservative central government instead of simply implementing their austerity agenda.  If he had, we would have been better off – and our beautiful county would not have been crumbling into disrepair.

  

I put this letter to Martin Tett for comment and he responded “I will leave the electorate to judge next May which of us has a grip on reality.”

 

In February 2017, Martin Tett said, when setting the 2017/8 budget for BCC,

 

“… we are in a much more stable financial position. This really is a common-sense budget following challenging times, which will put Buckinghamshire on a sure footing going into the future…   This is the result of the prudent decisions taken during a real period of uncertainty”.

  

I pointed out that the council tax increase would not begin to plug BCC’s funding gap - even though BCC was planning to make further huge cuts on services.  BCC had been running at a loss for years and its reserves fell again that year.   BCC kept going by borrowing large amounts of money and it intended to borrow even more.  Most of that borrowed money was going on repaying BCC’s debts. 

 

I concluded that BCC was living on the never-never; austerity and the commercial approach so loved by the Conservatives had failed miserably.  

 

In May 2017, just before the county election, Martin Tett suddenly realized that BCC needed more money – lots of it - from central Government.  On roads, education and adult social care to name but a few.   It never came.

 

Unfortunately the electorate then judged Martin Tett to have a better grip on reality than me.  He was elected and I wasn’t.   (I wasn’t entirely surprised).

 

Nevertheless, I continued to maintain that BCC was financially incompetent; it had set up companies which failed, got a poor return on its investments and wouldn’t admit it was in serious financial trouble.

 

Martin Tett continued to maintain that BCC was “upholding its excellent record of strong financial management”.

  

A week ago, the Bucks Free Press reported that BCC expected to overspend by £1.2 million by the end of March 2019.  Martin Tett, warned his colleagues that BCC did not have sufficient back-up funds to offset the over-spend.    All council services were ordered to review their budgets in a desperate bid to make savings.   He added

 “BCC hasn’t got sufficient contingencies to fully mitigate this.  It is obviously a serious situation – I’m not going to hide that from anybody here.”

 

Well blow me down I thought.    It looks as though I was right all the time.  BCC is in serious financial difficulty - it hasn’t got enough money to cover its debts.    Perhaps I did have a better grip on reality than Martin Tett. 

  

Which leaves me with three questions:

 -        How is it that Martin Tett, with all the resources of BCC at his command, didn’t realise over 18 months ago that BCC was heading for trouble – and yet I and my ex-colleague did?  

 -        How is it that Martin Tett has still not set out the financial situation clearly in a press release for the public?  

 -        How is it that the Bucks Free Press provided no comments in its article from anyone in the opposition parties?     

  

But never mind, there in the same BFP edition was an article on the £9 million of reserves held by Wycombe District Council “for a rainy day”.    WDC Councillors must realise that BCC is their rainy day.   Under one unitary council, that £9 million of reserves will be part of Martin Tett’s escape route out of the red.  

 

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs

4 March 2018   

In my blog below I asked why my council tax is going up.  I asked the question to the cabinet members for finance on Bucks County Council and Wycombe District Council.  The latter, Councillor David Watson, was kind enough to reply.  The former, Councillor John Chilver, didn’t. 

Councillor Watson’s reply is below and my response follows. 

"Linda,

Thank you for your email.

I do not wish to appear awkward but I do not readily have the data to hand as far back as 2010 and considerable time would be required to prepare an in depth response. Nevertheless I would say that Wycombe District Council (WDC) council tax is to be increased for only the second time in seven years and has declined in real terms since 2010. This 18/19 increase is set against the background of additional cost pressures facing the council and a further reduction (£0.5M) in Government Revenue Support Grant (RSG). N.B. RSG has been reduced from £3.6M in 13/14 down to £0.1M in 18/19  .  Over the period since I was re-elected in 2013 the council ,in order to respond to many challenges including inflation, reduced government funding and growth, has become more operationally efficient and has significantly invested in economic redevelopment in order to both improve the public realm and also create additional revenue streams to fund the continuation of front line services.   WDC has thus managed to live within its means over the period since 2010 and is providing front line services at a lower real cost than before - and so your council tax paid to WDC has similarly declined in real terms.

Regards

David Watson

Cabinet Member for Finance & Resources"

"Dear David 

Thank you for taking the time and trouble to respond. 

Perhaps I should have made myself clearer.  I am not complaining that my council taxes have increased. 

I recognise that the Revenue Support Grant which Wycombe District Council gets from the Government has been cut to nearly nothing.  I would therefore have expected my council tax to increase.  However, I would also have expected my income tax to decrease because the Government didn’t need the money to pay the RSG.   And assuming the increase in council tax plugged the gap in funding from the Government, I would have expected the standard of public services to remain the same.   

Instead, I am faced with a double whammy - my income tax remains the same but my council tax is going up and the services provided by the public sector have got dramatically worse.  

My question is why.  

Perhaps I should also say what I expect in general terms from the public sector.

I expect the public sector to provide all those things that underpin our society and make it the sort of place where I want to live.  I mean things like good healthcare, education, housing, transport, security and justice.  I expect the public sector to provide these things in a way which promote equality, social cohesion and inclusion i.e. in a way which would make it difficult for the private sector to provide these services and make a profit. 

I expect to be taxed fairly to pay for these services.   

Finally I expect my taxes to be spent wisely.  

At the moment, I think WDC fails to meet these expectations.  

However, the responsibility for this failure lies largely with the Conservative Government and the austerity (and other) policies it has pursued for over seven years and is still pursuing.  

In general, I think WDC has done the best that it could in managing in difficult times and has been reasonably cost effective. 

Nevertheless, I do hold WDC partly responsible for failing to meet my expectations.  

First, most of the WDC Councillors are Conservatives and therefore support the policies being implemented by the Government.  (I take silence as assent.) 

Second, WDC needs to spell out what it is not doing.   We need some honesty and openness.

For example, does WDC think it is providing a good service in preventing crime and anti-social behavior?    Is WDC doing enough to help young people who might get into trouble?  Or in preventing domestic abuse? Or preventing radicalisation, drug or alcohol abuse or anti-social behaviour in the town centre at night? 

Does WDC think it is providing a good service in ensuring food safety, workplace safety or environmental safety?  Or a good service on housing?  Or on planning?   

Third, WDC chose to sell virtually all of its 6000 social homes over 5 years ago for a knock-down price and chose not to put a penny of the proceeds into building new social homes. 

Is it any wonder that WDC has been able to keep taxes low when it has had over £54 million from the sale of 6000 social homes and choose to invest the money in economic redevelopment rather than in more social homes as WDC promised?   

Is it any wonder there is insufficient social housing in Wycombe and too many people in poverty facing eviction, living in a B&B or homelessness? 

As you can see, we appear to have different objectives for WDC.  Yours may be to keep taxes low.    Mine is to provide good quality services to underpin society.  I'm not sure we will ever meet in the middle.

I was going to suggest we compromise on that well known principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs".   However, when I looked it up, I found it was a quote from Karl Marx.  I’m not sure the thoughts of a communist would go down well in Buckinghamshire but you never know…...  

Kind Regards

Linda"

 

Can someone explain why my council tax is going up

23 February 2018

Bucks County Council voted yesterday to put my council tax up by nearly 6%.    

And I’m puzzled – really puzzled. 

You see, in 2010 when the Conservatives came to power, I was getting a pretty good service from the state. 

For example, the NHS was providing an excellent service, schools had massively improved and crime had gone down.  The roads were OK.  The planning system sort of worked.   There were inspectors making sure my food was safe, that my place of work was safe and the environment was safe.   And vulnerable residents were helped and supported by a range of services from the public sector and charities.

Since then, I’ve paid roughly the same amount of income tax and council tax.    

And yet public services have deteriorated and some are in crisis – the NHS, schools, universities, the police, the benefit service, prisons, Children’s Services, Adult Social Care, the roads, the libraries.  You name it and it has been cut.   On top of this, public funding to charities has been slashed and, as a result, many charities have disappeared or been cut back.

Overall, I’ve been paying roughly the same amount in taxes but have got about a 30% reduction in services. 

So where have my taxes been going? 

Now I will have to pay 6% more council tax. 

Now I don’t object to paying taxes (much) but I do want value for my money.   

And I can’t see how I am getting value for money if I have to pay more to get less. 

Can anyone explain? 

 

Is Bucks County Council going to follow Northamptonshire into bankruptcy?

15 February 2018   

 Does this sound familiar?

 ‘Last week, the Leader of the County Council said the government had starved it of funds.

 The Council had embarked on a transformational plan a few years ago.  Services would be outsourced or turned into profit-making companies. The council would drastically shrink in size and be run like a business.

“The old model of local government no longer works,” it declared.  There would be rigid adherence to the Tory ideological rulebook for local government.

However, the grand plan failed.  The expected efficiency savings didn’t materialize and privatised services were hauled back in-house.

The county faces huge structural pressures. The number of residents aged over 65 will increase by an estimated 28% by 2024 and record numbers of children are being taken into care.

Government cuts have obliged the county to make £376m of savings since 2010 and it estimates that another £111m must be cut from annual spending by 2021. How it will do this while maintaining the services it must legally provide is unclear.

After years of freezing council tax bills on principle, the authority has raised them by 6% from April.

A council statement blamed “unprecedented demand for local services, rapid population growth and reducing levels of funding from central government” for its problems.

Opponents say the council is paying the price after years of cutting children’s services, compounded by growing poverty and housing and job insecurity.  Support services that might once have helped a struggling family stay afloat and together have almost gone.  That’s why more children are being taken into care and child protection spending is spiraling.

Others blame the council’s secretive and dysfunctional way of working.

Staff morale is at rock bottom. 

There is speculation that the county could be abolished and merged along with its five constituent district councils into two new unitary authorities.’

 

This will sound very familiar if you have been following the saga of Bucks County Council’s mismanagement of its finances.   

But actually this is not a description of Conservative-dominated Bucks County Council.  This is a description in the national press of Conservative- dominated Northamptonshire County Council, just over the border.

The only difference is that NCC is effectively bankrupt.  It is the first local authority in two decades to issue a Section 114 notice.   This means it is unlikely to balance the books this year and is at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018-19.

Other councils are also in trouble.  The question is which council is going to fail next.  The odds are currently on Conservative- dominated Surrey County Council.

But last week Martin Tett, the Leader of BCC, said the Government needed to give BCC more money.  And that’s what the Leader of NCC said.

So is BCC going to follow Northamptonshire into bankruptcy?

 

Follow me @LindaDerrick1

 

Why Councillors Janet Blake and Neil Blake should resign from Aylesbury Vale District Council

28 January 2018   

Last Wednesday the Bucks Herald published an article about Councillor Janet Blake, who is the cabinet member for commercialisation and business transformation, on Aylesbury Vale District Council. 

First, congratulations to the Herald.  It is good to see some local investigative journalism.  The link to the article is below.

Councillor Janet Blake voted in favour of two planning applications submitted by a company, Rectory Homes, in which she has investments. 

Councillor Janet Blake, referring to what she called “my small investment in a Rectory Homes Bond” said she didn’t feel it necessary to declare her investment at the meetings because she had declared it voluntarily in her register of interests. 

She went on to say “This bond is a fixed term, fixed interest rate investment, with no voting rights and is not dependent on the profitability of the company.   Consequently, I have nothing to gain should I vote to approve planning applications from Rectory Homes.”

So what’s the problem we all say?  Councillor Blake was actually more open than she needed to be, wasn’t she?  She just got a bit confused about where she had to declare things. 

However, let’s unpick this a bit.  

1.     It is probable that Councillor Janet Blake has between £500 and £25,000 invested in a bond issued by Rectory Homes.

2.     She voluntarily declared this investment in her register of interests which very few people are likely to read.

3.     She did not declare this financial interest, as required by AVDC’s Code of Conduct for Councillors, at meetings where applications from Rectory Homes were discussed.  Fellow Councillors and officers may therefore have been unaware of her financial interest in Rectory Homes.   

4.     Residents present at the meetings or watching on the webcast would almost certainly been unaware of her financial interest in Rectory Homes.   

5.     If she had declared her interest at the meetings, she should not have been allowed to vote.   In fact, she should have been asked to leave the meeting.   

6.     A bond offered by Rectory Home two years ago, which may or may not be the one Councillor Blake bought, pays 6.25% annual interest.

7.     Financial advisors warn potential investors in this bond “You are staking your cash on the success of one housebuilder.   Your investment is dependent on the Rectory Homes not going bust”. 

8.     Rectory Homes is a privately owned, medium- sized company.  It is not a volume house builder but focuses on select developments in key market areas, building small high-quality (and high-price) developments. 

9.     Rectory Homes is therefore very dependent on getting planning approval on the small number of sites it develops.  If it doesn’t get this approval, the company is at risk. 

10.  Financial advisors recognise this.  The bond is at the riskier end of the company bond market.  There are also specific property market risks such as planning issues and whether projects can be completed and sold on time.” 

11.  So it is simply not true for Councillor Janet Blake to say that she had nothing to gain from approving planning applications from Rectory Homes.   Approving the applications protected her high risk investment.  

What the Bucks Herald article doesn’t mention is that Councillor Janet Blake’s husband, Councillor Neil Blake, also attended a meeting where one of the applications submitted by Rectory Homes was discussed.  He joined in the discussions (see webcast below).  Councillor Neil Blake is the Leader of the Council.

He should have declared his wife’s financial interest in Rectory Homes.  But he didn’t.

He too broke the rules and protected his wife’s high risk investment.  

Councillors Janet and Neil Blake know how things work.  They have been Councillors for many years.   They know the rules are there to ensure openness and transparency on planning applications.  They know they have broken the rules to their own financial advantage.

It is not for them to decide what to declare or not; it is the residents’ right to know.   

Their arrogant assumption that they can break the rules with impunity at planning meetings comes on top of similar behaviour in handling Aylesbury Vale Broadband Ltd (see blog below).

They should both resign.

https://www.bucksherald.co.uk/news/exclusive-councillor-janet-blake-voted-on-aston-clinton-and-long-crendon-planning-applications-even-though-she-had-invested-in-developer-1-8345692

https://aylesburyvaledc.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/319338

 

Carillion – perhaps the Tories in Bucks might rethink their approach to outsourcing vital public services

16 January 2018   

I blogged yesterday about BCC outsourcing some of its services to three private sector companies set up and owned by BCC.  All have been financial disasters and most of the work has been brought back in-house, affecting the jobs of hundreds of workers and costing the taxpayer millions of pounds.

Yesterday we learnt that Carillion has gone into administration.   This will affect the lives of tens of thousands of people and probably cost the taxpayer billions of pounds.  It’s on a different scale – but the principal is the same.  

Just watch who walks away with the profit and who has to step in, and pick up the pieces and the bill. 

We don’t know the impact of Carillion’s collapse on HS2 in terms of the cost to the taxpayer, and delays and disruption.  We don’t know how many workers and pensioners in Bucks will be affected either because they work directly for Carillion or for Carillion’s many thousands of suppliers.   We don’t know whether Carillion is involved in any contracts to provide public services in Bucks. 

So I am only going to point out one small thing.   The running of the libraries in Croydon, Ealing, Harrow and Hounslow was outsourced in 2012 - first to a company called John Laing Integrated Services, which quickly sold it on to Carillion.

Hounslow terminated its contract last summer, and Croydon announced on Monday that it would be taking its library services back in-house.

Bucks County Council might think again before contracting out its library service – or any more of its critical services - to the private sector.

And I’m also going to reproduce below a statement put out my Unite on Monday.  I couldn’t say it better myself. 

I will send it to David Lidington who is my MP and therefore has a keen interest in looking at the impact of Carillion’s collapse on Aylesbury, including the impact on HS2. 

He is also the Minister for the Cabinet Office now responsible for ensuring the public’s interests are protected in the aftermath of the collapse.

I will ask him what he is doing to protect the interests of workers and pensioners in his constituency affected by the collapse as well as the interests of those who receive services provided by Carillion. 

Unite’s Statement

"These have been a grim few days for this workforce.  They will head into work today not knowing if their wages, pensions and even their jobs are safe.  

"The administrator must provide reassurances on these to the workforce as a matter of urgency, and also that vital public services on which many depend will continue to be provided.

"We will be seeking a meeting with the administrator today to press home that that the priorities now are not the shareholders but the workers who provide the service and the people relying on them

"One thing is evidently clear from this: there must be no business as usual for big business.  There has to be an urgent inquiry into how a company that loaded itself with debt, which undercut competitors with unsustainable bids, which hoovered up vats of public money, and that had repeatedly alerted the government to its own financial shortcomings got its hands on so much of the public sector and taxpayers' cash.

`We are also very concerned about the impact of Carillion's collapse on the wider supply chain. Many of these small firms are the lifeblood of their community but their exposure to Carillion's debt puts them at serious risk.

"[The administrator] must put workers and suppliers at the head of the queue for payment, not the banks and certainly not the Carillion boardroom whose greed and recklessness has brought this giant company to its knees and imperiled so much of our public services."

 

Company set up by Aylesbury Vale District Council crashes and the Tories sweep it under the carpet

17 December 2017        

Just for a change, let’s have a look at one of the commercial investments of Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC).   Like other Councils in Bucks it is dominated by Conservatives.

On 6 December, there was an extraordinary debate at the Council meeting about a company ADVC set up called Aylesbury Vale Broadband Ltd (AVB).    Allegations were made about conflicts of interest, misuse of public funds, and AVDC breaking the law. 

This is a long and detailed blog but if anyone is interested to see how financially incompetent the Conservatives are – and how they cover it up – read on.   

The facts first.

In June 2015, AVDC set up AVB to provide superfast broadband, mainly to villages in Bucks.  It is 95 % owned by AVDC and 5% by a company called Ironic Thought. 

Ironic Thought, according to its last accounts up to November 2016, had a turnover of £42,000, made a loss of £22 and had assets of £1190.  It is owned by Andrew Mills who is an Australian Technology Consultant.  He is a Director of AVB.  He was initially paid a consultancy fee by AVDC but was then appointed as the Managing Director of AVB in July 2016.

AVB was funded by a loan of £1.5 million, borrowed at commercial rates, under the new Home Bonus Government scheme.  The project was expected to generate on-going revenue for the Council to be declared in the annual accounts presented annually to AVDC’s Scrutiny Committee.

The Cabinet member responsible for setting up AVB is Councillor Janet Blake, the Cabinet Member for Commercialisation and Business Transformation.   She has been a Director of AVB since it was set up.  In 2015, AVB set up a pilot for delivering superfast broadband in the villages of North Marston and Granborough area.   I understand these villages are in Councillor Janet Blake’s constituency of Stewkley.

In September 2016, a Cabinet paper by Councillor Janet Blake stated the pilot had been a success, recommended expansion of AVB across the Vale, and asked for approval of the draft business plan for AVB.  The business plan is confidential and not available to the public.   The paper said there were no further resource implications.

Companies House provides the latest (shortened) accounts for AVB.  As at June 2016, AVB had total net liabilities of £56,000. 

Apart from Councillor Janet Blake and Andrew Mills, its Directors at that time were Councillor Neil Blake, the Leader of the Council, and a Council officer.  Councillors Janet Blake and Neil Blake are married.

Councillor Neil Blake said at the Council meeting on 6 December that AVB is now up for sale.

Concerns before the debate

Opposition Councillors, both Lib Dem and Labour, have voiced their concerns about the company in the Bucks Herald, including AVDC’s refusal to disclose financial information to all Councillors.  

The Chairman of Hogshaw Parish Council said the village was offered the chance to become part of the pilot in 2015.  He said

“We listened carefully to Mr Mills’ proposals, took independent expert advice, and eventually reached a formal community decision to withdraw from the scheme.

We felt that what was promised was undeliverable, technically and commercially.

Why didn’t AVDC call for tenders from the private commercial sector to deliver broadband services to remoter villages like ours, allowing up-to-date technology and competition to be freely marketed?”

The debate

Councillor Christensen, a Lib Dem Councillor, put down a motion at AVDC’s Council on 6 December.  It asked the Council to agree to undertake a detailed external audit of AVB starting no later than one calendar month from the sale of AVB or by 31 January 2018 whichever is the sooner.   The audit would be conducted by a qualified person appointed by the Chief Executive and with the agreement of all political parties.  The audit would report no later than 3 months after it started and its report would be published in full and in public.   

The audit would include reviews of:

- the management of the business including the performance of the management team, delivery of services to target villages, performance against business plans, and the use of capital;

- the effectiveness of the scrutiny process; and  

- the oversight provided by Cabinet members and Officers while acting as Board members of AVB.

Five minutes later and without any advance notice, Councillor Neil Blake read out an amendment to the motion which proposed to give responsibility for the proposed audit to AVDC’s own Audit Committee, including deciding what the audit should cover.  The amendment proposed that the audit would be carried out by AVDC’s own internal audit team.    The amendment removed the timescales and the commitment to publish the report. 

After a confusing and fractious debate, Conservative Councillors voted for Councillor Neil Blake’s amendment and it was agreed.

Conclusion

It looks as though AVB has been a disaster.  How big a disaster no-one is saying as it is apparently commercially sensitive.   Not only has AVB failed but so too has the scrutiny and audit process in AVDC in preventing a waste of public money. 

Any audit into the disaster has been kicked into the long grass by Conservative Councillors – and any audit carried out will be done in secret.

Questions to be answered.

1.      What is the answer to the question posed by the Chairman of Hogshaw Parish Council?  Why did AVDC set up a company to install broadband rather than tendering for the service? 

2.      Has AVDC breached EU regulations in providing loans and support to AVB which is in commercial competition to other private sector companies?  

3.      Why did AVDC set up a company with Ironic Thought and appoint Andrew Mills as Managing Director?  

4.      Why did AVB carry out its pilot in villages in Councillor Janet Blake’s constituency?  Isn’t this a misuse of public funds in using her position as the responsible cabinet member to use taxpayers’ money to provide services to her constituents and not others?

5.      How could Councillor Blake recommend expansion of AVB on the basis of a successful pilot when AVB was operating at a loss?  Where is the evidence that the pilot was successful?  Where is the business plan for its expansion?

6.      Why has AVDC refused to disclose all information to all its Councillors?  Isn’t this breaking the law?  Lib Dem Councillors said they have taken legal advice on this point and they and Labour’s Councillor Stuchbury have pressed the Council on the legality of it withholding information.

All Councillors are responsible if things go financially wrong.  How can they be held responsible if they aren’t provided with information on which to take an informed view? 

7.      How much taxpayers’ money has AVB lost?   Estimates vary between an awful lot of money and a shocking amount.   Where are the accounts?

8.      When and why did AVDC decide to sell AVB?  Where are the papers explaining the sale?

9.      How does AVDC propose to sell AVB?   I understand it has decided to sell to a preferred bidder without proper due process.  Is this right?

10.  How many residents have paid a deposit to AVB for broadband connection and have been left in the lurch?  How much have residents lost?  Will they be compensated and how?

11.  The Audit Committee had concerns about the governance and operation of AVB in March 2017.  Why weren’t the problems identified earlier and adequately addressed?

12.  It is unclear whether any of AVDC’s scrutiny committees identified the problems with AVB and ensured they were adequately addressed.   How and when did the scrutiny committees scrutinise AVB?

13.  Did Councillor Janet Blake declare a conflict of interest in the motion at the Council on 6 December as she is a Director of AVB and then leave the Chamber?  If not, did she vote on the motion and is this in breach of AVDC’s constitution?

14.  Did Councillor Neil Blake declare a conflict of interest in the motion at the Council on 6 December as he was a Director of AVB and his wife still is?  Did he also declare a conflict of interest being responsible as Leader for AVDC’s scrutiny and audit functions which it was proposed would be the subject of the audit.  

Not only did he not leave the Chamber but he also put down an amendment to the motion and played a leading role in the debate in which he had these conflicts of interest.   I also believe he voted for his amendment.  Is this in breach of AVDC’s constitution? 

15.  Have there been other occasions when Councillors Janet Blake and Neil Blake (and other Councillors) have not recognised their conflicts of interest and have taken decisions or influenced decisions when they should have reclused themselves?  

 

Would you trust your investments to Bucks County Council?

10 December 2017        

I’ve been copying my blogs about the financial incompetence of Bucks County Council to BCC Councillors for nearly a year.  None of them have ever corrected my figures or challenged my interpretation. 

The only significant response has been from Martin Tett, the Conservative Leader of BCC, who said it was up to the electorate to judge BCC’s financial competence at the ballot box. 

That would be all very well if the electorate were given the information to make an informed choice.   But they are not.   It is even impossible to assess BCC’s investments against its own target – a gross rate of return of at least 6% a year.  If you don’t believe me, have a go for yourself. 

Instead the Conservatives depend on the fact that they have had a solid majority on the county council since it was set up in 1889.  They take the electorate for granted.  Perhaps they believe that whatever reckless financial decisions they make and whatever debts they rack up, they can always depend on Bucks residents voting Conservative.    

But let’s have a look at one of those financial decisions.

In 2016, BCC bought an equestrian centre.  The purchase was reported in the local press. 

http://www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/news/14335673.Cash_strapped_council_set_to_buy___1_7m_equestrian_centre_in_a_bid_to_make_money/

BCC said it bought the centre to generate an income to help plug the deficit BCC has been running.  The deficit has been about £20 million/year for several years. 

BCC borrowed £1.7 million to buy the centre and said this would provide a profit of £32,000 a year.    However, even I can see that a contribution of £32,000/year towards a loss of £20 million/year is piddling (I think that’s the technical term).     

At this rate of return, BCC would need to borrow and invest over £1000 million to cover its annual losses.   And not even BCC would contemplate a debt of that size.  (Or would it?)  

Moreover a profit of £32,000 on an investment of £1.7 million is a net return of under 2%.   Now that strikes me as a pretty poor return, particularly for a commercial venture.   You might ask why BCC is taking such a commercial risk as investing in an equestrian centre, when it could get as much and more in a nice safe deposit account. 

But then I can’t understand why BCC is borrowing such large sums of money and investing in an equestrian centre at all.  I can’t understand why BCC is spending so much of its time, energy and resources in commercial investment and so little in providing the critical services that residents need.  

BCC is of course desperately hoping the Secretary of State will agree to BCC’s proposals for unification with the district councils.  BCC will then be able to plunder the surpluses of the district councils and use them to cover BCC’s huge debts. 

It must be galling for the district councils.  After years of frugality, they would see their reserves squandered rescuing BCC from its reckless financial management.   

 

 

BCC gets poor return on £80 million of commercial property while closing 35 children’s centres

7 November 2017   

When I took a break last month I left a simple question unanswered:-

“Where’s the revenue from the “revenue regeneration” investments of Bucks County Council?”

I couldn’t find a revenue stream in the 2016/7 accounts and I thought this was odd.  BCC prides itself on its commercial acumen and getting a good return on its investments.  So I thought it would be trumpeting its success.  

 So I asked BCC.   And I was told “Investment Asset purchases” could be found in Investment Note 19 on page 64 in the 2016/7 accounts.   Not much trumpeting there I thought.  And here’s why.

 

BCC had investment properties at the beginning of 2016/7 valued at £44.8 million.  It spent another £43 million and had investment properties at the end of 2016/7 valued at £83.8 million.  These assets generated a return of £1.76 million in 2016/7.

According to the latest data, BCC is incurring an average annual interest rate of 5.8% on the money it borrowed to make the investments.  

BCC’s target for its return on its investments is 6% a year which will only just cover the interest on the loans. 

In 2016/7, the return was somewhere between 2.1% and 3.9%. 

Far from providing a revenue stream, the investments aren’t even covering the interest repayments.  The investments are creating more and more debt which the taxpayer will have to re-pay.  

 You have to ask why BCC is borrowing something like £30-40 million a year and investing it in commercial property.  This year for example it is in the process of buying Knaves Beech Retail Park in Loudwater.

You have to ask why a local authority, whose whole reason for existence is to provide services and infrastructure for its residents, has become a property investor – and a poor one at that.  

You have to ask why BCC has invested £80 million in commercial property and is closing 35 children’s centres. 

Perhaps Conservative Councillors get some kind of buzz out of gambling with taxpayers’ money. 

Or maybe they are just desperate as BCC faces bankruptcy?

 

BCC continues to max out its credit card

25 September 2017

 

In August (see blog below) I set out the continuing failure by Bucks County Council to balance its books and to cover its pension liabilities. 

 

I wrote to the Chairman of BCC’s Pensions Fund Committee asking him to let me know if my figures were correct.  I also asked him if he could let me have his assessment of the risk which the pension liability presented to the continuing viability of BCC i.e. what were the chances that BCC could land up owing more money than it could realise from its assets.

 

Eventually, after a reminder, a BCC official told me the accounts on which my figures were based were the draft accounts and gave me a link to the recently released final accounts.  But no indication as to whether my figures were correct or not and no assessment of the risk from the pension liability.

 

Now given that Martin Tett, the Conservative Leader of BCC, prides himself on the financial performance of Bucks County Council, I was surprised by this response.    It is unhelpful and evasive (not to mention late).

 

Surely someone from BCC would have taken professional pride in sending me the assessment of the risk which the pension liability presents to BCC’s finances?  But no.  So I take it that an assessment has not been done. 

 

The final accounts for 2016/7 give the net liability for pensions as £754 million, an increase of £216 million since last year.   I cannot understand from the accompanying notes why this huge increase has happened.

 

The net assets of BCC are £385 million, a decrease of £46 million since last year.  Only £126 million of these assets are usable.  

 

The bottom line seems to be that "Finance is only required to be raised to cover discretionary benefits when the pensions are actually paid”.  Or to put it another way, BCC can max out its pension’s credit card and leave it to its successors to clear up the mess.  

 

Let’s get this clear.  Bucks County Council has been operating at a loss for year after year after year.  To continue operating it has borrowed large sums of money.  Its liabilities have gone up, its assets have gone down and it seems it can’t cover its short term liabilities from its assets, let alone cover its long term liabilities.  

 

Any other organisation in that position would be called a financial disaster.   But somehow BCC clings on to its delusions of financial competence.

 

Will BCC’s pension liabilities (£804 million) cause BCC to go bust?

5 August 2017

You might remember during the county election campaign that Martin Tett, the Conservative Leader of Bucks County Council, promised a balanced budget for 2016/7.    Remember how he told you how good the Conservatives were at handling money?

Unfortunately the accounts weren’t published until after the election.  However, now they are available – and guess what – the budget didn’t balance.  Once again BCC ran a deficit on its budget for the provision of services. I say once again because BCC has run a deficit for years (£21.4 million in 2015/6, £40 million in 2014/5 and £ 16.7 million in 2013/4).

Martin Tett hasn’t told residents about this broken promise.

There has also been a decline of £121.6 million in the net value of BCC’s assets.  The net position is now £340 million – that’s the total value of all BCC’s assets (buildings, reserves) minus all liabilities (debts, pensions etc.).  

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that the net asset position provides very little cover for any increase in the pension liability which stands at £804 million.  You might think that £340 million would be sufficient to cover any increase in BCC’s liabilities.  However, last year, the pension fund liability (the commitment BCC has to current and past employees) increased by £249 million.  

If that happened again this year, BCC would be approaching a negative net asset position – i.e. it would be bust.

But has Martin Tett warned the public about this risk.  Not a bit of it.  Still proclaiming the Conservative’s financial competence.  

Of course Martin Tett hoped Ministers would agree to the unification of the councils in Bucks.  BCC would then have got their hands on the reserves of the district councils (and there are some significant reserves there).   That would have bailed BCC out of its financial problems.

However, the Government has pushed unification into the long grass.  It has more pressing issues on its plate at the moment.   

Has BCC told us about the Government's decision?  No, of course not.  Or told us how much money has been wasted on consultants drawing up the unification plans, and by district councils in drawing up alternative plans?  No, of course not.

What I want to know is how the members of BCC’s Pension Fund Committee can continue to sit on the committee and say nothing when they can see the possibility of the Council going bust.  

I will ask them.  This is who they are:

Councillor Chilvers (Chairman)

Councillor Macpherson (Vice Chairman)

Councillor Harriss

Councillor Lambert

Councillor Butcher

Councillor Martin, 

 

District Councillor representative

 

Norman Miles, Milton Keynes Council  

 

Mr. M Barber, Thames Valley Police

 

Martin Tett sees the light – guess what, BCC needs more money from central Government!

3 May 2017

Did Martin Tett, the Tory Leader of Bucks County Council, have a revelation yesterday?  No, not on the road to Damascus but in the studio of three counties radio (5pm, on the Roberto Perrone programme if you want to listen).  

It was a gentle, rather unexciting, session where the BBC presenter gave each of the spokespersons for the political parties in Bucks the opportunity to give their views.   

No-one seemed to notice that Martin Tett, that staunch supporter of the Government’s austerity programme, had apparently seen the light.   He now, finally, at last, realises that Bucks County Council needs more money – lots of it - from central Government.  

It is good that the Tory Leader of BCC now agrees with practically everyone else in Bucks but this conversion against austerity in a radio studio comes a bit late. 

Never mind, he might now suggest to Teresa May that Bucks needs “phenomenal amounts” of central funding.  Should go down well. 

 

 For the record

This is what Martin Tett said yesterday

 

-          on repairing roads “we need more money from central Government” (twice)

 

-          on traffic congestion in Aylesbury, he said “we need a phenomenal amount of money” and “no Government will give us money” (presumably not even his own Tory Government).

 

-          on adult social care he said this was “a solution for central Government”.    

 

-          even on education, he said schools were underfunded (though that was some of the grammar schools he was referring to and not the 8% cut coming to all schools by 2019/20).

 

And yet before this, Martin Tett didn’t seem to have a care in the world about Government funding.  For example,

 

-          in December 2014, Martin Tett said BCC still "supports the government's financial strategy",   Part of the Government’s financial strategy was of course to slash local authority funding for public services.

 

As a reward for its commitment to austerity, BCC was allocated the lowest Government grant per head of population in the country. 

 

-          in his 2016 New Year message, Martin Tett mentioned the need to consider an increase in Council tax to fund services but concluded “The year ahead will be challenging financially but also potentially rewarding.”   No mention of the need to reverse the funding cuts from Government.

 

s a further reward for its commitment to austerity, BCC was made the first local authority to have its government grant cut completely.  In fact its grant in 2019/20 will be minus £10 million. 

 

-          As recently as February this year, when the 2017/8 budget was approved by BCC, Martin Tett said “This budget offers Buckinghamshire the stability which is so vital when planning services and puts us on a sure footing for the future - whatever that may hold.”

 

Posted by Linda Derrick.  Promoted by Martin Abel on behalf of Linda Derrick at 5 Spenser Road, Aylesbury HP21 7LR     

 

A direct challenge to Martin Tett, Tory Leader of Bucks County Council, for public debate

24 April 2017

According to a Tory campaign leaflet, the Tories’ “Record of Action” consists of 8 things.

None of them stack up. 

Instead of making up figures and putting them in leaflets, why doesn’t Martin Tett account for BCC’s financial performance in a public debate with a representative of Bucks Labour Party?   We have issued a direct challenge. 

Or does Martin Tett, like the PM, continue to run scared of a public debate?    Is he chicken?

Here’s the 8 things, with my assessment.  It’s the longest blog I’ve done but these claims have to be exposed for what they are – inaccurate, not true and misleading.

1. Cut overheads and ensured value for money.  A balanced budget every year.

This is simply not accurate.

The Tories have cut practically everything.  You name it – road maintenance, children’s services, education support, youth services, children’s centres, library services, social care – the Tories have cut it.  In the circumstances, it would be amazing if they hadn’t cut overheads.   Who needs overheads when services have disappeared?

The Tories haven’t ensured value for money.  They set up three companies.   Two have failed and the third is in financial trouble.  They invested £185 million in an incineration plant that will save £150 million over 30 years, while making healthy profits for a private company. 

As to running a balanced budget - nonsense! 

BCC has run a deficit for at least the last three years under Martin Tett’s leadership, as clearly shown in their published annual accounts. (Listed as “surplus or deficit on the provision of services” in the annual cash flow statements).

On March 27th, Councillor Tett projected an overspend for the fiscal year to the end of March 2017 too.

They’ve also significantly run down both reserves and the council’s net asset position - between 2011 and 2016, the value of BCC's balance sheet shrank by over 20%.  BCC is only balancing its books by borrowing large amounts of money- £300 million in each of the next two years.

2. Invested over £120 million in improving our roads and pavements.

Really?  Anyone driving on Buckinghamshire roads knows that our roads are getting worse, not better. The £120M figure is the total spending on BCC’s transport portfolio, which includes bridge maintenance, strategic planning, subsidies to bus operators and street lighting. 

BCC’s actual spending on highway maintenance since the last council election 4 years ago has been about £60 million. This may still sound like a lot, but the value of new damage each year is about £15 million, so it’s just keeping pace with new damage. If re-elected, the Tories plan to cut spending on road maintenance to around £10 million/year from 2019 - which means our roads will only get worse. 

During Councillor Tett’s tenure as BCC leader, we’ve made no headway with the backlog of road maintenance (estimated to be in the range £80 - £150 million) and with that backlog now set to grow, we have to ask ourselves how long before we start abandoning the maintenance of some roads altogether?

3. Achieved over £80 million from Government for essential infrastructure.

We have no idea what this means - and can see no evidence of the ‘essential infrastructure' as yet. However, since it is part of BCC’s role to obtain funding from central government for such projects, this does sound rather like a case of just doing their job - the question really should be, is £80 million enough and over how long was this obtained. Of course, it doesn’t make up for being one of the first counties in Britain to lose our direct support grant: the enthusiasm with which BCC embraced austerity has been one of the factors behind our shortfall in services today.

4.  In line to receive an extra £10 million every year for our excellent schools.

This is misleading.  Whatever funding Bucks schools may get under the Government’s proposed changes to its funding formula, it is only a small drop in the ocean compared to the 7-8% loss schools will suffer by 2020. 

About half of Bucks non-selective schools require improvement or are inadequate. What about the funding for those schools, which are clearly not ‘excellent’. 

5. Prioritised safeguarding vulnerable children and providing care for our elderly who are unable to help themselves.

Not true.  In 2014, OFSTED said BCC had not prioritised Children’s Services (which BCC had just cut by £1 million) and assessed it as Inadequate.  In 2015, the Minister’s advisors said BCC was too slow in getting its Children’s Services up to an adequate standard because “key politicians” at the highest level “cared more about the Council’s tarnished reputation than they did about safeguarding Bucks children”. 

In 2016, the Care Quality Commission assessed the social care provided by Bucks Care, a company wholly owned by BCC, as Inadequate.   

6.  Campaigned for over £60 million of extra mitigation as construction begins of HS2.

7. Supported job creation by making Buckinghamshire one of the best places in which to do business.

8.  Significant investment in bringing high speed broadband to over 90% of Buckinghamshire.

No idea what any of these mean.  For example, how did BCC support job creation?  What is a “significant investment”? How did BCC bring high speed broadband to the county?

Posted by Linda Derrick.  Promoted by Martin Abel on behalf of Linda Derrick at 5 Spenser Road, Aylesbury HP21 7LR     

 

Martin Tett criticises his Tory colleagues, delivers a eulogy on BCC – and all in purdah. How about a public debate on his claims?

6 April 2017

On 30 March, Martin Tett, the Tory Leader of Bucks County Council, sent out an extraordinary letter to all the town and parish councils in Bucks.  The letter was extraordinary for two reasons: -

-          Martin Tett accused Tory district councils in Bucks of circulating misinformation about BCC’s proposals for reorganising local government in Bucks – misinformation which was “partial and misleading”.  (No, he didn’t actually name the district councils but that’s who he’s getting at.); and

-          In doing this, Martin Tett made claims for BCC’s performance which are politically controversial – something which is not allowed during the pre-election period (known as “purdah”).

If Martin Tett wants to publicly criticise his Tory colleagues for circulating “partial and misleading” information, then of course I have no objection.  I am happy to watch with bemusement as he criticises his Tory colleagues for circulating misleading information about the “Childrens’ Services improvement journey” and for “undermining the confidence of families in critical services for vulnerable individuals”.    I am happy to stand by as he accuses his Tory colleagues of providing “a highly selective view of the partnership landscape” in Bucks. 

Why should I object to Tory in-fighting just before a county election?    Why should I object to one set of Tories make accusations against another set of Tories?  Why should I object to the dozen or so Tories who are both county and district councils criticising themselves?   

In fact, I can only encourage Martin Tett to keep right on exposing how the Tories work. 

But Martin Tett should not be carrying out this Tory political in-fighting on BCC letter-headed paper and using council resources.

And he should definitely not be using this as a excuse to deliver a eulogy about BCC’s performance  to hundreds if not thousands of Bucks voters on BCC letter-headed paper during purdah. 

Martin Tett should not for example have made the statement in the letter that BCC “continues to uphold its excellent record of strong financial management”

This statement is not factual.  It is hotly disputed by Bucks Labour Party (see for example the blogs below).  It is highly politically controversial.    It should not have been sent out at this sensitive time when it could influence voters.  Martin Tett should not be using his official position and taxpayers’ resources to get his political message out. 

However, as he has put this statement out, perhaps Martin Tett would agree to a public debate about BCC financial management.  How about a debate with a representative of Bucks Labour Party on the radio?  Or is he going to continue to avoid any public challenge?   

Posted by Linda Derrick.  Promoted by Martin Abel on behalf of Linda Derrick at 5 Spencer Road, Aylesbury HP21 7LR      

 

Why Surrey gets what it wants and Bucks is in a mess

11 March 2017

As you can see from previous blogs, the Labour Party is always willing to help Martin Tett, the Leader of Bucks County Council, to understand the difficult financial position BCC is in.   

You see, Martin Tett believes “BCC’s budget puts us on a sure footing for the future – whatever that might be.”  He also said he was “satisfied” with the results of Wednesday’s budget.

He doesn’t seem to understand, as David Hodge, the Leader of Surrey County Council clearly does, that councils up and down the country are broke and vital services like social care cannot cope. 

Perhaps once Martin Tett accepts BCC is broke he might start doing something about it as David Hodge has done – and so successfully.

Robin Stuchbury, BCC’s Labour Councillor has helpfully provided Martin Tett with the correspondence between David Hodge, Surrey Tory MPs, and Ministers.  This is what David Hodge did to get extra money for Surrey.   

First, he privately called on his local Tory MPs for collective action on the grounds he didn’t have the power to change a system where the Tory Government tied his hands and failed to support its largest Tory Group in the UK.  

Then he threatened a referendum to raise council tax by 15%.

Meanwhile, those Tory PMs wrote to Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. One suggested the Minister wasn’t “delivering the goods” for Surrey and should try harder; he said it would be imprudent of the Minister if he didn’t have £40 million down the back of his sofa (his words not mine) for just this sort of emergency.  Failing this, the Tory MP suggested that Sajid Javid could adjust all the other Council settlements down very slightly to accommodate the £31 million needed by Surrey.

Then it seems David Hodge met Sajid Javid in a car outside No 10 and then negotiated a deal with special advisors.    

And all this seems to have worked.  Not only does Surrey get to keep its business rates but the budget has handed Surrey the largest boost in social care funding of any council in England.  Its percentage share of the £2bn of new money for social care will nearly double.

That apparently is how a council gets extra funding from this Government.  

Alternatively, Martin Tett might take a more open and honest approach. He might come clean with residents and explain exactly what a mess BCC’s finances are in.  He might explain that the cause of this mess lies with the Tories’ determination to cut the public sector and with the incompetence and complacency of Tory Councillors who have mismanaged BCC’s finances. 

Oh – and he might complain to the Prime Minister about the sweetheart deal given to Surrey.

 

BCC’s budget “lacks clarity” – official

24 February 2017

This is what Bucks County Council’s Finance Select Committee says about BCC’s budget.

“The lack of clarity in budget lines means that it is difficult for the public to fully understand the Council’s plans and makes effective scrutiny more challenging.”

Well you can say that again. 

If you want to try some scrutiny, the reports are at https://democracy.buckscc.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?MId=9240  

However, thanks to some hard work by a Labour Party colleague, here’s what’s happening.  

First, central Government will continue to collect income tax.  However, it will now retain the funding it used to give local authorities for services such as social care.  BCC was among the most enthusiastic supporters of austerity when first introduced - their reward for that support has been faster cuts in central government grants.   

The Government will spend the money it used to give local authorities for vital services on other things like HS2 or - well you tell me.   They certainly aren’t spending it on health or social care or education (except free schools of course).

In order to plug the gap, central Government has allowed local authorities to put up its council tax by up to 4.99%.  Bucks has decided to impose the maximum rise so we will pay more tax.  Buck’s council tax for 2017/18 will be £261M, an increase of 4.99%.

But this is where things get awkward.   The 4.99% tax increase will not even begin to plug the gap.    So BCC plans to reduce spending on services by £46 million over the next 4 years.   We will be paying more tax for ever-reducing services.

On top of this, BCC has been running at a loss for years and its reserves fell again this financial year (by £43 million this time).   In commercial terms, BCC are in trouble.

How you might ask has BCC managed to keep going.  Well it has had to borrow – and borrow large amounts.   Its borrowing rose by £30 million during 2016 and now stands at £203 million. 

And how you might also ask is BCC going to keep going.  Well it is going to borrow even more.  It is going to borrow over £300 million in each of the next two years for capital financing. 

And what is BCC going to spend that borrowed money on?  Well most of it is going on repaying some of its debts.  Real capital expenditure (on roads and other infrastructure) will only be £91 million and £65 million for the two years.  

And just when you think things cannot get worse, remember that the county’s population is projected to rise by 26% between 2015 and 2020.  That population could bring in more revenue but only if more houses are built.  And that means more infrastructure to support that increase - and where is the money for this coming from?

This is a Council living on the never-never.  

Austerity and the commercial approach so loved by the Tories have failed us completely.

 

A tale of 2 counties

 16 February 2017

 SURREY

Surrey is a prosperous part of the country.  It has Tory MPs.   Its county council is Tory-dominated.    

The Government has cut its funding by £170 million since 2010.   Surrey County Council has made cuts of £450 million since 2011.

In January, David Hodge, the Leader of Surrey County Council, said there was a huge gap in the budget caused by the increasing demand for adult social care, learning disabilities and children’s services.   He proposed a council tax rise of 15%, preceded by a referendum. 

In February, leaked texts from David Hodge suggested a sweetheart deal between the Government and Surrey County Council.   It seems Surrey County Council will jump the queue to take part in a pilot to retain 100% of its business rates. 

David Hodge has withdrawn his proposal for a referendum and council tax is to go up by 4.99%. 

David Hodge says “It was worth standing up for Surrey”.

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

Bucks is a prosperous part of the country.  It has Tory MPs.   Its county council is Tory-dominated.    

The Government cut its funding by £74 million since 2010.  Bucks County Council has made cuts of £100 million since 2011.   

In February, Martin Tett, the Leader of Bucks County Council said  The rising demand and cost pressures on social care won’t go away.  The Government need to get a grip on this."  

He proposed a council tax rise of 4.99% which has been accepted.

Martin Tett says “This budget… puts us on a sure footing for the future - whatever that may be”.  

SAME PROBLEM- DIFFERENT OUTCOME

Surrey gets to keep its business rates and Bucks doesn't. 

David Hodge must have some special relationship with Ministers.  Perhaps it's because he has so many Tory MPs in his patch that he has been able to get extra funding.  And extra funding for one of the most prosperous counties in England.

But then Martin Tett has quite a number of Tory MPs in his prosperous patch. Makes you wonder whether his MPs have less clout or he lacks that special relationship.

Or perhaps he’s relaxed about money because he thinks he can simply dip into the reserves of the district councils when the unitary changes take place.  

Who knows?  But it is comforting that BCC’s budget apparently puts us on a sure footing.  I do wonder though if we are on “sure footing” why we have potholes and poor children’s services and  inadequate social care? 

 

Response from Martin Tett to our financial facts

4 January 2017 

As a matter of courtesy, I sent the letter below to Martin Tett for information and for response if he wished. 

 

He responded in half an hour so it seems only fair to include it in full here.  It reads

 

 Thank you. Clearly well written for those who don't understand the difference between a service budget, a P&L and a balance sheet.

 

 I will leave the electorate to judge next May which of us has a grip on reality.

 

 Yours 

 

Martin Tett”

 

 

 

I don’t know what to make of this.  Does Cllr Tett mean the letter was well written despite it being done by someone who doesn’t understand budgets?    This seems a trifle unfair on my colleague who is pretty clued up about financial management and spent a long time getting to grips with BCC papers and talking to BCC staff about the organisation’s financial problems.  He was very grateful for their help. 

 

 

 

Or does Cllr Tett mean the letter was well written for its intended audience who don’t understand budgets?    Is he saying my colleague was dumbing it down for the readers of the Bucks Free Press?  This seems rather patronising to the many readers of the Bucks Free Press who do understand what a budget is and when an organisation is being run at a loss.

 

 

 

I take heart that Cllr Tett does not dispute the figures; presumably my colleague did get them right.

 

 

As for next May, I must admit I am not very optimistic about a huge protest vote against the Tories in Bucks.   But who knows?

 

Financial facts about Bucks County Council in a "post-truth" world

3 January 2017

Response to letter by Martin Tett, Leader of Bucks County Council, in the Bucks Free Press sent by a colleague:-

 

"After reading the recent letter from Councillor Martin Tett, it was difficult not to feel some ironic admiration for his pride in the achievements of Buckinghamshire County Council over the last year. Amidst his trumpeting of promised infrastructure projects (mostly in the future) and unsubstantiated claims of better service, the comment that particularly grabbed my attention was about BCC’s commercial innovation during 2016. Now I know we are in a ‘post truth’ world, but perhaps we should just fact check that claim a little using some of the information in BCCs own accounts:
 
• In the year to March 2016, BCC ran a £21.4M deficit on provision of services, following on from deficits of £40.5M and £16.7M in the preceding 2 years. BCC has consistently run at a loss under Councillor Tett’s leadership.

 

• Between 2011 and 2016, the value of BCC’s balance sheet shrank by over 20%. Our county’s assets and wealth have been significantly eroded over recent years.

 

• BCC invested £185M in an Energy from Waste (EfW) plant at Greatmoor to make annual savings of £5M in waste disposal costs. That’s a return of 2.7% when the average rate of interest it was paying on capital debts was 7.8%.
 
In summary, BCC is spending more money than it has, is running down our infrastructure and taking on debts we can’t afford. I guess that will be a problem to be left to future generations. This is not commercial innovation, it’s financial incompetence.
 
I wish the above highlights were the end of it, but there is much, much more and it all paints a very similar story. Perhaps the part readers will be most familiar with is the sorry state of our roads. 
 
Using BCC’s own reports, the repair backlog for our highway network is currently in the range £80M - £150M. BCC spent £15M on road maintenance in 2016, but net new damage was £10M - £14M. So at best we are 16 years behind in our road repairs, at worst 150 years. In fact, given Councillor Tett’s future budget plans (reducing maintenance to £10M/year), we will never clear the backlog. That pothole in your road is here to stay – forever! 
 
So rather than telling us how good things are, perhaps Councillor Tett should be a little less disingenuous. If he had fought for more funding from central government instead of simply implementing their austerity agenda, we would all be better off now – and our beautiful county would not be crumbing in to disrepair. Councillor Tett may be feeling proud, but the 528,400 residents he claims to represent probably have other ideas."