Are you still sure Bucks councillors are value for money?

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5 March 2021

The following letter was published in the Bucks Free Press today. I think it is self-explanatory.

Dear Editor

Elections for Bucks Council are on 6 May. Voters might therefore be interested in the value for money of their current councillors.

There are 193 councillors on Bucks Council, all eligible for an allowance of £13,000 a year. The only requirement is for councillors to attend 2 virtual council meetings every 6 months.

Only two councillors are not claiming the allowance and one is claiming only part of the allowance. We will have to wait until the accounts are published in April to find out who these three councillors are.

£13,000 a year is nearly half the average pay for UK. So, 190 councillors should be spending, let’s say, 2 days a week representing their constituents.

Some councillors, from all political parties, work extremely hard for their constituents but others don’t even answer e-mails and do virtually nothing.

And yet all bar three are claiming the £13,000 allowance.

Moreover, once elected, councillors can lawfully move out of Bucks, attend a couple of virtual meetings and still pick up the £13,000 allowance.

Someone can move in with, let’s say, a relative who lives in Bucks to become eligible to stand for election. They can then move out the next week, let’s say, to another county - and that’s perfectly lawful.

Bucks Council was unable to tell me whether any BC councillor had lived outside Bucks for more than six months; it says it does not record this information.

Now you may argue that councillors are perfectly able to represent their constituents even if they don’t live in Bucks. But surely their constituents should be able to find out if they don’t live in Bucks anymore. And surely these councillors might think of resigning, or at the very least forego the £13,000?

Once elected, councillors can even move to another country and still lawfully remain a councillor. They can live and work abroad for years, attend a few virtual meetings and still collect the £13,000 allowance.

Again, Bucks Council says it does not hold the information as to whether a councillor has lived abroad. But, surely their constituents should be able to find out? And if councillors live and work abroad for any length of time, surely they should resign, never mind foregoing the £13,000?

But apparently not.

Linda Derrick

Are Bucks councillors value for money?

11 January 2021

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In a couple of months, residents are going to receive notice of their council tax increase – which for many will come at a time when every penny counts. They might like to consider whether councillors themselves are value for money.

Bucks Council has 194 councillors.

Last February, Bucks councillors gave themselves a 12% increase in their allowances from £11,626 to £13, 000. The £13,000 allowance is paid automatically to all councillors - all they have to do is log into one virtual Council meeting every 6 months. Yes seriously – that’s all they have to do to get paid.

When the allowances were increased, Bucks officials recommended that there should be some transparency about what the electorate gets for its money; officials recommended the apparently revolutionary step of setting performance targets for councillors.

Surprisingly, this revolutionary step did not get taken up, although you can find out how many meetings individual councillors attend on BC’s website.

I looked at a 5% sample of councillors and found a remarkable variation. Cllr Chhokar for example attended 17 meetings in the past 6 months whereas Cllr Lawrence Wood attended only 1- just enough co-incidentally to retain his allowance.

I am told that some councillors have decided not to take their allowance this year in view of the COVID crisis. We will be able to see who they are when the accounts are published and thank them.

In the meantime, it is up to the electorate to decide whether, at £13,000/year, their councillors are value for money.

Councillors are also entitled to an additional allowance if they hold a formal role. A list of those allowances is below. I estimate the total cost of all the councillors’ allowances is £ 3.1 million/year.

Again, it is up to the electorate to decide whether Bucks councillors, as a body, are value for money at over £3.1 million. If not, you can always vote for someone else – like me for example (see my front page).

Additional allowances

Leader £45,000

Deputy Leader(s) £30,000

Cabinet Members £23,000

Deputy Cabinet Members £8,000

Chairman of the Council £14,000

Vice-Chairman of the Council £4,000

Chairman of Strategic Planning Committee £8,000

Chairman of Area Planning Committees £6,000

Chairman of Licensing Committee £4,000

Chairman of Scrutiny Committees £8,000

Chairman of Audit & Governance Committee £8,000

Chairman of Standards and General Purposes Committee £8,000

Chairman of High Wycombe Town Committee (if required) £3,420

Chairman of Community Boards £1,000

Still no room at the inn in Bucks

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23 December 2019

On 23 December 2016, I blogged about the Government’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees from countries bordering the conflict areas over 5 years from 2015. These were very vulnerable refugees who might be seriously wounded or traumatised or orphaned.

One year on, I reported that Bucks had not offered to take one refugee.

On 23 December 2018, I blogged again. Bucks County Council confirmed it had still not taken one refugee. It had not even offered to take one refugee under the Government’s scheme for unaccompanied children. These were unaccompanied child refugees claiming international protection in the EU who had relatives living in the UK.

On 23 December 2019, we find the Government has broken its promise to agree a deal with the EU to take these unaccompanied child refugees after Brexit. It won’t be any surprise to learn it was Boris Johnson who broke this promise; he removed this commitment from his new version of the Brexit Bill.

Neither will it be any surprise that the Home Office has turned down 1,400 offers of places for unaccompanied child refugees. These offers were made by both Labour and Conservative councils.

The original plan was to take about 3000 unaccompanied children over 5 years. So far it appears that 20 children have been settled and now the Home Office propose a cap of 480 unaccompanied children.

Nor will it be a surprise that Bucks is not one of the councils offering places for unaccompanied children.

Back in 2015, the Home Office said the success of these schemes would be “a testament to the immense goodwill and generosity of the British people and the effort and determination of local authorities across the UK”.

Well now we know that the schemes have largely failed.

We know the Conservative Government breaks promises to very vulnerable children without a twinge of conscience. We know the Conservative Government lacks any goodwill and generosity towards the poor and disadvantaged.

We also know Conservative Bucks councils have failed to show any compassion or determination to help refugees.

54% of Bucks voters voted Conservative this month. So presumably the majority of voters are happy about this lack of generosity and compassion.

Makes you wonder. Particularly at Christmas.

Tory crisis in Thames Valley

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8 April 2019

I said I might blog occasionally.

So I thought you might like to read an article in the Guardian today by John Harris looking at the Thames Valley. It sort of encapsulates what it happening.

Here’s a few extracts

“The local MP is Steve Baker, the self-styled “Brexit hard man” who seems happy to chase his revolutionary dreams and immerse himself in Tory infighting, even as his political backyard decays”.

“….austerity that has ensured that even Buckinghamshire is now facing dire financial problems – four district councils have just been folded into a new unitary county council in a drastic attempt to save money, the ruling Tories recently announced £20m of budget cuts spread over four years, and there are rising fears about social care, special needs education and plans to close no less than 19 childrens centres”

“But if even the Thames valley shows signs of dread and dysfunction, where exactly are we? And as the current disaster grows greater by the day, where will we end up?!"

Happy reading.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/07/theresa-may-berks-bucks-thames-valley-tory-austerity

 

It’s pointless looking at employment statistics for Bucks

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12 February 2019

I’m often asked (mainly by Conservatives) why I don’t blog about good things happening in Bucks. To which my response is “what good things”?

Almost invariably I’m told I should blog about the high employment rates in Bucks. I’m told to compare the employment rates in Bucks since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 with the employment rates now. And I’m told I would see how the Conservatives have expanded the job market and increased the number of people in work in Bucks.

But do you know the definition of an employed person?

Well, the definition of an employed person, according to the Office of National Statistics, is anyone “aged 16, or over, who has completed at least one hour of work in the reference week, or are temporarily away from his or her job, such as being on holiday”.

Yes – anyone who has completed one hour of work in a week is defined as an employed person.

We also know from the ONS that: 

- There are now at least 1.8 million workers in the UK on zero hours contracts, an increase during 2017 (latest count) of 100,000. Workers on zero hours contracts are more likely than those on employee contracts to be on lower wages, working at night and looking for more hours; 

- The record employment rates for women, at nearly 70%, reflect the increase in the state pension age, “resulting in fewer women retiring between the ages of 60 and 65”; and 

- Most of the increase in employment is self-employment and part-time employment. All growth in the past three months was in self –employed jobs and the level of “involuntary” part-time work is 40% up on 2010.

So I ask myself what’s the point of looking at the changing employment rate in Bucks? Any increase probably means more workers in low pay, low-skill jobs, with little stability of hours or employment and with many women now forced to stay on at work into their sixties because their pensions don’t kick in until they are 65.

What the statistics don’t measure are the number of full-time, highly-skilled, well paid workers with contracts for permanent employment. And this is what many, many people would see as the measure of success.

So I’m not going to even look at the figures for Bucks. It’s pointless.

Fighting breaks out into the open between the Tories in Bucks

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10 January 2019

Last night Wycombe District Council and South Bucks District Council considered draft Orders put forward by James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Orders set out how the 5 councils in Bucks are to be brought together.

All the councils in Bucks - the 4 district councils and the county council - have been invited to consent to the proposals. Wycombe and South Bucks District Councils have decided not to consent; the other district councils are also likely not to consent.

And it is easy to see why.

The Secretary of State intends to set up a Shadow Authority consisting of all the county and district councillors – 202 councillors in total. So far, so good; that’s what the district councils wanted.

However, the Secretary of State then intends to set up a Shadow Executive Committee. This is the body which will, in practice, make most of the decisions about the transition to the new unitary council to cover all of Buckinghamshire. The Shadow Executive will decide budgets, priorities and staffing for the new unitary council. It will decide which posts are to be re- advertised and which staff are to be made redundant.

And here things go pear-shaped for the district councils.

They wanted the 5 existing councils to have equal representation i.e. 20% of the membership for each council. The Secretary of State intends to have 17 people on the Shadow Executive Committee, 2 from each district council and 9 from the county council. So county council members will be able to outvote the districts.

Moreover, the district councils wanted the Chairman of the Shadow Executive to be elected by the Shadow Authority i.e. all of the 202 elected councillors in Bucks. The Secretary of State intends to specify that the Chairman will be the Leader of Bucks County Council i.e. Martin Tett.

The Secretary of State also intends to specify that the officer to lead the Implementation Team will be the Chief Executive of Bucks County Council.

Now my understanding was that Mr Brokenshire had agreed that the new council would not be a continuation of Bucks County Council. The new Buckinghamshire Council would be just that – a completely new council.

But these Orders will mean a takeover by Bucks County Council. BCC would take control of the district councils’ reserves, decide who is appointed into key positions, and decide priorities and policies for the new Buckinghamshire Council.

It will be the same old faces from Bucks County Council running the new show. These are the same old faces who made such a disaster of running the county services, including the increasingly desperate Childrens’ Services, and driving BCC into near bankruptcy. Indeed if BCC was not now to be bailed out by the district councils’ reserves it would probably be following in Northamptonshire’s footsteps and declaring itself bankrupt.

Mr Brokenshire had been pretty close to getting agreement from the councils. He could have laid the necessary orders for making the transition with some certainty and in a timely way. He has now managed, by a stunning lack of judgement and sensitivity, to antagonise the district councils and put his proposals at risk. The uncertainty will continue.

No wonder fighting has broken out into the open over the appointment of Martin Tett to be Chairman of the Shadow Executive – a politician who welcomed austerity, who has presided over draconian cuts and the shambolic management of BCC’s services and now (perhaps) realises that his only hope is to raid the district councils’ coffers.

It must stick in the throats of the district councillors.

Under the Secretary of States’ Orders, Martin Tett would walk into the first meeting of the Shadow Executive and sit in the Chairman’s seat.

And what of the rest of us – you know, us the voters? Well, we don’t get a look in at all. We wouldn’t get to vote for our new councillors until 2020. And what about the councillors who are meant to represent us until we vote again? Well they wouldn’t get a vote or a say in the balance of power on the Shadow Executive or the shape of the new Buckinghamshire Council either.

Whatever happened to democracy in Bucks?

Bucks councils still haven’t got any room in their inns for refugees

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23 December 2018

Exactly two years ago, I blogged about the total lack of effort by district and county councils in Bucks to resettle Syrian refugees.

The Government pledged in September 2015 to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over 5 years from countries bordering the conflict areas. These are very vulnerable refugees who may be seriously wounded or traumatised or orphaned.

In December 2016, not one Syrian refugee had been settled in Bucks by the Councils and none of them had any plans to do so.

And here we are two years later and, guess what, there is still a lack of effort and commitment by the Councils.

I am told Bucks County Council has settled some unaccompanied children but no adults. This might be because unaccompanied children bring with them a higher rate of resettlement money from central Government.

However, I am also told that BCC has out- sourced the resettlement work for these children to a private sector organization. That organization in turn out-sourced the work to another private sector organization. And that organization has out-sourced the work and so it goes on and on. Who knows who is doing the work as there is no news on BCC’s website? Who knows where these children are and how they are settling down?

Meanwhile, refugee families are being settled in Bucks by voluntary groups funded by members of the public.

So well done Wycombe Refugee Partnership, who settle families in Wycombe, helping them to learn English and understand the culture and to find accommodation, school places and jobs.

And well done Refugees at Home who place single refugees with a host family to provide accommodation while the refugee settles down.

You are doing a great job.

Oh, and don’t tell me we should look after our own poor and vulnerable first. If we waited for this Conservative Government and Bucks’ Conservative councils to look after our own poor and vulnerable, we would be waiting until hell freezes over.

This Conservative Government found £2 billion to bribe the Democratic Unionist party to prop the Government up. It found another £4 billion to prepare us for a no-deal Brexit and to put 3500 troops on standby.

And yet we can’t afford to feed and house our own children nor take in a single refugee family.

Vulnerable people in Bucks owed benefits from DWP for years – and not a word of outrage

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6 December 2018

In October, the Government admitted that 180,000 people were owed arrears on their benefits because of Government mistakes. The mistakes happened when people were moved onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and some people were not given an enhanced payment they were entitled to.

ESA is for people who have an illness, health condition or disability that makes it difficult or impossible to work. People began to be moved onto ESA from 2011.

Initially, the Department for Works and Pensions decided to pay the arrears only to people who moved to ESA from 2014. However, after a legal challenge from the Child Poverty Action Group DWP decided to extend payments to all those affected.

It will cost the Government £1.5 billion. The DWP has 400 staff working to pay off these arrears.

So you would think this is good news for the people affected? But not with this Government. It is a slow and difficult process.

This what it is like for one carer, John, who lives in Bucks. John has been trying to claim arrears for his two children, Matthew and Sarah who transferred to ESA in April 2012 and April 2013 respectively. Sarah died earlier this year.

In October, John phoned DWP and was told Matthew was not on their list for people eligible for arrears but Sarah was. John then checked the bank statements of both children and found Mathew had received the enhanced payment from October 2013 and was therefore owed for 15 months. Sarah had never received the enhanced payment and was owed for 5 years.

John phoned DWP again. The calls lasted over an hour and he was finally sent a 48-page claim form to fill in for Matthew. He sent it in late October.

In mid- November, DWP wrote to say Matthew was not eligible for the arrears and they would contact John about Sarah’s claim in due course. John phoned the DWP and after an hour’s discussion, the officer agreed Matthew was eligible and John would hear from the DWP within 3 days.

John has heard nothing since.

The DWP estimates that most arrears will be paid this financial year but over a third won’t be paid until 2019/20.

So a group of very vulnerable people has been underpaid for years by something like £16/week – a lot of money when you are on benefits.

The process for claiming the arrears is not user friendly.

And some people still have over a year to wait before they are paid. Some, like Sarah, will die in the meantime and never get, or enjoy, the money they are owed.

And not a word of outrage from anyone in Bucks.

When Universal Credit arrives in Bucks

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8 August 2018

According to End Child Poverty, there were nearly 20,000 children living in poverty in Bucks last year.  

Nearly a third of those children were in the Wycombe constituency.

There are huge disparities between wards.  For example, there were over 1000 children living in poverty in Oakridge and Castlefield, a ward in the centre of Wycombe.   There were 20 in Lacey Green, Speen and the Hampdens, a ward in a rural part of the Aylesbury constituency. 

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, child poverty will increase by about 20% by 2020. 

Last year, the One Can Trust had 3687 referrals for food parcels.  This was a 34% increase on the previous year.    The biggest increase was for single parents.

Meanwhile, the latest schedule from the Government shows Universal Credit for all claimants is due to rollout in Wycombe and South Bucks next month.  (Although there is such chaos, I’m not sure that information is up-to-date.)

Anecdotal evidence is that Wycombe Jobcentre is not geared up to cope and claimants, particularly those without IT skills and equipment, are going to struggle.

One Can believe there could be another significant increase in demand for food parcels from those transferring to Universal Credit and unable to fund the month’s gap in receipt of benefits.   We are also likely to see an increase in homelessness, mental health problems, safeguarding issues, anti-social behaviour and crime.   While the demand for help and support will soar, those services are being cut back to the bone.

The trouble is we all know this.  We all know this is what austerity looks like.   We all know Universal Credit is a disaster and the Government doesn’t listen.   We all know what is going to happen when Universal Credit arrives.  It is going to hit people with illnesses and disabilities, people with learning problems, the elderly and children and those that are already in difficulties.

But none of our MPs seem bothered.  They will probably still get re-elected and nothing will change – only get worse.         

 

 

I have written to the Minister about unification of the councils in Bucks but where’s the views of the opposition parties?

5 May 2018

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I have written to James Brokenshire about the unification of the councils in Bucks (see below).  I know what the Conservatives think about the proposals – they are split and arguing furiously between themselves.  But what do the Labour and Lib Dem Parties think?   And are they providing an effective opposition to the proposals? 

 

Dear Mr Brokenshire

Your predecessor, Sajid Javid, asked for comments on the proposals by Bucks County Council to bring together all five county and district councils into one unitary council for Bucks.  Mr Javid was minded to agree these proposals.    I assume that these proposals will still go ahead unless you disagree.    I would urge you to stop and reconsider.    

I understand that the push behind the proposals from BCC are two fold – first BCC hasn’t got enough money and probably will soon be bankrupt, and second it’s reducing its functions to the minimum required to meet its statutory requirements and has to make even more cutbacks. 

Obviously the two reasons are connected – if you haven’t got enough money, you can’t provide the services, even if you wanted to.  But BCC doesn’t want to provide services which go beyond the minimal for ideological reasons; it believes in the public sector providing minimal services leaving the vulnerable to fend for themselves.  

BCC sees unification as the way out of its financial mess.  A unified council would take over the very considerable reserves of the district councils.  No wonder the district councils are furious; they see the money they have frugally preserved over many years get sucked into the coffers of a unitary council to save the reputations of the county council – and a county council they know is financially incompetent. 

BCC also wants to outsource as much as possible of its remaining services to the private sector.  BCC has already had a go at doing this and all its attempts have ended in disaster.  Barnet council has tried it and it just doesn’t work. 

But that is not going to stop a Council which sees itself on an ideological mission.   It will continue to cut services and outsource what is left.   And if all a Council is doing is tendering and monitoring contracts, it can do this with one man and his dog in Birmingham (or India for that matter). 

So, the plan is to bring everything together in Bucks, cut services to the statutory minimum, outsource whatever it can, cut staff, and set up a plethora of unelected committees and hubs to give the appearance that we still have a democracy in the county.

On the other hand, I believe the public sector has a responsibility to invest in services and infrastructure which contribute to the safety, welfare, and prosperity of residents and to ensure fairness and equality in our community.  I want good quality services which help and support the vulnerable and help underpin the fabric of society.

I also believe that, in the main, these services should be provided in-house by the public sector where the profit motive does not dominate and elected representatives can be held accountable.

I accept that taxes would be higher but should be borne by those most able to pay.

If this is the way councils in Bucks were to function, then you would need a larger and multi- skilled organisation operating locally.

However, this option is not on the table in Bucks.   So I don’t support either proposal.

 

However, I assume you will go ahead with unification anyway.  And, since you (or rather Mr Javid) asked, my preference is for the 2 council option proposed by the district councils. 

I prefer this option because I think services should be provided, and decisions taken, at the most local level possible.  I think this is known as localism – a principle I thought was espoused by your Government.  Presumably, however, the Government has changed its mind on localism and decided big is best.

I also prefer decisions to be taken by elected Councillors who are as local as possible, approachable as possible, and accountable to local residents. 

I also agree with the argument of the district councils that the interests and character of the north of the county are very different to those of the south.  Put simply, Aylesbury Vale looks north for its future, and this is particularly so in view of the proposals for a million homes by 2030 between Cambridge and Oxford.   The other 3 districts look towards London; they are squarely part of the Home Counties.  

I can’t imagine why Mr Javid would prefer to support proposals from BCC which has proved its incompetence in so many ways.  If you look at my blogsite,

http://lindaderrick.simplesite.com/432431533

you will notice it is BCC which features strongly rather than the district councils.  That is because BCC is simply appalling.  It is financially incompetent, it has presided over an inadequate Children’s Services for 5 years; it has one of the worst records in the country for pothole-ridden roads; its adult social services are in meltdown and it has even botched an attempt to close all its Children’s Centres.

Why would Mr Javid prefer the proposals of this Council rather than those of the district councils?  I may deplore the policies of the district councils but at least they have operated with some degree of financial and economic competence.  

Why would Mr Javid agree with the rhetoric of Martin Tett, the Leader of BCC?  Is it simply to prevent BCC falling into bankruptcy like Northamptonshire County Council?   Or is it that they share the same extreme right wing philosophy? 

It is already clear that what we will get with the one big unitary is the same old County Councillors who have failed to manage their existing responsibilities over many years.  The prospect that they will take over even more functions such as planning and housing is depressing.

It is even more depressing to see tens of thousands of taxpayers money spent on the opposing sets of proposals.  Surely the Conservative- dominated councils should have sorted this out without spending vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. 

The only good thing to emerge is the split within the local Conservative Party which will not serve it well if we ever get to vote again for our Councillors.   

There is no consensus in Bucks for either option and I think you should think again – and preferably change Government policy.  

 

Closure of the mobile library service – a foregone conclusion.

12 March 2018

 

P.S. The mobile library was closed on 31 May 2018

 

In November last year, I blogged about proposals by Bucks County Council to close the mobile library service.   BCC’s rationale for the closure was that few people depended on the service and it was not cost effective. 

So I asked BCC some questions and received some interesting answers. 

The mobile library service was cut in June 2010 when less popular stops were discontinued.  This had a small effect on residents’ use of the service. 

Then the service was halved in November 2013; visits by the mobile library buses were cut from once a fortnight to once a month.   The only chance residents then had to change their books was a 10 minute slot once a month.   

This was the point when the use of the service dramatically declined.   This was the point when BCC made the service so limited and difficult to access that many residents stopped using it.  This was the point when BCC could start to say that perhaps it wasn’t worth saving the service as so few people used it and it was too expensive.

The number of visitor counts declined sharply from about 50,000 to 10,000.  The number of items issued declined sharply from about 123,000 to 24,000.

Expenditure on the service was cut from about £294, 000 to £180,000.  

The number of people using the service declined from about 2000 to 800 (about 16% children, 36% over 65 and very few – only 6 - known to have a learning, physical or vision impairment.  About 63% do not use any other library service).

Then in February 2016, BCC’s Cabinet decided to cut the budget of the mobile library service in 2017/8 to £64,000 from £180,000.  This would only pay for one bus out of the three buses currently in use.     

And then BCC could really ask whether it was worth saving the mobile library service – most of the stops would have to be discontinued or visits would be cut to only once every 3 months.   Who would use it?     

So then BCC proposed to cut the mobile library service altogether.    

Alternatives are proposed, for example transport for those who need it to get to the normal library service or delivery of items to residents’ home addresses.  However, there is no BCC budget for these alternative services; they are completely dependent on volunteers.    

Councillor Noel Brown, the Cabinet member responsible, is to take a decision on the closure this month. 

I think the decision was made years ago.

BCC cuts and cuts again until a service has virtually disappeared.  Then it closes it down. 

It’s the well-known strategy of death by a thousand cuts and it is being played out right across Bucks.  And it will continue because there is no relief in sight from the Government. 

  

 

Are the proposals to unify the councils in Bucks now dead in the water?

19 February 2018   

It’s over a year since the county council and the district councils sent competing proposals to Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, on reforming the structure of the councils in Bucks.   

But he still hasn’t declared the winner. 

In September 2016, Bucks County Council voted in favour of proposals to unify the county council and all four district councils in Bucks into one big unitary council.  

The proposals were produced in -house by BCC so we don’t know how much they cost to produce but the proposals were scrutinised by an external organisation at a cost of  £25,000.

The proposals went off to Sajid Javid for a decision.  

Meanwhile, the district councils put together their own proposals, this time for two unitary councils, one to the North of Bucks and one to the South.

The districts’ proposals were put together by consultants.  I can’t find a cost for the work but I don’t suppose the district councils got much change out of £100,000. 

The district councils voted in favour of their proposals in January 2017 and their proposals went off to Sajid Javid too.   

He had to decide which set of proposals to go for.

At first, a decision was “imminent”.   Then it seemed a decision would be made after the county elections in May last year.  Then it was after the general election in June.  Now there is no timescale except “as soon as practicable”.

Meanwhile, Sajid Javid had housing added to his portfolio and possibly hasn’t had the time to look at the two sets of proposals.  Or perhaps he simply can’t decide which proposals would be best.  Or perhaps he doesn’t fancy either.  Who knows.  

But what a waste of public resources at a time when we need every penny.

Oddly Sajid Javid’s indecision seems to be shared by the 30 or so Conservative Councillors who sit on both county council and one of the district councils.    You would think they would be in the best position to decide which of the proposals is best and to vote so we could all see what they have decided. 

But no.  With a few exceptions, we don’t know which way these Councillors have voted because only Wycombe District Council had a recorded vote.   

All we can say with certainty is that eight Conservatives who are both county and WDC councillors voted for the districts’ proposals.   They are:

David Carroll

Lesley Clarke

Alex Collingwood

Carl Etholen

Arif Hussain

David Shakespeare

Jean Teesdale 

Katrina Wood

 

Three of these Councillors (Carroll, Collingwood and Hussain) were absent from the BCC meeting when a vote was taken. 

The other five voted for BCC’s proposals or abstained.     

You might wonder how councillors can vote for one proposal and not vote against the other, particularly if you are Councillor Katrina Wood, the Leader of WDC, and a strong supporter of the districts’ proposals. 

The Conservatives have been at war with one another over these proposals for over a year but we, the public, don’t know exactly which way the majority of our Councillors voted. 

Implementation of either of these sets of proposals would mean massive changes in Bucks – you would think the public has the right to know where their Councillors stand.  

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Another day – another cut.  This time the Bucks mobile library service.

28 November 2017

Bucks County Council propose to close the mobile library service in May 2018.  It is consulting on its proposals now.

BCC says that the service provides a “highly-valued and personal service to people who don't find it easy to get to a branch library. All the mobile libraries carry a wide range of stock which is changed regularly, and lifts are available for disabled access.”

So why is BCC proposing to close the service? 

First, BCC is broke and has chosen to cut services.  It has already cut the library services by over £2 million (about 40%) of the budget since the Government imposed austerity.  BCC still needs to cut £0.5 million over the next two years.

Second, BCC says only 511 people solely use mobile libraries.   

Third, BCC says the mobile library service is inefficient; the cost per item issued is higher than from a library building.

BCC propose to offer “alternative community- based options” to the existing customers of the mobile library service i.e.

-          a named volunteer to visit customers each month at a convenient time with a selection of books to match their interests;

-          a friend, neighbour or family member to visit a library to borrow and return items on customers’  behalf;

-          customers to reserve books over the phone or online to be collected from a nearby venue; or

-          a small selection of books to be provided to an accessible local building for customers to borrow from.

So that’s OK isn’t it?

 

It doesn’t look as though these proposals are going to be scrutinised by the relevant BCC Select Committee. 

But here’s what BCC doesn’t tell you:  

-          How many customers of the mobile library service have been excluded from the customer count of 511 because they used other library services perhaps only once during the year?  (The 511 only includes customers who have only used the mobile service).  

-          How many customers would use the service if it was more reliable?  (Two of the three library vans are out of service this week). 

-          How many customers would use the service if it was improved; the van comes to my nearest stop only once every 4 weeks and for only 20 minutes.  That’s not long – particularly if you are elderly or disabled. 

-          Has the service been cut already and by much since 2010?  If so, has the number of customers declined in line with the cut in the service?

-          How much does the service cost now?  

-          How much is BCC going to spend on the alternative community-based options?  And who is going to provide them?

Do I really need to mention once again that BCC is cutting services for the most vulnerable in our society?   And that the customers of the mobile library service are the least likely to respond to a consultation? 

And do I need to ask once again who is going to speak up for these vulnerable people?  Why are the charities in Bucks who are meant to represent the elderly and the disabled nowhere to be heard? 

 

BCC’s financial incompetence exposed by Private Eye

 3 May 2017

Bucks County Council’s hopeless attempts to set up commercial companies were exposed in Private Eye today.  BCC stars in the section called “Rotten Boroughs”.   It’s good to see BCC exposed in the national media.

Here’s what Private Eye says:

“So much for outsourcing services to local authority trading companies - businesses majority-owned by councils - as the initiatives fail to win work from their own owners.

 

In 2013, Buckinghamshire County Council (BCC) and the local fire authority set up Bucks Law Ltd (BLP), the first public sector enterprise in the UK to be granted a licence by the Law Society to operate as a commercial law firm.  Clients included the council, academy schools, housing associations and local voluntary groups.   BLP made a small loss in its first year but by September 2015, according to its managing director, “initial signs of this venture becoming a long-term success were very positive”.  By January 2016, it appeared to be doing well, with its 50 lawyers winning Team of the Year at the local government legal awards.

 

In April 2016, Buckinghamshire outsourced its legal work to the London Borough of Harrow, buying most of its legal services from a company Harrow had set up called HB Public Law (HBPL) rather than its own BPL.   Many BPL lawyers were transferred to HBPL.

 

In 2014 HBPL customer Barnet council blundered on for 18 months with no properly qualified lawyer, leaving it open to legal challenge.  An investigation found that: “No one in Barnet understands local government law.  Senior governance staff lacked experience; reports were approved without the appropriate legal advice despite an outsourced joint agreement with Harrow’s HB public Law” (Eye 1378).

 

BCC has now terminated its contract with another company it owns, Buckinghamshire Care Ltd, set up in 2013.  The move follows a damning Care Quality Commission report into the Seeley House residential respite centre.  Bringing it back in-house will cost £2.4 m and will cause disruption to staff and service users.”

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

 

BCC suddenly discovers that early learning is important

19 April 2017

At the March meeting of Bucks County Council’s Select Committee on education, Robin Stuchbury, BCC’s Labour Councillor, asked what would really make a difference in narrowing the gap between the educational attainment of disadvantaged children and their peers.  

The Chief Executive of the Bucks Learning Trust, a company set up by BCC to improve standards in Bucks schools, responded.  She said the Trust had tried a number of approaches and the one that really made a difference was early intervention with disadvantaged children, working with their families and using a joined up approach with other professionals so that the children had a much better start to school.   She said this early intervention approach had emerged from a BCC Select Committee enquiry.

And I thought – wait a minute.  This isn’t something which emerged from a BCC Select Committee in 2017.  The Labour Party knew this in 1998 when it set up Sure Start.  The Tories knew this in 2010 when they came to power and committed to continuing Sure Start. 

Sure Start children’s centres are intended to provide early childhood services in an integrated way, including  

·         early years education and childcare

·         social and health services for young children and their parents

·         training and employment services and information and advice services for parents.  

Trouble is, despite the commitment, the Government didn’t provide local authorities with the funding and in 2015 BCC decided early intervention wasn’t a priority.  It contracted out 28 of its Children’s Centres to Action for Children – and cut the budget again, this time by 10% i.e. about £400,000. 

At the time Robin said “Children’s Centres are vital in providing support to families at a very early stage.   They provide facilities for early learning which are critical in helping disadvantaged children. They also provide help in safeguarding children.  

This is particularly important in Bucks where disadvantaged children do so badly in the educational system and where BCC fails to provide an adequate Children’s Service to safeguard vulnerable children.”

The decision to cut the budget was made by Cllr Zahir Mohammed, the Cabinet member for Education and Skills; Council was merely informed.

But now amazingly, 20 years after everyone else understood the importance of early intervention, BCC finally cottons on.

Are they really that ill -informed?

P. S. The Children’s Centre near me is open to families for a total of 4.5 hours a week of “play and learn”; other sessions are with the health visitor.  There appears to be no childcare, no specific educational activity, no social services, and no employment and training advice.   Is this really a Children’s Centre?

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

 

Bucks youth service cut by 50% since the Tories came in

24 March 2017

In early February, I blogged about the cuts made to the youth service in Bucks and the increasing demand for those services.  The youth service supports 11-19 year olds who desperately need help, for example young carers, victims of domestic abuse or neglect, drug users, and young people involved with the criminal justice system or vulnerable to extremism.

I said I would ask BCC for more information about those cuts and I received an excellent response.  I have thanked BCC for this information.

In sum, since 2010/11 when the Tories came into power in central Government, the funding of youth work in Bucks has been halved from £6.4 million to £3.2 million.  Of this £3.2 million, over 40% is outsourced to two charities – Adviza (£1.3 million) and Action4Youth (£85,000).

The number of BCC staff with a professional qualification in youth work has also halved (from 32 to 15) and the number of staff with an NVQ  Level 2 or Level 3 youth work qualification has been slashed (from 111 to 13).   It is not known how many staff are qualified in youth work in Adviza and Action4youth as it is not a requirement of the contracts; this data is not collected and therefore not held.

BCC is responsible for monitoring the contract with the two charities, including their financial viability.  BCC will probably already know that Adviza has operated at a loss for the last 4 financial years and had net liabilities of about £6 million at the end of the last financial year.   

Since the Tories came to power, there have also been cuts to the probation service, the police, the prisons, the courts, social care, children’s services, education, benefits (including housing benefits to young people) and mental health services for young people.  You can see why demand for the services of the youth service is increasing.

The Tories are systematically failing the most vulnerable young people in our county.  

 

Bucks Law Plus Ltd – mystery solved. It’s a failure.

6 March 2017

I have been chasing information about Bucks Law Plus Ltd (BLP) for some months (see below).  At last, its accounts for 2015/6 have been posted on Companies House website, all 2 pages of them.  (Fortunately I also have a copy of the draft accounts which contain more information.)

BLP is what Bucks County Council calls an Alternative Delivery Vehicle (ADV).  This is another way of saying it is a way of privatising or contracting out BCC’s services.    BCC say ADVs are the way of the future as they cut costs and can make profits for BCC and the taxpayer.  BCC propose for example to contract out its libraries to an ADV.

BCC’s own scrutiny committee has concerns about these ADVs, particularly about the robustness of governance arrangements.   In 2016, the committee requested that a review of existing ADVs should be undertaken.  BCC’s Cabinet gave assurances that this review would be completed by July 2016 but the scrutiny committee “has not been advised of any outcomes”.

This year the scrutiny committee recommended "That Cabinet agrees an action plan on how to ensure that the Council learns the lessons from previous Alternative Delivery Vehicles, prior to establishing any ADVs in future”.

So as BCC’s Cabinet has failed to provide a review of BLP, I thought I would.  As normal, I should say I am not a financial expert and I am happy to be corrected.

First, what were BLP’s success criteria?  BCC outsourced its legal services to BLP in November 2013.  In August 2014, a BCC press release said BLP would offer its services on a commercial basis to the market and make a profit for BCC. 

The draft accounts for 2015/6 show a turnover of £186,000 but there is no way of telling whether that business came from the market or from BCC or Bucks and Milton Keynes Fire Authority, BLP’s two shareholders.

The accounts also show that BLP made a loss in 2014/5 of £39,000 and a profit in 2015/6 of £35,000, leaving BLP with liabilities of £4,000. 

I asked for evidence that the outsourcing of legal advice to BLP has provided value for money for BCC and the Fire Authority.  Neither BCC nor the Authority responded to this request.  

So I would conclude that so far BLP is not a success; it has failed to achieve its objectives.   

BCC seems to have come to the same conclusion as it has now outsourced its legal work to a different company, leaving BLP……     well actually I don’t know where this leaves BLP.   I assume BCC will close it down.  

As for the robustness of the governance arrangements, BCC’s scrutiny committee might note that:

-          One of the directors, the managing director, is not apparently employed by BLP nor paid by the company.  I am told he is an employee of BCC.  He therefore has a potential conflict of interest between looking after the interests of the company and those of BCC (and the taxpayer).

-          In Jan 2016, BLP said on its website that it had a team of 50 experienced lawyers. And yet the staffing costs of BLP for 2015/6 were £97,000.  This is hardly sufficient to pay for one or two lawyers and administrative support.  How can BLP advertise that it had a team of 50 lawyers?

-          One of the directors, Chief Fire Officer Thelwell, had no copy of the accounts or other information I requested according to officials in the Fire Authority.  If correct, how could he fulfil his responsibility as a director?  

-          None of the directors (which includes Councillors Scott and Chilvers) have answered my questions about what has been happening at the company.  Nor have they been forthcoming about its future.

-           The accounts were sent to Companies House late.  For a company owned by the taxpayer, they provide scant information. 

-          There is a note in the draft accounts saying the company owed over £112,000 to Buckinghamshire County Council, a shareholder of the company.  I cannot see where this debt appears in the accounts.

 

Bucks Law Plus Ltd – the mystery deepens.

5 February 2017

Bucks County Council prides itself on its investment skills.  However, one of the companies it set up three years ago, Bucks Care, has already failed disastrously (see blogs under Social Care).    Let’s see what is happening to another company BCC set up - Bucks Law Plus Ltd. 

 

 Taking up the story from the blog below, Bucks Law Plus made a small loss in its first year (£38K) but by September 2015, according to its Managing Director, “initial signs of this venture becoming a long term success were very positive.”    

 

By Jan 2016, Bucks Law Plus appeared to be going well.  It had a team of 50 experienced lawyers and had been awarded “Legal Team of the Year”.  It was forecasting some profit for BCC (and to Bucks and Milton Keynes Fire Authority which owns 5% of the shares in the company).

 

However, by this time BCC were near to concluding a deal with the London Borough of Harrow.  Under this deal, BCC would delegate to LBH the discharge of its responsibilities for its legal services; BCC would buy most of its legal services from a company Harrow had set up called HBPL.   The details were signed off by Harrow in February and by BCC in April 2016.

 

 Why, you may wonder, didn’t BCC decide to buy its legal services from its own company?  Why did it transfer most of its legal staff to HBPL rather than Bucks Law Plus?   Where was the profit in that?  And how is Bucks Law Plus surviving?

Well who knows, because the Cabinet paper setting out the proposals hardly mentions Bucks Law Plus – only saying that there would be “further integration” of the two organisations.   The savings set out in the paper are modest at £100K a year.

 

The press release that BCC put out in June 2016 didn’t mention Bucks Law Plus at all and mysteriously the savings had increased from £100K to £2 million a year (I have asked BCC which figures are correct). 

 

BCC have confirmed that Bucks Law Plus is still trading and two BCC Councillors – Councillors Scott and Chilvers – are still directors.  Neither of them have replied to requests for information but the BCC official dealing understands the latest accounts were sent to Companies House in December.  However, they are still shown on the Companies House website as overdue.  I have asked for a copy. 

The Fire Authority meanwhile  has said it does not hold the information I asked for about Buck Law Plus even though the Chief Fire Officer is a director of the company and the Authority stands to lose or gain from its success or otherwise.

 

It will be interesting to see the accounts up to March 2016 when they surface.  Will keep you posted.    If anyone out there can throw light on this, let me know.

 

Bucks youth service – death by a thousand cuts

1 February 2017 

Bucks youth service is yet another public service being destroyed by austerity.   Not with a chop so everyone can see what is happening and protest.  But with a thousand cuts and a pretense that everything is still fine. 

 

 The youth service supports 11 – 19 year olds who desperately need help. 

 

 For example it supports young carers – perhaps a schoolboy caring for his mother with a mental illness.   Without the support of the youth service, that schoolboy might collapse under the strain and then both he and his mother would need intensive (and expensive) public care.   

 

The youth service also supports victims of domestic abuse or neglect, drug users, and young people involved with the criminal justice system or vulnerable to extremism.

 

 It helps prevent young people getting into trouble.  It prevents things getting worse.  It is an investment to prevent distress, illness and crime. It also saves money for the taxpayer in the long term.  

 

 In 2010, Bucks County Council had a well-regarded and successful youth service.  It has been cut and cut and cut.    Last February it was cut again by £1.8 million (no idea from what – I’ll ask). Last June BCC launched a partnership of its own internal youth service and two charities – Adviza and Action4Youth. 

 

 On Tuesday (30 Jan) BCC’s scrutiny committee had a progress report on how things were going. 

 

What a depressing session. 

 

 Unsurprisingly, demand for the youth services has increased as austerity bites.  Referrals from social services and schools are up.   Feedback from the young people and their families is positive.    

 

 However, again unsurprisingly, the youth service has not got the resource to meet the demand.   Only those most in need are now eligible.

 

 Some services, such as drop in centres and face-to-face careers advice, have been closed. 

 

 The scrutiny committee wasn’t very happy about all this (although Tory Councillors could be reminded that austerity is what their party continues to advocate and implement). 

 

 But what is the scrutiny committee going to do about it? Well nothing. 

 

 It might for a start really scrutinise the risks to the youth service which is near collapse – and the consequences for young people if it does.  How much longer can the youth service be financially viable? 

 

The power behind the Bucks Free Press

 

9 January 2017

It was interesting to see the comment column in the Bucks Free Press on Friday urging people to help fight off the “new challenges to press freedom in the UK” and extolling the merits of IPSO, the press industry’s own regulator rather than Impress, the one set up by the Government by Royal Charter.    

 

The Bucks Free Press is owned by a company called Newsquest.  The same column written by Dave King, the Editor –in Chief of the Bucks Free Press, is in a number of other newspapers in the South East also owned by Newsquest.  For example his column is on-line in the Slough Observer, the Bracknell News and the Royal Borough Observer. 

 

I looked at a very small sample of other Newsquest newspapers and the same message seems to have gone into local Newsquest newspapers across the country.

 

Newsquest has 28 million readers on-line a month and 6 million readers of print a week.  So it is getting its message out to a lot of people.

 

So it is worth knowing that Newsquest is one of the largest media regional companies in the country with over 200 papers and magazines.  It is a billion pound company which in turn is owned by a multi –billion company in the US. 

 

When someone like Dave King is talking about the balance of power between press and the Government, and between the press and its regulator (or I should say regulators), it is helpful to see where the interests of his organisation lies – and what power and money it has.

 

Incidentally, Roy Greenslade, who is professor of journalism at City University, and blogs for the Guardian, says of Newsquest

 

“It is a profit-seeking company that does not care about journalistic quality.

 

As long as the paper comes out every day, it has little interest in the content.  Its managers - whether in Britain or in the United States, where its parent company, Gannett is based - view editorial as an expensive necessity to ensure there is something between the all-important adverts.” 

 

I have to add that in my experience the same is not true of the local reporters at the Bucks Free Press; I think they do care about the paper’s journalistic quality.   I think they understand the importance of regional journalism in holding power to account.   It is hard work however when there is only a team of three reporters.

 

You can read Roy Greenslade’s blog at 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2016/dec/08/brighton-argus-editor-departs-but-does-newsquest-really-care

 

The mystery of Bucks Law Plus Ltd – where is it now?

2 January 2017

On 27 November 2013, Bucks County Council set up a private sector company called Buckinghamshire Law Plus Ltd and outsourced its legal services to the company.  BCC wholly owned the company.

In August 2014, Bucks County Council issued a press notice about the achievement of their legal advisors in being the first such legal company to be registered by the Solicitors’ Regulatory Authority.    It said Bucks Law Plus would offer its services on a commercial basis to the market and make a profit for BCC. 

Or at least I think that is what was said as this notice – and any other mention of this company - seems to have disappeared from BCC’s website.

Luckily Companies House is a bit more forthcoming.    The accounts for the period up to March 2015 show a deficit for the financial year of £38,500 and a book value for the company of about £13,000.  Rather disappointing you might think. 

The annual return up to November 2015 shows that the company was now 95% owned by BCC and 5% by Bucks and Milton Keynes Fire Authority.  Its directors were:

-          Mark Caprio, Local Government Officer

-          John Chilver, Councillor BCC

-          Richard Scott, Councillor BCC

-          Hayley Norman-Thorpe

-          Jason Thelwell, Chief Fire Officer

-          Nicholas Cave, Local Government Officer

-          Anne Davies, Solicitor

Since then, Mark Preston, accountant, has become a director and Hayley Norman-Thorpe, Anne Davies and Mark Capio have resigned.

I tried to contact Bucks Law Plus via their website but received a warning that the site was unsafe and a threat to my computer so I did not pursue this.

And that is about it.   There is nothing to tell us whether this private sector company set up and owned by BCC is operating profitably or is a drain on the taxpayer.

The accounts up to March 2016 are due with Companies House today so I will ask BCC for a copy and let you know.

 

Library services to be contracted out

16 December 2016 

Yet again Bucks County County are making cuts to vital services without letting residents know.  It has kept its decision to contract out all the remaining libraries in Bucks very quiet.  But the decision has been made and the libraries will be contracted out to a social enterprise or similar. 

 

At the same time the budget of £4.6 million will be cut by £1million.  The budget has already been cut by £2million over the past 5-6 years

 

But just in case residents might be influenced to vote against these cuts in the County elections in May, nothing will happen before then and BCC probably hope nobody will notice that a decision has been made.     

 

In the meantime, officials are working on a full business case. 

 

No room at the inn - not even for one refugee

23 December 2016 

This last blog before Christmas is about the total lack of effort our Councils in Bucks – district and county – have made to resettle Syrian refugees. 

The Government pledged in September 2015 to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over 5 years from countries bordering the conflict areas.  These are very vulnerable refugees who may be seriously wounded or traumatised or orphaned. 

On the first anniversary of the pledge, the Home Office said they had secured the necessary 20,000 local authority places and said it was “a testament to the immense goodwill and generosity of the British people and the effort and determination of local authorities across the UK”.

As far as I could find out, not one of those local authority places is in Bucks, one of the most prosperous counties in the UK.

You might ask why.  

Martin Tett, Tory Leader of Bucks County Council gave an answer on the radio a year ago.  He said it was difficult because as soon as the refugees arrived, many of whom would be very distressed, they would need elderly social care, health care and children’s support and these services in Bucks were already struggling. 

Katrina Wood, Tory Leader of Wycombe District Council, confirmed this month that her Council would not be taking any refugees.  She said the homeless take priority and refugees would put enormous pressure on housing services which were already over stretched.   

So Bucks can’t take refugees because our services - social care, health, children’s and housing -are so poor. 

You might ask why Bucks services so poor we can’t take even one Syrian refugee?

Is it because the Tory Government has cut the money going to local authorities?  Is it because the Tory Government has failed to build social housing and protect private sector tenants?  Is it because the Tory Government has cut benefits, and wages are stagnating, so people struggle to pay the rent?    So demand for services goes up just when the money for the services is cut?

Yes, all of these.

But why if local authorities across the UK have the same problems (and many have far worse problems than Bucks) are other Councils willing and able to take refugees and Bucks is not?

Is it because Bucks Tory Councils are so incompetent that Bucks services are worse than anywhere else?    Well probably.

But surely people in Bucks also have (what did the Home Office call it?) the immense goodwill and generosity of the British people?   Surely our Bucks Councillors have got it wrong and we too have the goodwill and generosity to resettle Syrian refugees.    

Meanwhile a small group of volunteers has resettled 31 Syrian refugees in Bucks.   Well done.  You put the Councils to shame.

Happy Christmas.