Why pennies do matter

The best way to start a blog is often with a cliche. Look after the pennies, we are told, however contrast this to the claim often thrown at those in opposition – you’re missing the big picture. Can you do both? Of course – anyone who decides to forgo their small indulgences in favour of saving for a house, a car, a holiday is doing just that. So why the brickbats when a councillor suggests a bit of care with small budgets?

One of the first blogs I ever wrote focused on my confusion as a new councillor at the amount of letters I get from in response to emails I’ve sent. Why can’t you email me back? I appreciate that some things have to be sent as a letter – but the ultimate snub surely to cost effectiveness is to say that one letter to one person won’t break the budget, as I have been told recently by one organisation in response to a Freedom of Information request I made. Continue reading

Senior Council Officers Shun Stoke-on-Trent

Stoke-on-Trent City Council launched their Mandate For Change in a blaze of glory last Wednesday, a business breakfast for 200 business leaders & stakeholders, printed brochures and a video, using the Take That track, Shine, (yes the one that is used by Morrisons supermarkets and without local lad Robbie on it).

The key points of the Mandate for Change are

  • Make Stoke-on-Trent the place to bring business.
  • Support and develop existing business.
  • Work with people to promote independence and healthy lives.
  • Make Stoke-on-Trent a great city to live in.

All excellent values, that if driven forward will make Stoke-on-Trent a great place to be again. If the bid for the North Staffordshire Enterprise Zone is successful this will be a launch pad to hopefully getting some businesses to relocate to the area and provide the much needed employment which in turn will help to regenerate the city.

The City Council have identified that there is not enough executive housing in the city and in a recent meeting of the City Renewal Overview and Scrutiny Committee they proposed that some council owned properties such as the old park depot in Longton park and Penkhull Farm could be used for conversion in to executive housing.

It is widely believed that businesses don’t want to relocate to Stoke-on-Trent because there aren’t many suitable houses for their senior managers. This is something that Stoke-on-Trent city Council know only too well as a recent Freedom of Information request has shown that the most senior officers don’t actually live in the city themselves. These are the people, who run the city and are currently making unprecedented cuts to your services, it must be quite easy making cuts to services that you don’t have to use yourself.

On the executive recruitment site for the City Council they go to great lengths to tell prospective senior officers how good the city is.

Living In Stoke
Affectionately known as “ËœThe Potteries’, owing to our world-class ceramics and rich industrial heritage, we’re famed for the warmth and creativity of our people. We’re also one of the greenest cities in the country, with one third of the City being green space.

You’ll discover a living, working city with a vibrant culture and friendly people, surrounded by beautiful countryside. You’ll find retail therapy and attractions to fire your imagination and set your heart pounding. You’ll discover a city that is experiencing £multi-million investment and a remarkable transformation as we revitalise and realise the potential of our people and area. You’ll find quality education and a huge range of housing options too. Put simply, you’ll discover a City with a proud past and a bright future.

Even the Chief Executive’s wife Tracy recognised the importance of living in the city where her husband was working.

We definitely want to live in the area John covers, that is the least he can do. If he lives there, he can understand the issues there.

So how many of the top officers in the City Council from the Chief Executive, Directors & Assistant Directors live in Stoke-on-Trent, where You’ll find retail therapy and attractions to fire your imagination and set your heart pounding?

According to the response given to a Freedom of Information request only one of the 22 most senior officers in the City Council lives within the city and enjoys the benefits of the services provided by their employer. One solitary senior officer, that is less than 5%. The Chief Executive and the Directors who don’t live in the city are some of the top officers who took £1.5m in salaries and benefits between them last year.

As these officers are not living in the city are also less likely to spend any significant amount of their sizeable incomes with traders in the city other than maybe the supermarket in Stoke, the pubs near to the Civic Centre and the odd sandwich shop.

The City Council would not name which officer did live within the city citing section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information act that the information being requested relates to the individuals private life rather than their public function.

We contacted a number of councillors by E-mail to ask them, To lead the way in trying to bring new businesses to the city, should senior officers, (CEO directors & assistant directors) live in the city to help promote it?

the only one to respond at the time of publication.

Personally, I think they should. Otherwise, they are, and in some cases justifiably, open to the accusation of being patronizing hypocritical. It’s good enough for everyone else but not themselves. It would also show tremendous commitment and belief.

So do you think senior officers should live within the city they serve?

Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council Nominated For Recycling Award

While Stoke-on-Trent City Council are languishing around the 40 % mark for recycling, our close neighbours Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council have increased their rates from 27% in 2009 to more than 55% per cent in November 2010 and have been nominated for the Waste Management Award at the Government Business Awards 2011 as a result

Researchers have been looking at all collection and disposal authorities across the country to find “outstanding” schemes that are cost-effective, provide a high level of service and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill.

As well as Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority, London Borough of Hillingdon, Peterborough City Council and Hull City Council have all been shortlisted for the award, the winner of which will be announced at Twickenham Stadium on Thursday, 17 February by BBC journalist and news presenter Bill Turnbull.

I’m delighted that we have been singled out nationally for best practice in waste management.

Recycling in Newcastle has been revolutionised. We have an efficient scheme that separates materials at the kerbside which means everything is turned into new products.

But this recognition is not possible without the effort of residents, who have really embraced recycling.

Newcastle are already eclipsing the recycling figure that Stoke-on-Trent hope to be able to achieve by 2015. Questions about recycling here in Stoke still remain unanswered after Pits n Pots were forced down the FOI route, despite the head of directorate Jane Forshaw saying she would happily answer any questions about the recycling service in Stoke-on-Trent

Can We Trust Our Council When It Comes To Rubbish?

The more time I spend researching and investigating Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Enhanced Recycling the more I feel I can’t trust them. The more I look, and I’m not even scratching the surface right now, the more untruths and misinformation I find.

Take this FOI request for example and in particular

What is the cost to Stoke City Council forecast/expected to be under the terms of the contract with the subcontractor for the expected shortfall in waste delivered to the waste to energy plant for the FY 2009/2010?

and the council response dated 31 August 2010

There are no liabilities associated within the contract to the sub contractor. The waste disposal contract is between ourselves and the Contractor. The terms of the contract require that any potential shortfall in waste tonnage to the plant be found from other sources. Both parties have obligations in this regard and these have been met.

Yet in the briefing pack for the Transformation and Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee Thursday, 23 September 2010

Additional ongoing costs in respect of backdated claims from the Waste to Energy Plant made late in 2009/10 (£60k) were also an unexpected pressure. A claim was received in June in respect of the City Council failing to achieve minimum tonnage levels in 2009/10 for £645k. This is offset by a rebate circa £0.316m leaving a net pressure of £0.329m. This is subject to legal interpretation and contract negotiation with Hanford Waste Services and the County Council.

It is abundantly clear that regardless of ‘legal interpretation of the contract’ invoices had been received in June, at least 7 or 8 weeks before the date of the FOI response saying that there were no invoices.

Strangely, if you read the WRAP report commissioned by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, there was a meeting held between the council and AEA (the report authors) on 10 January 2008 where there were concerns about available capacity at the incinerator

Currently, the Council employs an incinerator to treat refuse. This facility is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. There maybe some concerns with regard to available head space at the facility due to the high waste growth in the area; but at the results meeting on the 10th January 2008, it was confirmed that there would be sufficient space within the incinerator because the other collection authorities who use the facility are reducing their input due to changes in their collection systems mainly moving to alternate weekly collections of refuse.

Yet in the FOI request

Were members informed of the expected cost, were they merely informed that there may be a charge or were members not alerted to this risk when the enhanced recycling scheme was debated and agreed?

Members were made aware of the possibility that implementing Enhanced Recycling could result in a shortfall in deliveries to the plant in 2007 when the current Waste Strategy was agreed.

Waste Services Officers also made senior managers aware of the risk in a draft report on Enhanced Recycling in to members in 2008.

Just to confuse matters even more if you listen to the Jane Forshaw interview, in particular part two about -3:40 Jane says, when talking about the WRAP report, ‘and it also doesn’t take in to account the fact we have an energy from waste facility on our doorstep’

A little different than what the report says.

It seems that the council do not appear to be accountable to anyone and can get away with making statements with such blatant untruths in them.

We will continue to investigate the enhanced recycling scheme, the costs and the alleged savings over the coming weeks.

Image used under CC licence

How many consultants does it take to work out how many consultants the City Council employs?

As the first decade of the C21st century slides its way into history, a Freedom of Information (F.O.I.) question directed to Stoke-on-Trent City Council is stonewalled on the trumped up excuse that “we estimate that the cost of complying with your request would be more than £450.”

Most people, I am sure, will be amazed that a City Councillor was obliged to submit a F.O.I. question anyway!

So what was this ever so difficult data requested that would cost far too much to locate?

Cllr Michael Barnes’ questions were:

1. How many Consultants currently work for Stoke-on-Trent City Council, including NSRP?

2. How much is the total estimated cost of these consultants for this financial year 2009/10?

3. How many individual consultants or interim officers are currently paid more than £500 per day (or equivalent based on a normal officer hours) by the Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the NSRP? Please include those employed for doing only 1 day (example) per week and earning more than £500 for that week.

4. How many individual consultants or interim officers have been paid more than £500 per day (or equivalent based on a normal officer hours) by the Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the NSRP and have now left, and what is their total cost?

Part of the officer’ response states: “Information currently held by the finance department only relates to September 2009 and will not provide an accurate account of the costs…”

If it were the case that the finance department held the information only for September 2009, then obviously it would be useless for Cllr Barnes’ questions but how can it be possible that the statement is accurate. Of course it is not.

The information for questions 1 & 2 was recently provided for the Member/Officer Working Group on Consultants. I am a member of that group. The names of consultants was included in the spreadsheet circulated at the meeting but officers insisted, with the support of the Council Leader (who chairs the group), that all names be deleted from the spreadsheet we were allowed to keep. So, I cannot say how many consultants were listed but the point is that information would cost little more than 20p of some officer’s time to retrieve!

The total forecast cost for the current financial year (2009-2010) is £2,310,324.

This information related only to consultants paid via the Council’s General Fund, ie the main Revenue Budget. We requested information about all other consultants employed but paid for by various grants. That information should be presented at our next meeting in January.

Employment of consultants is not, in every case, avoidable and unnecessary but on the vast scale that the City Council employs them it is entirely avoidable and totally unnecessary.

Far from admitting or pretending that the data requested is so scattered, deeply embedded and practically impossible to collate the senior officers should be making sure that such data is gathered together, regularly updated, monitored and available for scrutiny and analysis.

By the way, the best answers to this end of decade festive time question title of this posting will be in line for a very tasty Co-op Fairtrade chocolate torte.

Blood Out of a Stone

Many of my previous blogs relate to how difficult it is to get information out of the council even as a councillor.

This has led me to resort to attempting to gain important information through the Freedom of Information Act.

Even this appears not to work. You views would be appreciated!

FOI and Council response below:

From: Michael J. Barnes
Sent: 23 November 2009 13:49
To: FOI
Subject: FOI REQUEST

Could you provide me with the following information under the FOI Act:

1. How many Consultants currently work for Stoke-on-Trent City Council, including NSRP?

2. How much is the total estimated cost of these consultants for this financial year 2009/10?

3. How many individual consultants or interim officers are currently paid more than £500 per day (or equivalent based on a normal officer hours) by the Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the NSRP? Please include those employed for doing only 1 day (example) per week and earning more than £500 for that week.

4. How many individual consultants or interim officers have been paid more than £500 per day (or equivalent based on a normal officer hours) by the Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the NSRP and have now left, and what is their total cost?

Regards,

Cllr Mike Barnes

Response:

Dear Councillor Barnes

Your request for information on consultants

Although we do hold some of the information that you have requested, we estimate that the cost of complying with your request would be more than £450. This amount is called the appropriate limit and is specified in regulations. When it would cost more than £450 to locate, retrieve and extract the information that is requested, section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act allows us to refuse the request.

If you make a new request for a smaller amount of information, it may then be inside the appropriate limit, although I cannot guarantee that it would be and we would have to assess your new request.

Information currently held by the finance department only relates to September 2009 and will not provide an accurate account of the costs as consultants that are currently working for the City Council as well as consultants who have now left, may not be included in the figures.

In addition to this, locating, retrieving and extracting the information requested in questions 3 and 4 alone would require the finance department accessing all of the creditor numbers for all of the companies listed as consultants and interims. Each individual invoice entry on the creditors system would then need to be accessed and then the invoices would need to be located which refers to the consultant or the commissioned work in question. The scanned images of the actual invoices would then be accessed to see if the consultant had cost the City Council more than £500 per day. This process would need repeating for potentially several hundred invoices and would take a considerable amount of time.

If you have any queries about this email, please do not hesitate to contact me.

If you are unhappy with the service you have received in relation to your request and wish to make a complaint or request a review of our decision, you should write to: Louise Kelly, Information Manager, Chief Executive’s Directorate, Civic Centre Floor 4, Glebe Street, ST4 1HH or email foi@stoke.gov.uk.

If, after contacting us, you are not content with the outcome, you may ask the Information Commissioner for a decision. Generally, the Information Commissioner cannot make a decision unless you have already used our appeal procedure. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at: The Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

Yours sincerely,

What a joke!