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Today I attended a meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee and in a kind of sad way, I really enjoyed it.
It was great to see the scrutiny process in full swing. The meeting was excellently chaired by Cllr Mark Davis and there were telling contributions for Cllr Paul Shotton, Cllr Mick Salih, Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley, Mike Coleman & Cllr Tom Reynolds. Cllr John Davies was also in attendance and there were late appearances by Cllr Dave Conway and Cllr Kieran Clarke.
The officer core was represented by Tom Macarntey the Acting Chief Executive and Paul Simpson, Director of Central Services.
The meeting got off to a controversial start with the elected members expressing their disgust at the fact that they were waiting for requested information from officers that had not been forth coming for the last two months. Paul Shotton was particularly critical of this as was Cllr Mick Salih and Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley. You can here more about this in the Audio Interview below.
Cllr Tom Reynolds and Cllr John Davies both voiced concerns over the future of the City Farm. This popular facility is under threat despite being the subject of a review and a subsequent recommendation to explore ways of helping the City Farm to be more self funding. It had also been agreed that it should be helped to generate more income. Both councillors expressed concerns that once again there is a possibility that this popular attraction is a target for even more cuts or could ultimately be closed and they proposed a further review to see if more help could be given before the executive of the council get the chance to wield the axe. Tom Reynolds pointed out to the meeting that many of the officers who had worked on the original proposal regarding the City Farm and how it should be financed had now left the authority. This “Ëœnest flying’ reared it’s head on more than one of the topics discussed at the meeting.
The mother town came in for a fair amount of discussion at today’s meeting. Cllr Mick Salih raised concerns at the dilapidated state of what is said to be the most historical of the six towns. All elected members were disappointed at the fact that Burslem’s Indoor Market was still closed and was in a terrible state of repair. Questions were asked at why nothing had been done to get the market repaired and re-opened. Cllr Paul Shotton said that revenue from the other successful indoor markets across the city should have been directed towards Burslem Market instead of being used on “Ëœother council projects’. He pointed out that Hanley Market had not been redecorated since it was first opened.
Tender For the appointment of an Agency to oversee the recruitment of Agency staff!
No you haven’t read that wrong! Council officers are looking to put out to tender for the appointment of an agency to oversee the recruitment of agency staff. This is despite the Council Leader and his Executive stating publicly that the city council must cut down on the use of consultants and agency staff. Elected members questioned why, when the council have a procurement department should there be a need to employ the use of such an agency. Surely this issue must be the responsibility of the said Procurement Department. I think all the elected representatives present were quite surprised at what could be described as a classic contradiction.
There was a really interesting discussion on the Governance Transition Board. All the elected members present asked if the TB were obliged to publish minutes. Cllr Salih stated that as a public body, that are paid £4000 in allowances from the public purse, they should be forced to publish the minutes so that they can be scrutinised by the elected members of the council and indeed members of the public should they wish to. Cllr Conway urged his fellow councillors not to get to excited as he thought that it would be easier getting minutes fro the Freemasons or indeed “ËœCommon Purpose’ meetings. Cllr Kent-Baguley informed the meeting that as support staff from the council were used in relation the the TB it was essential that elected members are informed of the progress this body of people are making in relation to the brief that they have.
The most interesting agenda item was the report given to the meeting by Central Services Director Paul Simpson. The good news was that the shortfall in the budget had reduced from £17million to just short of £11million. Many departments still faced a substantial overspend but through the non delivery of certain budget plans and strategic savings in various areas across the council, Mr Simpson was able to report on what is a healthy amount to come off the budget deficit. He also informed the meeting that officers were already working on the budget for the next financial year. Acting Chief Executive Tom Macartney stated that he was more confident with the figures for the new budget than he had been the previous ones. He voiced concerns over some department and their failure to stay on budget and he reminded the meeting that in the private sector this would result in heads of department loosing their jobs. Cllr Conway informed the meeting that the council were currently owed some £2.5million in council house rents and he warned Paul Simpson that there was no way he would support a rise in council house rents for the next financial and penalise those who were willing to pay, to subsidise those who would not pay. There was a long discussion about car parking charges across the city. Cllr Kieran Clarke, the cabinet members for resources came in for some criticism but in fairness he did not give an adequate response when questioned about his press release ragrding both the car parking issue and the voluntary redundancy programme. You can hear more about the issue of car parking in the audio interview below. The elected members scrutinised the officers on the proposed voluntary redundancy programme. In excess of 500 council employees have expressed an interest in taking this option. Departmental heads along with the various cabinet members with responsibility for those departments have assessed where positions can be cut without an impact on front-line services. The councillors present wanted assurance that services would be protected. There is a report going to cabinet this week with a recommendation that 243 council employees be offered a voluntary redundancy package and if it is agreed at cabinet, departmental heads can start to discuss the details with those employees. This scheme will only save the authority some £600,ooo in the present financial year. Cllr Shotton voiced his concerns that there was still a long way to go to achieve financial stability within the authority, a view shared by Paul Simpson the Director for Central Services and Tom Macartney the acting Chief Executive.
I was impressed with all the elected representatives present. The meeting was thorough and the officers present were questioned and their decisions scrutinised. Our council often gets criticised for being poor and fragmented, but here was an example of how good the process can be. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the elected representatives who were present at that meeting. This was local government working in all it’s full glory.
For more detail on some of the issues raised in this article, please listen to the following Audio Interviews with Cllr Mick Salih & Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley: