Friday 24 December 2010

£200k for more senior council posts

So next year we face some pretty swingeing cuts. Front line services will be cut, the quality of life will deteriorate. Crossing patrols will get the chop, our museums look like they will close, libraries are in jeopardy and the future of the Artsdepot is in doubt. So what do Barnet Council do? They go and authorise another £200k a year to be spent on the HR department to accommodate the needs of that wondrous programme, One Barnet. So how many extra posts are they creating? Er well actually the number in the HR department will fall from 81 to 80. So why the additional cost. Ah we need some super human HR professionals, an Assistant Director to HR, Resourcing and Performance Manager, and Reward Manager which is costing £191,790, including on costs. In addition there is a further £12,489 of costs. Originally this was due to come from savings within other department budgets but it now appears that it is coming from contingency funds. This is all set out in the delegated powers report 1133 . This just strikes me as madness!This report was drafted back in July but it was only signed off by our sub-contractor Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officer (Halliford Associates) on 22 December.

Mr Reasonable wishes all of his readers a very merry Christmas/season's greetings (including those members of Barnet Council who regularly drop by) and hopes that next year the council will see reason and start listening to what the residents of Barnet are saying. Oh well I live in hope!

Monday 20 December 2010

A (very) small victory

I am pleased to report that even though the powers that be sought to gag Mr Reasonable, common sense prevailed at tonight's Budget & Performance Scrutiny Committee. It didn't look promising when all of the Conservative councillors stated that they were being whipped to go along with the cabinet recommendations on the budget, something which Cllr Schneiderman said set a worrying precedent in a scrutiny committee. When we got to public questions on the agenda, Cllr Schneiderman was the first to intervene to make it clear that there were public questions but that they had been disallowed. The council officials consulted the constitution and the Chairman looked perplexed. All credit to Cllr Rayner, who I have always found to be a fair and reasonable chap, who made it clear that he would vote for allowing me to speak if it could be done. Eventually it was agreed that they could suspend public participation rules to allow me to speak if members voted for it. Much gnashing of teeth from the cabinet members who were sitting behind me saying it shouldn't be allowed. Credit where credit is due, all the committee members (except Cllr Seal who was late) voted to allow me to speak. My questions were not particularly taxing and frankly I don't know why they kicked up such a fuss in the first place. The answers didn't really enlighten anything although the issue of reviewing the top contracts is something that got picked up for further investigation.The meeting lasted nearly three hours, with plenty of questions asked - certainly better that the 30 minutes the cabinet spent (not) discussing the proposals. Cllr Thomas made one very telling comment when asked about the proposed cut in the Museum grant. It was agreed that actually it is run by volunteers and that the costs amounted in large part to the notional rent charged by Barnet Council. Cllr Thomas made the point that Museums were a "nice to have" and that it didn't necessarily need a building to house the exhibits, they could be spread around the borough. I think many of the committee were unconvinced that the proposed savings will be fully realised especially as this years budget is overspent.

Friday 17 December 2010

Mr Reasonable is GAGGED

There is something very wrong in Barnet Council. We have a scrutiny committee system which is there to provide checks and balances on the Cabinet. This coming Monday, the Budget and Performance Scrutiny Committee are considering two reports. The first is on the financial business planning which sets out where all the savings will be made over the next three years. The other is the Monitoring Report for 2010/11. Both of these reports are substantial and the committee papers run to 226 pages. As someone who has a great interest in how Barnet Council is run, I took the opportunity to submit three questions under the public questions slot in the agenda.

Sadly Barnet Council don’t like my questions so they have found a loophole in the constitution to stop me asking questions or speaking at the scrutiny committee meeting.

It all hinges on the rule that you cannot ask a question or speak on a topic that has already been decided at a committee meeting. Not a decision made by the committee at which you are asking the question, but any committee or sub-committee of the council. Because both of these reports have been approved by the Cabinet and Cabinet Resources committees there can be no public debate. Cabinet Resources Committee has only 6 members drawn from the Cabinet and a quorum of 3. The Cabinet has 10 members and a quorum of 5. No members of the opposition parties or conservative backbenchers sit on these committees and that is why we have a scrutiny system. Most of the time reports go to the scrutiny committee BEFORE a decision is made so that they can provide input. However, in this case, both of these contentious reports have been submitted to scrutiny AFTER a decision has been made. This means no public debate in the scrutiny process – full stop.
Although I would have liked to ask a dozen questions I had restricted myself to three - trying to be reasonable simply doesn’t seem to work. The questions are set out below. Judge for yourself if you think these questions should be answered.

1. Given that £21.3 million of the projected savings over the next three years are rated as at high risk of not being achieved, is this committee satisfied that sufficient consideration has been given to alternative scenarios if these savings are not realised.

2. Reviewing the top 100 contracts received a high number of votes on the Ideas website and had most comments. The Cabinet report stated that “A review of spend activity has taken place and a programme of work is underway with all service areas, to review the contracts that are in place, confirm that activities remain appropriate and that discussion with contractors has started to ensure we continue to deliver value for money”. However, according to a response on the Ideas website, at the Corporate Risk Committee on 2 September 2010, a report stated that "Low targets were set for % of contracts held by the Council which have been reviewed and renegotiated for Quarters 1 and 2 (0% for Q1 & 5% for quarter 2). Because this is complex work involving in excess of 240 contracts it will take a period of months before reviews and renegotiations are completed. Preliminary work to locate and begin reviewing has taken place through Q1 and will continue through Q2. We expect 30% of contracts to have been reviewed by end of Q3 and 50% by end of Q4. We expect to have renegotiated 5% of those contracts deemed necessary by the end of Q2, 15% by the end of quarter 3 and 30% by the end of quarter 4". Are Committee members satisfied that a review of the top 100 contracts is receiving the attention it deserves?

3. At 9.8.2 in the CRC Monitoring report, it states that £390,000 was drawn down from contingency to cover rental for buildings 2 and 4 at North London Business Park. Given that rent is a known consideration and that the rent free period must have been known at the time of signing the lease, why was it not adequately budgeted for resulting in the shortfall having to be taken from contingency. Does this suggest a lack of financial planning?

Monday 13 December 2010

High risk of not achieving £21.3 million of savings.

Reading through the cabinet papers for the meeting this evening I am some what surprised that £21.3 million of the proposed savings over the next three years are rated as having a high risk of not being realised. That includes the £1.2 million of savings on the leisure contract - this may mean closing leisure centres to achieve the savings. It also includes the £1.5 million of highway maintenance which may lead to higher costs in the future. Adult and children's social services are also hit hard. Sadly the proposal to remove school crossing patrols and road safety officers (savings £117,000) is only rated as medium risk although it does note under performance impact, "Could affect safety".

Actually reading through the list of proposed cuts is tragic. It appears to be hitting those in most need hardest, adult and children's social services. No mention of cutting the sky high salaries enjoyed by some of the senior managers. In fact in a separate report it identifies that the council is raiding the contingency fund to pay for the additional £530,000 to fund new posts in the commercial department. So in addition to the Commercial Director (£180,870 inc. on-costs) and the Assistant Director (£137,010 inc. on-costs) they have recruited another Assistant Director on £119,560 – £130,300 (inc on costs) and a corporate programmes manager on £72,420 – £77,680 (inc on-costs) to name but two.

I remain incredibly concerned that this budget cutting has picked on those least able to defend themselves whilst featherbedding those with the most to gain. We need a full and open dialogue on the budget cuts not some stage managed citizens panel and an ideas website that was the conduit for senior council management proposals. Come on Barnet Council, start talking to the residents, the people you are suppose to be here to serve.

Monday 6 December 2010

Grant Thornton - High Risk Actions for the Council

Grant Thornton have provided their latest views on the Use of Resources and Value For Money in the Audit Committee Papers here Some of the comments make quite worrying reading. For example:

"There remain opportunities to improve the understanding of links between costs and performance at service level. The view supported through our discussions with management is that there is not a clear understanding of unit costs, which in turn affects their ability to assess value for money or make best value decisions. The Council should look to routinely use cost and performance information to challenge whether it is achieving value for money".

They also appear to pass comment on the long and turgid reports by stating, "Monitoring reports sent to Cabinet Resources Committee (CRC) include budget and performance monitoring. There are however opportunities to make the reports more concise for members to make the best use of time for decision making purposes.

It would also be helpful to the other stakeholders - including the council taxpayers - if these reports were a bit more understandable. Grant Thornton also set out 8 high risk areas for the council to consider as follows. It doesn't make encouraging reading.

- The Council needs to demonstrate that it has an understanding, at a service level, of the links between costs and performance and achievement of value for money.

- As part of the One Barnet programme the Council should develop sound contract monitoring arrangements with third party providers.

- The Council should ensure that it is consistent in its approach to evaluating procurement options.

- The Council should follow a systematic approach to options appraisals, which includes being specific about benefits/outcomes expected and their measurement.

- The Council's Risk Management Strategy should be revised to include tolerance levels to assist officers in making important decisions, particularly around One Barnet.

- The Capital Assets Property Management Strategy (CAPS) should be reviewed to emphasise the focus on partnerships that is apparent within the One Barnet programme.

- Once the Council has robust fit-for-purpose data for its workforce it should develop a workforce strategy which links in with how One Barnet is to be delivered.

- There should be a focus on equipping senior managers with the necessary change management skills to ensure that the One Barnet is successful.

Some of these comments are a damning indictment of the process being used to push through the One Barnet proposals. Frankly I am staggered that at this stage these sorts of risks are being identified - although the GT report does seem to suggest that the council doesn't understand risk management when they say, "there is evidence to suggest that risk management is not widely understood within the Council." Loss of credibility in the One Barnet programme is escalating. Very soon I think a point will be reached when the programme must be temporarily halted to allow a root and branch review of how the whole scheme is being managed.