Tuesday 20 May 2014

Two days till the voters decide - It's all about the money

In the run up to the elections on the Thursday I thought I would revisit so of the key issues that have cropped up over the last four years. Today I want to focus on the issue of money and in particular how Barnet have spent our money.

As readers may be aware, I pay close attention to the supplier payments over £500 which the council are required to produce by law every month. Over the last four years this has been a source of very valuable data and an insight into how the council operates. Back in 2010 I raised the issue about the cost of supplying councillors with new and very expensive tablet computers which with all the add ons cost £1600 each - entirely unnecessary for the activities of 99% of councillors - but deemed easier to have the same posh tablet computers than buy cheaper ones. This is because the Council had already purchased 2450 of these tablet computers for staff to be able to work from home overlooking that fact that many of the basic desktop computers used by staff every day were out of date and inadequate for the job they were supposed to do.

I also managed to ascertain that the council spent £22 million on a computer system that was originally budgeted to cost £2.5 million (the costs continued to rise after my blog post in 2011). It demonstrated how the council had started with a modest but entirely functional idea but after listening to consultants and being driven by the supplier had ended up with an incredibly complex and expensive system that actually didn't give the council a lot of the functionality is actually needed. This was a very clear early warning sign of the risk that the One Barnet project might follow exactly the same course.

Over the last four years the council have spent a fortune on temporary staff and consultants and which the council have done their best to keep secret from the Bloggers. For a number of years the council have employed senior officers on longer term contracts as consultants paying them up to £1,000 a day, a strategy which in my view is both excessively profligate and leaves the council with a lack of continuity when their contracts expire. In 2013 I blogged about the excessively high salaries of people at just one meeting where I totted up their salaries of just 8 people amounted to over £1 million. Now with such highly paid talent in the council's senior management team you would not have thought there would be a need for more consultants. But that's where you would be mistaken.

When Barnet embarked upon the One Barnet outsourcing programme they brought in a firm of consultants, Agilysis and iMPOWER to act as the council's "Implementation Partner". At the time I raised concerns about how they had been selected and the budget for their fees. Following the submission of a Freedom of Information request by the Barnet Bugle it was disclosed the budget for these consultants was "circa" £2 million. In reality this firm has billed Barnet over £8 million in fees. When I challenged the Council's external auditors on this and the fact that councillors had only approved a budget of £2 million I was told that because officers had used the word "circa" it meant no upper limit had been set and any amount of money could be spent without reference back to councillors. That was the day I lost all confidence in the council's auditors to protect the interests of council tax payers.

There have been many other examples of waste over the last four years such as spending £27 million replacing perfectly sound street lights with new brighter lights only to spend a further £4 million on a glorified dimmer switch to save electricity.

More recently has been the massive spend on the new blue bin recycling system. I am the first person to want greater levels of recycling but the council have achieved higher levels by flinging vast amounts of money at the problem. First of all they spent £3.7 million on new bins and having them delivered (they did get a small rebate due to the problems with delivery). the council then spent £150,000 on adverts about the new bin system and a similar amount on doorstep staff to go round and ask people if they had any questions about the recycling system. The council then bought a new fleet of recycling bin lorries at a cost of £7.3 million. So all up the council spent approximately £11.3 million on the new recycling system. I did discuss this with senior officers at the council who said they had no alternative as they were bringing the recycling contract back in house. I had a different perspective. We had a good recycling system already in place. Kerbside sorting generate high quality recycled material but not enough people were using the system. I would have spent some of the money on a pilot study trying to educate and encourage more residents into recycling - to see how that worked first rather than just splurge money. As it happens recycling rates have gone up but so has the charge made by the North London Waste Authority to sort the waste. In fact it has gone up by over £1 million a year.

Then we come on to the waste associated with the entire parking mess. We started with pay & display meters which took cash and which residents wanted. Cllr Coleman decided that the way to go was to pay a company (without a contract) £80,000 to take out 408 working parking meters  (a further 43 meters were taken out separately). Two years on and the council spent £200,000 to install 50 new meters capable of taking debit & credit cards. A complete and utter waste.

There are many many more examples of waste from a council that is supposed to be on a "relentless drive for efficiency".

When candidates come knocking on your door asking for your vote ask them how they will spend your money and what they will do to eliminate financial waste.


  1. Ask them what we got for the £16.1m paid for Information technology last October

  2. We can ask, but as we know from experience, receiving a relevant or informative response is unlikely.