Friday 15 March 2019

Two Meetings, Some Shocking Discoveries.

Set out below are a few things I learnt at the two Barnet Committee meetings I attended this week. You may find them surprising/shocking.

  • Barnet are moving to brand new offices in Colindale in June but they haven't agreed an exit to the lease at Barnet House which will cost £63,000 a month for the next 156 months,  so we risk leaving the building empty for the next 13 years at a cost of £9.8 million, and that was always in the business case.
  • Barnet are in dispute with the builder of the new Colindale offices and the sum involved is large enough to impact the capital budget - we aren't allowed to know what the exact sum is but my guest would be somewhere around an extra £5+m.
  • Where housing benefit was accidentally overpaid, Capita are allowed to keep an extra £340,000 of the money recovered.
  • Barnet agree with me that they had provided some incorrect figures to Policy & Resources Committee on the FTE headcount of agency staff  - Barnet showed it declining whereas it had actually risen significantly in the last three months. 
  • It is okay to say there is an upward trend in user satisfaction even though the figures have got significantly worse in the last 12 months.
  • If Capita have a large number of vacant posts for services they provide to Barnet we still get charged the same price  - because we only measure outputs and Capita will get penalised (but not as much as they save in salary costs?).
  • We still haven't got a clear picture of all the agency staff costs.
  • East Barnet Library will be turned into a Families Hub for the east of the borough when the library is relocated to the new leisure centre in Victoria Recreation Ground.
  • Barnet surveyed 1.5% of households to understand how many bins they had to collect and subsequently found the small sample wasn't a reflection of the true numbers of bins.
  • Even though for years drivers have been unable to get the large refuse vehicles into restricted access routes they thought they would give it another go - and it failed.
  • Drivers weren't members of the project team that planned the round changes.
  • The new area based collection service means that a significant amount of time is spent getting from the Harrow depot to the point where they actually start collection refuse.

  • They couldn't procure a critical IT system to help with the rounds reorganisation because they left it too late before commencing the procurement process to comply with EU procedure - even though the issue had been known about for 3 years.
  • A significant amount of management time was diverted from services like street cleansing to deal with the new refuse collection rounds.
  • Even though the number of rounds reduced from 41 to 38  Barnet had to hire an additional nine (9) refuse trucks at a cost of £1000/week each and purchased 4 new trucks at a cost of £741,700 +VAT.
  • The new green waste collection round mean staff have to collect an average of 1917 bins per shift.
  • As recently as last week only 28% of rounds on a Monday were completed within an 8 hour shift and over the week 30 rounds took more than 10 hours to complete

  • 17 estates had their twice weekly collections cut to once a week. Discussions have now taken place with managing agents and areas are being identified to store additional bins on the estates.
  • There is no clear definitive comparison between what the refuse service cost before the changes and since the changes so we don't know if they have saved any money.
  • The refuse service is currently forecast to be £1.75 million over budget.
  • Recycling rates are down.

The two meetings left me with no confidence in the operation of the Council and the ability to achieve cost savings. Next financial year - starting in 2 week's time - Barnet has to make £20 million of savings and we will still need to draw down £5.3 million from reserves. I remain concerned that without an accurate picture of how much we are spending on things like agency staff and the refuse reorganisation there is a very real chance the savings won't be achieved.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Barnet Bingate - My questions on what happened

On Thursday Barnet's Environment Committee will discuss the review of the Bin Round Changes that took place in November. Click here to read the full report. Set below are the questions I have submitted which I hope will probe a little deeper into what led to the problems and why the service is now £1.75 million over budget.


Preparation Stage:
  • Why wasn’t a survey of the number of bins collected from households carried out before the rounds were finalised and has it now been completed?
  • The report acknowledges there was over confidence in drivers abilities to access challenging roads. Was a representative of the drivers invited to test drive the new larger vehicles before they were purchased?
  • Was the purchase of wider longer vehicles included in the risk assessment and if so, what was the finding and how was the risk mitigated?
  • I understand from industry experts from outside Barnet that one of the downsides of route planning software is that it does not always pick up road anomalies and as such should always be validated by staff with a detailed route knowledge to “sense check” them. How many of the routes were “sense checked”  by experienced staff before they were introduced and how many were amended following that sense checking?
  • Does the route planning software easily accommodate manual amendments to the proposed routes?
  • Given that some roads may have 6 or more sections, as highlighted at 4.3 in the report, on how many occasions does the route planning software schedule two or more different refuse vehicles, two or more recycling vehicles and two or more green waste vehicles in the same road on the same day, what is the maximum number of different vehicles that have been scheduled for collections in the same road in a single day?
  • Can you confirm that the area based collection strategy means that, for example, on a Monday, refuse vehicles based in Harrow would have to travel to the East of the borough before they start work and return to Harrow at the end of their shift and that on a Friday, for example, vehicles based at Oakleigh Road would have to travel to the West of the borough before they start collecting and return to Oakleigh Road at the end of their shift and how much of their shift is spent travelling from one side of the borough not collecting rubbish?
  • Did anyone calculate the mileage, travel time and fuel costs associated with the area based collection strategy and if so what is the additional mileage, travel time and fuel cost compared to the old collections rounds?
  • Can you clarify  if, prior to the route change, drivers only had to have a knowledge of roads in the half of the borough where they were based whereas now they have to have a knowledge of roads all across the borough?
  • Can you clarify if any members of the frontline staff, such as drivers, were members of the project team?
  • The report notes that from 27 August frontline staff were invited to take part in structured review sessions. How many staff were invited, how many sessions were held and how many frontline staff attended?
  • On page 36 the report states that Street Scene is in the process of procuring a fully integrated IT system. What is the cost of this and why wasn’t it procured before the round changes were made?
  • The calculation of total staff numbers in figure 13 do not add up. Please can you clarify what are the correct figures?
  • It appears that the number of core staff have reduced by approximately 15 since October (core LBB staffing has reduced by approximately 600 hours per week). Was the reduction due to increased sickness, staff made redundant or did they leave and if they did leave what did their exit interviews identify as the reason for leaving?
  • Of the 7,117 of agency staff hours worked in January, what was the split between drivers and loaders?
  • The cost of LBB staff per hour appears to peak in January. Is that linked to bonus payments to incentivise staff to work over the Christmas/New Year period and how much was paid in incentive bonuses to LBB staff?
  • In October, before the changes, LBB staff additional hours were approximately 17% of core hours but by December that had risen to approximately 27% of core hours. What impact did such a high level of overtime in November and December have on staff  and did it result in the increased level of sickness/unauthorised absence?
  • What check were made at the time to ensure drivers did not exceed maximum driving hours and has a review taken place of all tachograph charts/written records to audit those checks?
  • How many hours of other street scene staff were diverted from, for example, street cleaning duties, to refuse collection and has this had a detrimental effect on the standard of street cleanliness?
  • Is the plan to keep the high proportion of agency staff or is it the intension to recruit permanent staff to phase out the majority of agency staff?
  • Given that in the UK over the last 5 years 39 waste workers have been killed mostly by being hit by moving vehicles or machinery, and that as recently as December a refuse worker in Northholt was killed, what safety training is provided to agency staff and permanent staff and has a risk assessment been carried out on the model of using such a high proportion of agency staff?
  • How many rounds were in operation before the changes and how many rounds are there now split between general waste, recycling and garden waste?
  • What is the average number of collections for each of the garden waste rounds?
  • How many of the new rounds are completed within a standard 8 hour shift and how many rounds need additional overtime or agency staff assistance to complete?
  • Can you clarify if situations arise where the vehicle driver is based in one depot but the loaders for that vehicle are based in the other depot?
  • Can you clarify who is now collecting waste from residential properties above shops, household waste teams or trade waste teams, and what have been the operational implications of the changes?
  • Of the 10 additional refuse vehicles on hire each week how many are to replace broken down vehicles and how many are to provide additional capacity on rounds?
  • In addition to the vehicles on hire, how many refuse vehicles have been purchased and what was the cost?
  • How often are general waste vehicles left full overnight and what impact does that have on start time of rounds the next morning?
  • Is green waste held at the Oakleigh Road depot overnight and how often is it sent to Edmonton?
  • How often is recycling waste held in the bulking areas at the Oakleigh Road Depot overnight, and is this a fire risk?
  • How many LBB shunt vehicles are used to transfer waste from Oakleigh Road to Edmonton and has this been reduced/outsourced since the new round changes?
  • In January you were operating an afternoon crew working between 2pm – 9pm at the Oakleigh Road Depot. Is that shift still operating and is it a permanent component of the collection service?
  • How many accident/damages claims have been made since the new larger vehicles were introduced and how does that compared to the number of claims made before the new vehicles were introduced?
  • On how many estates have you cut the number of collections from twice weekly to once a week and how much has that saved?
  • If you are now rebalancing Monday and potentially Tuesday and collection rounds are moved to new days, how will this affect area based working?
  • The report identifies that there were only 225 formal complaints in the three months November, December and January yet during that time there were over 16,000 reported missed bin collections. Many residents reported that they simply couldn’t get through the switchboard. Why did the publicity material not contain a designated hotline number and why was the customer service response so poor?
  • Has the on-going problem with subsidence at the Oakleigh Road Depot impacted on the efficiency of the operation such as restricting vehicle movements or parking within the depot and when will the subsistence problems be resolved?
  • Given that space at the Oakleigh Rd depot is very restricted, how have the additional purchased and hired vehicles been managed in terms of parking, does it reduce the efficiency of the depot and was an appropriate risk assessment completed to ensure the movement of so many vehicles in such a tight space was carried out safely?
  • Please provide a clear summary of the weekly cost of general, recycling and garden waste collections before the changes and the costs after the changes including the additional vehicle hire, additional fuel costs so that we can understand how much the new changes have saved/cost?
  • Period 10 to end of year forecast for the Waste and Recycling Front Line budget indicates it will be £1.75 million overspent. Given that any changes of this scale are recognised within the waste management industry as taking between three and six months for full business as usual, why wasn’t this period of disruption and associated costs not built into the budget?
  • Have you re-forecast the budget for 2019/20 to reflect the problems of implementing the new changes and what is the impact on the MTFS?

Sunday 10 March 2019

Questions for the Financial Performance & Contracts Committee

How would feel knowing that the outsourced company responsible for managing Highways repairs and maintenance has 25% of posts vacant and are struggling to recruit? Is that why the highways in Barnet are so poor?  We still don't have clarity on agency staff costs and appears to have some very expensive interim staff on six figure salaries. The Council's relocation to the brand new office block in Colindale is late and they are in dispute with the contractor over costs. How much will this new building cost and how easy will it be to get to the new offices if you live in the East of the borough? Just some of the topics on which I have asked questions. As ever, I will have to wait and see if I get straight and direct answers to my questions.

  1. 1.2 says that a £3.685m contribution to reserves from the Capita contract settlement. What happened to the other £0.435 million that formed part of the settlement, when was it paid and where is the record of the payment given that it is not shown as a credit in the monthly expenditure figures?  
  2. What was the reason for the underspend of the forecast NLWA levy?
  3. At 1.9 the report states that the average interest rate for the £304.08m of long term debt is 3.86%. How much of the long term debt is in Lender Option Borrower Option (LOBO) loans, what is the interest rate on those LOBO’s and what steps have been taken to follow in Birmingham and other authorities’ footsteps to extricate themselves from LOBO’s and replace them with lower cost PWLB funding at a lower cost?
  4. Re para 2.1.10, please can you explain in more detail why there is presently a backlog in raising invoices for income due to the service and why CSG is a significant debtor which could result in debt write offs being written back to the service?
  5. How much of the £293,000 overspend in HR is due to the high cost of interim agency staff in senior positions and please can you clarify how many agency/interim staff in HR are costing the council more than £100,000 per annum?
  6. Re para 2.1.20 please can you clarify on which specific retained income lines the £1.346m shortfall has occurred?
  7. Can you clarify specifically how the housing benefit overpayments occurred in the first place, are the repayments anticipated or actual, and will the gainshare be paid before or after the repayments have been recouped?
  8. When you say that the misclassification of income between the General Fund and the HRA has been resolved in 2019/20 and going forward, does this mean that the authority will receive this income going forward or that the income has been reclassified so that we definitely know we won’t receive the income?
  9. Can you clarify how you can reconcile Table 2 which shows an overspend on Streetscene of £1.147 million with Table 6 that shows Environment are still on budget to save £1.915 million and does this mean that additional cuts will have to be made from elsewhere in Environment to make up for the overspend on Streetscene?
  10. Given that a significant debtor is Hammerson PLC owing over £1 million, that all of the invoices required more information and that two of these invoices are more  than a year overdue, has all the requested information been provided and what steps will be taken to seek immediate payment?
  11. Given that Barratt have failed to respond on 8 out of 10 invoices with a value of £600,000 what steps are you taking to recover this money immediately?
  12. Why do the agency staff cost figures not tie into the actual staff cost invoices even taking into account when the invoices were paid?
  13. Why does the average cost of employing agency staff vary by so much from month to month especially in Commissioning Group given there is so very little difference in the number of FTE staff employed?
  14. Given that the agency costs do not include interim and agency staff employed outside Matrix contract, can you quantify what the additional spend is through agencies such as Hampton’s Resourcing and Gatenby Sanderson, and what is the headcount for those agencies?
  15. At point 1.11 it lists 8 areas where benefits were built into the new contract. Can you clarify why those benefits were not build into the Comensura contract either from the start or when a new contract was awarded to Comensura in 2016?
  16. How much do you believe these 8 benefits built into the new contract will save Barnet per annum?
  17. The report fails to identify why recruitment and retention is a problem. What has Re done to understand the causes of the problem, for example have Re undertaken Barnet staff satisfaction surveys, how many exit interviews have been carried out and what were the findings, is it a morale problem, is it a pay and benefits problem? Without knowing what is the cause of the problem how can any mitigation proposals have any chance of success?
  18. Will the lower salary and pension costs arising from so many vacancies be reflected in lower charges made by Re to Barnet?
  19. At 1.35 the report states “Capita has not hit the targets for satisfaction, but there have been incremental improvements in most areas”. However, the report identifies that in 7 out of 10 satisfaction criteria the performance/direction of travel has actually worsened since last year. As such how can the statement “incremental improvements in most areas” be true?
  20. Given that none of the satisfaction KPIs have been met since contract commencement 5 years ago can you please explain what is the point of having KPI’s and what signal does this send to Capita about prolonged non compliance?
  21. Seven different bus routes stop in close proximity to Barnet House and the Northern Line stop at Totteridge & Whetstone 5 minute’s walk from Barnet House make it very accessible to residents. How accessible will the new offices at Colindale be to residents in the East of the borough who have housing queries or want to inspect a planning application in person?
  22. After June 2020 where will the family services in the be located in the East of the Borough and what reassurances can you give that funding for a permanent East Hub will be allocated?
  23. Given that last week I was told that an exit from the Barnet House lease had not yet been agreed, why wasn’t this identified as a risk in the report at section 1.16.7 and what is the scale of the financial risk – i.e. how many months will we have to keep paying rent for Barnet House once it has been vacated?
  24. What is the scale of the financial risk of not being able to vacate NLBP4 by June 2019?
  25. Have you carried out any staff surveys to understand how many staff feel about the move to Colindale, how many staff will find the move difficult in terms of travelling/commuting and what estimates have been made on change in staff retention as a result of the move?
  26. Please can you clarify when (i.e. June 2019) you will have certainty on the scale of the financial risk of the contractual dispute with the building contractor so that it can be incorporated into the budget?