David Lee

Jobs for the Boys?

An evening at Shute End

Last night, I took a trip to an extraordinary meeting of the Oversight and Scrutiny Management Committee, at Wokingham Borough Council. I know it sounds like a fun day out for a local politics anorak — and being just such an anorak, it was a fascinating excursion!

A little background: the meeting was called to deal with the council executive’s decision to pay an extra £6,000 per year allowance to councillors chosen to serve as Non-Executive Directors of the new wholly-0wned companies that have been set up to manage certain council services. There are three of them: Optalis, to manage adult social care; Wokingham Enterprises Limited, to manage the fabled town centre regeneration; and Wokingham Housing Limited, to provide affordable houses.

Now, without wishing to go into too much detail on the companies themselves (though I have serious reservations about profiteering out of social care and vulnerable people who need a home), the issue was that the council had previously said these roles would not be paid, and the change had been sprung on councillors with zero notice. There was a very worrysome appearance of “jobs for the boys”.

The debate was fascinating. Particularly the cross-examination of council leader David Lee. He didn’t seem at all happy about being challenged in committee, but his position was that if you want the best people to fill these roles then you have to pay them. Which isn’t an altogether unreasonable stance, but it didn’t explain why local government officers (council employees) were paid no extra to perform the same functions, which were outside of their job.

One of my favourite exchanges, between Cllr Lee and Lib Dem leader Prue Bray, was as follow:

Cllr Bray: “Is it not true that the companies have indemnity insurance for directors?

Cllr Lee: “You can’t indemnify against criminality.

Cllr Bray: “Surely we wouldn’t want to pay councillors to commit criminal acts either?

Cllr Lee’s back was towards the public gallery, but I am told the expression on his face was priceless. I can quite imagine.

When it was put to a vote, the result was not a surprise. The committee, with a majority of Tory members, approved the decision of the executive. Beyond this, there was some discussion of the process used, and in future referring the amount to an independent remuneration committee.

So the result was as expected. But it was the body language and reaction of the Conservative councillors which was the more interesting part. For the most part, they were either scared or enraptured of Cllr Lee. There were a few, whose modesty to save I shall not name, who seemed deeply uncomfortable with the process and the idea of payment for such roles. Which I can understand — after all, if the Big Society is about people volunteering in the community, how does this gel with it.

But it is Cllr Ian Pittock whose response most intrigues me. Whilst his peers were either scared or eager for a pat on the head, he was not. He was the only Tory to vote against the council executive, and he actually challenged Cllr Lee. There was one remarkable part where, David Lee all but came out and threatened Cllr Pittock directly.

As we all left the committee room, at 10pm in the evening, someone commented to me that “He’ll be in the shit tomorrow!“. And he probably will. But the best part: he just doesn’t care.

I’m rather impressed.

Wokingham Borough Council’s Cabinet Reshuffle

Wokingham’s cabinet reshuffle has seen Cllr Angus Ross (right) take over responsibility for the controversial waste collection scheme from Cllr Gary Cowan (left).

With the “unfair” election behind him and, despite his belief that voters were mean to him, his overwhelming majority intact, Wokingham’s Tory council leader David Lee has reshuffled his top team. This is presumably a search for a little inspiration, following the last lot’s sparkling success in alienating vast chunks of the populace.

The most notable change is the jettisoning of two of the executives who were arguably the most damaged: Cllrs Gary Cowan and UllaKarin Clark.

Cllr Cowan’s performance regarding the new waste system was something of an unmitigated disaster. From day one the scheme was clearly flawed, and when those flaws became clear he alternated between joining his fellow cabinet members in the bunker, and giving disastrous interviews on BBC Radio Berkshire’s Andrew Peach show. I can’t decide which was my personal favourite moment: his 9m long bin bags, or his insistence that four different sizes of bags all across the borough were the result of a single defective batch.

This one isn’t a surprise for me. The scheme was unpopular and unsuccessful, and Gary was the council’s face of it. Losing two seats might not seem a huge setback, but it will have been a blow to David Lee’s ego. I expect Gary has taken the bulk of the blame, so his absence from the top table is no great surprise.

His replacement is Angus Ross, the former executive member for  planning (I think). I don’t honestly know much about Cllr Ross, he’s not been a particularly high profile member of the executive, so I’ll be interested to see how he performs now he’s been thrust into the spotlight.

The departure of Cllr Clark is, to me, equally unsurprising. Her brief of Internal Services included the library service, and with the announcement of who it’s being sold off to expected pretty imminently, it’s going to become a political hot potato (I say that because I’m going to make it a political hot potato).

I’m sure Cllr Clark is perfectly capable, but her defence of the library privatisation plan has been less than robust. She was the respondant to the petition against the plans, and her conduct was shambolic. She and her colleagues spent the debate chastising those who signed the petition, rather than taking the opportunity to explain, defend and persuade. And when the time came for voting on a motion, she was wholly unprepared and the executive had to write one there on the floor of the chamber.

But it’s the choice of her replacement which is the most interesting part: Hillside’s newly re-elected Cllr Pauline Jorgensen. This just might be the first piece of sound political manoeuvring I’ve seen on David Lee’s part, and an excellent choice. Cllr Jorgensen is sharp, keen and will make my job significantly harder. I know this because I’ve already had many debates and discussions with her on Twitter. I disagree with the vast majority of her policy positions, but I won’t deny that she’s very capable, and I hope she’ll raise the quality of debate in the chamber.

In other news, Cllr Keith Baker has added planning to his pre-existing highways brief, so please direct all planning permission complaints thither. Given that Cllr Baker is one of the highest profile executive members, readers might wonder at the consolidation of roles in his portfolio, but I would imagine David Lee decided that he needed someone who would be able to defend the building of 13,000 new homes by 2026.

Newcomer to the executive Cllr Alisatir Corrie takes on Matt Deegan’s brief for the regeneration, after Matt stood down in May, and Cllr Charlotte Haitham-Taylor has taken over on Children’s Services from Rob Stanton, who remains deputy leader. The cabinet in full is as follows:

Council Leader – Cllr David Lee (Norreys)

Deputy Leader – Cllr Rob Stanton (Finchampstead North)

Highways and Planning – Cllr Keith Baker (Coronation)

Finance – Cllr Anthony Pollock (Shinfield South)

Health and Wellbeing – Cllr Julian McGhee-Sumner (Wescott)

Internal Services – Cllr Pauline Jorgensen (Hillside)

Regeneration and Affordable Houses – Cllr Alistair Corrie (Evendons)

Evironment – Cllr Angus Ross (Wokingham Without)

Children’s Services – Cllr Charlotte Haitham-Taylor (Shinfield South)

Arrogance and Sour Grapes

Cllr David Lee: “It’s so unfair!”

I was expecting (and, I believe, even predicted) that we would have to endure some mad post-election nonsense from Wokingham Conservatives. But I’d expected the announcement of a policy that had gone utterly unmentioned throughout the campaign, and on Monday.

I suppose that’s still a possibility, but I hadn’t expected council leader David Lee to immediately start talking utter rubbish to the press. That probably shows that I should reassess my standards. Anyway, as soon as the results were in,  the Tory group leader was saying this to the Wokingham Times:

I’m a bit down because I think it would be difficult to do any more than we have done. We have definitely suffered a but from the whole waste thing. In all honesty, I think it’s rather unfair. We could’ve just done nothing, which is what a lot of people seem to think, and hike up the council tax.

It’s unfair, he says. I don’t know about you, but I read that in the voice of Kevin the Teenager (from Harry Enfield’s Kevin and Perry sketches).

All through the local election campaign, I was saying that the Conservatives were out of touch with ordinary people. I was saying that they didn’t understand, and worse didn’t care, about what the council was doing wrong. The Conservatives continually maintained that I was wrong, but I hadn’t expected their boss to go and out prove my point so spectacularly comprehensively immediately after the election was done.

Let’s just recap. The Conservatives lost two seats in Wokingham in the elections, one in Charvil and one in Winnersh. They still have a majority of 16 on the council. It was not the mass rejection of Tory councillors I had been hoping for, but I reckon Cllr Lee knows his party was largely saved by an abysmal turnout.

But the arrogance of refusing to admit that the council did, or could have done, anything wrong was something I hadn’t anticipated at all. Call me naive, perhaps.

Just for contrast, at the adjudication of questionable ballots for Remenham Wargrave and Ruscombe yesterday, one voter had placed a tick in the box for sitting Tory councillor John Halsall, along with the comment “Could do better“. John’s response was to nod sagely, and admit “That’s true.

David Lee thinks that there was nothing else he and his colleagues could have done. He quotes the council tax freeze, but still won’t admit the stealth taxes that many residents quickly rumbled him on. He seems to think that the new scheme is entirely fit for purpose, and presumably that the execution could have been better.

But he misses the main problem with the waste scheme: he didn’t ask anyone in Wokingham what they thought before he launched it. People don’t like being taken for idiots, and that’s exactly what David Lee has been doing. That is why he lost two seats, and that is why he was lucky not to lose more.

David thinks it’s unfair. Well, I agree. I agree: it’s incredibly unfair that Wokingham doesn’t have someone more humble, someone willing to listen and improve, and in short someone more worthy to lead it than him.

Five reasons not to vote Conservative today (or why Eric Pickles is wrong)

Nope, sorry Eric! Wrong on all five counts!

I wasn’t going to do any more election blogging, but when I saw Eric Pickles “5 Reasons to vote Conservative today” post on ConservativeHome, I just couldn’t help myself. Here are each of Eric’s points in turn, why he is wrong, and why you shouldn’t vote Conservative in the borough of Wokingham today.

1) Conservatives deliver better quality, better value local services… More Conservative councils have frozen council tax this year than Labour councils.

Yes, Wokingham have frozen council tax. But that freeze was made possible by a one-off grant from central government. This will almost certainly not be repeated next year, which means that council tax will have to go up by at least 2.5%- just for funding to stay at the same level.

And that’s even before we get to the massive stealth tax that the council introduced under the guise of a new rubbish scheme.

2) Conservative councils have been at the forefront of the transparency agenda, opening up their books and finances to public scrutiny.

Transparency my foot. Do you remember the budget? Do you remember how the council executive only released it the statutory week before the vote, whereas other authorities had released it months earlier for scrutiny by residents and opposition parties? And maybe you remember that it was simply voted through, with a minimum of debate, and no opportunity for proper examination.

Judging from this, the Conservatives were going all out to make sure there was no public scrutiny of how they were spending public money.

3) Councils account for a quarter of all public spending, and need to do their bit to help pay off Labour’s deficit.

This doesn’t play too well next to council leader Cllr David Lee’s near-constant bleatings about being the worst funded council in the country. If we’re supposed to be cutting back even harder, why does he always seem to be begging for more money? Also, the notion of there being no money left sits ill next to Eric Pickles’ slush funds for weekly bin collections and short-term tax giveaways- all of which seem calculated to give the Tories something to crow about at election time, having achieved nothing all year long.

Don’t believe the lies.

4) Conservative councils are cutting municipal non-jobs like town hall ‘pilgrims’ and waste like town hall pravadas.

I’m not sure who exactly Wokingham have been cutting, but they don’t seem to have been left with a particularly brilliant crop. The local government officers in charge of the bins, in particular, don’t seem to have covered themselves in glory of late.

And as for these “town hall pravadas” (I can only presume he means “pravda”, a reference to the newspaper of the Soviet Union), one of the biggest complaints about the new rubbish scheme was that nobody knew it was coming. People didn’t know there was a new scheme, and they didn’t know their collection day had changed.

I guess we can thank the Tories for that, then.

5) This Government is devolving significant new powers to local councils…Conservatives can be trusted to use these powers well.

You’ve got to be kidding me? Trust them? I don’t trust them with the powers they’ve got at the moment. So far, Wokingham Conservatives have:

  • Introduced a completely unworkable bin scheme as a cover for a stealth tax.
  • Launched a plan to sell off the libraries, without asking anyone.
  • Closed all of the public toilets in the borough.
  • Threatened to close and sell off care homes.
  • Wasted £90,000 on a PR exercise, and God knows how much in the end on the regeneration of Wokingham Town Centre.
  • Ignored the views of residents at every turn.

Would you trust them with more power. I wouldn’t.

Please, don’t vote Conservative today. Send a message that Wokingham deserves better, that it deserves a council that will listen to it, and act in its best interests.

Wokingham BC – Still Missing the Point

Wokingham residents: please check your new bin bags for any council executive members that may be hiding out inside!

Four days ago, I posted the results of my Freedom of Information request to Wokingham Borough Council. It revealed two things.

Firstly, the scheme is- in all likelihood- illegal, as the council is charging residents more than simply the base cost of the bags for extras, which the DCLG and Defra think is unlawful. Also, if people just put their rubbish out in any old bags, the council seems obligated to collect it anyway under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Secondly, the bags cost the council either 4 or 7p each, for which they are charging 40p each. Of this price, a staggering 60-70% is put down to administrative overheads. So either someone is lying, and the price is actually subsidising the collection service, or there is some terrific wasting of local taxpayers’ money going on.

I posted this on Thursday, four days ago, with a clear challenge to the council. I wanted a political leader from the council to respond. Mr Baveystock, the local government officer in charge of waste collection, has responded admirably defending this sinking scheme, but the Tory executive whose idea it was seem to have gone disgracefully to ground. This despite that even the Wokingham Times are now reporting residents’ concerns that it’s a stealth tax.

(Actually, I say I have had no response, but I have had this on twitter. It is from a new account, with no followers, five follows, and this being its only tweet to date:

Somebody is extremely bad at this, and I expect some sort of connection to the local Tories, as they seem the only people willing to defend the scheme. I’m sure that those Wokingham Conservatives who can actually use social media will be as embarrassed at this as I am. Incidentally, I called this mysterious tweeter out to debate with me properly, but have had no response.)

But as if their deafening silence weren’t enough, I was forwarded something interesting over the weekend: correspondence on the subject between a resident and their local councillor on the matter. The resident shall remain nameless, for their protection, and for the time being so shall the councillor. I shall say only that he is a he, he is Conservative, and he is not up for re-election this May.

Two things (primarily) grabbed my interest in this correspondence. The first deviates a little from the core issue of the bin bags, but I’ll explain the relevance in a moment:

“…as a council tax payer myself I am delighted that the Conservative run Wokingham Borough is pegging my council tax for the second year running.  I am, however, less pleased at Wokingham Without Parish Council increasing their parish precept.”

I predicted, back when all of this began, that the council tax freeze would be the shield behind which the Conservatives would hide. It’s an emotional issue, and one which the Tories use to distract from what they are actually doing (in this case, instituting a stealth tax and reducing service quality). I have also explained why accepting the government’s grant to freeze council tax may well be false economy, and why attacking parish councils for not following suit is unfair, as they get no such similar grant.

Secondly, this:

…the limit is being set by the issue of 80 blue bags per household which is considered adequate, with a reasonable margin, for the average household.  It would be perverse, therefore, to sell additional blue bags at cost so that purchasers could then negate the whole idea of a limit.

The unnamed councillor thinks that the 80 bags is sufficient “with a reasonable margin” for most households. I submit that it is not, and will become increasingly apparent that it is not as the year rolls on. He also thinks that it would be perverse to charge the cost price, as it would negate the waste reduction aspect. The problems with this are that, as I have said above the DCLG don’t agree with him, and I don’t think it will greatly reduce landfill- only increase expensive fly-tipping. It might be a bit different if the recycling program was more comprehensive (by which I mean accepting a greater range of materials, not just the weekly collection the council have instituted).

The overwhelming impression I got from the correspondence was just a complete lack of interest from the councillor, towards a (formerly) Conservative-voting resident extremely angry over this scheme. I highlighted earlier that the councillor isn’t up for re-election this year. If anyone has any correspondence on the matter from one who is standing in May, I’d love to see it for comparison’s sake.

And just to round off, on the theme of the Conservatives’ lack of interest, this is from the council’s own FAQ on the new scheme (irritatingly, you have to download the PDF if you want to read it):

Was there a public consultation?

No, whilst we have carried out an extensive information campaign, we did not feel it necessary to consult on the services as the basic service for waste and recycling collection won’t change for the vast majority of residents as they don’t exceed 80 bags.

An unwillingness to consult with the public has characterised the council’s leadership, on such matters as the library privatisation (which was announced after the last election, and not consulted on at any stage), and the budget (which was only released a week before it was debated, and featured some rather disparaging statements from council leader David Lee about getting public opinion on it).

So this issue is still very much alive and aflame. And the council are keeping their silence. Does anyone else feel a little insulted by this?

Wokingham Bin Bags – the Astounding Truth

Yesterday I did another blog about the unbelievably flawed waste disposal scheme that Wokingham Borough Council are attempting to roll out. I hadn’t expected to be doing another one quite so soon, but it just goes to show that you cannot predict how things are going to progress.

Just to recap, so that you can get the full impact of my latest discovery, the new plan splits waste disposal into three schemes:

  1. The recycling scheme: a weekly collection of black bins, free, from which they will recycle a selection of materials. There’s not much objection to this, bar that they could recycle a bigger range of materials, and the reward scheme seems a bit ill thought out. Generally, everyone seems to agree that recycling is good.
  2. The green waste scheme: an opt in scheme, where residents can pay £60 for a bin (the picture seems to indicate that it’s brown) or £1 each for “75-litre compostable sacks”. The collections are fortnightly, and it’s for garden waste. The chief objection to this is that it introduces a charge for a previously free service, which is understandably unpopular. It is, however, legal.
  3. The general waste scheme: the borough are required by law, under s45(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to remove household waste, but the new scheme limits each household to 80 bags per year. Designated bags must be used, and more can be purchased at 40p each as required. The objections to this are manifold, but include: it’s a stealth tax; 80 bags isn’t enough; the bags are terrible quality; they’ve just been left on doorsteps and are being stolen; and my personal favourite, that it’s illegal.

The illegality argument revolves around charging for extra bags. A letter to local authorities from the Department of Communities and Local Government, in response to concerns raised by DEFRA, had this to say on the matter:

“If your Council sets a limit on the number of bins or sacks that will be collected from a single property, but allows householders to purchase additional waste receptacles, you may only charge for the cost of providing the receptacle…”

Which seems pretty clear and unequivocal, doesn’t it? The council may charge for extra bags, but only for the cost of the bags themselves. They cannot use it to subsidise the collection services that they are legally obliged to provide. So the whole matter of legality hinges upon the cost of the bags- how much did the council pay for them? On BBC Radio Berkshire yesterday, Cllr Gary Cowan, executive member for environment, claimed that he didn’t know how much they cost.

I thought this was a bit unbelievable. Cllr Cowan didn’t sound very believable and you would expect the councillor with responsibility for the scheme, going on the radio to talk about it, to know that sort of thing. So I emailed a Freedom of Information request to the council this morning, saying:

“Please could you tell me how much the blue bin bags for the new waste collection service cost the council, per bag?”

The council have 20 working days to respond to my question, but to their credit they responded this afternoon. I’m going to put a screengrab of the email response I received below, just so I can’t be accused of misquoting:

Wokingham waste and recycling manager Mr Peter Baveystock's response to my FOI request asking how much the blue bin bags cost the council.

Mr Baveystock, the local government officer in charge of waste collection, says that the council paid 4p per bag. They are selling them at 40p. That is a mark up of 1000%, and a profit of 90% on the price that the council are selling it at. That is very definitely more than the cost value of the bags, and explains perfectly why Cllr Cowan couldn’t answer Andrew Peach about the cost of the bags to the council yesterday.

Someone has to respond to this. Not a local government officer, not some spokesperson. I want a senior member of the council to respond to this- to actually respond to the issues raised here, not just sweep it under the carpet and dismiss all objections. This allegation, that they are pursuing an illegal policy, is serious.

If you live in Wokingham and you’re as appalled at the council’s behaviour on this as I am, please write to your local councillor, to Cllr Gary Cowan, or to the council leader Cllr David Lee. Answers are needed to this, now.

UPDATE: With many thanks to Richard Greenhill, another campaigner on this issue (not just with Wokingham- this is a more widespread problem) I have a little more detail to add. The 4p price that I was quoted apparently refers to the initial 80 bags distributed to residents. For the paid-for additionals, Richard’s own tireless FOI requests have revealed the breakdown of the cost charged to residents:

£0.063 “bag costs”
£0.075 “administration”
£0.182 “delivery”
£0.080 “VAT”
= £0.400 total (per purchasable sack)

So this means that for the purchased bags, only around 7p of the 40p for each bag is the cost of the bag. The remaining 33p is therefore not. So 82.% of the price that residents pay for these bags is lumped into ill-defined overheads. Even aside from the legality issue (which remains), that’s absurd.

A Smoke and Mirrors Budget

For a document that was supposed to say where local taxpayers' money is going, the budget left a lot of confusion about what is being spent on what.

I’ve spent a while sat here, trying to decide where to start with this recount of last night’s local budget debate. I think I’ll begin with the esteemed John Halsall, councillor for Remenham Wargrave & Ruscombe and my opponent in last July’s (and the coming May’s) election. On his feet, speaking during the debate, Cllr Halsall claimed that this budget was preventing Wokingham from turning into Greece.

That is the sort of night, and the sort of debate, that it was.

The budget passed of course, though with the Conservatives having a majority of 36 (and all of them willing to gush over it like it was the second coming of Christ) you’d be staggered if it hadn’t. The Lib Dems abstained on all but the last vote, which they voted against. Which probably means something grand, but I’ll let them spin it for themselves to be honest.

So what was the most notable thing about this budget?

It wasn’t the that the council’s plans to limit the number of household waste disposal bags to residents, and sell them extras, is probably illegal. It wasn’t Cllr Anthony Pollock (executive member for finance) saying that the council were “right” to keep the public in the dark about the budget. It wasn’t the fact that the Tories demanded to know why nobody had come up with amendments and alternative budgets, despite the budget only being released for a week. It wasn’t the obsession with a short-sighted council tax freeze that will require a 2.5% hike next year just to maintain the same funding level without the one-year central grant. It wasn’t the endless tiresome (and inaccurate) claims that Wokingham is the worst funded local authority in the country.

It wasn’t even the mindblowing revelation that the council makes a frankly embarrassing profit on the green waste bins and bags it will be selling under its new scheme. (Incidentally, the council will be charging £60 for the bins and a previously free service. The bins cost them £25. That’s a profit of 48.3%. Similarly, the bags will be sold for £1 each, but cost the council only  15p each- a profit margin of 85%!)

No, far and away the worst thing was just how much of the local authority finances were not included within it. This is the real danger of the way Wokingham Borough Council has been operating. Over the last few years, many parts of local government in the borough have been spun off into separate and private companies. Adult social care is now handled by Optalis Ltd. Wokingham Enterprise Ltd controls the town centre regeneration.

These bodies don’t appear on the budget in their own right. Why not? And since the plan is still to sell off the library service (which Cllr UllaKarin Clark had the audacity to boast in as she packages up and price-tags it), how will that fare? Will it too disappear off into a black hole of unaccountability?

It is, really, just the same as the games before the budget was released. The Conservative administration believe they have an absolute right to rule, which will never be taken away, and thus there is no need for them to be at all open in their activities. They have failed any openness test, and as Cllr Pollock’s attitude shows up, they don’t care.

Cllr David Lee, leader of the council made some bold promises tonight:

“We will not cut any services, we will not cut our contributions to voluntary services, we will not raise council tax, and we will maintain our reserves.”

The question of the hour, Cllr Lee, would be how? And from everything that I have seen tonight it is a question which seems still to be worryingly unanswered.

But, at least Wokingham isn’t going to turn into Greece. Thank God for that.

The Cult of Council Tax

Here, on Thursday 23rd February, Wokingham Borough Council will vote on the budget for the next year, with embarrassingly little scrutiny or debate

So, a week from the debate where it will be doubtless rubber-stamped with as little debate as possible, Wokingham Borough Council have released their budget for 2012/2013. Make no mistake, this is only because the law forces them to- if they could, the first any of us would see of it would be when it was debated on the floor of the chamber.

I haven’t had a chance to properly scrutinise it- and likely as not I won’t until it’s already been passed- but if you want to have a look, feel free to. The budget itself can be found here (with thanks to RobDennis), and if you see something you don’t like, feel free to tell your (likely-as-not Conservative) councillor(s). You might also want to ask them why only a week has been allowed for resident scrutiny, and the publication of the budget timed so as that by the time the paper version of The Wokingham Times can report on it, it will only be the day before the debate. Just an idea.

So far, the biggest headline has been the frozen council tax- made possible by the grant from central government for that purpose. A cynic might suggest that this is hiding something more unsavoury in the budget. One suspects, however, that Wokingham would have kept it frozen regardless of the grant, given that they have previously frozen it and the glee with which they’re cutting and selling off services.

This is a recurring theme of Conservatives in local government: council tax must be cut or frozen at all costs. And really, only a fool could believe it can be done without cost. There are doubtless efficiency savings that can be made in areas, but on the whole local taxation goes to pay for local services. If the amount of money that local government receives is cut (and a freeze is a cut in real terms, as inflation means a sum one year is not worth the same as the next) then it has less to spend on service provision.

And there are problems too with central government’s scheme to provide grants for councils to freeze council tax. Foremost is that the money is only guaranteed for this year. It’s very unlikely that, with economic and deficit reduction policies failing, the Tory-led coalition will be able to repeat this populist handout. Hence councils who take the money this year to freeze their tax will next year be faced with an increased gap- and have to raise it by twice as much to make up the gap. That council tax freeze will look really good this time next year when residents are facing a huge hike.

Wokingham residents are already seeing hints of things to come as far as that is concerned. Social care and library services being sold off. Charges introduced for different kinds of waste collection. That will only get worse as money gets tighter. What’s more important, shaving a few pounds off your council tax bill, or keeping services flowing and available to all? I suppose that’s the dividing line between parties.

I also find it ironic that this doesn’t actually mean that council tax bills won’t go up. Local authorities make up only a part of the sum, parish council precepts and other charges making up the rest. And, as you might guess, parish councils don’t get a lovely big government grant to make up their losses.

The Conservatives like to paint this as black and white. To them, cutting/freezing council tax is good, and raising it is bad. But local government is there for something, to provide essential services to residents. If funding is cut to the bone then services will suffer, that’s the simple truth that Eric Pickles and David Lee alike seem not to grasp. I’m not advocating council tax rises; I’m simply calling for a more reasoned look at what the money pays for, and what the consequences of a cut could be.

Budget-Making in the Dark

David Lee's arguments why local residents don't need to see his council's plans for their services and taxes holds neither intellectual weight nor sympathy.

Local budgets aren’t usually big news events, despite the fact that they are probably at least as immediately relevant to the lives of the ordinary person as their national equivalents. So most of the time when local authorities set their yearly budgets they are only of interest to those already interested in local politics. Julian Ware-Lane, for example, has posted a bit of a blog on Southend Borough Council’s budget.

For those of you worrying that I’m about to launch into a hugely technical dissection of Wokingham’s proposed budget, fear not. I’m not. I won’t. Why? Because the council are refusing to publish it until the point when the law forces them to. I’m not the only person to write about this, but I feel I have to vent my confusion and outrage at this decision.

Let me start by saying that I’m very much in favour of transparency at all levels of government. You won’t find many (if any) politicians disagreeing with this, but often actions tell a different story. Take Mr Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He very vocally espouses transparency in local government. He also advised local councils to refuse FOI requests on spending.

So to Wokingham. Cllr David Lee, the council leader who featured on this blog not that long ago, has refused calls for openness and consultation, on the grounds that it would “just be a PR exercise”. Sorry, what? Surely that depends on how you respond to the consultation? True enough I expect the Wokingham executive to ignore whatever local residents tell them, but actually coming out and saying it is frankly astounding.

He also says that any consultation would be pointless because the budget is already “cut to the bone”. Now, people might disagree with me on this, but when there is less money around it seems even more important that it is well spent and that allocation of funds is fair and responsible. Cllr Lee’s attempt to back up this argument with another claim about Wokingham’s poor funding (a subject that I’ve already addressed) lends it neither intellectual weight or sympathy. Publishing the budget would allow residents to have a look at it, and to feed back into the process.

In Brighton & Hove, the minority Green Party administration has launched rather a novel “open budget” process, where they published it long ago and invited councillors from all parties to participate. I’m not holding it up as a perfect example- and as Cllr Warren Morgan has told me, it’s become something of a political gimmick whereby the Greens can find popular dissatisfaction with particular measures and change them, whilst remaining vague on detail- but it certainly gives more of an impression of caring what residents think.

And honestly, I think I’d rather that than Wokingham’s secretive, high-handed approach.

This approach, where the decisions are taken by an elite group (the executive) and no heed is taken of the majority (the residents), is pretty typical of the one party junta-style approach in Wokingham. The Tories completely dominate the political scene, as they hold such an entrenched majority that they don’t believe they will ever be electorally challenged- so needn’t fear consequences of decisions they take. There’s some truth in that, but the comments on the aforementioned Wokingham Times article show a certain resident concern about what their taxes are to be spent on.

So there you go. I may, eventually, post some analysis of the Wokingham budget for 2012-2013. But since I won’t see the budget until 16th February, a week before it is debated at a full council meeting, it will neither be soon nor thorough. The decision to wait until the last minute stifles debate and analysis, and shows further that Wokingham Conservatives have nothing but contempt for the public they are meant to be representing.

Who Watches the Watchers?

Cllr David Lee's experience with Standards for England shows up some of the problems, but the response should be reform not abolition.

This week’s Wokingham Times contains on page 2 an article which caught my eye almost immediately: “Council chief in the clear over bullying allegations“. This is the latest development in a rather unhappy episode for Wokingham Borough Council which last month saw the leader, Cllr David Lee, and another councillor were placed under investigation by Standards for England.

At the time no specific allegations were mentioned, so I’m presuming that the “bullying” revelation is as a result of the investigation being dropped. Cllr Lee was, at the time, understandably angry about being accused, and being unaware both who had made the accusation and what it was, and was quoted article as saying:

“I find the whole thing rather offensive to say the least and I think the only good thing in all of this is Standards for England is now being abolished.”

Which, as I said at the time, I felt was a bit strong really. Within local government and politics circles, standards committees are a bit of a touchy subject. They tend to arouse emotion and hyperbole left right and centre. My issue here is that according to the latest article:

“The investigation into Cllr Lee was dropped this month after Standards for England, the national body for upholding the code of conduct for councillors, decided that it could not contribute anything of value to the investigation in the short period of time before it is scrapped on Tuesday, January 31.”

Which worries me a little. I first met Cllr Lee at the vote count for the Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe by-election, and thought it was a nice, polite man. I disagree with him politically, and I wish he’d be a little less combative and engage a little more with the issues at council meetings, but that opinion of him personally hasn’t changed. However, regardless of my, or anyone else’s, opinion of him, the investigation seems to have been stopped less because of his innocence and more because Eric Pickles has scrapped the investigators.

The way it worked was that if a local standards committee didn’t feel that they could adequately investigate an allegation, they would refer it on to Standards for England to investigate but not to adjudicate. That is left to the local standards committee. So although Cllr Lee’s ire was directed at the national body, the allegations must have been such that his fellow councillors saw fit to refer it to them.

The standards committees are flawed.  A group of councillors sit in judgement of one of their own- the opportunity for politics to intrude is too great. Unlike the esteemed Brighton Politics Blogger, who counts this as one of his pet subjects, I don’t think that standards committees should be abolished. True that the electorate have ultimate control, through elections, but they are four years apart.

Most councillors are conscientious public servants, but some will…misbehave, and there must be  recourse for that. I don’t think that councillors should sit in judgement of each other. Maybe local judges? Maybe a jury-style system? I don’t know, but with the effects of the Localism Act soon to be felt we’ll need to decide something soon.