Communications disease Ealing and Northfield Public sector waste

Ealing ramps up communications spending

It is perhaps natural, given the background of Labour council leader Leonora Thompson, that Ealing is currently ramping up its spending on communications. Instead of spending some £40,000 per annum on Around Ealing 4 times a year the whole thing is being upgraded to a monthly, even bi-weekly, publication that will cost almost £600,000 over two years.

To time this upgrade at the start of the year, a few months before local elections on May 4th, leaves the council open to the charge that it is using council spending in a political way.

The council’s plans envisage that the costs incurred will be partially offset by an increase in advertising revenue. The plans foresee advertising revenue rising from £19,500 to £185,000 in year. This raises two questions. Firstly, even the most aggressive private sector operation would be hard pressed to increase sales in this way. Can the council really hope to perform this well? Wishful thinking surely? Secondly, by taking revenue off local press the council will ensure that the papers have less cash to pay journalists’ salaries and we will be the poorer for not having the council held to account by the press.

Apparently £275,500 of this spending is going to be financed from the Response budget. You might think that this money could be re-deployed to fund frontline services rather then being used to puff the council. Using Response as a slush fund to subsidise political advertising is not a council taxpayers’ priority.

Council leader Leonara Thomson obviously thinks that if she spends enough of our money telling us how good Ealing council is we will eventually believe her.

Public sector waste

Camden goldmine

The Evening Standard tonight identifies one sign with a camera in Camden, at the intersection of Laystall Street and Clerkenwell Road, that has netted £759,000 in fines since July 2004. This is a council waste story because you can guarantee that they have not generated £759,000 in cash they can spend in the borough. You can bet they have converted the teeth grinding anger of thousands of London drivers into a few grand of surplus that will get spent on one or two more speed humps.

Public sector waste

Efficient council

The Telegraph highlights a Tory-controlled council, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council, that is proposing to reduce its charge on council taxpayers by 3% in the year ahead.  It can be done and what is more they have been able to protect services too. 

In addition to the article there is a case study at the Centre of Excellence – East website. 

Public sector waste

Regional police mergers will cost £1 billion

The Telegraph today reports that the Government’s scheme to force police forces to merge into 12 regional constabularies will cost £1 billion. Nobody really wants distant, unaccountable regional constabularies, especially if there is such a big bill attached. When the private sector talks about mergers it also talks about cost savings. It seems public sectors mergers cost money. How does that work?

Localism Public sector waste

Councils’ priorities, not ours

In the run up to the end of their financial year councils will be making some hard decisions about budgets for next year.

An article in today’s Telegraph highlights an area that many councils do not prioritise – libraries. 50 libraries to go. Tax payers’ priorities 0, councils’ priorities 1.

Where does the money go? Look at the job pages. On Sunday Surrey County Council advertised for four Strategic Directors. They offered “attractive six figure salaries” for all. At the same time they are proposing to close 6 libraries in the county.

Surrey ad 22-1-2006.jpgThe prominent, quarter page advert in the Sunday Times must have cost £5,000. The recruiter will be looking for fees of 20%, ie £80,000 worth of fees for four posts.

I suspect that Surrey Council Tax Payers would happily give up a Strategic Director for Policy & Performance in return for some libraries. You might imagine that the so-called Chief Executive might think that their job would include policy and performance? 

[See letter in Telegraph next day.]

Communications disease Public sector waste

Government salaries

In recent years the jobs pages have become one of the richest seams for those seeking out examples of how government spending has been getting out of hand. 

Here are a few examples from today’s Sunday Times:

ST MoD 22-1-2006.jpga “substantial six figure” Director of News to lead a 24-strong press team for the Ministry of Defence, when do the numbers in the press team exceed the number of Royal Navy front line ships?

ST Birmingham CC 22-1-2006.jpg£195K to lead Birmingham City Council, I know Birmingham is a big city but Livingstone only gets the equivalent salary of a Cabinet Minister at £134K



ST Surrey CC 22-1-2006.jpgmeanwhile Surrey County Council is looking to give away six figures 4 times over. 

Communications disease Public sector waste

Council puffs itself

Around Ealing January 2006 Front PageLast week Around Ealing, a “new monthly magazine”, from the council hit my doormat.

The purpose of this magazine seems to be blow the council’s own trumpet and bypass local press who will add commentary about real performance and value for money.

Leo ThompsonIt is particularly telling that Leo Thompson, the council’s Labour Leader, can do a piece about the Council’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment by the Audit Commission without mention of the terrible farce of last year’s appeal.

Gazette Front PageI do wish that the Council would stop puffing itself at council taxpayer’s expense and get on with the job of delivering service that we value.

It is a bit smelly that this new initiative coincides with the forthcoming local in elections in May.

Letter in Gazette 27-1-2005.jpg[See letter published in Ealing & Acton Gazette on 27th January.]

Public sector waste

Little people, big burden

Yesterday I attended a licence hearing in the faded grandeur of Hammersmith Town Hall. I had applied for a variation of a premises license under the so called 24 hour drinking laws (otherwise known as the 2003 Licensing Act) and a neighbour had objected triggering a hearing in front of the Licensing Sub-committee.

In the Council Chamber there was the clerk of the Licensing Sub-committee, a representative of the environmental health department, the Police licensing officer, a legal adviser plus an observer, a licensing officer from the council, two councillors, our vexatious complainant and her husband plus myself. Eleven of us gathered at the appointed hour of 4pm on 3rd October. Three of us had had to take the afternoon off work. Six were future index-linked pensioners and two were on allowances increasing in line with civil service pay levels.

The chairman solemnly pointed out that this was a quasi-judicial process and that the matter would be decided on the evidence produced. The site notice emerged as the first and ultimately only issue. My vexatious complainant being quite short was complaining that the notice had been placed high up on a door and that it had been hard to read. It emerged from this conversation that the notice had not been printed on light blue paper.

“Light blue paper?” you say. “Yes, we all keep a stock of light blue paper for statutory notices”. No we don’t. I applied to West London Magistrate’s Court last year for a Justices’ On-Licence and posted a notice on white paper. I applied to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for a marriage licence this year and posted a notice on white paper.

Apparently in drafting the regulations that sit behind the 2003 Licensing Act the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have managed to specify that these notices have to be blue or rather light blue. When Hammersmith wrote earlier in the year to ask me to re-apply for the licence I had already got from the Magistrates they specified black ink, they specified 16 point or larger type, they specified A4 or larger paper, they specified that the notice must be displayed for 28 days. They did not specify light blue paper.

The chairman was not sure of the law although the licensing officer was adamant that the notice had to be blue. The legal advisor was not sure. The twenty-something legal advisor with an Australian accent was sent to check the regulations. After a delay of ten minutes or so she came back with a thick book and confirmed that regulations did indeed state that the notice had to be light blue.

The chairman considered the matter for 3 milliseconds before he somewhat shamefacedly told us that the hearing could not proceed. He did not have the power to ask the room if anyone objected to proceeding in the face of this deficiency. The notice had achieved its purpose of bringing forward a representation as they call fact free, meandering letters from NIMBYs. The only reason we were in the room was because the VC had seen the wretched notice. Without the non-light blue notice she would not have made a representation, there would have been no hearing and the application would have gone through on the nod. The Chairman’s embarrassment was such that he did ask the licensing officers to consider waiving their fee if we re-applied. We all trooped out after half an hour having achieved nothing.

Up until yesterday, as a fan of the new localism, I had been of the opinion that most people had missed the point with the 2003 Licensing Act. Here was one small example of our overweening central state actually giving some power to local authorities. Giving the power to make licensing decisions to local councillors. As a candidate for next May’s local elections I thought here is a new useful thing that councillors can do for their local areas. How wrong.

This experience is a fable for how the modern British state works:

  • central government starts off with a good idea – make the licensing regime self funding and put the decisions in the hands of councillors rather than magistrates
  • Whitehall civil servants, DCMS in this case, then produce overcomplex regulations and make arbitrary and silly decisions like making everyone re-apply for their licences at the same time so that the new council licensing departments are as overworked and stressed as they are inexperienced and untried
  • local authorities hire lots of mediocre people who are incapable of translating the regulations into some instructions that businesspeople can follow
  • Councillors feel that they have so little power or confidence that they cannot ignore pettifogging regulations.

I am sure that I will be told that all of this is my fault. I should have hired a licensing solicitor to guide me through this minefield. He would have charged me a couple of grand and advised me that light blue paper was a key issue.