A very positive afternoon’s canvassing and delivering on Thursday.
I was joined by a red friend who didn’t seem worried about hanging out with me.
A very positive afternoon’s canvassing and delivering on Thursday.
I was joined by a red friend who didn’t seem worried about hanging out with me.
Last year, the Conservative cabinet at South Kesteven had a good idea of designating a fund for ‘Invest-to-Save’ activities. It’s hard to argue with the principle of such an initiative especially when I have been arguing for years that the Council should invest in energy efficient lighting which typically has a financial payback of less than three years (slightly more complicated with street-lighting projects but it would still be worthwhile.
Last month, the Portfolio Holder for Finance, announced the first decision about the first ‘ project to use the ‘Invest to Save’ Reserve.
The ‘project’ decision was an amalgam of three initiatives. The first is a review of Council Financial Procedures. It is hoped it will result in efficiencies and savings (hopefully no involuntary redundancies but I always get nervous when Tories mention ‘efficiency savings’). The review will be undertaken by an external partner whom the report states has already been identified although the name of the partner is not mentioned in the report.
The second part concerns the ‘Internet of Things’. Again, the proposal is to work with an external partner but the partner has not been named.
“The initial area is to develop is intelligent street lighting across the district. The proposal is to combine an LED lamp with Internet of Things sensors. This will create saving on the power with LED and also allow proactive monitoring of use, condition and other factors such as footfall monitoring and air quality.The proposal will also see the implementation of an IoT network which can then be utilised for future initiatives.”
This sounds spectacular. At face value it could revolutionise street-lighting across the UK and possibly the world. The investment at this stage is only £10,000 which, in my experience of R&D, doesn’t usually pay for a lot of research or development. Regular readers will know that I have attended dozens of meetings about SKDC street lights and the cost of replacing or adapting all 3,000 of them to LED is likely to be over £300,000 so I’m fascinated to know what the anonymous partner is offering the council for £10,000. I suspect it might be non-existent technology but I am genuinely trying to curb my cynicism so let’s wait and see.
The third and final part of the report concerns advertising and sponsorship. It begins: “South Kesteven District Council has worked with Publitas Consulting to complete an audit of advertising income received by the Council and the potential extent of opportunity within the local market”.
It goes on to recommend that we spend a further £40,000 with Publitas Consulting to manage a procurement process on our behalf to generate additional advertising revenue.
I have a few problems with this proposal. The main one being that Publitas Consulting does not exist! A simple check of Companies House website reveals that there used to be an organisation called Publitas Consulting LLP but it was dissolved three years ago.
Looking for more evidence of Publitas Consulting I discovered a website consisting of a single page with a backdrop of a River Thames skyscape but no address or contact details other than a mobile phone number. I phoned the mobile number for more information and was greeted by an answerphone message stating I could leave messages for Swedish Interior Design Ltd and also Publitas Consulting. Now, to give them the benefit of the doubt, we’re all busy people and lots of us have roles in more than one organisation. Publitas Consulting might be the best in the business for income generation and just want to keep a low-profile but surely, if a Local Authority wants to spend money with an external partner company, then it is basic due diligence to make sure the company exists!
The decision was originally planned for 9th April 2019. Before then I did ask for more details from the relevant Portfolio Holder but I received no reply. When the decision was delayed I was hopeful that someone had looked a bit more closely at the credentials of Publitas. Unfortunately, the Decision was taken a few days later and consequently I have asked for it to be ‘Called In’. This should mean that a special meeting of the Growth Overview and Scrutiny Committee will be called and the details of the three sub-projects will be looked at properly.
A ‘call-in’ request requires five Councillors to agree that the decision needs more scrutiny. This is one of the reasons we need more Independent and opposition Councillors. A massive majority for the Conservatives (or any other party) is not good for democracy and accountability.
Report to MDTC Full Council 10th April 2019
from ASHLEY BAXTER, the Deepings’ ONLY Independent District Councillor.
This is clearly the last report from the 2015-2019 Council term. I have really enjoyed the privilege of serving the residents of Market and West Deeping and obviously I hope I get the opportunity to serve for another four years.
Congratulations to the Councillors who have stood for re-election to the Town Council and have been returned unopposed.
Special thanks to former Mayor, Cllr Roy Stephenson, for his loyal service to Market Deeping Town Council over more than two decades. I hope he enjoys a long and happy retirement with his wife, Sue.
I have attended only one formal Council meeting during the last month.
02/04/2019 Development Management Committee
The planning committee discussed a number of applications including an estate of 46 dwellings in Grantham. While it is appreciated that housing is needed, the committee decided that the design of the site was not thought through properly and it was rejected for this reason.
Later in the meeting the committee heard a cheeky application for a ‘garage’ which, at 4.3m high, would have been bigger than a bungalow. It was very close to a park, a river and a listed building. I am pleased to say the Committee refused the application.
01/04/2019 Friends of Mill Field
At the request of the Friends of Mill Field I organised a meeting with Senior Officers and Planners at SKDC. The purpose of the meeting was to compare notes of the current situation regarding Mill Field including the Village Green Inquiry, the status of the emerging Local Plan, the planning application recently submitted by LCC. It was also an opportunity to ensure staff at SKDC are aware of the history of the Mill Field and the significant local opposition to developing the site.
One of the interesting points to emerge from the meeting was that the Assistant Director for Growth confirmed there are currently no discussions between SKDC and LCC regarding potential use of the Mill Field site for the proposed new Leisure Centre, i.e. it is intended the Leisure Centre will be somewhere else. This was welcome news to the FoMF delegation.
As ever, if you require any further information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
See you next month (I hope!),
Cllr Ashley Baxter
Market and West Deeping Ward
In a recent blog I explained that each of the 56 Councillors at SKDC has had a budget of £1,000 at their disposal for distribution to good causes. I allocated mine to the Deepings’ United Schools Rock Band, the Deepings School Library, the Deepings Scouts, the Deepings Business Clubs ‘Love Deeping’ initiative and the Deepings branch of Royal British Legion.
I have been trying to find out how the other Councillors have supported good causes across the District but I’ve hit a bit of a brick wall.
In the Deepings I have discovered that five out of the six Councillors has allocated their £1,000 to a variety of causes. However, one of the Councillors supposedly representing Deeping St James, Cllr Stephen Benn (Conservative), has made only a single grant of £330 to the Deepings Youth Group which means that charities in the Deepings have missed out on the remaining £670 in his pot. This comes as no surprise really as Cllr Benn appears to have lost interested in his Deeping St James ward after moving to Peterborough many months ago. In fact he has only attended nine meetings in the last two years even though he still receives his expenses (£6,475 for financial year 2017/18) This equates to over £1,000 per meeting attended! (Cllr Benn is not seeking re-election).
isI was interested to see if anyone else had decided not to distribute their £1,000 to good causes and was pleased to see that Councillor Barry Dobson (Dole Wood) has donated his to Bracebridge and Wilsthorpe Village Hall and the remainder to Lawrence Park in Thurlby (Lawrance Park is a recreation ground, not a person!). (Cllr Dobson is unopposed in the forthcoming SKDC election).
In the Casewick ward, which is next door to the Deepings, the two Conservative Councillors have spent only £650 between them which means that £1,350 will stay in the Council coffers. The funds which have been spent have been allocated to Langtoft Festival (£350), Uffington Parish Council (£200), Thurlby Parish Council (£100) and Barholm & Stowe Parish Meeting (£50). I was surprised that it was possible to make a donation to a Parish Council because, strictly speaking, they are local authorities rather than charities, I tried to find out what projects the donations were for, and who had donated them, but I cannot find anyone at SKDC who is prepared to tell me. In fact, I cannot even find which of the Councillors authorised the grants.
My colleague, Cllr Phil Dilks, who represents Deeping St James ward has taken this up with the Council’s Monitoring Officer who has replied by saying “I do not believe the information that you’ve requested is available at this stage and from a brief conversation with colleagues in finance, it will take them some time to put it together.”
I find it unbelievable that the Council has been sending out press releases about Members’ Ward Budgets for nearly a year but no-one has a central list of what each Councillor has spent (and hasn’t spent). Given the prevarication, it seems likely that there are other Councillors who have either forgotten to allocate their grants, or possibly have deliberately chosen not to spend the budgets designated for charities and good causes.
I have now submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for details of how the £56,000 of Members Ward budgets have been spent (or underspent). Unfortunately, SKDC is not obliged to publish details until 20 days have elapsed which will be after the District Council elections.
This time last year, I was one of a very few Councillors who voted against the creation of a Ward Members’ grant scheme. I was opposed to the idea because in the year before an election it would give Councillors an opportunity for self-promotion and electioneering which would be denied to other candidates. I explained my reasons at the time in a blog called Tory U-Turn on Members’ Ward Budgets. There have been other Tory U-turns before and since.
Given the Members’ Ward Budget was approved by a majority, I have done my best to distribute it to good causes. Here is what I’ve spent our thousand pounds on…
In November, the Deepings branch of the Royal British Legion realised in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, there was no musical accompaniment to the annual remembrance procession of uniformed organisations through Market Deeping. Through the magic of Facebook, a drummer was found but he needed a drum. Therefore, I designated £85.98 of my share of the Members’ Ward grant budget for the purchase of a snare drum which was used on the day and can be used at all future Royal British Legion events.
The second allocation was also musical. I was volunteered to organise the entertainment at the Market Deeping Christmas Market and first on my list of potential performers were the Deepings United Schools Rock Band. They had performed at the DSJ Annual Parish Meeting and were a knockout. In preparing for the Christmas Market we discovered that a small grant would enable them to perform outdoors more easily so I allocated £300 to the cause.
The Deepings School was the first organisation I approached for ideas to spend the grant funds. Originally, back in the summer, I had hoped to be able to somehow promote cycling to school but the costs of cycling infrastructure are quite high. We then considered putting on lessons in ‘parenting skills’ but these are apparently delivered by other organisations already and we would face the same challenges of persuading the parents most in need of lessons to actually attend. After some discussion we concluded the most useful contribution would be to encourage boys to read.
This might sound sexist but evidence suggests that when it comes to quantity and quality of reading, boys lag behind girls. In fact a report commissioned by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy in 2012, revealed that three out of four (76%) UK schools are concerned about boys’ underachievement in reading, yet there is no government strategy to address the issue.
Consequently, I decided to allocate £250 towards magazine subscriptions for the Deepings School Library. This will hopefully complement literacy strategies at the school as well as initiatives by the Deepings Community Library including lego club, Star Wars day, the summer reading scheme etc. (NB. For the avoidance of doubt, the boys in the picture are confident readers who appear for illustrative purposes only!)
Late last year, Alison Ireland of the Deepings Business Club approached Market Deeping Town Council and Deeping St James Parish Council with news of a forthcoming scheme to promote local businesses under a banner of “Love Deepings”. The idea of small independents working together to curtail the power of monolithic national organisations is appealing in business just as it is in politics so I was happy to offer a contribution towards the costs of establishing the campaign and I have allocated £150 for this.
The scouts were the next to approach me. We discussed the possibility of funding a minibus, or archery equipment but ended up agreeing on good old-fashioned tents (actually ‘old-fashioned’ is the wrong word but you know what I mean).
I have allocated the remainder of my fund (just over £200) to the Deepings Scouts. For this allocation I did declare an interest. I was a Cub, a Scout and a Venture Scout and scouting kept me sane during my teens. My youngest is a DSJ Scout now and my eldest is a Guide.
Along the way, I proposed another idea which was self-defence classes for young people. It took a bit longer to research than I had hoped but the Deepings Leisure Centre and a local martial arts club have come up with a potential short course. Staff at SKDC are quite interested and I’m hopeful it will run later this year.
So now you know how my Members Ward Budget has been spent and I hope you approve of some, even all, of the causes.
I am only one out of six SK Councillors in the Deepings. So there was another £5,000 available in our area. What’s happened to that?
The first Councillor to determine any of his budget was Cllr Broughton who subsidised the provision of play equipment at Cherry Tree Park by £110. Cllr Broughton also offered up his own time and effort to assist the National Citizenship team in sprucing up that play area last summer.
I know Cllr Phil Dilks of Deeping St James ward has donated £170 to the scouts, £170 to the ‘Love Deepings’ campaign and £330 towards the Jubilee Park trim trail. Cllr Stevens and the elusive Cllr Benn also supported the trim trail by the same amount making a total of almost £1,000.
Last week we discovered that Cllr Dilks, Cllr Stevens and Cllr Broughton each made allocations of around £300 to the Deepings Youth Group which is great news and means that Cllr Dilks has spent his full £1,000.
I am now trying to establish what has happened to the remaining budgets from all four Conservative councillors. I expect there are some donations I am not yet aware of, so I will return to this post and add more detail when it arrives.
Report to MDTC Full Council 13th March 2019
from ASHLEY BAXTER, the Deepings’ only Independent District Councillor.
I have attended sixformal meetings during the last month.
Thismeeting was convened in response to a question I asked at January’s FullCouncil regarding whether or not a Council’s Chief Executive had properly declared all his relevant business interests. Most of the meeting was held in secret but the Council subsequently issued the following statement: Continue reading
Great news! The Council has announced new exciting new leisure centres for the Deepings and Stamford. Brilliant, fabulous, fantastic… but technically this is old news as it was also announced in October 2017 and again in October 2018.
As predicted in my previous blog concerning the new Deepings Leisure Centre, it’s now just eight weeks before the District Council elections and South Kesteven has announced ‘further details’ of new leisure centres with a blaze of publicity.
The Conservatives want everyone to know that they are planning new leisure centres in Stamford and the Deepings and a refurbished and enhanced leisure centre in Bourne. The publicity has included a double-paged spread in SK Today, almost three pages in the Stamford Mercury, umpteen tweets and other social media posts and, to top it all, 6 massive banners parading the exciting new facilities “delivered by South Kesteven District Council”. The irony is that nothing has really been delivered yet except for the posters.
I attended the South Kesteven Cabinet meeting last Thursday where a report on the new approach to sports and leisure facilities was formally approved. I wanted to ask the questions that everyone else is asking me. Here’s a summary of the questions I asked and the answers I was given:
Q. Where will the leisure centres be built? Continue reading
Since my last monthly report, I have attended the following formal SKDC meetings as well as some other less formal meetings and community events:
This meeting was the first opportunity to analyse the forthcoming Council budget for 2019/20. The meeting was rather chaotic as Councillors were invited to ask questions and make comments on a report and appendices totalling 53 pages. There was no deliberate sub-division of topics and consequently the comments were made in a scatter-gun manner and few, if any, definitive recommendations resulted.
15/01/2019 Development Management Committee
This was a relatively short meeting (two hours) which considered three applications:
22/01/2019 Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee
As regular readers might know, I have a 100% record of attendance at meetings since August 2015. On receipt of the very thin agenda for the Environment Committee I did wonder whether it was really worth making the 60 miles round trip to Grantham to discuss virtually nothing of consequence. My sense of duty got the better of me and when the meeting closed after just an hour I had only confirmed that the whole exercise had been a waste of time.
There were no published papers for the meeting other than the printed agenda and notes of the previous meeting. No Cabinet Members were present at the meeting. The Chair failed to explain why the decisions of the previous meeting had not been acted upon, not even the draft ‘Street Lighting Policy’ which has been kicking around for more than a year. We listened to a presentation from an Officer regarding a government consultation on Waste and Recycling. A slide entitled “Key Milestones” mentioned a “Transposition of the Circular Economy Package” is due to be delivered before the end of 2019. I asked what this means but, sadly, nobody knew the answer.
Full Council agenda started off with questions from members of the public. The first of these concerned ongoing problems with a heating system which was installed three years ago at the Riverside Housing Complex in Grantham which has never worked properly. In response, the Conservative Cabinet Member for Housing, Cllr Nick Neilson (Con) and the Deputy Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) both apologised for the errors made since 2016 and promised to investigate and find a resolution.
Later in the meeting, I asked a question about the business relationship between a senior officer of the Council and a private consultancy which has been paid almost £60,000 over 18 months for various staff recruitment exercises. This question has been referred to a future meeting of the Council’s Employment Committee.
05/02/2019 DevelopmentManagement Committee
A specially extended meeting began at 10am and continued until 5.30pm. Despite the long day, this was undoubtedly the most interesting and entertaining planning committee I have attended to date.
In the morning, Councillors discussed an application for a Designer Outlet Village next to the A1 at Gonerby Moor. This multi-million pound project is expected to retain 700 jobs and to create 1,200 new jobs in the District as well as attracting literally millions of visitors to the District. Nevertheless, three of the Tories voted against the scheme including Cllr Jacky Smith (Con) who expressed concern about the proposed creation of a ‘training academy’ even though she is Cabinet Member for Skills and Wellbeing and the centre has the support of Grantham college.
The afternoon started with an application for a 6m high statue of Baroness Thatcher. I had personally ‘called-in’ this application because it is so significant and controversial. In the event it was approved unanimously by the Committee (including me). This decision attracted international media attention including from the Guardian and the Times.
For more information read my blog-post “The statue that no-one else wants”.
13/02/2019 Growth Overview and Scrutiny Committee
This morning’s meeting revealed that the costs of the SKDC Senior Management Restructure have risen by over £150,000 since the last meeting, mostly due to unexpected redundancy payments and other staffing costs.
The meeting also considered the performance monitoring issues. I have been asking for this issue to be re-considered since it was last presented back in June last year. At that time “it was noted that the report was based on the previous Corporate Strategy. A New Corporate Strategy was now in place and would have more appropriate KPIs.” I was most surprised that this morning, eight months on, we were presented with the old KPIs measured up to September. Therefore rather than receiving new up-to-date KPIs we were given old KPIs which were already six months out of date.
We then went on to discuss financial monitoring. During last year’s budget setting process I was among a small group of Councillors who regarded many of the ‘ambitious’ budget predictions as pie-in-the-sky forecasts. I am sorry, though not surprised, to report that we were right and we were told this morning that the following projected savings have not been achieved:
Will anyone be held to account for making ridiculous savings targets and then missing them completely? I very much doubt it. Besides which, the budget has been altered several times since last year to accommodate millions of pounds of unplanned expenditure including land purchases and sudden redundancy payments.
As ever, if you need more information on anything within this report, please do get in touch.
Cllr Ashley Baxter
Market and West Deeping Ward
In Spring 2017, a coup took place within the Conservative Group at SKDC which led to Cllr Matthew Lee being elected as Leader of the Council. Cllr Lee had only been elected to SKDC two years earlier having previously been a Conservative City Councillor in Peterborough.
One would expect that Cllr Lee would draw on his experience at his previous authority and cross-pollination is healthy, up to a point. However, the extent to which the ideas and even the personnel from Peterborough have been transferred to South Kesteven in astounding.
The first area of innovation/overlap, is in the field of economic development. Soon after the coup, a company called ‘Opportunity Peterborough’ (OP) was engaged as a consultant organisation to assist with the rebranding of SK’s economic development team as ‘InvestSK’. OP was originally the economic development arm of Peterborough City Council and Cllr Matthew Lee was a Director from 2010 to 2013.
In Spring 2018 ‘InvestSK’ became a limited company wholly-owned by SKDC. This decision was going to made without reference to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee so, with the help of four other Councillors, I called it in. A meeting was held to try to explain the motives and purpose of company structure. The nominated Directors are the Leader, the Deputy Leader and the Chief Exec of the Council. “So what?” you might ask. Well, as a department of the Council , the economic development team had to abide by the usual council rules concerning appointments, pensions, etc. but as a limited company they don’t have the same obligations and so it was possible for the Directors of InvestSK Ltd to hire and fire and make policies without reference to normal council procedure. Consequently they were able to appoint a new Chief Executive of InvestSK on a salary of around £100,000/year without any advert, competitive interview of candidate(s) or reference to Employment Committee. Who did they appoint? None other than the CEO of Opportunity Peterborough who had been leading the OP consultancy for the previous 12 months.
The next step of the plan is the creation of a Limited Liability Partnership called ‘DeliverSK’ to push forward the Council’s investment agenda. I use the term ‘plan’ quite loosely as the idea of an LLP had not been mentioned at any previous meetings about economic development or during the budget setting process. This decision was proposed during the summer recess of 2018 and a special meeting of Growth was called at the end of August (I attended and asked lots of questions). The idea is that a funding partner is found to bring in lots of funding to support joint venture satellite companies with the local authority (e.g. LeisureSK, OfficesSK, HousebuildingSK etc)
The recruitment of a funding partner does not strictly involve the delivery of goods or services and therefore does not require an EU compliant procurement process and the decision was delegated to a Cabinet Member. Several potential companies were invited to present proposed strategies for a funding partnership with SKDC and a Guernsey-based company called IAG came top. I googled IAG to see what else they do and, surprise surprise, their Chief Exec is already involved with regeneration activities in Peterborough.
The chart below attempts to show how ‘DeliverSK LLP’ will mirror the existing Peterborough Investment Partnership LLP and how the CEO of IAG is already on the Boards of two of the Peterborough joint ventures. The reality is actually more complicated than the diagram with links to Luxembourg and all sorts but I’ve done the best I can.
The LLP is troublesome to me because I am quite keen on transparency and accountability. DeliverSK will be 50% owned by the public sector and therefore it will not be subject to Freedom of Information requests in the same way as other council companies (including InvestSK). The Peterborough equivalent, PIP, has already attracted criticism on this score.
Finally, let’s look at the personnel* who have been recruited since Cllr Lee’s inauguration:
June 17 – New Chief Executive – Previously worked as Management Consultant for V4 services working with Peterborough City Council.
June 17 – Senior Research and Support Assistant – A lawyer previously working at Peterborough City Council
July 17 – Head of Communications – A consultant employed by SKDC on over £140,000 a year who had previously worked with Peterborough City Council.
June 18 – Head of Arts – A new post created to drive forward the SKDC cultural strategy was offered to a former Artistic Director of the Key Theatre in Peterborough.
October 18 – Assistant Director, Growth – The former Head of Property Services at Peterborough City arrived via secondment to Opportunity Peterborough
October 18 – Chief Executive of InvestSK – previously Chief Executive of Opportunity Peterborough
January 19 – As part of the launch of the Council’s new LLP venture, DeliverSK, SKDC has recruited the Peterborough City Council’s former Director of Growth and Regeneration.
See also: Jobs for the Boys
Informally, staff and Councillors at SKDC have joked that the easiest way to recruit new member of staff is to phone Peterborough City Council. There will come a time when this will stop being funny.
I apologise that this post is quite so long and complicated. I also apologise if I have misrepresented any of the detail; if so, I would be happy to correct if someone can explain more effectively.
*NB For the record, this post is not questioning the abilities or integrity of any individual members of staff, the purpose is to raise concerns over the recruitment and procurement processes and whether they meet the legal requirements regarding transparency, equality, and appointing staff ‘on merit’)
An annual survey of staff at South Kesteven has revealed that a significant proportion (28%) of employees feel their jobs are insecure, more than a third (36%) don’t feel their hard work and good performance is recognised and only 41% would describe morale as ‘good’.
Arguably the most worrying finding is that only 29% of employees feel processes and procedures are applied consistently across the Council, e.g. in recruitment, flexible working, sick leave. This is hardly surprising in the field of recruitment where it appears that many people are chosen on the basis of who they know rather than what they know and multiple senior posts have been appointed without adverts or competitive interview.
The 69% survey response rate has been hailed as ‘exceptional’ by the project team that conducted the exercise. I’m not quite sure why as it is down from 72% the previous year and, if I’ve understood correctly, it is only marginally above the public sector benchmark for this kind of consultation.
On a far more positive note, it is clear that despite various reservations about the working environment, 97% of SKDC staff are fully committed to doing their very best for the Council and 88% feel trusted to get on with their jobs.
More details of the staff survey results are on the SKDC website.