Jobs for the Boys (and Girls) policy at @Southkesteven.

Press Release – 26th July 2018

A recent Freedom of Information request by Independent SKDC Councillor Ashley Baxter has revealed that at least ten jobs have been recruited without the ‘normal’ competitive process of advertising and shortlisting for the roles.

In several cases the new recruits are former colleagues of senior Conservative Councillors at SKDC. Some of the direct recruitments have been for very senior roles.

Cllr Ashley Baxter comments: “This is a disgrace and a scandal. Nepotism and cronyism on this scale was supposed to have been eradicated with the Northcote Trevelyan Report of 1854 and is contrary to every rule of common sense in local government.”  Cllr Baxter is keen to point out that his opposition to the recruitments is not related to the nominated individuals, most of who he has never met, but to the principles of transparency, due process, fairness and equality.

Cllr Baxter has made a formal complaint to the council about the number of appointments. He believes that most, if not all, of the appointments might be illegal and in contravention of the Equalities Act 2010 and the Local Government and Housing Act 1989.

Excerpt from Local Govt and Housing Act 1989

The full list of directly recruited posts is as follows: Continue reading

@LincsTories’ rearranging the furniture results in overspending

The SKDC Growth Overview and Scrutiny Committee of 25th July will discuss the Council’s financial performance for 2017/18. I would like to say it makes interesting reading but I might be accused of mis-selling. Any report entitled ‘Q4 Financial Outturn 2017/18‘ is not going to reach the Waterstone’s Top 20, take my word for it. However, the report does have snippets of info which might raise eyebrows… well maybe one eyebrow, a bit.

The SKDC budget meeting of March 2017 was quite historic in that it was passed ‘unanimously’ by the Full Council. No-one could remember such a seemingly harmonious decision on the Council’s annual plans. Much later I discovered that at least one Tory, Cllr Adam Stokes, left the room to avoid the recorded vote allegedly because he was firmly opposed to the proposed rise in Council Tax but didn’t want to defy the whip, sorry, spoil the moment.

A few months later and the party was over… not the ‘Conservative Party’, that would be too much to hope for, I mean the general feeling of togetherness and unity across the chamber. The bubble was burst when the disgruntled Tory backbenchers launched another coup attempt and won. The new administration led by Cllr Matthew Lee promised important changes which were ‘long overdue’. I listened carefully to hear what these changes would be and I remember hearing an impassioned plea for new office carpets and whether I had somehow missed the public outrage about the state of SKDC floor coverings.

The very first change was the augmentation of the Council cabinet and committee structure. This immediately meant there were about 7 new posts for former backbench Conservatives which came with responsibility, status and money in the form of Special Responsibility Allowances. ‘What price democracy?’ I hear you ask. Well, the Financial Outturn Statement answers “The restructuring of the democratic arrangements has resulted in an overspend of £24K.”

The next important decision was to change the name of the ‘Executive’ to ‘Cabinet’. This came as a surprise to me because it was only just over a year earlier that the same Tories voted to change the name of the ‘Cabinet’ to ‘Executive’!

As the rubber hit the road, there were some early changes. Firstly, Beverley Agass resigned as Chief Executive (coincidentally I think) to take a job as CEO of South Cambridgeshire Council. A new CEO, Aidan Rave, was appointed along with some other bushy-tailed staff and consultants. Later in the year, one of the Council’s very senior managers left quite suddenly and unexpectedly and the lower ranks asked themselves ‘Did he jump or was he pushed?’. Now that the have Q4 outturn report we can see that ‘one-off costs arising from changes to the Corporate Management Structure’ were £125,000 higher than anticipated. My guess is that there’s a redundancy payment or Compromise Agreement tied up with that somehow (I’ll bring you more on that in a later post) Continue reading

@MakeVotesMatter in Stamford during ‘National Democracy Week’

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PRESS RELEASE
Release Date: 3rd July 2018

The Government has declared “National Democracy Week” between 2nd and 8th July but campaigners have taken to the streets of Stamford to explain why they feel the UK electoral system is in dire need of an overhaul.

Coun Ashley Baxter (Ind) who represents the Market and West Deeping ward of South Kesteven District Council explains:

“Many people in Lincolnshire are frustrated that although only around half of voters vote Conservatives, that particular party always wins the vast majority of the available council seats at District, County and even Parliamentary level. It is no wonder so many people feel disenfranchised and disillusioned and have given up voting completely. At the street stall in Stamford many people agreed with us that a more effective system of elections is not only possible but essential.”

Stamford Town Councillor Steve Carroll (IND) and Little Bytham Parish Councillor Gerhard Lohmann-Bond (Green) were also involved in the organisation of the event.

The stall was one of more than 60 across the country as part of a national day of action co-ordinated by the Make Votes Matter campaign. People who wish to know more about proportional representation or would like to sign the petition for electoral reform should visit the makevotesmatter.org.uk website.

ENDS

Grantham needs a Town Council.

At the last Full Meeting of South Kesteven District Council I proposed a motion that Grantham should have a Community Governance Review to enable residents of the town to choose whether they wish to have a town council. My proposal was criticised with a succession of weak arguments along the lines of: ‘we once held a couple of meetings a few years ago but no-one turned up’; ‘we think it might cost a lot’; and ‘you live in the Deepings so what’s it got to do with you?’ (I’m paraphrasing!)

The conclusion of the debate was the passing of wrecking amendment put forward by Coun Ray Wootten (Con)  to say the Council would have hold a review only if they were legally obliged to or if SKDC ceased to exist. So, the Tories were able to say they were not against a Town Council in principle but would only vote for it in specific circumstances (and those circumstances would be if they had no other choice).

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Coun Ray Wootten (Con) and his wife Coun Linda Wootten (Con) pictured in 2016 with mayor’s hat, chain and ermine but no Town Council to preside over.

I’m pleased to read that this week’s Grantham Journal proves at least one resident supports the idea of replacing the Charter Trustees with a proper town council by publishing the following letter from Ann Wright: Continue reading

Defying Gravitas – Why is the Wherry’s Lane project in Bourne delayed?

Last week I blogged that Gravitas Housing Ltd has been planning to build houses in Bourne and that there are no definitive public evidence that South Kesteven’s Local Authority Controlled Company (LACC) is planning anything else.

On 10th January, the Deputy Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke, decided formally to sell the Wherry’s Lane site to Gravitas Housing Ltd. If I have understood correctly, the council also agreed to lend £250,000 to Gravitas in order that they could afford to buy the land.

So, after securing the land and almost a year of Shareholder Meetings held behind closed doors, the Gravitas Directors (who are all employed by SKDC) decided to request planning permission for the erection of 25 dwellings on Wherry’s Lane in Bourne. A valid application was received by SKDC planning department on 27th March 2018 (which had been prepared by a consultancy in Louth!). Continue reading

There’s no such thing as waste…

There’s no such thing as waste;
only stuff in the wrong place!


Lincolnshire County Council is currently conducting a two-month consultation on the JOINT MUNICIPAL WASTE MANAGEMENT STRATEGY for the County. For convenience, the waste strategy is abbreviated to the catchy acronym of JMWMS. Unfortunately, the consultation concludes next Monday 2nd July so if you want to participate you will need to get your skates on.

For many people, the most important value, vision and target of a County-wide municipal waste strategy can be summarised as “Make sure my bins get emptied every Thursday” but the consultation assumes all consultees will be diligent in reading the various documents associated with the Draft JMWMS (a summary is available) and the Environmental Report, The first is 54 pages long (or 66 including appendices) while the latter is a technical document of 38 pages (or 116 including appendices).

I have already submitted my response. If you want to use my answers to inform your own response you are most welcome. I have already shared them with SKDC who apparently considered them as part of their workshop on the issue. (This was a another closed Members’ workshop without any external invitees. It was attended by three councillors and a few council officers. The response drafted by the workshop has been circulated to other members of the Enviroment OSC but will not be published in any committee report).

Here are my own responses. NB. I have only put the answers. If you want to see what the questions are, you will have to follow the link to the JMWMC consultation, which is kinda the point of this whole blogpost. Anyway, here goes: Continue reading

Gravitas – Is something LACC-ing?

Gravitas Housing Ltd is a company established and wholly owned by South Kesteven District Council.Wherry

What is a LACC?

In order to become more agile, flexible and able to generate revenue, many Council’s have chosen to establish Local Authority Controlled Companies (LACCs or sometimes pronounced ‘Lac-Co’).

Some LACCs have been very successful, for example Norfolk Property Services (NPS) which now has a group structure and trades as Norse Commercial Services delivering services to the public in many local authority areas (geographic areas and service areas).

Other Local Authority commercial ventures have been a nightmare, e.g. Solutions SK which was described as a ‘Four-Star shambles‘ when it lost £4.7million pounds in a year. When I say ‘lost’ I mean they couldn’t find it. The highly paid Directors employed for their commercial acumen couldn’t explain where it had gone. There was no question of fraud, only incompetence on a grand scale. I happy to report that the ‘SK’ in ‘Solutions SK’ refers to Stockport not South Kesteven. Presumably they couldn’t even spell Stockport Council when they set up the LACC.

Gravitas slowly takes off

Back in 2015, South Kesteven Councillors decided that the LACC vehicle was a band-wagon worth jumping on to and so a Shareholders Committee was formed. This is an advisory group to keep the company directors on track. Due to the need for political balance, the membership consists of four Tories and one Independent (which is me).

The first meeting was scheduled 4th July 2016 but this was cancelled. Another date was set for 6th September 2016 but this was also cancelled. The Shareholder Committee finally met for the first time on 3rd October 2016 Continue reading

How many meetings does it take to change a lightbulb?

In April 2018, a leadership coup within the Conservative group led to a restructure of the SKDC Executive and committee system. The restructure increased the size of the Cabinet and increased the numbers of committees which, in turn, increased the cost of Members’ Special Allowances (e.g. for committee Chairs) by almost £50,000/year.

In an e-mail about car parking, one of the new Cabinet members informed me:

“There is a new administration in place.
An administration of doers rather than talkers”

Let me recount the journey the Council has taken, so far, towards making a decision about street lights and you can decide for yourself whether the Council has acheived an appropriate balance between ‘talking’ and ‘doing’.

The District Council is responsible for 3,593 streetlights which are independent of the County Council (plus a few more relating to Council housing). Many parish councils have more lights to add to the tally. You might wonder why we have three tiers of local government each managing similar services but the reasons why Lincolnshire’s Conservatives do not wish to abolish the County Council is a whole different story.

Meeting #1 – 23rd May 2017

The EnvOSC meeting was on 23rd May, and while considering their remit and work programme they agreed an action point:

“that street lighting should be an agenda item for the next meeting.”

Meeting #2 – 18th July 2017

The next meeting of ENVOSC received a report on Street Lighting from the relevant portfolio holder. The report included a 56-page appendix listing the location of each and every streetlight.

After some discussion, the Committee recommendation was as follows:

“That Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee consider the options available
at a future meeting and review further analysis on the options
in order to recommend a course of action to the cabinet.”

Meeting #3 – 26th September 2017

Despite the aforementioned decision, Street Lighting was not an agenda item for this meeting. However, I raised the issue as a matter arising from the minutes of the previous meeting. The committee was told:

“Tender specifications had been sent to three contractors and it was agreed that the tender specicification would be supplied to an interested Councillor (Ashley Baxter) by e-mail. Street lighting would be included on the Committee’s agenda for November 2017.”

After the meeting I had a telephone conversation with a confused officer who had not been invited to the meeting but had been given the task of sending me the tender specifications. This was difficult because no such specifications existed and consequently they hadn’t been sent to three contractors after all. There was a maintenance contract which was being reviewed but I agreed with the officer that this was not the same thing at all.

Meeting #4 – 5th December 2017

At the start of the meeting, the Chair of the meeting apologised that the ‘tender specifications for street lighting’ I had been promised were ‘unfortunately not available’.

We then proceeded to the next agenda item which concerned a report from the Chair on the subject of street lighting. The report proposed 5 options. The first four options involved turning off the lights between midnight and 5.30 each night. The fifth option was to do nothing at all.

I am pleased to say that I had done my homework before this meeting and circulated a spreadsheet of the options A-D with an additional proposal I called “Option X”. This option suggested replacing the lamps with energy efficient alternatives but keeping all the lights on during the hours of darkness.

You might think this would have been an ideal opportunity to read the report, discuss the options and make a decision. Unfortunately, the recommendation of the report was to hold a members’ workshop, behind closed doors, and report back to a public meeting at a later date.

The recommendation was:

That the Environment Overview & Scrutiny Committee considers the options
and propose a working group be convened to consider the options in more detail.

I voted against this recommendation because I could see no reason why a proper debate over street-lighting couldn’t have taken place immediately and in public.

Cllr Craft (SK Ind) agreed with me and, after voting against the proposal, declared the whole meeting a farce and walked out. This meeting was reported in the Grantham Journal.

After the meeting, I met with Officers in order to compare notes and ensure the figures I was proposing as Option X tallied with their figures they had used in their report (I am not counting this kind of informal meeting towards the total number of meetings)

A date of January 16th was agreed for the workshop but this was later postponed to the genuine illness of some of the would-be participants.

Meetings #6 – 25th January

During a Full Council meeting, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) who is leader of the council, declared that he was not personally in favour of turning of SKDC street-lights overnight. This was a helpful comment because it sent a clear signal to his Conservative colleagues, and to Council officers, that a decision to turn off lights during the hours of darkness would not be warmly welcomed by cabinet. He was keen to point out that his comments reflected his own opinion and shouldn’t prejudice the decision of EnvOSC but thankfully they probably did just that.

Meetings #7 and #8 – 20th February 2018

The next public meeting EnvOSC was held at 10.30 and street lighting was not on the agenda although Cllr Craft reiterated his opinion that a workshop was unnecessary.

The public meeting was immediately followed by a members workshop. This was effectively a confidential meeting to discuss street-lighting options. However, I don’t think I betray any secrets if I recount that a) I personally argued that we should not consider any option which involved switching off the majority of streetslights during the hours of darkness; and b) the only meaningful decision of the confidential members workshop was to hold another confidential workshop!

Meeting #9 – 27th March 2018

Due to family commitments, I was unable to attend the second members workshop and I wouldn’t be allowed to report on the secret  meeting even if I had been there.

Meeting #10 – 24th April 2018

Finally, the Committee were able to to discuss a report explaining the street lighting issues resulting from the two previous secret workshops. This included a short appendix with a street lighting policy. The recommendation to Cabinet was to proceed with replacing existing lamps with LEDs as and when each light reaches the end of life.

Once again I had done my homework and rewritten the proposed street lighting policy to include a commitment to

“to ensure SKDC street lights provide illuination during the hours of darkness.”

I proposed that this revised draft of the policy (Street lighting policy amended) be recommended for adoption by the Council and I am pleased to say that, by a narrow majority, the Committee agreed with the recommendation.

Meetings #11 and beyond

The recommendations will now be handed over to the Cabinet who will consider the matter again, probably on 10th May 2018. Hopefully, they will respect the decision of the Overview & Scrutiny Group and adopt the Street Lighting Policy without significant amendment.

The policy includes a commitment that lighting is properly maintained, increasingly energy efficient and also that it should ‘provide illumination during the hours of darkness’. Five years ago, all this would have been taken for granted, but in Lincolnshire we have a Conservative County Council who have decided that lighting roads and footpaths at night is a luxury we cannot afford and consequently thousands of them are turned off around midnight each night.

After a year of meetings, South Kesteven appears is on the brink of deciding that street lights should provide illumination whenever it’s dark!

Tory U-Turn on Members’ Ward Budgets

Conservatives at South Kesteven District Council have ‘seen the light’ regarding budgets for Ward Members to distribute to projects within their wards. The U-turn means that all councillors will have the opportunity to allocate up to £1,000 to local good causes during the 12-months leading up to the next District Council elections. Details of the scheme have been published by the Stamford Mercury.

Many of these Councillors are the very same Tories who voted, en bloc, against an almost identical scheme which was proposed by an Independent Councillor four years ago.

Here is an excerpt from the minutes of the SKDC Budget meeting of 3rd March, 2014.

Tory U-Turn Ward Fund

This time round the scheme has been recommended by the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Group which discussed the findings of a ‘Members Working Group’ on the issue. The ‘Working Group’ was a private meeting, not publicised beyond the committee and was attended by only one councillor who, coincidentally, was one of the Tories who had voted against the scheme four years earlier.

Personally, I opposed the decision to introduce the ward members’ budget on more than one occasion. I think it looks bad to introduce it in the year before an election and in times of austerity. There is also plenty of scope for confusion among the press and members of the public concerning who is being ‘generous’ as shown in an article relating to a similar scheme administered by South Holland District Council.

Youngsters at a Spalding special school are benefitting from new swimming equipment thanks to a generous donation from a councillor.”

However, now that the decision has been made I will certainly do my best to repatriate ‘my share’ to good causes in the Deepings.