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An informed blogger on Suffolk CC’s poor contract scrutiny

Kevan Lim who was a Labour county councillor in Suffolk until 2009 is writing his blog again, after a few months off, and is strong voice.  In a detailed post headed Is BT ripping off Suffolk? he goes through the history or procurement and scrutiny arrangements (or current lack of them) before concluding:

The County Council is about to start the biggest divestment of services in its history under the New Strategic Direction policy. Such a change will require greater control of contracts not less. The more external providers of services you have the greater the need to be regularly reviewing their services and making sure you are getting value for money.

The banking crisis was a perfect example of the National failure of regulation and scrutiny. Now the County Council is creating its own Suffolk Banking crisis.

As things stand the current County Council appears incapable of managing its external providers and that is a scary thought whilst the current leadership of the County Council remain which may cost us all.

It is worth reading it all to see how he reaches this conclusion.

£1,474 pictures of Hill is only the tip of the problem

Star front pageAnother angry splash in the Evening Star today. Andrea Hill again, and this time it is about a £1,474 bill for a photographic session. As the Star says: “In these days of economic hardship, no-one will buy into the council’s programme of change if they see public money being spent this way.”

Dig down in the paper’s report (unfortunately only a small part online) and this becomes a much more serious issue than an extravagant, vain, insensitive smoothing of the wrinkles of our £218,000 a year county council chief executive.

It took the Star four Freedom of Information requests to wheedle the details out of the council. This is what a spokesman told them:

Suffolk county council has been asked a number of questions about photography since October. In all cases, every effort was made to provide as much information as possible.

Due to changes in staffing, it would appear that some information was not provided in the earlier responses. We’ve now fully rectified the situation.

It is not clear whether the last sentence means the staffing problems have been solved or that all the information has now been provided. But here we have an admission that the council has not met its obligations under the FoI Act. That is not a surprise as over the past few weeks I have heard several complaints and suspicions that the council’s information office was being less than forthcoming.

Photo of Andrea Hill by Robert Johns as seen in the Evening Star

Photo of Andrea Hill by Robert Johns as seen in the Evening Star

The Star started its quest in the middle of October last year, The response came back on bonfire night that there has been no direct commissioning of photography of the chief execuutive since September 2008. A second request revelealed that the photographer Robert Johns had been paid £7.706.50 by the county council. The next request elicited the information that this was for work on the “Suffolk Story and Cookbook” and a further £1,474.76 for pictures of Hill. The final request related to the photographs of other council directors (the council could not answer) and about a delay in paying Johns.

The failure to meet legal obligations under the the FoI act requires a detailed investigation and explanation. But unfortunately, I fear it will take several information requests to discover the extent of the problem.

Another aspect of the the picture portfolio story is the doubts it casts on the council’s procurement systems. The photographer was paid £1,474 for the snaps but the council failed to purchase the copyright. The Evening Star has to pay the photograper directly for the use of the pictures.

For thirty years it has been important when commissioning pictures for communications purposes to ensure that phhotographer passes all rights to the purchaser. If whoever commissioned the pictures did not know that they should not be spending council tax-payers’ money.

This underlines the concerns about whether the council is capable of managing the arrangements which will result from the New Strategic Direction which aims to make Suffolk an “enabling” council.

Portrait of Nelson Mandela with which Robert Johns won the 2006 portrait prize in the 2006 Press Photographer of the Year awards

 

Suffolk refuses to release library consultation results until after decision

In a mind boggling descent into the absurd, Suffolk County Council has said it will not release details of the libraries consultation until after the Cabinet has met and made its decison.

The Freedom of Information Office has claimed it is in the “public interest” not to release the information. This from a council which has been talking about the level of responses and selectively quoting from them in a press release.

James Hargrave, who made the information request has the details here.

The council has so far failed to release details of the “public interest test” and Hargrave has blogged in this potentially illegal act.

According to the partial refusal of information the consultation results will pnot be published until July, after the Cabinet has met. The consultation is open until the end of April.

Minister calls on Andrea Hill to take a pay cut, stop life coaching and banning reporters

The pressure on Andrea Hill has been increased today by an extraordinary and direct call from Local Government Minister Grant Shapps for her to take a pay cut.

Grant Shapps, the local government minister, told the Daily Mail:

Spending money on life coaches or banning journalists from asking questions in our new era of transparency is unacceptable. Andrea Hill needs to do the right thing and make a personal commitment to protecting frontline services by taking a pay cut.

The paper said her salary of £218,000 was £70,000 more than the ptime minister’s and she gets a near £50,000 pension contribution.

It is very unusual for a government minister to make such a direct and personal comment and reflects growing irritqtion in Whitehall.

Tuesday evening: The East Anglian Daily Times has the county council’s response, linking Shapps’s comment with the Hutton report on pay. it starts:

SUFFOLK County Council leader Jeremy Pembroke today backed a new government report into the pay of top public servants.
He said it was right to link pay to performance – and praised county chief Andrea Hill for her “experience, drive and ability to deliver.”

Another village campaigns to save library

More than 1,200 people in Capel St Mary (population 2,900) have signed a petition to save their library. And on Saturday 150 of them turned out for a rally in support of the library which also serves the surrounding area of Suffolk.

Parish councillor John Sturgeon told the East Anglian Daily Times: “It is not just a library. If we lose the library we lose the heart of the village.” Their aim to get the county council to change its mind and continue to run the library but they are working on other plans if “the worst is to happen”.

 

County in talks with US library company rejected ‘management buy-out’

Suffolk which is talking to an American library services company rejected suggestions of a management buy-out by county library staff on the grounds that it was “not local enough”.

Several sources tell similar stories. In one, the idea of a management buy-out was floated in a staff meeting to be rejected on the “not local enough” grounds.

In another, the idea of staff forming a Library Trust was suggested. The answer was “No” because libraries which might be divested needed to be taken over an run on an individual community basis.

It appears that a high-level decision had been taken within the County Council that no librarian-run county-wide solution would meet the New Strategic Direction policy of divesting the running of county services.

As a result, there was no further investigation or development of management buy-out/trust ideas. Now there is anger among library staff that  the county council, after refusing to take their ideas seriously, is discussing the future with an American for-profit business.

Quite what the County Council is now considering as a solution for library services is unknown. This confusion follows the abandonment of the county and community libraries classification (counsultations documents), which suggested 15 “county libraries” were safe while 29 “community libraries” would have to be run by communities or be closed.

There is now talk of three core libraries at Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft.

LSSI, an American library services outsourcing company, has been in talks with Suffolk County Council.

A comment from LSSI suggests they are interested in taking over small libraries as well as the larger ones. Stuart Fitzgerald of LSSI, told the East Anglian Daily Times:

We want to ensure that the libraries become real community hubs – some of the smaller libraries only open about 20 hours a week. We would ensure they are open when people want to use them and can be used for meetings or other community events.

Footnote: Neil Clark in the Guardian writes a comment article under the heading “Don’t privatise our libraries” while Jame Hargrave blogs on the local situation saying, “Now it looks like all of the libraries could potentially be privatised.”

28 hour read-in to save smallest library

A 28 hour marathon read-in will be held at Suffolk’s smallest library, in Debenham, starting at noon on Saturday, March, 19.

It is being held to show support for the library and increase awareness of the debate about the future of the county’s 44 libraries.

Debenham library, housed in a building which was originally built for the village fire engine, is one of those threatened with closure if no community plan to keep it open is developed.

A working group, under the auspices of the parish council, is looking at all the possibilities. Debenham has a population of 2,000 although the library serves a much larger area of Mid Suffolk.

The read-in will be a celebration of the library with many people promising to dress in costume to read from favourite books.

A wall of books will also be built to defend the library. The idea is that second-hand books will be donated and later sold for charity.

Dan Poulter, the Central Suffolk MP, has said he will be one of the early attenders at lunch time on Saturday.

The read-in will continue until 4pm on Sunday. Coffee, tea and home baking will be available. Details at the village website.

Bloggers can enhance council reporting

In Suffolk we are a bit behind some other parts of the country in developing citizen coverage of councils by bloggers, but we are beginning to make our mark.

I believe there is a need for more people to hold councils to account in an area where there is little pluralism in the mainstream media. In Suffolk Archant controls most, including the two daily papers which now share reporters. BBC plans to develop hyper-local coverage have been hit over the head by government at the prompting of msm which has been building regional monopolies.

Encouragement to bloggers is provided by Kate Belgrave writing about her experiences of covering council meetings at Liberal Democracy under the title, Bloggers are best at covering local cuts across the UK: so we are being banned.

Which reminds me that Simon Higgins, Suffolk County Council’s head of communications, has not responded to my request, made on February 25, to allow filming by community groups in public libraries.

Confused? If councillors are, what hope for the rest of us?

The Evening Star’s Paul Geater reporting on documents made public before Suffolk County Council meeting next Thursday, March 17, writes:

“Confusing messages” about the New Strategic direction are are making it difficult for both the public and councillors to understand what it is all about.

That’s the verdict today from the opposition at Suffolk County Council as it prepares for another debate on the authority’s flagship policy.

The county council is to debate a 25-page, 139 paragraph, report entitled: “Update on the implementation of the New Strategic Direction” at next week’s meeting of the full council.

A senior member of the administration said that councillors had debated the policy many times before and were quite capable of understanding the issues due to be discussed.

The key recommendation is that the county should use a principle dubbed “Your Place” to discuss changes to the way services are delivered.

That means it would talk to groups in towns or communities about taking over a number of services currently run by the county council – like libraries, country parks, school crossing patrols, and youth clubs – rather than discussing each separately.

I can only agree that it is all confusing. This is the recommendation that will be before the council (papers here):

That ‘Your Place’ divestment decisions should be made through conversations in a place, not on a service by service basis and that, where possible, the Council will work with local communities to come up with a preferred local solution, but if that’s not possible the Council will make a decision between proposals based on clear and communicated criteria.

And the reason for the recommendation:

Based on the views and information gathered as part of the ongoing engagement on the development of the New Strategic Direction and work with partners including the Suffolk Association of Local Councils and The Suffolk Congress, there is a need to look at service delivery from a community, rather than organisational perspective. To ensure that we are

clear with communities about our approach, we need to recognise that it may not always be possible to come up with a single proposal in each area for all services and communicate how decisions will be made.

The remainder of the document is similarly obscure. All I can suggest is that some of the money spent on training for Chief Executive Andrea Hill and council leader Jeremy Pembroke would have been better spent with the Plain English Campaign. They will provide in house courses for up to 10 people for £1,425 + VAT a day.

Saturday:

I have just seen this report on jargon at North Tyneside Council when Simon Higgins, now head of communications at Suffolk CC, was there.