After last night’s disgraceful performance by Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee — when the wifi deal was approved based on a report circulated to committee members before he weekend but kept secret from the public — it is no surprise that the Audit Committee meeting tonight was equally weak. Illustrating the worthlessness of the tawdry deal between Mr Bluh and Mr Montaut, the representative of the Audit Commission present at tonight’s meeting made clear that regardless of whether the council invited the Commission to investigate, the Commission itself would decide for itself whether it would do so.
With the arrogance that we have now come to expect from Mr Bluh, he dismissed concerns raised by Mr Martin and Mr Moffatt that the security obtain by the council for the loan was woefully inadequate. Mr Bluh may believe that the installed network — however little of that there might be — would be worth more than £450,000, but as noted later by the council’s own Director of Finance “It is early days and I wouldn’t want to put a value on it.”
Unfortunately for Swindon taxpayers, Mr Bluh seems to believe that he knows better than his professional council officer advisers. He behaves like an elected mayor in what is meant to be a cabinet run council, trusting that cabinet so little that he overruled the advice of the Borough Solicitor that there was a better way to make the decision on the wifi deal, simply to avoid telling most cabinet members about it.
During tonight’s Audit Committee meeting Mr Martin noted that if the council was intent on doing similar deals in future, it needed to ensure that it has officers as capable and “as sophisticated as those we do business with” to ensure the deals adequately protect the council’s interests. In his view, the deal done with the other partners in Digital City (UK) Ltd gives no assurance that the council will ever see its share of any profits there might be: the other partners could easily consume any profits in salaries and charges and the council — having only a minority stake in the company — would be unable to stop that.
But capable and sophisticated council officers are of no value if they are ignored. For as long as arrogant people like Mr Bluh are in charge, Swindon taxpayers’ money will continue to be put at what many perceive to be undue risk.