Wi-fi — whose approach was it?

Throughout the entirety of Swindon’s wifi fiasco, Mr Bluh has been adamant that no tendering exercise was necessary nor appropriate, because it was not the council’s proposition, it was a proposal put to them by Mr Hunt. In the council chamber Mr Bluh has repeatedly been very clear, Mr Hunt approached the council, not the other way round. As long ago as December 2009 Mr Bluh said

[I]t is only recently we have been approached by Digital City UK who had a technical partnership with aQovia. They came to us because they wanted to set up services to sell in Swindon and we invested in them, so we have not disadvantaged any other businesses in Swindon.

Now Mr Hunt has given a version of events that differs somewhat. If Mr Hunt is to be believed, it was the council leadership that approached him.

What people do not appreciate is that I was talking for a long time about the concept, and the executive of the council approached me. We all looked at the risks and rewards and decided it was worth doing.

Given their track records — and that Mr Hunt believes his wifi proposal “was a good idea and it still is” — it’s impossible to guess whether Mr Hunt has had a lapse of memory, or Mr Bluh was lying. Of course, if the decision to fund this project had been done in a more open way, we wouldn’t be left to guess. But despite all the questions asked, Mr Bluh and colleagues continue to maintain excessive secrecy about the project, and honesty is in short supply.

Market failure

The remnants of Wood Street Market

Started a year ago with some fanfare, Wood Street Farmers’ Market has slowly withered away. For the first few months it served as a Christmas Market, with craft stalls to accompany the food stalls. It brought so much trade that many of the shops in Wood Street opened on the Sundays it was there. But after Christmas 2010, with most of the craft stalls gone, interest dropped. In late spring the food stalls started to abandon it too and the shops went back to being closed on Sundays. Now all that are left are a bread stall; two meat stalls — one selling burgers as a take-away as well as raw meat, the other just selling hot pork rolls — a photographer, and a burger stall selling candy floss.

In many ways Wood Street is the ideal place for a market, but with competition from the Sunday Farmers’ Market at the Designer Outlet — which many of the stallholders in Wood Street also attended — and little reason to visit Old Town on a Sunday apart from the market, it was always likely to struggle.

Bluh’s wifi hindsight was others’ foresight

It seems that the current leadership of Swindon Borough Council are going through a rather ‘retro’ phase at the moment, claiming for themselves as original thoughts ideas put forward by others years ago. First there was Mr Perkins who claimed that creating a park on derelict town centre sites await redevelopment was his idea, whereas local residents suggested it in April 2008. Now it seems that Mr Bluh wants to get in on the act too.

Now, whilst it’s always refreshing — and all too rare — when a politician admits they got things wrong, Mr Bluh has a particularly unrefreshing way of admitting his errors. In fact he does so in a way that suggests he doesn’t accept he’s failed in any way at all. As long ago as December 2009 local residents — some that were members of his own political party — were pointing out how risky his decision to invest almost £½M of our money in a wi-fi start-up company was. A company lead by someone with no track record in the industry; a company where directors seemed not to know they were directors, and a company where the directors that did realise they were directors didn’t understand what their responsibilities are. So for Mr Bluh to now say,

We did all the due diligence but perhaps in hindsight we should have looked at the risk factors a bit harder.

is little better than an admission of total economic blindness. For Mr Bluh to only recognise with hindsight what others with just a little foresight have been telling him for almost two years is, though welcome, inadequate. And at the risk of stating the obvious, if they didn’t look at the risk factors hard enough, then they clearly didn’t do all the due diligence, only some of it.

We were prepared to take the risk and we felt it was a managed risk at the time and, with hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t the best risk.

Even if it were managed at the time — which is disputable — the council then chose to relax that management, disregarding concerns that were raised. Again, there’s no hindsight required here, all the evidence was available at the time, and pointed out repeatedly to Mr Bluh, but he wilfully chose to ignore it. Until he shows some signs of admitting that this isn’t just a matter of hindsight, but something he should have and easily could have avoided, there’s no reason to believe Mr Bluh won’t be squandering our money yet again.

Garry Perkins burns his Priory Vale visa

Mr Perkins is not renowned for engaging many brain cells before opening his mouth, but in his latest outburst he might just, unwittingly, have stumbled through a nuance of planning law.

Swindon Borough Council has been busily splashing the cash from a renegotiation of Priory Vale’s ‘Haydon 3’ planing obligation — commonly known as a S106 agreement — around the borough, with little if any regard for its impact on the new housing development. According to Mr Perkins, there’s nothing wrong with that.

We’ve got to look at the town as a whole rather than individual areas. It’s for the use for the good of the people of Swindon, of which Haydon 3 area residents are part. You don’t need passports to go to Old Town because you’re from north Swindon. It’s the same town.

At first, it would seem that Mr Perkins — although he’s the council cabinet member with responsibility for regeneration — is unfamiliar with the relevant planning laws. Section 122 of the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations 2010 states:

  1. This regulation applies where a relevant determination is made which results in planning permission being granted for development.
  2. A planning obligation may only constitute a reason for granting planning permission for the development if the obligation is—
    1. necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms;
    2. directly related to the development; and
    3. fairly and reasonably related in scale and kind to the development.

In other words, it’s illegal to use S106 money for something that isn’t directly related to the housing development the money came from. If a council were to use the money in that way, the developer that was forced to stump up the money could reasonably demand their money back, leaving the council taxpayers to foot the bill for whatever the money had been squandered on.

The critical point here is that the money now being spent is not from a Section 106 agreement, it is from a renegotiation of that agreement. So although it would be illegal for the council to insist before planning permission was granted that the Haydon 3 developers pay for something irrelevant to Priory Vale — such as facilities in Dorcan — it’s within the law to do so now after planning permission was granted.

The occupants of Abbey Meads may quite reasonably feel aggrieved that the money to be spent in support of where they live has diminished from £18.6M to just £700,000 but unfortunately for them — and anyone else living in a new housing development — the council appear to have found a way around the legislation that’s intended to protect them.

Digital City (UK) Ltd, R.I.P.

Hard on the news that John Richard ‘Rikki’ Hunt has filed for bankruptcy, comes the news that Digital City (UK) Ltd is now in the process of being struck off the register of companies. So that’s £½M of Swindon taxpayers’ money gone, despite the assurances of the Messrs Bluh and Perkins that the equipment installed by the company and the use that could be made of that was worth more than the loan to them from Swindon Borough Council, that it was a no-lose proposition. How a patchy wireless internet service for Highworth, and nowhere other than Highworth, could be worth £½M is hard to see, but that is all we got for the money our councillors squandered on our behalf on this project.

Lest we forget, here are a few things said about this failed adventure with our money by Mr Bluh in December 2009.

This is a commercial decision, in the new world in which we all live more and more commercial decisions will be made. An opportunity was put to us, and we were asked if we wanted to invest…. This is a commercial venture that will bring commercial return. The only affects on capital budgets will be if this loan does not get repaid in full…. To get a reasonable level of council tax and to go forward we have been required to find savings and efficiencies. We are doing everything that is humanly possible to keep this ship afloat.

The ship was holed below the waterline before Mr Bluh squandered our money on it, and is now sinking rapidly to the bottom of the ocean. There were many that brought this to the attention of our arrogant council leadership at the time. They wilfully chose not to listen. Now it will be us, the council taxpayers, rather than those councillors personally, that will be paying for their financial stupidity.

The fall and fall of Rikki Hunt

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the likes of Mr Bluh and Mr Perkins were fond of telling the people of Swindon what a great person they thought Mr John Richard ‘Rikki’ Hunt was. How they thought he was a great person to be leading a company to which they had loaned almost £½M of Swindon taxpayers’ money because, in their view, he was a very experienced business man from which Swindon would benefit.

Of course not all experience is equal. Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards had much experience of ski-jumping… and of coming last. Mr Hunt has now managed the same feat as a business man, going bankrupt to the tune of over £1M, including over £400,000 to the tax-man. As he filed for bankruptcy on 8 March this year, it also puts some perspective on his apparent generosity in ‘gifting’ to Swindon Borough Council his stake in the failed wi-fi company for which he had convinced the aforementioned gullible councillors to part with our money. It would have been no financial loss to him, only to his creditors.

Mr Hunt’s involvement with wifi company Digital City (UK) Ltd was via a consultancy company he set up for that purpose, Avidity Consulting Ltd. That company is now in the process of being struck off the register of companies. How much Avidity received from Digital City — and so indirectly from Swindon taxpayers — for its consultancy services has never been revealed. Also of note, before anyone is overcome with sympathy for Mr Hunt’s predicament, is that his wife, Laura Hunt, is not bankrupt, remaining a company director. For the Hunts, Rikki’s bankruptcy may be little more than a minor business inconvenience, rather than a case of serious financial hardship.

Pulling a fast-one on takeaways

It seems that Mr Heenan has taken the political silly season to heart. It difficult to see any other explanation for his apparent sudden disliking for takeaways.

Mr Heenan has been involved in development control , having been on Swindon Borough Council’s Planning Committee — more recently as committee chairman — since he was in his political nappies. He would be aware, one would hope, of the contents of his council’s Core Strategy, which requires local retail centres in all new developments to be in close proximity to other community facilities. In particular, if you look at any of the maps for new developments around Swindon in Part 4 of the strategy, you will see that each one has the ‘local centre’ and primary school located together. Any retail development outside of the the local centre is strongly discouraged by the strategy.

Yet now, Mr Heenan has proposed that fast-food takeaways be banned within ¼ mile of any school, as a ‘contribution’ to reducing child obesity. So you wouldn’t be able to open a takeaway anywhere outside of a local centre, nor within ¼ mile of a school, yet all new local centres would be within ¼ mile of a school.

Now komadori is only a very occasional eater of takeaways — about once per month — but they are an essential part of of any local community centre, along with a small general store, a pub and, quite often, a hairdressers. If there was evidence to support Mr Heenan’s ideas, perhaps it would be reasonable, but there is no hint of evidence in the agenda for the meeting at which Mr Heenan proposed this idea. And if takeaways should be banned, then what about general stores that sell sweets to children? And what about all those parents that drive their children to school — why not ban petrol station shops from selling junk food as well, in case the parents stop-off on the way and buy their kids something unhealthy? If Mr Heenan’s really concerned about children’s health, why not ban parking and waiting near schools, so that all children have to walk to school? All of these suggestions would be regarded by some as ridiculous, yet all could have just as big an effect on children’s health.

Mr Heenan’s proposal is bereft of logic. To me this looks no more than a quick-fried policy, cooked-up in a hurry and quickly served to grab some summer headlines.

The road still travelled… false alarm on the buses

Back in March, Stagecoach in Swindon and Thamesdown Transport started making noises about planned cuts in subsidy from Swindon Borough Council, bemoaning the dire effect it would have on evening and Sunday services. At the time I listed all the council subsidised bus services that might be effected, 11 in total. In April, both companies were still complaining. The council reinstated funding to just one service — the number 24 that runs through the resolutely blue-voting Lawns area.

The end result? Has there been a decimation of evening and Sunday services? No. In fact, not much change at all. The axe has been taken to evening bus services on the No. 11 and No. 19 and… that’s it. With Thamesdown Transport seemingly continuing to run all its other formerly subsidised services on a commercial basis, and Stagecoach now announcing it will do the same, there’s not much change at all. That’ll be no comfort to residents of East Wichel, Pinehurst and Greenmeadow who are now deprived of evening services on the No. 11, nor to those of Eastleaze, Shaw, Nine Elms, Peatmoor and Sparcells who have lost the evening services of the No. 19. But compared with how bad the bus companies were claiming it would be, the damage is very limited.

One could almost be forgiven for wondering whether the bus companies have been taking tax-payer subsidies for years for services that were actually profitable.

A pub for East Wichel

Artist impression of Marston’s East Wichel pub

Today the Adver has reported that Marston’s Inns has submitted a planning application for a pub at East Wichel. Despite what the Adver says, I can’t yet find the planning application on Swindon Borough Council’s website. The only information on it I can find is in the minutes of the March meeting of the Wichelstowe developers’ community forum.

East Wichel pub plans. Click for larger image.What this pub won’t be is one that’s at the centre of the community. It’s on a plot — designated as a ‘commercial plot’ in the East Wichel masterplan — right at the edge of the development. Indeed, once Blackhorse Bridge across the motorway is opened, it’ll be not much closer for most East Wichel residents than the Check Inn in North Wroughton — the two pubs will stand almost opposite each other separated by the M4. With the new pub including a 180 seat restaurant — dwarfing the Check Inn’s 30 seat dining area — it’s clearly aiming to serve rather more than just the local community.

The Check Inn has had a fairly chequered history of late, with landlord’s struggling to make a success of it — Fuller’s are advertising it to let at the moment. A vast new pub nearby, just across the motorway, may be good for the residents of East Wichel, but for those of North Wroughton it’s likely to bring further disappointment.

Swindon Borough Councillor attendance rates 2010

After a couple of years of improvement, attendance rates of councillors at Swindon Borough Council meetings stagnated in 2010. On average, across all councillors the attendance rate was 84%, which is not a significant change from 2009 when the rate was 85%.

In terms of attendance rates, the top 5 councillors of 2010 were:

Another 16 councillors attended over 90% of the meetings they were recorded against, a decrease from 22 who were in that position in 2009. Three councillors attended over 50 meetings during the year, including two of those with attendance rates above 90%.

The councillors with the worst attendance rates (60% or less) in 2010 were:

Of those, three ceased to be councillors last May, whilst Mr Dobie, Mr Smith and Mr Wiltshire are saving themselves from having to explain their poor attendance by not seeking re-election at the elections later this week — consistent poor attendance since they were last elected in the cases of Mr Dobie and Mr Wiltshire. That leaves Ms Heenan, elected only in May 2010, who clearly has a lot to learn about attendance at council meetings from her son Mr Heenan. Compared with 2009, although the number of councillors not attending many of their meetings is little changed, for those councillors in this group their individual attendance rates have got far worse.

The figures are derived by taking an entry in a meeting attendance page of ‘Present’ or ‘In attendance’ as meaning the councillor was there, and any other entry as meaning that they should have been there but weren’t. Full details of all Swindon Borough Councillors’ 2010 meeting attendance rates are available in the archive.