Tag: bad economics

Swindon Borough Council top pay

Some research by the BBC has revealed the remuneration of the highest paid across the public sector, those paid over £100,000. The figures for Swindon Borough Council are interesting not so much for the figures themselves, but for the apparent coyness of the council, in several places giving neither name nor post of the person in receipt of this largess.

Name Job Description Total remuneration
No name supplied   £177,500
No name supplied   £142,500
No name supplied Group Director Environment & Regeneration £140,352
Gavin Jones Chief Executive £138,525
No name supplied Group Director Childrens’ Services £138,370
No name supplied   £137,500
No name supplied Group Director Business Transformation £130,112
No name supplied   £127,500
No name supplied Director of Housing and Leisure £114,066
No name supplied   £112,500
No name supplied   £112,500
No name supplied Director of Finance £100,678

One can only hope that their achievements are rather less anonymous than their identities.

The efficient approach to building restoration

In these economically tightened times, how do you go about restoring a building in the most efficient way possible? Don’t know? Never mind, let Swindon Commercial Services be your guide.

First, get some banners specially made, that’ll only be of use for this one job.
Nice new banners. Photo © komadori
Next, give someone that most strenuous of tasks: being the ’elf ’n’ safety guard who stops pedestrians blundering into the path of passing buses, ’cos the pavement has been cordoned off.
Tiring work. Photo © komadori

Then hide those specially prepared signs with big wooden hoardings.
Where’d that sign go? Photo © komadori
Finally, as noted by Swindon Centric, paint the hoardings white. It’s nice to know that the newly pseudo-independent SCS is spending our money so carefully.

Update, Tuesday, 27 July 2010: As expected, the hoardings have now been fully painted in traditional white, ready for the graffiti taggers to do their worst.
Now in white. Photo © komadori

What expenditure isn’t protected?

With the local blue councillors claiming first that expenditure on big arts events is not ‘not a priority’ and then that the programme of upgrades to play areas will be protected, I’m beginning to wonder whether there’s any scheme that — when challenged — they won’t claim is protected, despite their impending emergency budget.

But then, if that accounting genius, Mr Bluh, can claim that ‘the value is not related to money’ we really shouldn’t be surprised that Swindon Borough Council’s budget is in such a mess.

Swindon Tories back socialist town centre

The boys in Bluh ensconced in Swindon Borough Council are rapidly becoming the least conservative Conservatives in the country. What other Conservative controlled council would go for a government funded, local-government owned town centre regeneration? So far the only part of the regeneration of Swindon town centre to be privately funded is the rebuilding of the BHS store — which was never part of the New Swindon Company’s grand scheme. The big screen in Wharf Green belongs to the BBC. Repaving of Canal Walk and Regent Street is funded from government grants. Now the council is propping up the Union Square development by buying a car park for over £14M from developers Muse.

Last November, we were told that work on Union Square would be ‘starting on site in summer 2010’. As I said back then, never believe a project plan based on the seasons. Summer 2010 is here, but nothing’s happened, not even a planning application. As recently as December, Mr Bluh told usWe have the Union Square development going ahead’. As is so often the case, the easy way to tell whether Mr Bluh is spouting ignorant twaddle is to see if his lips are moving.

Last week, buried in a cabinet report ostensibly about lowering the charges at the council’s town centre car parks were options for splurging more of our money. The report makes it clear how ill-informed Mr Bluh’s earlier comments were.

It is clear that if the Council is unable to take up an option on the car park, the development would remain unviable in the current market. MUSE have indicated that they would mothball the project and unless there is a significant improvement in the economic situation, there would be unlikely to be any redevelopment for the foreseeable future.

And thus it is that the residents of Swindon once again find themselves at risk of picking up the financial tab for one of Mr Bluh’s grandiose schemes.

Hat-tip: Bogomil on TalkSwindon.

Dial-a-cut

I’d not been aware that social and community transport is a hotbed of international competition, with companies from other EU countries queuing up for a piece of the action. Indeed, given the strength of the UK’s bus industry — Stagecoach, First Group and National Express are all international operations with the only strong overseas presence in the UK being French state owned Transdev and imminently German state owned Arriva — and community transport being almost by definition transport services that are highly unviable commercially, it would be amazing if that ever were to be the case. However, Swindon Borough Council seems to believe that European community bus operators will be queuing out the door if they put out to tender the service currently provided by Swindon Dial A Ride.

’Tis odd that Swindon Borough Council is happy to apply European competition law to a small non-commercial transport operation, yet elsewhere claims it’s irrelevant to giving almost £½M to a company launching a service in what’s already a highly competitive industry.

Update, 22:11 Thursday 27 May. Apparently, the EU regulation being used by the council is one specific to public transport rather than the general competition-related regulations originally thought. But it’s a regulation that specifically defines ‘public passenger transport’ to exclude services such as social dial-a-ride services.

Fountain or folly?

I’m sure that, on paper, the new fountain at the crossroads of Canal Walk, Bridge Street and Regent Street was a good idea. I’m sure that, in model form, the water cascaded nicely down what is now almost £¼M of curvy metal and into the drains below. But the reality is somewhat different.

I passed the fountain this morning. There were no children playing around the fountain then, but the flow of water was just a trickle, and what little water there was was mainly splashing on the paving rather than running through the drainage grills. Come the winter, just how long will it take for Swindon Borough Council to be the recipient of an insurance claim for a fall on ice from the fountain? It could be better; it should be better; perhaps with a few tweaks it will be better, but for the moment the fountain looks like an expensive folly.

Negativity

At tonight’s meeting of Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet Mr Bluh complained at length about the ‘negativity’ of some commentators on the decision to spend almost £½M of Swindon taxpayers’ money of wifi. According to Mr Bluh and Mr Edwards it is ‘offensive’ for anyone to raise concerns about the process by which they made their decision to spend our money. On that basis, Messrs Bluh and Edwards clearly find at least two of their own cabinet colleagues offensive.

Mr Perkins said that if it was up to him, Digital City (UK) Ltd’s business case would have been published. It remains a secret, accessible to only a few and only under strict conditions. Mr Greenhalgh said he had ‘concerns about the legality’ of the earlier decision. It was notable that when Mr Bluh tried to say that the external auditor had investigated the process and had no concerns, the borough solicitor felt the need to intervene and correct that statement. Both Mr Bluh and Mr Hunt seem eager to move on and end the discussion about the legitimacy of the council’s funding of this project. Perhaps that’s because the questions are both persistent and difficult for them to answer.

Mr Bluh also seems to be trying to rewrite history. He now claims that the decision made by three council officers on the advice of just himself and Mr Edwards was ‘a cabinet decision’. Again, the borough solicitor felt the need to intervene and correct that statement. For any that might be inclined to believe Mr Bluh when he says this was a cabinet decision, here is a reminder of what was said by the council in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Decision Makers – these are the three authors of the briefing note.

Those authors were the Director of Finance (Mr McKellar), the Director of Law and Democratic Services (Mr Taylor) and the Group Director Business Transformation (Mr Patel). That is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a cabinet decision.

There are some other discrepancies. Mr Greenhalgh raised concerns about whether it was appropriate for Mr Patel to have been a director of Digital City (UK) Ltd and to have written the briefing note to Messrs Bluh and Edwards and to be one of those conducting a risk assessment the company’s plans. According to the borough solicitor, Mr Patel is just an observer on the company’s board, not formally appointed. That is not how it appears in the records of Companies House.

When his own cabinet colleauges have serious concerns, when a former council leader from his own party, Mr Bawden, was shaking his head through much of what Mr Bluh had to say, surely even the most arrogant and vain of council leaders would realise they had made a mistake? In the case of Mr Bluh it would seem not.

Update, 01:17, Sunday, 14 March 2010: Mr Patel’s directorship of Digital City (UK) Ltd has now been terminated, on Friday 12 March 2010.

Delusions of importance

In a puff for himself in the Adver, Mr Hunt makes grand claims for the historical importance of the wi-fi project he’s running at our expense.

It’s as ground breaking and significant today as the introduction of the Penny Post or the motor car or the aeroplane were to our fore-fathers…. Daniel Gooch identified Swindon as the ideal location for the Brunel’s Great Western Railway works. The decision turned a small market town into a transport, communications and economic power house. A century later, Swindon was still at the forefront of national innovation and social inclusion. Aneurin Bevan MP, determined to create a National Health Service offering every member of society cradle-to-grave healthcare, visited Swindon to see how Gooch’s GWR Medical Fund, paid for by employees’ contributions, worked in practice…. A complete health service, and all we had to do was to expand it to embrace the whole country.

Of course, Mr Hunt cannot know whether this new service will be as trailblazing as those he compares it with; only history will tell. What we do know is that some of Mr Hunt’s claims are, at the least, exaggerated.

Yes, this is new, and it’s brave. But that’s the beauty and the strength of it.

A quick internet search for ‘free city wide wifi’ shows it’s far from new and the only bravery is in the risk being taken with almost £½M of Swindon taxpayers’ money.

[S]mall and medium enterprises, who instead of having to maintain their own networks will be able to rely on Signal

An internet service provider that plans a break of service in the middle of the working day is not one I’d wish to rely on.

Down the line, costs of sending and receiving texts and emails when abroad will plummet with Signal.

For a company that already seems to be short of cash, that’s a very long way down the line, unless Mr Hunt thinks his competitors are going to give his company cheap access to their networks. From the evidence of the internet deals being offered in Swindon by the companies of Messrs Branson and Murdoch, their main aim at the moment seems to be to price Mr Hunt out of business.

It will even allow more efficient energy distribution throughout the national grid.

That assumes that National Grid would want to sign up for an account: as a company that have themselves been an internet service provider with past experience in wireless communications, that seems unlikely.

I understand there are those that doubt the benefits that wi-fi can bring to our whole town, and the wisdom of the council’s partnership with Digital City. But I am also sure there were those who doubted Gooch and Bevan at the time.

No Mr Hunt, that shows you don’t understand the concerns at all. Those are concerns about the secrecy surrounding this decision and whether due process was followed.

If Mr Hunt wishes to be compared to Messrs Gooch and Bevan, he first needs to prove that he can match their achievements. From the evidence available at the moment, £150,000 of Swindon taxpayers’ money has bought just 5 paying customers when the target at this stage was 125. As a record of achievement, that’s hardly a stunning start.

Contemptuous — pouring our money after bad

It seem that the wi-fi company to which Swindon Borough Council has loaned almost £½M of our money may be running a little short of cash. At a meeting of the council’s cabinet this coming Wednesday, there is a request to significantly relax some of the conditions of the loan.

Whilst fifteen out of the original nineteen Highworth progress measures have been considered to have been met, four have not been fully met to date…. These four measures, however, do not represent a significant enough risk to justify placing constraints on generating revenue by slowing down the roll-out of the Wi-Fi network across the rest of Swindon. All four measures are still expected to be achieved, however, variations are requested on the timing and scale of these.

Four out of 19 measures failed is not good, especially as they are some of the more measurable measures. And the failure to fulfil them indicates that the business case was significantly less robust than the likes of Mr Bluh would have us believe.

Measure 1: Originally stated: “Highworth network installed, working and accessible.”
Proposed variation: Highworth network installed, working and accessible to 90% of households and a commitment made that the two remaining router installations that enable consistent coverage for the outstanding 10% of Highworth will be completed within a week of planning consent being granted.

That’s not too significant of itself: 100% coverage is never a sensible measure. That it’s a consequence of the company not noticing that there are hills in Highworth, is rather more worrying. One would hope that they have learnt from this.

Measure 2: Originally stated: “Private sector sponsorship or commitment to future funding, to the value of at least £20,000, secured by end of Quarter 1.”
Proposed Variation: Expressions of interest received from the private and or public sector for investment once a Borough wide network is available.

So that’s replacing private sector money with a vague promise of more tax-payers’ money.

Measure 3: Originally stated: “Sold – at least 100 private use packages by the end of Quarter 1.”
Measure 4: Originally stated: “Sold – at least 25 business packages by the end of Quarter 1.”
Proposed Variation: The measures 3 and 4 be combined and changed into a single measure : “Sold – some business and private packages by end March”.

That’s a clear, easily measurable sales target being replaced by something vague and far less stringent. Just how many less than 125 packages is ‘some’? The council paper states the number of ‘packages’ sold:

as of Monday the 2nd March 5 packages were sold.

5 out of a planned 100. That’s not just poor, that’s pathetic. Just how badly does the company need to fail to meet its sales targets for Mr Bluh to recognise a commercial disaster?

Mr Montaut has expressed some concerns about these changes.

I understand that the Conservative administration are eager to get wi-fi rolled out throughout the borough. However, there is an investigation into the wi-fi deal being undertaken by the council’s Internal Audit and there have been enquiries made by the district auditor into the deal…. The council and Digital City stand to be in a much worse financial position if the auditors find the wi-fi deal to be contemptuous.

As has become all too familiar, the response from Mr Bluh to those expressing concern, rather than addressing those concerns, is just dismissive.

I am deeply disappointed that the opposition party should be so desperate to score political points that they are willing to sabotage and undermine private sector investment in Swindon.

Just how stupid does Mr Bluh think we are? Since when has £½M of taxpayers’ money been regarded as private sector investment?

The Labour opposition is being contemptuous of the residents of the borough by failing to support this investment. The Labour opposition is jeopardising the borough’s economic future by trying to bring down Digital City.

The only contempt I can see is from Mr Bluh, who seems to behave as those this is his own private investment, rather than taxpayers’ money. Has Mr Bluh ever asked the residents of the borough if they wanted this investment?

Mr Hunt also appears either naïve or to take his funders — Swindon council tax payers — as fools.

First of all the investment is a contract — the council pull out of this, they break the contract and face penalties.

Err… remind me, who is it that has failed to meet 4 of 19 contractual obligations under the loan agreement?

This political scrap is 100 per cent damaging our business plan.

The plan seems rather damaged even without any political problems. And if you don’t like politics, you shouldn’t go begging for public sector money. And if Mr Hunt doesn’t like politics, he shouldn’t be making political comments himself.

It has been very, very frustrating and what stuns me is that the Labour group are preventing us getting on with rolling out free wi-fi, which is something that will increase social inclusion – something I thought was at the heart of their group.

Let’s also be clear that concern on this isn’t just political. If the decision to spend almost £½M of our money had been made openly, there would be far less concern. It was not. The basis on which the decision was made remains a secret. Whilst that secrecy remains, the scrutiny will continue. Investigation by the Audit Commission would be more than welcome.

The slash and burn approach to council budgeting

I don’t wish to appear churlish about Swindon Borough Council achieving a low council tax increase for the coming year but… if they can achieve an increase of just 1.8% following a year when the council’s other revenues (such as planning application fees) have collapsed, just why haven’t they achieved it before? Or perhaps it would be more pertinent to ask why they haven’t felt it appropriate to achieve such a small increase before. In principle, it should have been possible for them to achieve this level of increase in previous years putting far less strain on service provision, as the council’s finances were in a better state.

To go for broke — possibly literally — this year looks like little more than reckless pre general election posturing rather than carefully thought out financial planning.