Tag: bluh

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

A shameful failure of scrutiny

A deal has been done between Mr Bluh and Mr Montaut, apparently in an attempt to suppress further scrutiny of Swindon Borough Council’s dealings with Digital City (UK) Ltd.

I have reached an agreement with the Labour Group Leader that as and when the wi-fi project, which is fully supported by both the Conservative and Labour Groups, has been finally cleared by the Scrutiny and Audit Committees then in the interests of allowing the wi-fi project to move forward without further damaging publicity, without incurring additional costs to the taxpayer and to stop the enormous amount of officer time being spent on this issue to date, I will ask the external auditor to confirm the findings of the internal audit report and also to confirm that due process has been followed throughout. It is time to allow this fantastic, innovative opportunity to get properly underway to deliver for Swindon.

There’s nothing fantastic about squandering local taxpayers’ money, Mr Bluh; nor in being so careless in the deal that much of what councillors and council officers have said on the matter has turned out to be untrue; nor in investing in a project so laxly run that even though it was eight months behind schedule and had to ask for its loan conditions to be relaxed, the company board had not met. And just how arrogant it is of Mr Bluh to think the District Auditor needs his permission to investigate. As I noted a couple of days ago, the District Auditor has already been asked to investigate the wifi deal.

What has this acheived for Mr Montaut? Nothing, just an external enquiry that would have happened anyway.

I have been calling for an external enquiry for months now, because this council needs to focus on the things that matter to all Swindoners, like getting value for money for our council tax payers and ensuring that our public services are working to suit the needs of our townspeople. With the external auditors now investigating the Conservative administration’s wi-fi deal, I believe the council can do this.

That sounds to me like Mr Montaut, the chair of the Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee, wants to abandon scrutiny of this deal.

The role of the chair of a council’s scrutiny committee is to hold the council administration to account. To shirk that responsibility through worthless back-room deals like this is a shameful failure.


At a tempestuous meeting this evening of Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee — which at one point became a Tomlinson versus Tomlinson debate — it was agreed to defer a decision on the council’s loan to wi-fi company Digital City (UK) Ltd to the next meeting of the committee.

The committee agreed to a proposal by Mr Tomlinson (with amendments from Mr Moffatt) to defer a decision, pending clarification as to just who are the directors of Digital City (UK) Ltd — because Companies House records still show the only director as Rikki Hunt — and an investigation as to the providence of the investments in Digital City (UK) Ltd — because Companies House records show one of the shareholders to be Isle of Man registered aQovia Limited rather than UK registered aQovia UK Ltd. The main (90%) shareholder in aQovia Limited being Sara Kilduff whose main business is, apparently, a ‘virtual PA’.

The meeting also added to the catalogue of what in Mr Bluh’s view are ‘minor errors’; namely that entering an Isle of Man company — with full address — as a shareholder of Digital City (UK) Ltd rather than a UK one was just a matter of missing out the ‘UK’. Quite how this can be viewed as minor when the shareholder agreement underpinning the loan is with aQovia UK Ltd rather than the registered shareholder is something only Mr Bluh seems to ‘understand’. We were also asked to believe that not knowing who the registered directors are does not matter because the company has not made any ‘strategic decisions’. Seemingly, being eight months behind the original project plan and asking for variation of loan conditions are not strategic decisions.

Quite why Mr Bluh still has confidence in this ‘partnership’ is a mystery, especially as every time the company that constitutes the partnership makes a mistake, Mr Bluh refutes all responsibility. Why he expects any member of the public to have confidence in it is an even greater mystery.

Language is important

That was Mr Bluh’s oft repeated refrain to Mr Montaut during the debate at last night’s special meeting of Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet. But rather than using the phrase ‘language is important’ to attack Mr Montaut, Mr Bluh should reflect on how the meaning of language has been distorted in the record of the council’s actions relating to the wifi deal. There were many new meanings that we learnt for simple phrases at the council meeting last night.

  • When in a report presented to the meeting it said “The delay in having a fully operational ‘back-office’ customer care and billing operation has hindered opportunities to sell.” it actually meant the back-office software was ready, but the company never intended to start selling before it did.
  • Where Mr Patel wrote on his LinkedIn profileBoard Director Digital City (UK) Ltd” he actually meant “SBC observer on Board of Digital City”.
  • When Mr Jones, the council’s chief executive, wrote in a letter to Ms Snelgrove on 26 January “we have a director on the board” what he actually meant was “we have a director position on the board but have not filled it yet”.
  • By analogy, where in the appendix to the minutes of the 14 December 2009 meeting of the Scrutiny Committee it states “The Council has one Director representing its interests on the Digital City Board.” it also meant “we don’t yet have a director on the board”.
  • When Mr Bluh said to the Special Committee at its 25 March meetingThis is a loan repayable with interest at above commercial rate” what he should have said was “This is a loan repayable at a commercial rate”.

With a record like that of saying one thing but meaning another, it’s little wonder that the scrutiny of this deal continues.

More scrutiny to come

Recently, Mr Buckland offered some sound advice to his colleagues on Swindon Borough Council.

The failure by a Council official to declare that he was in fact a Director of the operating company is an example either of incompetence or of something worse.
I blogged recently that I was sure that the lack of openness was not the result of deliberate subterfuge. I still hope that I am right. My advice to those involved is to come clean about everything now. As well as a demonstration of transparency, it may well be the best thing to do in order to secure the future of the project, which I hope will be a success.

It’s advice that Mr Bluh seems very reluctant to accept. In his view, there’s nothing more he needs to tell us about how the council is spending almost £½M of our money on a venture described in parliament as having ‘a detrimental effect on small and medium-sized IT companies in Swindon’.

This deal has been subjected to the most enormous scrutiny in the past months and has passed all those tests.

Err… has Mr Bluh forgotten that his latest attempt to throw our money at the wi-fi project didn’t pass through the last meeting of the council’s Scrutiny Committee? Just what aspect of ‘failed’ is it that Mr Bluh interprets as meaning ‘passed’?

It also seems not to have occurred to Mr Bluh that it has ‘passed’ some of those scrutiny tests only because very limited information was made available. It is for that reason that it has been referred back to the council’s cabinet, where additional information will be presented next Wednesday. It is unfortunately that the claims of Mr Patel that he did not know he was a director of Digital City (UK) Ltd seem inconsistent with the letter sent by the council’s chief executive, Mr Jones, to Ms Snelgrove on 28 January stating

we have a Director on the Board.

It’s difficult to know who, if anyone, involved in this at the council can be believed.

However, from later this week there will be a new Swindon Borough Council representative on the board of Digital City (UK) Ltd. It is proposed that Mr Perkins become a director of the company. Quite what the relevance of his cabinet responsibility for “children’s services” has towards the alleged social inclusion objectives of the wifi project is less clear. Perhaps the more relevant Mr Mattock is out of favour… or has less favours owed to him.

In a recent pep-talk to his party members the blue nest’s Mr Pickles said

We have seen what can be done as a council, and now it is time for our extremely good candidates to get into place and bring some honesty, decency and straightforwardness into government.

We have indeed seen what can be done as a council, and recently it’s not been pretty. If they’re to stand any chance of getting into national government they’ll first need to bring some honesty, decency and straightforwardness to local government.

If Mr Bluh wishes the scrutiny to stop, he first needs to ensure that the very serious concerns about the way he spends our money are answered, and answered honestly.