Tag: bluh

Key lines of enquiry

Before he was interrupted by the borough solicitor at the meeting of Swindon Borough Council cabinet just over a week ago, Mr Bluh tried to say — though it’s not made it into the minutes of the meeting — that the only thing that external auditors were looking at in relation to the council’s wi-fi deal was ‘value for money’ and that they were not investigating any issues of process. What it does record of in the minutes of the meeting is Mr Bluh’s view of what is important in this issue.

He did not believe it was necessary to await the outcome of the Audit Committee review that was to look at the best value aspect of the loan agreement for the project.

Let’s look at the Audit Commission’s ‘key lines of enquiry’ when considering value for money.

The use of resources assessment considers how well organisations are managing and using their resources to deliver value for money and better and sustainable outcomes for local people. The assessment comprises three themes that focus on:

  • sound and strategic financial management;
  • strategic commissioning and good governance; and
  • the management of natural resources, assets and people.

Sound financial management and good governance: I’d certainly welcome a thorough examination of those for this wifi deal. Perhaps we could start with an in-depth examination of the governance process and how a director of Swindon Borough Council came to be a director of a company before giving advice to Mr Bluh that the council should invest in that company.

Another noticeable omission from the meeting minutes is Mr Patel’s denial that he was a director of Digital City (UK) Ltd. What it does say is that an appointment to the company’s board will be made, but says nothing about the situation at that time.

The Cabinet were advised that under the loan arrangements, the Group Director, Business Transformation would represent the Council at meetings of the Board of Digital City (UK) Limited and that he received no remuneration from the company. It was confirmed that the Special Committee was likely to be asked to make an appointment to serve on the Board in the near future.

Meeting minutes have rarely been so misleading.

Back to cabinet

Well, well. Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee have finally done the honourable thing and stood up to Mr Bluh, referring back to cabinet their recent decision to greatly relax the loan conditions on Digital City (UK) Ltd. Tho’ given recent revelations, it would have been very remiss of them to have done anything less.

komadori is disappointed not to have been able to attend this evening’s meeting of the Scrutiny Committee. Reports suggest it was an interesting event.

Update, 08:39, Tuesday, 16 March 2010: Mr Wakefield has an interesting and informative perspective of last night’s ‘scrutiny’ meeting over on his blog.

Rod Bluh’s wifi seafood platter

Mr Bluh has repeatedly maintained that the process by which Swindon Borough Council made a decision to invest in Digital City (UK) Ltd — for the purpose of providing boroughwide wireless internet for Swindon — was totally above board. Even as late as the meeting of the council’s cabinet last Wednesday, Mr Bluh said that ‘Process is a red herring’. It seems that Mr Bluh has difficulty distinguishing red herrings from great white sharks.

The meeting of Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee last December was provided with evidence that the decision to invest in Digital City (UK) Ltd was made in October of that year, 20 October 2009 to be precise. At last week’s cabinet meeting, it was stated that Mr Patel was not a director of the company, that no appointment had been made, he was just ‘an observer’. Not so.

Evidence from Companies House shows that not only was Swindon Borough Council allotted shares in Digital City (UK) Ltd (at that time still known as DM 56 Ltd) on 15 September 2009, but Mr Patel also became a director of the company on that date. His directorship has only just been terminated.

Mr Bluh would like us to believe that there are no problems with the process by which the decision was made to invest in Digital City (UK) Ltd. He thinks — as he said last week — that it’s time to move on. If he weren’t so confused about not just what the process was but also when it happened, perhaps his pleading would be a little more convincing.
Digital City (UK) Ltd timeline
Hat-tip: TalkSwindon

Update, 01:43, Monday, 15 March 2010: Seems Mr Patel is trying to rewrite his recent past so his LinkedIn profile now describes him as having been an ‘SBC observer on Board of Digital City’ where twelve hours earlier it said he was a ‘Board Director’. Either Mr Patel didn’t understand what he was doing last September when he signed the Companies House form declaring himself to be a director of the company, or he regards the public as rather naïve. Either way, perhaps it’s time he found himself a less onerous job to do.

Like a tory council: local elections 2010 round 2

Run like a Tory CouncilIf I were Mr Tomlinson or Mr Buckland I’d be worried. Not because of how their party’s lead has diminished in recent national opinion polls. Nor because of particular campaigning successes of their opponents, Mr Agarwal and the government’s representative in South Swindon, Ms Snelgrove, respectively. No, what would worry me would be the antics of the leadership of Swindon Borough Council. Mr Bluh through his arrogance and extravagant splurging of local taxpayers’ money on vanity projects, is giving the opponents of his party’s candidates in the national elections an easy target.

The leaflet dropped through my letterbox today by Mr Wright in the company of Mr Montaut is devious in its attempt to confuse national politics with local politics. Thus it compares recent expenditure by the blue nest controlled council with alleged ‘investment’ by national government — bragging about money spent by Mr Brown’s government without mentioning the record-breaking debt they’ve run-up is like praising a bullion robber for their money laundering skills. But all that is a side issue in comparison with the simple messages of Mr Bluh’s vanity projects — wifi, tabernacle stones, the Radio 1 Big Weekend — and a simple claim.

David Cameron has already said he would run the country like a Tory council – don’t give him the chance.

I can’t find the source of that claim. And if Mr Cameron were to run the country like most Conservative councils, I wouldn’t mind. But Swindon Borough Council isn’t like other Conservative councils — it’s one with a legacy of Mr Bluh’s failed vanity projects.

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.

Forward Swindon — repackaging failure?

On the same day that the University of the West of England announced it had ditched plans to build a university in Swindon, thereby knocking yet another hole in the masterplan for Swindon town centre regeneration, the council’s fantasist leader Mr Bluh was busy burying his head in the sand.

2010 will see us kicking off out of the recession because of the resilience we have here in Swindon.

The only resilience I see is in Mr Bluh’s habit of throwing our money at vanity projects.

[I]n 2009 we had one of the best years in getting the name of the Swindon known better around the country — getting rid of the speed cameras, the Radio One weekend; the wi-fi launch which attracted interest from around the world and, of course, our twinning with Disneyworld.

Let’s not forget that the council has admitted that the claimed £2M benefits from almost £½M splurged on the Radio 1 Big Weekend are partly speculation rather than fact. Let’s not forget that the almost £½M spent on wifi is on companies with minimal track record and whose project is already behind schedule. Let’s also not forget that Mr Bluh and Swindon Borough Council had no part in the Disney twinning — the once source of sustained good publicity.

So why — apart from naïvety and arrogance — is Mr Bluh so optimistic? Apparently because he’s throwing yet another £1M of our money at a replacement for the New Swindon Company. As was announced back in January, the old company and parts of the council are to be replaced by a new company, now to be named Forward Swindon*.

If Forward Swindon is to bring about the long promised regeneration, it’ll need to be considerably more successful than its predecessor — and significantly more careful with our money than its council masters. With little money available in current economic conditions, small steps rather than grand plans would be in order. Swindon needs a town centre that serves the needs of its population, rather than one that serves the ego of legacy-seeking political masters.

* Just a holding site for the moment, but registered in the name of the New Swindon Company’s Ms Ashdown.

Monday night at the playpen

On Monday night, for the first time, I went to observe a meeting of Swindon Borough Council. This was the budget setting full council meeting. Even allowing for the poor reputation of politicians, one might expect that for an important issue like this the debate would be serious and behaviour respectable. Instead, there was a display of infantile posturing and bad temper.

The meeting started with a minute’s silence to mark the death of Ms Fowles, chief executive of the local NHS who died of cancer at the weekend. In tribute, Mr Bluh suggested that councillors should try and have a reasoned debate. It was advice that few — including Mr Bluh and his own cabinet — chose to follow.

During the first item on the agenda — confirmation of the minutes of the last meeting — Mr Perkins delivered the first of many ranting political lectures. Indeed, one of the three consistent features of the evening — the others being the number 21 bus and Mr Bluh’s now infamous smug arrogance — was Mr Perkins’ aggressive contempt for all those he disagreed with.

Next up were questions from the public. In response to one question Mr Young admitted that the £2M benefits to the local economy claimed for the Radio 1 Big Weekend were ‘partly speculative’. In response to another question, Mr Bluh claimed that ‘due process was followed’ when investing almost £½M in Digital City (UK) Ltd. He also said

As far as I am aware there is no Audit Commission investigation.

Awareness may not be one of Mr Bluh’s strong points.

Next were general questions from the councillors, during which Mr Wright got very hot and bothered over the matter of naming streets and announced he was referring the matter to the borough solicitor. The names of streets seemed to worry Mr Wright more than how the council spends our money.

After ¾ hour it was on to the main item for the evening: the council budget. According to Mr Edwards his budget was ‘brilliant’. Naturally, Mr Montaut disagreed and proposed an amended budget, for the same cost but different services. Much knockabout political squabbling then followed, with Mr Perkins and Ms Foley in rather a lot of words accusing the opposition of being stupid and Mr Bluh taking the ‘nice try but should have done better; much better’ approach, and the red nest trying to make up for lack of numbers by shouting all their speeches.

Most bizarre moments of the evening for me were Mr Bawden making a speech opposing a budget needing a higher council tax, even though that wasn’t what the opposition had proposed, and Mr Ali delivering a political speech that made almost no mention of budget plans but wouldn’t have been out of place in a general election hustings for his candidature in Devizes.

However, perhaps the most telling point was when Mr Wright observed that an essential element of civic pride is ensuring that basic things, like keeping the streets clean, are done and done well. To this Mr Bluh responded

The Tabernacle stones and canal are about the bigger picture and Swindon moving forward.

For Mr Bluh running a council during a financial crisis is clearly more about vain legacy projects than serving the basic needs of Swindon.

Lobbying

Is there an election coming? I ask because Mr Bluh — even though he comments similarly himself — is behaving as though there isn’t. Mr Montaut and Mr Wills have both expressed concern over the amount of money being spent by Swindon Borough Council on Westminster lobbyists: £129,400 over 18 months.

In a time of economic hardship, where council employees are experiencing real-terms pay cuts and day centres for the elderly are being shut down, Swindon can ill afford to pay for luxuries like a lobbying contract in London, when there are perfectly acceptable, cheaper alternatives to getting central Government funding – like using Swindon’s two MPs.

Now, leaving aside the distinct failure of said two MPs to do anything of use for Swindon in Westminster — Ms Snelgrove isn’t known as the government’s representative in South Swindon for nothing — and that it may well turn out to be money well spent, the council’s finances are in a dire state and every penny spent should be thoroughly justified.

Alas, it seems that Mr Bluh doesn’t believe in justifying how he spends our money.

This attack is the last gasp from two failed Members of Parliament who have not delivered for local people. Their comments are designed purely for the forthcoming election and have nothing to do with the future of the borough.

I’m sure Messrs Montaut and Wills made their comments with the elections in mind. That doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate concerns. And more importantly, concerns that the electorate of Swindon might wish to have answered.

With the council short of money, yet having spent almost £½M on the Radio 1 Big Weekend and almost another £½M on wifi, Mr Bluh needs to try far harder and actually justify the money his council administration takes from us, rather than just responding with arrogance and contempt.

If he doesn’t, the electorate may decide that Mr Bluh too will have nothing to do with the future of the borough.

More scrutiny required

It’s been brought to my attention that Mr Bluh’s been defending and promoting the efficacy of his not-so-little wifi deal. At a meeting of Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee he almost showed a little humility. Almost.

He acknowledged the significant level of debate on the subject of the proposal to deliver a Wi-Fi network across the borough, particularly in relation to the decision-making process in reaching an agreement with Digital City (UK) Ltd

It would be rather shocking if he’d not noticed the very extensive debate.

He welcomed debate on how best to resolve issues of process that will allow the Council to take advantage of similar commercial opportunities that might arise in the future

As the evidence that this will be an opportunity rather than a liability has not been made public, I’d rather processes were in place to ensure secretive deals like this weren’t done in future.

[He] stated his certainty that the Wi-Fi network would prove to be a great success, one that would not only produce a financial return that would underpin service delivery for the benefit of residents, but one which presented an exciting commercial opportunity for private and public sector businesses and organisations in Swindon.

And why should I or anyone else in Swindon trust the business judgement of a politician and has-been lawyer? As it seems this decision was made in secret by no more than five people there’s clearly not a lot of trust around.

It was therefore essential, he felt, that the Council was prepared and able to pursue viable commercial opportunities, such as the Wi-Fi network, as they presented themselves.

A new internet provider in one of the best connected towns in the country doesn’t sound like the most sure-fire winner to me.

[H]e agreed that more openness generally was to be welcomed but he maintained that, if the proposal had been debated in an open forum, the “deal would not have happened”.

One of the purposes of open debate is to ensure that certain deals don’t happen. Nobody beyond a select few has been allowed to scrutinise the information that would allow them to form their own view as to whether this was a deal that should have happened.

He was aware of concerns about the decision making process and assured the Committee that the process would be reviewed.

And what happens if the review shows the process was flawed? Will Mr Bluh personally stump-up the almost £½M that has been gambled on the three start-up companies providing the wifi service?

However, he remained convinced that the proposal, which he was sure would be to the benefit of the council and its residents, could not have been successfully concluded if it had been made public any sooner than it was.

But it’s not really public even now. We have no detail of the basis on which Mr Bluh and associates made this decision — it remains a secret deal.

Councillor Bluh assured the meeting that the Council would not be required to make any further financial commitment to the Wi-Fi scheme beyond the initial £450k loan.

The council had no commitment to make the initial £450k loan, but a select band decided that it should. Why should we believe that if the company came back begging for more money, Mr Bluh wouldn’t choose — in secret — to stump-up yet more of our money?

Many questions have been asked so far about this deal. Some questions about the process by which this decision was made raise serious issues. Mr Bluh’s answer to almost all of them seems to be ‘Trust me, I know best.’ Until he provides more informative answers the scrutiny should continue.

What regeneration will Swindon get for £4.5M?

And how much direction to that regeneration will £150,000 buy? I ask those questions because £150,000 is roughly the size of the ‘package’ being offered for the chief executive of the replacement to the New Swindon Company.

  • £120,000 salary
  • £15,000 bonus
  • Removal and storage costs
  • Up to £4290 for temporary accommodation
  • 6 months weekly travel costs
  • Legal & estate agents fees plus stamp duty
  • £750 for ‘adaptations in the home’
  • Up to £8000 for relocation expenses

That’s roughly 10% of the new company’s budget of roughly £4.5M over 5 years going to its chief executive’s pay.

According to Mr Bluh

This is an exciting opportunity to lead and direct the regeneration and transition of Swindon, placing it on the national and international stage as a location open to inward investment.

Unfortunately Mr Bluh has been saying much the same thing for many years. There’s been far too much talk of visions, leadership and direction, but a woefully small amount of action, even allowing for the havoc wreaked upon the regeneration plans by the poor state of the economy.

We are seeking someone who has the appropriate leadership and entrepreneurial qualities and the ability to gain the support of public and private sector investors and the local community to deliver success.

‘Deliver success’? And whose version of success will that be? Surely it should be for this new company to support the public/local community and private sector investors to deliver success, not the other way round.

This is a pivotal time to shape the future of Swindon and in the process make your mark.

And that mark needs to be something considerably better than decorated hoardings around demolition sites, which is just about the only mark the New Swindon Company has left on the town.

This new company has a long list of things to do. It includes some such as a ‘University project’ that should be dead with the current state of government finance. Roughly £1.3M of our money is to be spent in the company’s first year, and a total of roughly £4.5M over five years, with a mission:

To deliver prosperity and a town everyone can be proud of.

Given the parlous state of public sector finances — both nationally and locally — we need to get considerably better value for our money than the regeneration has been so far.