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Showing content with the highest reputation on 27/04/19 in all areas

  1. 1 point
    That IAO is a real eye-opener! Thanks Malcolm for this little glimpse backstage. More transparency like this is needed - at all levels of politics, I might add. Keep up the good work.
  2. 1 point
    March 2019. Monthly councillor surgery tonight, been a busy day today. Strategic planning meeting today and there seemed no contentious issues but this is planning and you never know what might pop up. Seems I was right and what should have been a straightforward application for a new fire station turned into something else. I questioned the reasoning behind removing the green belt protection because quite simply it flew in the face of what was in the guidance papers! I fail to see how in one sentence we read that response times were perfectly adequate yet in another sentence they were being used to show green belt protection should be overturned because they needed to be improved? I didn’t really have a problem with the application but I did have a problem with this reasoning. The new head of planning explained that response times were not really a planning issue and we should disregard them. I asked if that was the case then the green belt protection stood and we had no option but to refuse permission. I said it seemed to me they were an integral part of the application and that was reluctantly agreed! In the end the application went through unanimously but I hope we see some joined up thinking behind these applications and their rationale sometime soon. Next up was an application for a new free range hen farm. This had its own nuances seeing as it was the NCC Leaders farm! In fact it was explained that the only reason it had come before us was because of who the applicant is and anyone else wouldn’t have needed to submit to such rigorous examination. The only thing I was concerned about was the ‘waste’ material handling and this was to be agreed at a later date. I said I was fed up of getting half the information when trying to decide planning applications and this was a case in point. There are strict guidelines and some serious concerns had been mentioned about this sort of waste and not having a full report as to how the applicant intended to manage this meant, in my view, we didn’t have a complete set of papers in front of us on which to make a decision. Again the head of planning responded saying the conditions would be subject to discussions between his department and the applicant. I said I understood that but I had to make this decision now and I really wanted to know if the conditions would be in the interests of the general public and residents of that area or for ease of use to the applicant. Without that I considered this a less than complete set of information! I had a LGPS panel meeting today and this really was a case of turkeys voting for Xmas! We have been considering merging the NCC pension fund with the much larger Tyneside one and we have already transferred our administration department to them in a cost saving exercise. Going through all the permutations for a couple of hours we eventually concluded this was potentially a good move for pensioners and contributors. More investigations to be conducted before our next meeting in June but if it goes ahead the NCC panel which I’m part of will be redundant! Busy day today, first up my car had to go for an MOT and with other meetings to go to lifts had to be arranged. Turned out I got my car back in the morning just in time to get to the meeting we had with the police. No guessing what mainly featured in this meeting and I was pleased my calls at the recent State of the Area debated in Council chambers for a multi agency approach had been welcomed and things were proceeding. Russ and Bill were there too and each of us had our own concerns to mention. We all feel these are worthwhile meetings and it seems the police do too. Next was another meeting with the CeO and Chair of Advance at their headquarters in Ashington. More questions than answers again but at least it seems we are moving forward, albeit in a crabwise fashion! Last meeting today was the West Bedlington Town Council one, where we all give updates. Interesting meeting tonight pity more residents don’t attend and see where their council tax Parish precept goes. Well at long last the audit report into the Arch fiasco has been released. Lots of areas of concern in themselves but taken in context with the Active Northumberland report and the recent Briardale debacle we can see a pretty distressing pattern emerge, that being, at the very least, a substantial lack of accountability and any business acumen. For a company which had been “given” hundreds of millions of pounds in loans by NCC this is extremely worrying. That’s not even considering the proposed extra £450 million in the last administration’s budget for new projects. This was to be overseen by only two people, the ex Leader and the Ex CeO of NCC! These people should not be allowed to go anywhere near anything to do with pocket money never mind figures that are being discussed now! It does give an insight of how the last administration conducted themselves when they held office because all of this had to go through various committees where all councillors should have been sitting and they had a majority, no excuse! Comments and opinions by auditors below: Internal Audit Opinion: “There are two immediate primary areas of concern regarding propriety / probity. These relate firstly to the purchase of the former Arch Chief Executive’s home, by Arch, at a price which appears to have been unrealistically high to deliver expected rental income yields; and secondly, to what appears to be an unduly generous benefits and remuneration package afforded to a specific contractor (referenced as Consultant C). There is potential for criminality to be indicated in respect of each of these two matters, which were correctly referred by the County Council’s then interim Chief Executive to Northumbria Police for further examination. Northumbria Police requested that absolute confidentiality should be maintained by the County Council / Arch, in order that any potential criminal proceedings would not be compromised. Lifting of this reporting restriction was notified to Northumberland County Council by Northumbria Police in February 2019 (confirmed in March 2019). The Police are responsible for determining whether any offences have occurred and if so, by whom; the Crown Prosecution Service would be responsible for assessing whether any prosecution would be brought. In the remaining areas audited, findings indicate areas in which procedures need to be strengthened to protect the Arch Group of Companies and its primary shareholder Northumberland County Council. During Internal Audit fieldwork, several Arch staff voiced the opinion to us that ‘Arch is separate to the County Council’ and that ‘Arch is a company and follows its own procedures, not those of the County Council’. While this is true, it would be expected that as a group of companies wholly owned by the local authority, Arch would understand the need to demonstrate appropriate and effective stewardship of public funds. Some of the decisions reviewed as part of the audit – specifically the two matters referred to above – do not appear to have been in keeping with Arch’s own agreed procedures or expected financial returns; they appear unique and without a sound commercial basis. These examples do not reflect a sense of fiduciary duty to the shareholder when dealing with public monies, or a sufficiently robust commercial approach, by those involved in taking the decisions. In the other work performed by Internal Audit as part of this investigation, there are areas in which we would recommend that procedures are strengthened. These are explained further in this report. Internal Audit has also identified as a specific risk that the nature of Arch Corporate Holdings – as a group of companies – further complicates investigative work. The completeness and reliability of records across the company group will need to be verified as additional work on the matters under examination is performed and concluded. As part of our work to date in gathering and assessing evidence in respect of the specific objectives set out above, Internal Audit has not assessed the financial performance achieved by Arch to date, or the returns which it has delivered / is forecast to deliver for the shareholder. It is recommended that such an assessment is performed as part of any strategic review of Arch, to determine the profitability and performance of the group of companies and the accuracy of projected growth and income forecasts. In turn, this will help the Board and its primary stakeholder (Northumberland County Council) evaluate which activities are delivering well, and which should be continued; and which aspects of the group’s operations are not adding value and which should cease. During Internal Audit’s work, we have begun to consider the matter of State Aid. This is a complex area which did not form part of the initial Terms of Reference for this work. It is recommended that this matter is kept under review and that appropriate legal advice is sought as required. At this juncture, confidence in and reputation of the Arch group of companies would be enhanced by a more transparent approach, clear commercial acumen and demonstrable stewardship in all aspects of the Group’s operations and decisions taken. Comment /Evaluation: One of the biggest risks here is corruption / collusion. Without evidence of a sufficiently robust competitive process in any organisation, there is a risk that firms might be appointed to lucrative contracts inappropriately – or that this suspicion will fall on the company, creating reputational risk. Documentation demonstrating a competitive process was available in five of the thirteen ‘consultant’ assignments sampled. However the robustness of the competitive process could be strengthened. For the remaining eight consultants, appointed by former Arch Chief Executive or the current Arch Chief Executive, no documentation could be provided. Some of these consultants have had long standing engagements with Arch over a number of years. The absence of information regarding the engagement exercises with a number of appointments made by Arch former Chief Executive and the current Chief Executive needs to be examined further. Regarding the engagement with Consultant C, there are a number of documents which Internal Audit has viewed. Some of these, such as the one side summary of this contractor’s skills and experience, refer to Consultant C. However invoices have been submitted under his company name (a company shown as no longer trading on Companies House website). Whilst there was evidence provided regarding a role being advertised and parties (including Consultant C) submitting ‘bids’ there was no evidence of a value for money review of quality and price. There is email evidence which suggests that Consultant C was operating in the role before he had applied for it. The relationship between Arch and the surveying firm/ Northumberland County Council needs to be examined further as a separate piece of work, to more fully understand the nature of the relationship and services provided. All consultants currently engaged by the Group should be reviewed to determine if these services continue to be required and if so whether a fresh engagement process is needed to ensure value for money is being obtained, the engagement process is transparent and financial regulations are complied with. Comment/Evaluation: From the information provided and discussions with Arch staff, there is a lack of awareness of the requirements of Financial Regulations with regard to the appointment of consultants. There was a lack of information regarding the terms of engagement with the majority of the consultants reviewed. With regard to any equipment/assets consultants are actually provided with, this is covered in a later section of this report. The letter dated 15 May 2017 from then Arch Board Members would appear to be an extremely rare arrangement, and not likely to be typical. The scenario set out in the letter does not reflect the terms set out in the advert for this work published on Arch’s website, from which Consultant C was appointed. Internal Audit has not found any evidence of similar arrangements afforded to any other contractor. Comment/Evaluation: There is no segregation of duties in the payments to the four long standing consultants and a lack of evidence was provided in relation to the work undertaken. The daily rates are very high and we refer back to our previous comment regarding reviewing all consultants currently engaged by the Group to determine if these services continue to be required and if so whether a fresh engagement process is needed to ensure value for money is being obtained, the engagement process is transparent and financial regulations are complied with. There is no process in place to verify the work undertaken by Consultant C. This would not be possible due to the apparent absence of any terms of engagement and the lack of detail on the invoices in relation to work undertaken. On the basis of the invoices reviewed it would appear that former Arch Chief Executive and former NCC Chief Executive were authorising the payments. There was little evidence of the work undertaken (seven press releases at Arch) in comparison with the remuneration to this consultant. There is evidence that the first payment relates to a period before Consultant C had submitted his application for the role / contract advertised. In respect of the construction consultants sampled properly authorised orders and invoices were evidenced. For the two marketing companies where quotations had been obtained and purchase orders issued, evidence of monitoring progress and completed work was also provided along with authorised invoices. Comment/Evaluation: The absence of an inventory of assets has hindered this aspect of the review and it is difficult to say with certainty that the information provided forms a complete record. No consultants other than Consultant C appear to have been given a house / car. A decision is required in relation to what to do with the car, and its future value and use to Arch. Comment/Evaluation: Once an inventory of equipment has been established, a decision should be made on whether or not insurance is required for any items held by consultants. The purchase of insurance for the car used by Consultant C adds to an already substantial package of benefits enjoyed by this contractor and funded by Arch. It would be unusual to provide insurance in these circumstances. Comment/Evaluation: It is not known whether the tax implications of the provision of equipment and mileage payments to Consultant C have been accounted for correctly, or whether his status as a consultant is correct. Comment/Evaluation: There was a lack of evidence provided regarding the appointments of a number of the employees sampled. For the most recently employed member of staff in the sample a relatively robust process appeared to have been followed. This could have been enhanced further through checking the qualifications of the new employee. A number of appointments appear to have been made without a competitive process being followed. The offer of a £3k relocation package to a new Director already living in Morpeth at the time of his appointment would be difficult to justify, especially as the Director appears to be living at the same address as prior to his appointment. It was not established whether this payment was in fact made, or simply proposed. Financial Regulations and MoDA do not specify anything in respect of salary decisions that are required to be considered by Remuneration Committee, other than MoDA specifying that in year pay increases to the Group Managing Director are to be approved at this committee. If the Director of Finance’s email to the former Arch Chief Executive on 21 April 2017 regarding the requirement for Remuneration Committee approval for the Chief Executive’s direct reports is correct there are further areas that need to be examined further, including increases to the Director of Finance and the Arch Chief Executive. Comment/Evaluation: The absence of a salary scale makes it difficult to ensure parity for roles of comparative levels of responsibility. The provision of company vehicles to employees should be reviewed. Where it is felt beneficial for employees to have vehicles that they take home the terms and conditions of the use of the vehicle and each party’s responsibilities should be formalised. The other vehicles used by staff appear reasonable given the nature of Arch’s work, i.e. Citroen vans and a ford fiesta van. However, the purchase of a vehicle for £24,290.65 + VAT would appear at face value to be excessive. The invoice for this purchase is not signed / authorised. The staff benefits should be reviewed taking into consideration that the company is owned by NCC. For example in the current financial climate within the public sector, it may seem extravagant for a company which is wholly owned by a local authority to have a subsidised Christmas party. Comment/Evaluation: There was a lack of evidence provided regarding the appointments to new posts of a number of the employees sampled. A number of the pay enhancements reviewed appear to be unusual and require further examination by management. Financial Regulations and MoDA do not specify anything in respect of salary decisions that are required to be considered by Remuneration Committee other than MoDA specifying that in year pay increases to the Group Managing Director are to be approved at that Committee. If the Director of Finance’s email to the then Arch Interim Chief Executive on 21 April 2017 regarding the requirement for Remuneration Committee approval for the Chief Executive’s direct reports is correct there are further areas that need to be examined further, including increases to the Director of Finance and former Arch Chief Executive. Comment/Evaluation: The absence of an inventory of assets has hindered this aspect of the review. An inventory of equipment, particularly portable electronic equipment should be established as soon as possible. The number of mobile phones in use appears to be excessive and could benefit from a review. Internal Audit are of the understanding that the former Arch Chief Executive was on gardening leave in the period prior to him leaving the company in June 2017. This raised questions as to whether the charges incurred outside of the EU occurred in this period and if so whether he was on Arch business. Comment/Evaluation: The 2016/17 P11D return to HMRC is inaccurate in that it does not contain all the required information. The use of company vehicles by employees is a particular area of concern. Further work is required by the company to ensure compliance with all HMRC requirements. Comment/Evaluation Inaccuracies found in a number of banking transactions associated with property purchases result in a lack of confidence in the overall internal processes surrounding bank payments for properties purchased by Arch. We were informed in September 2017 that the legal law firm contractor ref.1 had concluded a review and that this had identified that £42k had been overpaid by Arch. It is understood from the Management Accountant that clients’ accounts at the Law Firm should all reconcile to zero once a property purchase is complete, which would have provided a further control, but should not have been relied on by Arch as the sole source of control. The surveying firm appear to have received payments under a fee structure which sees a payment for identifying an executive property to be sold to Arch; a further payment for identifying a tenant to live in that home; and possibly other fees which at the current time are obscure. This does not assure value for money. The decisions around the purchase and disposal of property at Empire Court in Whitley Bay do not seem congruent with the direction of other Arch acquisitions and developments. As we understand this property is now being disposed of, it will only be when all units are sold that the return on this investment can be evaluated. Further analysis on the treatment of Stamp Duty Land Tax (and professional advice on the treatment applied in this case) will be required. Comment/Evaluation: Rental income monitoring appears to be disjointed with the Arch team monitoring private rental sector and affordable homes and the surveying firm monitoring the Executive Properties. Review of rental statements show high levels of arrears in some Executive Properties, suggesting that the surveying firm may not be managing this as effectively as would be expected. There are weaknesses in the end to end process for all rental income monitoring. A review should be undertaken and a process determined which gives Arch assurance that there is a robust process in place across all the rental sectors. It is of concern that the Land Registration details for the property Y were incorrect and in the name of Persimmon Homes rather than Arch, despite the conveyance having been performed by legal law firm contractor ref.1. Comment / Evaluation: The involvement and interest taken by the former Arch Chief Executive in the purchase and subsequent rental of Property Y, demonstrated in emails regarding the property, appears inconsistent with his involvement in the purchase and management of other Arch properties. Had the ‘extra’ costs been taken into account in the purchase of Property Y then calculation shows it would not have achieved the 5% gross target yield or a net annual profit and may/should not have been approved. Had a more realistic achievable rental income been used in the calculation for the purchase of Property X then it would not have achieved the 5% gross target yield or a net annual profit and was unlikely to have been approved. Comment /Evaluation: Points of good practice: Internal Audit was informed that in the earlier years of the Company, the opportunities for hosting of events were more carefully considered with proposals going to the Board and a report of outcomes also going to the Board. It was the perception of the Marketing Manager that more recently as the Company grew and with it the volume of business going to the Board, hosting became a reduced priority for Board consideration and reporting purposes. Internal Audit was shown an overall calendar of events (spreadsheet) and provided with detailed spreadsheets for the planning and monitoring of expenditure in relation to individual larger events which included MIPIM (Cannes) and the Tall Ships. Areas of concern: Due to the apparent lack of a strategy and reporting, it appears unclear what value is being gained from expenditure incurred; the rationale for hosting certain events, or the level of hosting if such events are to be attended (e.g. bar and travel to social or sporting events). There is a risk that expenditure may be incurred that does not contribute towards the objectives of the Company. At the transaction level, all transactions should be properly supported with prime documentation regardless of the method of payment. Comment/Evaluation: Under the Localism Act, elected members are required to comply with the Code of Conduct maintained by the Council’s Monitoring Officer. It is the elected member’s personal duty to declare interests. Clarification should be obtained from the Monitoring Officer as to which ‘hat’ elected members serving on Arch’s board would be expected to be wearing when undertaking various duties and roles related to Arch, or accepting hospitality. The risk is that acceptance of hospitality and gifts from, or interests with, those firms with which Arch contracted may have impeded the impartiality of decision-makers or been seen to impede that impartiality. At worst, there is a risk of corruption/collusion; and reputational risk to the organisation. There is clearly a need to reiterate the duty on elected members and senior officers at NCC of their duty to declare in accordance with the County’s codes of conduct. There is similarly a need to make the requirement to declare by Board members at Arch more robust, and to enforce this more stringently. Comment/Evaluation: Further to the lack of a separate process for the declaration of offers of hospitality and gifts by Board members throughout the year, as there exists for officers, it is apparent from the work undertaken by Internal Audit in relation to the hosting of events that the annual declarations are incomplete, specifically under the section ‘Gifts and Hospitality’. There had not been additional declarations made under the NCC policy and processes. Comment/Evaluation: The awarding of exclusivity arrangements to the surveying firm to act as agents and property management agents in relation to the Executive Homes Portfolio has not been tendered for in accordance with Arch’s Financial Regulations and Memorandum of Delegated Authority, as described in Section 1 of this report. An assessment should have been made as to the estimated fees for the scheme should have been undertaken and the appropriate procurement method followed (for example the Director of Finance had delegated authority to £20m on Executive Homes, therefore it would have been easy to establish that the fees for finding and managing these properties would have been over the threshold requiring a full tender exercise). Our earlier work in relation to the Executive Homes portfolio has identified concerns regarding the surveying firm’s management of these properties and we are aware that the Head of Estates and the Homes Manager have written a briefing paper recommending the management of these properties is brought in house. The award of the 2015/16 and 2016/17 asset valuation works has not been compliant with Arch’s Financial Regulations and Memorandum of Delegated Authority as competitive quotes were not obtained and the services are in excess of £20k. Competitive quotes should be obtained prior to the award of these works for the 2017/18 annual accounts. The annual costs of the estate management contracts is below the £20k requiring competitive quotes to be obtained, however as these contracts have been in place since 2015/16 it may be an appropriate time to obtain competitive quotes for the 2018/19 financial year. Earlier in this report we have referred to the importance of estimating the costs associated with schemes to ensure the correct procurement routes are followed. This applies to individual schemes such as the large acquisitions of Potland Burn and Ellington Colliery as the fees incurred were likely to be significant given the value of the land being purchased. No declarations were identified in relation to the engagements with this company. A number of emails were identified during the original review which indicated an apparent closeness between the surveying firm and Arch former Chief Executive (the former Chief Executive being referred to as ‘mate’ in one email). Comment / evaluation: The cost of the new stand and clubhouse by Arch and associated lease require review regarding the expenditure incurred and the financial viability of the project. That the former Arch Chief Executive and a former Arch Board member are also ACFC Board members and there would appear to be a close relationship between the two organisations with Arch providing financial support to ACFC. Further review is required to establish whether this is in accordance with Board approval. Arch has paid approximately £67k plus on-costs for 2 members of ACFC staff and in itself is a significant financial contribution to ACFC. Comment / Evaluation: From the information gathered at this stage in the investigation, the nature / extent of any relationship between Arch and Construction firm ref. 13 is unclear. No evidence has been found of undue influence from Arch within the procurement process leading to Construction firm ref. 13 being included within the NCC framework contract. A substantial amount of business has been awarded to Construction firm ref. 13 by Arch. While some of this has been the subject of competitive tender, in other cases it is unclear. With regard to the first (and largest) tender exercise the validity or suitability of some of the other requested tenderers appears doubtful. Given the status and influence which the former Arch Chief Executive would hold, it would have been expected in the interests of transparency that the relationship with his brother (an employee of Construction firm ref. 13) would have been explicitly declared. This is especially so given the values paid to this company.” Given what the police have come back with I have no doubt this will not be the end of the matter! How they could have conducted a complete investigation without interviewing anyone, even without being under caution, is something I just can’t understand. There are some pretty devastating sentences included in the auditors comments above which anyone of them by themselves demand forensic investigation! Firefighters Pension training all day today at Hartford Fire Station. Members of pension boards came from all over the North East and it was a long and quite intense session. Several questions now for our board. LAC meeting tonight and I have been asked to chair the Planning portion because our last chair was Bernard. So a pre meeting with the planners to go through the application/s then the meeting proper started at 5pm. Only one application and after we heard the planning officer outline the application then an objector and supporter we had members questions. This was followed by the debate amongst members but this was somewhat truncated when we all decided a site visit was in order. Seems strange to me that this application was first brought in 2016 for outline and then a demolition order but there’s nowt as strange as planning matters! Once the planning was done we had 15 minutes before the main event. The room was filling up because there was a Bedlington Town Centre update on the agenda. We got through the bulk of the meeting quite quickly then it was the main event. I knew this was going to go wrong and I had warned them but it was for some reason deemed necessary? So the CeO of Advance gave a presentation of where the development stood and basically it was in the same place as it was last year at this time. That’s not quite fair, there has been a lot of preparation work done so building work above ground can begin but until we see some bricks being laid I don’t think anyone will believe it’s actually happening. I asked a few questions, why has this turned into a staccato type development, can’t we look at other ways to develop the USP Bedlington could offer and lastly why is the public toilet not showing on the plans now? Seems the toilets were never included, sorry but I sit on strategic planning and saw the toilet provision clearly stated and a member of the public backed me up on this. After members had a chance to question the CeO of Advance the public had their chance and if he thought we were tough…….. Lots of questions, suggestions and concerns put forward with some people leaving early. All in all a pretty lacklustre offering with more questions than answers again. My first question now would be if we are so close to sealing the deals and getting the scheme across the line why not put off this presentation for a month or even two so a definite signed and sealed development could be presented. For my money this a just another in a long line of disastrous PR for firstly Arch and now Advance. At some point lessons have to be learnt, surely! I used the chance of having the heads of local services at the meeting to lobby for Bedlington to be included in the recent High Street Clean Up funding central government has just released. Seems I wasn’t supposed to be aware of that yet but the point was taken and I was assured Bedlington would be included. I have had several meetings with local organisations and I was offered a meeting with local services manager about this high street clean up funding. I suggested including WBTC and Russ came along too seeing as its primarily in his ward. Seems this funding is extremely time dependant with only a matter of days to submit schemes for consideration. WBTC have to put in schemes for most of the funding but NCC are withholding some of the allocated funding to do extras in the Town. Both Russ and I are trying to get maximum benefit out of that NCC withheld funding but its turned into a bit of a fight! Time will tell. Called in to make sure the new play equipment was on track at Plessey Woods so we get an Easter holiday opening. Looking good and seems with only some infilling left to be done, we are on track. Had a whole afternoon at planning training, this one about the new social rented housing we are initiating. Listening to the presentation I became increasingly worried that we might not see as many new houses to rent at affordable charges as I was anticipating. I therefore had to question the presenters about this. Still waiting for a definite answer to that one! I also asked about build quality and running costs because it’s all very well having a new council house but if you can’t afford to heat it! I asked about infrastructure and where that might feature and another point of worry was the onus the presenters put on the financial aspect to demonstrate need so I put forward that social need had to be figured in too. I said “need” was something aligned to people so it wasn’t too hard to see a lot of social need in our area given we have over 50% of the population squeezed into the South East of the county. If we only rely on the fact that there may not be enough houses available in rural areas and financial constraints when there are then we will miss out on a huge opportunity to address social housing needs in my area. With no other members from the South East in the chamber I had to be determined enough not to take flimsy answers or I would lose the point for this whole area. I eventually got acknowledgement of my concerns! I seemed to monopolise the questions and apologised but as I remarked we should get this right from the start and save problems building up later. I also questioned the fact that developers seem to say that their sites cannot support S106 schemes because of ground conditions etc. and we let them get away with it. Is it really in our job to allow developers to maximise their profits on the back of not paying any community funding, such as health, education and leisure? The new head of planning responded and said I was quite right and this was something central government has identified and were going to take steps about. All in all a very informative afternoon but once again I was the only member from the south east of the county to attend? We are shaping a social housing policy and the very people purporting to support this don’t attend therefore don’t get to shape any part of it. There might not be any newspaper headlines to grab but this is the basic workload of elected councillors as far as I can see and I have to wonder how anyone can shout their mouths off when the cameras are on yet fail to put in the work where and when it really matters? Once again it seems I’m being targeted on social media by the same person and his cronies, this time demanding I apologize for screaming across the chamber at the last full council meeting, as well as other nonsense. I think light must have to bend around these people! Well I’m not going to apologize for refusing to allow this Town from being used as a political football between the two main parties. The video of that meeting is in the public domain and I think anyone can see I certainly wasn’t screaming at anyone, passionate for the town yes, screaming no. In fact there isn’t many times fellow members indicate their support for what was said with a round of applause but that was one! But thanks for bringing up the question of apologies maybe someone needs to apologize for the many years they spent on Wansbeck District Council ignoring the needs of Bedlington and the way they and their associates allowed Arch and Active Northumberland to operate, ramping up debt levels to unsustainable heights which in turn leaves council taxpayers on the hook for many millions of pounds in interest payments. We can all clearly see the present day results of that! On another point it seems the fact that I have a “day” job as well causes mirth. No answer to that absurdity really. Also it seems I claimed I ran ‘successful’ businesses for 30 years, well the video of the council meeting can lay that one to bed. Of course given that in all that time I have never left creditors in the lurch would explain why some might see fit to insert their own adjective. It would appear the seemingly demented ex taxi driver is increasingly apoplectic in his rabid social media attacks to which I will respond with a truncated quote from an ex Prime Minister when describing someone of opposing views… “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself?” I would just like to point out one extra little bit of extraordinary hypocrisy. I was castigated by a local political group for abstaining on the council tax benefit vote. I did give my reasons for that at the time and in these diaries but I was “told” in no uncertain terms that they considered abstentions an aberration, in our democracy. Well not only did we see the whole of the Labour contingent abstain on a recent vote at county we now see our MP abstaining on a vote of national importance. I’m still waiting for similar cries directed at them off the same political group, who have been strangely quiet on the matter!
  3. 1 point
    February 2019. Busy start to this month. First up was a corporate scrutiny meeting at 10am in County Hall. This was a pretty important one as it scrutinised the medium term financial plan and this years proposed budget. I was a bit shocked to see so many unoccupied seats because members from all scrutiny committees were invited. I had several questions and again it was a bit of a two man show as the Lib Dem Leader and myself monopolised the question and answer session. My questions were about post 16 school transport and why it only had one year listed in the accounts, why do we see a 2.99% council tax rise when at last year’s meeting we were told if we agreed a 2.99% rise for last year we would only need a 1.99% rise for next year, or this year as it now falls, a further question about recurrent financial pressures, the adult social care proposals, delegation of the strategic regeneration budget to 4 officers and members and could someone explain the quote ‘flexibilities of capital receipts’ when we are told time and time again capital and revenue budgets cannot be mixed. I was satisfied with most of the answers that came back. The opposition made a comment but did not question the financial plan or budget at all? That meeting finished around 11.25am and it was a rush to get down into the council chamber for the State of the Area debate tabled to start at 11.30am. Again I was surprised when it became apparent the Labour group and Lib Dems boycotted this meeting. Not sure how you can represent constituents by not attending meetings but that certainly seems to be the modus operandi of the opposition at present. I would make the point that I feel to effect change to prospective NCC policy, which is basically put in place by cabinet, I can only do that by engaging at committee level. Or before it becomes NCC policy. Trying to do it after the cabinet has accepted or declined suggestions, changes and amendments, and then voted for it is almost impossible, given they are the administration. We heard the Leader talk about future plans and in particular those on education and tourism, in fact the cabinet members responsible for those, gave presentations. During the educational presentation we heard about large investments in new schools etc throughout the county. The portfolio holder said this is all about viable business cases being made. I was a bit annoyed at that and asked if that is the case then tailoring your offer to customer demand, or in this case schoolchildren’s needs, how do we see large investments in lower residential density areas and whilst I note there is a single new school planned within the South East of the county, where over 50% of the population resides, we do have extra educational needs based on huge influxes of new residents. The cabinet member responded and again said any investment would be based on sound business principles so I said I would welcome the undoubted investment coming into Bedlington in that case! Next we had a presentation about tourism and the Discover Northumberland initiative. I did want to ask for help with a particular problem we have in Bedlington at present and I had to think of a way to factor it into a question. I used the antithesis of what was being presented to ask for a multi agency task force to help with the anti social behaviour Bedlington was being subjected to at weekends because that flew in the face of presenting a positive image for the county as a whole. The deputy Leader said he would get someone to contact me and tell the Northumberland Youth Service to get involved. Next I had a mad rush to get home have a cuppa then out back to the Advance Northumberland HQ in Ashington. Bill and Russ came and again we discussed the Bedlington Town Centre Regeneration Project, this time with the MD and head of investments. This 30 minute meeting turned into 2 hours and some pretty straightforward talking took place. These meetings have been subject to strict commercial confidentiality and it’s a bit soul destroying seeing and reading huge swathes of social media principly put out by a local political group for their own political benefit at the cost of so much discord and division in the town. I then had my usual monthly surgery for residents at Netherton Club, so all in all quite a busy Monday. Strategic Planning and no real issues with any of the applications for a change. I did want to challenge planners on one item, wagon access to a opencast coal mine. I was particularly concerned this application was retrospective and was about road safety issues as highlighted by a local school and local residents. Our recommendation off planners was based on a new access route to the site not any alleviation of road safety issues especially for minors. Other members expressed their disquiet about this being a retrospective application too looking to change conditions as laid down when the original application was heard. Exactly what I have been banging on about for the last year! What’s the point of laying down conditions if developers etc just ignore them. Given there was just a very limited time left for this site to run we asked for a strongly worded letter to go out to the operator and I hope we keep our eyes open in future about such conditions breaches! I have a meeting with planners at Westlea today and I hope I can get some resolution to their impasse. Well you are never too old to be shocked. After listening to the arguments put forward by our planners I rebuffed their arguments one by one and they actually agreed with my take. So much so I now have their help in making this project happen. I would like to thank them for being so reasonable and open minded. I then had to go down to the police station for another meeting with the officers charged to look after Bedlington. No prizes for guessing what took up the whole of the meeting. We are going to see a different tack from now on with police being far more proactive, something which I said I welcomed. Had to be up and ready for a pick up at county hall today at 7.45am. Bill, Russ and myself have been asked to travel on the hopefully soon to be reopened Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth Tyne rail line and we should be able to speak to the minister for Transport directly outlining our support and the reasons why our Town needs this so badly. After he was taken around the recently started upgrades happening to Morpeth station we got on a special train and first stop, according to the announcement, Bedlington. Had a nice ring to it!!! Once here we were able to get off, onot the old platform and press the minister for his support in getting this line reopened. Everything he said was positive! In fact 2022 is now being bandied around for the first passenger trains onto this line for decades. For my money this not only helps people travel out and into central station Newcastle where the full monty of rail destinations is available, it also helps bring people in which in turn will make Bedlington a destination instead of a crossroads to other towns. Lots of hurdles and lots of work still to be done of course but it does look like the political will is there now. Sad news today, out of the blue, Councillor Bernard Pidcock has died. Bernard was a heart on his sleeve sort of bloke and spoke passionately in support of his particular beliefs. He took part in a number of committees I work on and many more. I for one will miss his mischievousness especially at full council meetings. Next meeting was our community chest committee. Bernard was on this committee and even though a great deal of thought had gone into the make up of this committee so it was balanced politically he was usually the only opposition member to attend. His recent death has now resulted in no opposition members being present! So I had to check with the officer to make sure we were quorate. We were so I started the meeting and given this was about underspent monies in the normal community chest I suggested, as normal, considering any applications which had not had funding before. The three which met that criteria were assessed and then we went into the rest of the applications. Couple of hours later and we had allocated all of the outstanding monies at our disposal. This is something I believe we owe the local groups and charities based in our locale because I know first hand how difficult it is to actually get funding for community projects. Some of the other areas are still under their funding criteria, however ours is 100% paid out! I have a site meeting with Miller Homes today after many months of complaints from residents about the way they have conducted the build at Broadoaks, most especially the effect it has had on the Green Letch. Well we have just had the meeting and it looked like Miller had turned up mob handed with the North East manager, north of Tyne manager, technical manager and site foreman in the office with me. Our enforcement officer turned up to even things out a little. We spoke about the planning problems the site still has and I told them residents concerns. There was some pretty straightforward talking done and I have a new respect for our enforcement officer after she refused to back down on her demands and backed me and my resident’s claims up! They did agree to the proposals sent in by our ecology officer and I asked for them to be written down and sent back so we all had them in black and white. We then walked along the site and on a couple of occasions I had to draw their attention to things which in the office they said they were not doing! I think in the end we both knew where we have to go, in fact the boss said we have heard things neither of us wanted to hear but at least we have cleared the air and solutions have been agreed. The only thing I didn’t get was some answer to the Great Wall of Bedlington. Sitting in the officer when I asked about it I was told there was no building going on top of this structure. I asked to make sure, so it’s only going to be gardens and the reply came back yes. When we walked along the site I stopped the boss and said you have just told me there is no buildings going to be on top of this retaining wall and clearly there are foundations, footings, bricks up the damp course level and one half built house. He said he thought I meant directly on top of the gabion wall cages? He assured us that the foundations were at a depth and angle that no stress would be on the gabion wall anyway. OK but that’s not quite what was said half an hour ago in the office! All in all I agree with the ecology officer who suggested to enforcement that sympathetic restoration rather than going for an out and out breach of conditions was the way to go and as long as we get what was agreed in writing and they complete, I think that is the best we can demand now. Course if we had some proper oversight in the first place….. Busy week this week, first up we had a budget and financial plan presentation in our office at county hall. This is given to all parties and groups before the full council budget vote. The financial officer and the corporate cabinet member came and we had a long session of going through their budget and 3 year plan. My first question was about the regeneration budget for our town centre development because this time it wasn’t shown separately. After going through the budget spreadsheet we were shown the line which contained it by the finance officer. It was a separate item in last year’s financial plan, this year it was included in the budget proposals for other Town centre regenerations. That done loads of more questions about where our Town fitted and might fit into this 3 year plan. We did have many questions about the proposed cuts to the social care budget and I made the point that these people by their very nature were passive and couldn’t really make representations for themselves. I had the opportunity to question these financial plans at the corporate scrutiny committee at the beginning of the month but I was still able to drill down into the detail. We eventually finished this meeting and then it was a rush to get back have a quick cuppa then get to Cramlington for the monthly LAC. This should have been a planning meeting only but we had a couple of presentations to hear, first one the Local Transport Plan and the other the new Local Plan. Nice to see several Bedlington residents had made the time to make the meeting. Seems to me that a lot of places are faring quite well out of this year’s LTP, (Local Transport Plan) Bedlington not being one even though each of us had given our three priorities. I did question this and asked why over 12 months ago I had been turned down on two out of my three priorities but for one I had been assured I was going to be invited into a meeting to discuss it. This one was about school parking issues which affect residents in my ward. Again I was assured by the officer that he would look into it and get back to me within a day. Seems to have slipped again! Next presentation was the new Local Plan and a brief rundown was given before questions were fielded. Again I did have several questions for the officer even though I had worked on this at committee. Very interested in the house build design strategy. The chair did open these presentations up for any residents who attended to ask questions. Much better way of doing things. Long day today, work at 6am a mad rush at 2pm to get back have a shower and change then up to County Hall for full council at 3pm. The main bones for this one was the proposed social care cut and the budget. I argued that this social care cut was not the way to balance the budget and specifically questioned why do we seem to be charging carers to look after people? The answer came back that we charge for any specialist help carers need to look after people, people that are probably loved ones. What an insensitive policy and as its a continuation of the existing policy I wonder who put this in place? The vote came and we lost by 10 votes. Looked like the administration had all of their councillors there, pity the opposition didn’t or we might have been able to turn that over! Other non aligned independents voted against too. Next came the budget vote and questions were asked specifically about the Bedlington Regeneration funding. The Leader said we are getting our regeneration, the chair of regeneration said its included and I said I had checked to make sure it was included and it is. Thanks for the concern! I was a bit taken aback when all labour members voted against the budget knowing full well it contained our much needed regeneration funding and not just Bedlington’s but other town centres too. Again putting politics before the needs of our communities. Before I got home that night yet another report on a local political page saying I had voted for the social care cut? That seemed to entitle several people to make personal comments about me and people close to me insisted I made a counter statement. I did and put up the video of the meeting leaving people to make their own minds up about who was or wasn’t being truthful. The accusation was then changed to say that because I had voted for the budget I was in fact voting for the social care cut by association. I would just point out the advice given by the NCC solicitor during the meeting which resulted in the opposition Leader taking out his counter motion pre vote concerning this social care cut. It couldn’t legally be included having just been approved by the full council unlike our town centre funding! I will just say this in conclusion, if I had voted against the budget knowing full well our town centre funding was included how on earth could I look anyone in the eye and tell them I was working for our Town’s benefit? I can just imagine the faux outrage if that had happened! Local Government Pension Panel meeting today and as usual quite complex and long. It’s one thing keeping abreast of the current regulations but we also have to consider the new shared admin with Newcastle as well as the new Border to Coast group we are part of. It was good to hear off all the independent examiners, pension board chair, employee reps that they consider this panel to be out performing and our commitment to training was very commendable. Must be doing something right then! One of the questions I did ask was about this shared service and was the expected savings and improvements being seen. Seems they are. Next meeting was another long training session, this time for planning. Improving planning design and delivering better homes not just in terms of build quality but also running costs is something of a soapbox for me and it was good to hear support for this when I mentioned it. In fact our new head of planning said he understood and supported what I was saying. Let’s hope we see real movement towards these ends soon. This session certainly gave us food for thought. It was a pity once again not all members made it but there was a good smattering of officers present. Russ and myself had a meeting at the WBTC office today, this with NCC highways and the Town Council. Matters under discussion were the suggested road safety improvements we want to see. I was particularly interested in getting the new speed interactive signs fitted, seeing as I have agreed to buy three. Also getting new road markings to slow traffic on certain roads was again something we tried to get through. We did agree the upgrades we wanted to see and we were assured the final costings should be available next week. Many thanks to WBTC for their help and input, so much easier when we are all just trying to improve our area for residents. I have been contacted by our road safety officer after my questions at our last LAC and we are meeting on Ridge Terrace to look into the school traffic problems. We did meet and walked from Bishops Meadow along to the school exit on Netherton Lane. Several points were raised along the way and some agreed on. So hopefully we will see some further upgrades designed to aid the safety of our school children as they go to and from their schools, as well as some relief for residents! Looks like I’m now being castigated on social media again for going on that train with the government minister. Well sorry but if I get the chance to talk directly to a minister advocating investment and regeneration in our area Im going to jump on it. Who was and wasn’t invited wasn’t in my remit but being able to tell the transport minister that this project is integral to the regeneration of this area for several reasons was reason enough to take part. I think a passenger rail link is one of the most crucial keys to lasting economic growth for our area, if its handled properly. I make no apologies for taking part, in fact I consider it part of the job! Had an interesting meeting today about the new High Street Fund. Lots to consider even though Bedlington isn’t one of the 3 priorities NCC have listed or the one, Blyth, they are putting forward for this funding. I asked for and now have the data matrices concerning our Town. Looks like there are quite some options and I don’t see why we can’t go for them, albeit in a slightly different context. Back up to County Hall for another meeting this afternoon. This one in response to my call, at the State of the Area debate, for a multi agency approach to the adolescent problems blighting this town at present. Nice to hear this is something being taken seriously and actions will be forthcoming from NCC. NCC Youth Services and Neighbourhood safety teams are initially being tasked to get involved and liaise with the Police.

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