Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Which one is lying? Cllr Ablewhite or The Hunts Post?

Further to a recent blog about Cllr Ablewhite and his 24% claim about the pension contributions to the local government pension scheme, I have received further information from the CAB which casts more doubt on the 24% claim reported in the Hunts Post as Cllr Ablewhite as saying the following:

"For example, 24 per cent of the money we give to the Citizens Advice Bureau goes into the local government pension scheme."

Hunts CAB says:

We have an employer’s contribution rate of 20.1% this financial year, and 22.1% for the financial year 2012-13 which will be the final year of the current SLA. The employer’s contribution rate only applies to the salaries of the three remaining active members of the scheme and we stopped admitting new members some years ago. This current year, the pension contributions represent 4.4 % of the budget allocated to us by HDC.’

Either the Hunts Post is correct about what Cllr Ablewhite said or Cllr Ablewhite didn't say anything about the 24% and the Hunts Post is wrong. Either way when people look up why the CAB has had its grant cut then the reason will be 24% of the grant goes on pensions. This is rubbish. 

Town Council council tax rate stays the same! Why?

The Conservatives have announced the Town Council tax rate will stay the same at £84.23 for a Band D property. This will be the third year running the Council Tax remains the same. So how do they do that when the new Conservative administration is spending money on HDC owned CCTV and South Street toilets?

The answer is the Liberal Democrats left the Town Councils finances in fine fettle. The Conservatives were welcomed with a £186,575 surplus on the 2010/11 budget when they took power. This leaves total reserves standing at £905,547 at the start of this financial year.

The Conservatives have had to face some cost increases:

The Town Council propaganda rag - Priorities - is costing an extra £10,534.
The money from HDC for the Customer Service Centre has gone - £7,084.
Museum running costs up by £4,000. Though they get this back in rent - up by £4,000.
Jubilee Hall is a new cost at £6,500. Though this is returned by rent increase to £6,500.
CCTV is a new cost at £22,750.
Grants has increased by £5,015.
Town Promotion salary £28,011.
QE2 celebration £20,000 - (a one off)

A total increase of £82,820.

With other savings and cuts this means the net expenditure for the Town Council section of the budget 2012/13 is £756,379. This is up from the 2011/12 budget (£705,373) by £53,988.

The reason why this increase isn't reflected in the Town is because a couple of costs have really gone down.

Eatons Community Centre down by £16,703.
Priory Centre costs are down saving £47,731

A total of £64,434 saved in the budget. This means the net expenditure before the capital cost is £820,957 against the 2011/12 budget of £831,406. This is a reduction of £10,449.

The problem is with the capital costs. These have been changed so the previous way of accounting for the in Earmarked Reserves (£398,134) which has been closed and the money transferred to the new Capital Projects account.

Capital Projects in 2011/12 were allocated £56,478 (This figure was £58,478 for last year. A £2,000 difference) For 2012/13 the allocation has gone up to £573,461. This is an increase of £514,983 (not £474,893 quoted in the draft budget). What has to be taken into account is the transferred money -£398,134. This makes an increase total of £116,849.

This is a big increase (though in reviews of previous Town Council budgets I reckoned the amount should be £100,000). £95,024 of this money is coming from General Reserves. Not usually good.

The precept for this year is £889,884. The precept for next year is £901,261. An extra £11,377. The money from extra housing is £11,371.

In the new capital budget there is money flying around everywhere.

Extra money is going into:

Allotment land  - £38000
New cemetery land - £20000
Eatons Capital project - £10000
Loves Farm - £30000
Play areas  - £10000
Signs - £2000
Toilets - £55000 (£40,000 capital + 1 year running costs £15,000)
Priory Centre - £40000
A total of £205,000

This was helped by:

Projects stopped - £29673

This leaves a net figure of an extra £175,327.

Of which £95,024 is coming from General reserves. The use of General reserves is a real no-no if this is used to reduce spending. The forecast is a budget surplus for 2011/12 of £94,540. If this is attained or exceeded then the funding isn't bad for next year.

The trouble is the underlying increase in capital spending. For instance if £40,000 for the toilets, £40,000 for the Priory Centre and £30,000 for Love's Farms are all one-offs and this money is taken from General Reserves the underlying increase is within reason.

A couple of problems:

1. The £15,000 a year to run the South Street Toilets isn't included in projections.
2. The Hall Hire income on Eatons Community Centre doesn't sit right.
The projected income for 2011/12 is £18,212. Next year there is roughly a £17k. Unless there is a good reason for this increase then adding £17k is wrong. By 2013/14 this rises by another £13k. This is a total increase of £30k over the projected figure for 2011/12.

The Town council could be out by £45,000 of extra expenditure in future years.

The Council Tax base has been announced. This now stands at 10,820 for next year. This is an increase of 120 over the 10,700 used in the calculations for the Council Tax. 120 x £84.23 = £10,170 in extra income not allowed for in the budget. If the Town Council just agreed the budget this would have made the Council Tax fall by 93 pence. (£901,261 / 10820 = £83.30). As the Town Council decided the amount of tax should be £84.23, the Town Council will see this money.

Overall this is a good first budget by the Conservatives. A few niggles on my part. Putting money aside for future projects, whilst they have the money, is a good thing for the Council. What helped most was the £186,575 surplus from the previous year when the Liberal Democrats were in power. For the future the Conservatives need to keep the budget balanced and tax & spend accordingly. Relying on reserves to keep the Town Council from raising Council Tax is a fool's errand.

Where is the Conservative fund for Eynesbury Manor?

After the Conservatives annexed the the Town Ward of Eynesbury Hardwicke Parish (part of Parklands and most of Eynesbury Manor) to St Neots, the Conservatives went on the rampage blaming the Liberal Democrats. Yet this blog worked out the Conservatives pushed this annexation through.

Before the 2010 General Election the Conservatives put out a leaflet. In the last paragraph it says:
So under the new Conservative run Town Council this has all been forgotten. As the Conservatives said: "as you were expected to pay considerably more the money should be spent on Eynesbury."

Having said the above what are the Conservatives doing now they are in power? Nothing of course. No new money set aside specifically for the area. So none of the extra money coming in from the annexed area is specifically going to this area. In 2010/11Accounts, the Town Council receives £16,121 from its share of the abolition of Eynesbury Hardwicke PC. Was this money put aside? No. Did the incoming Conservatives put this money aside? No!

At the 2010 elections the Conservatives went to town on this subject. Once in power the Conservatives are silent on this subject. They have forgotten what they said. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

HDC still does not understand the New Homes Bonus

In the draft budget for 2012/13, the Conservative run Huntingdonshire District Council still doesn't get the reason for the New Homes Bonus (NHB). In the draft budget it says:

Members have expressed interest in the use of the Bonus. It is not ring-fenced for specific communities but there is ample evidence within this report that it will be used to enable the protection of services and for in investment in key growth areas.

The Government that pays the New Homes Bonus informs the public that HDC should be consulting with the communities which are accepting development on how the money should be spent. Yet HDC simply ignore this and carry on its merry way.

An Example:
Conservative controlled Wychavon District Council has been able to do a consultation and have a written policy toward their New Homes Bonus money. They even have loads of Parish Councils.

In the Wychavon policy it says:

(ii) Development in towns and villages
(a) Development within a Town or Parish area
Where development takes place in Droitwich Spa, Evesham, Pershore or the rural areas of the district, the Council will normally award up to 40% of the NHB accruing to be reinvested in the local community. This reward will not be ringfenced to any particular use but it must deliver ‘added value’ to the local community and area and where possible, benefit those communities close to any new development.
(b) Significant developments adjacent to towns
It is likely that some of the urban extensions to the three towns, which may be constructed over the next few years, may be delivered outside the administrative boundary of the town whilst clearly serving the growth of the urban area and reliant of amenities and services in the urban area.
The Council may determine that the NHB payments to be reinvested in local communities, in circumstances where it is serving urban growth, is split between the town and the rural parish(es) accommodating the urban growth. Of the allocation in (a) above, the split will normally be 80% to the town and 20% to the Parish.

In Wychavon up to 40% of New Homes Bonus money can go to the local community accepting this development. Not exactly what I would like to see. But it does go some way to meeting the needs of the Towns accepting developments.

The Wychavon NHB policy goes on:

9. Procedure for payment
1. The Council’s Executive Board will determine and authorise the release of any payments under the NHB scheme. The Council will publish on its website an annual statement of the NHB monies attributable to each town or parish area. Payments will generally be held until there is a commitment to spend the monies.

In a recent FOI request I was informed HDC cannot work out the New Homes Bonus attributable to St Neots. Yet Conservative run Wychavon will be doing so!

Before I get too carried away, there are difference between Wychavon DC and Huntingdonshire DC. These are:

Population: W=117,000 / H=167,300
Area: W=256.2 sq mi / H=352.3 sq mi
Density: W=456.7/sq mi / H=474.9/sq mi
Council Tax proposed for 2012/13: W= £108.44 (Zero increase) H=£127.17 (2.5% increase)

Even with a population density slightly lower, Conservative run Wychavon DC has a policy on New Homes Bonus and a lower Council Tax rate which isn't rising. In Huntingdonshire, we have a Conservative run Council with no real policy on New Homes Bonus, apart from denying its intended use, and is looking to put up the Council Tax.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

HDC changes tune of South Street Toilets

Conservative run Town Council has put £55,000 for the refurbishment of South Street Public Toilets closed by HDC because they wanted to knock them down and build flats. The reasons given were:


3.1 It is generally acknowledged that, of the existing stock of town centre public conveniences, the facilities at South Street, St Neots, are the least effective both in terms of the quality of provision and their fit with adjoining land uses. Their location is shown on the plan at Annex A.

3.2 In recent years, property in the vicinity of the public convenience has been or is being converted to residential use and the quality of the buildings upgraded. The public convenience now is detracting from the amenity of the area.

This has been a theme of HDC. In 2006 the South Street Toilets were described as thus:

"Furthermore the setting is considered inappropriate in the context of adjacent redevelopment and the demolition of the site is recommended."

"The Panel were apprised of the poor condition of the public conveniences and their inappropriate location in a conservation area."

HDC believes these toilets are inappropriate for South Street and inappropriate for a Conservation Area. Yet HDC is looking to allow SNTC to refurbish and re-open these toilets even though HDC believes Public Toilets are inappropriate in this area.

Which is it HDC? Does HDC believe these public toilets are inappropriate or are they now appropriate because the idea of demolishing them and building flats didn't even take off?

The trouble is I can't believe reasons HDC give for decisions because they change according to the decision HDC wants. If these toilets are inappropriate then do something else with them rather than allowing an inappropriate use!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Conservative run HDC doesn't take Osborne's money

In the initial draft budget the Conservative run HDC is NOT taking the money made available for another year of freezing Council Tax. Events may change, but as first pointed out on this blog, the Osborne money to freeze the Council Tax for a year will mean cuts in future years. Something the Conservatives don't seem to want to do.

This very Conservative run Council seems to be saying NO to George Osborne.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Are our District Councillors attending meetings?

I took a quick look at the attendance records of St Neots District Councillors at meetings from the HDC website and the results are:

1st. Andrew Hansard: 100%

2nd. Barry Chapman: 86%

3rd. Paula Longford: 75%

4th. Roger Harrison: 75%

5th. Steve van de Kerkhove: 73%

6th. Rodney Farrer: 71%

7th. David Harty: 71%

8th. Andrew Jennings: 67%

and last of all lagging behind the rest is.....

9th. Paul Ursell: 50%

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Should we take what Cllr Ablewhite says on face value?

In a recent article in the Hunts Post, Cllr Ablewhite, Council Leader, informs readers how in his reign HDC is saving money.

This is one of his musings:
“More and more over the years we have seen the council funding employment rather than volunteers. For example, 24 per cent of the money we give to the Citizens Advice Bureau goes into the local government pension scheme. So we need the voluntary organisations to make the efficiency savings that they can to save us money over the longer term.”
Hmm... Yes HDC is funding employees rather than volunteers. Yes they have a pension pot. But does his figures add up? Well no they don't. The accounts for Huntingdonshire Citizens Advice Bureau are here. They show that HDC granted HCAB £183,500. 24% of £183,250 = £43,980.

The total pension costs shown is £11,237 or 6% of the £183,250 granted by HDC. That is £32,743 short of the total. HDC;s current rate of pension contributions is at 20.4% for employees in the pension scheme. Even at that high rate £11,237 represents £55,083 pensionable earnings of £119,537 in HCAB wages. So not all employees are members of the pensions scheme.
If all wages and salaries are in the local government pension scheme (and they aren't) then the employees contribution would have to be 17.9%. Now these employees aren't getting large salaries so they can't pay this much in pension contributions. On the LGPS website the contributions are given and they average out at 6%.
So the employee contributions at 6% would be roughly £11,237.

So adding together what the employees pay and HCAB pays this adds up to £22,474. This is still £21,416 short of the £43,980 that Cllr Ablewhite says is the 24%.

The 24% figure is wrong. 24% doesn't go to the LGPS from HCAB even if employee contributions added in.

And another:
“As part of that process we have reviewed CCTV and can keep some of that.”
The Hunts Post goes onto explain...
"HDC is hoping to attract funding from town councils in Huntingdonshire where the coverage is concentrated,"
Yes all this means is the Town Council taxpayer gets charged for this instead of HDC. If HDC is going down the differential charging route then Town taxpayers should see a discount on rubbish collection because it is cost effective to deliver this service in a Town and very cost ineffective to deliver this service in rural locations. Will rural dwellers be paying more for their bins to be collected? No they won't!

And the Conservative cheerleader that is the Hunts Post also does its bit for misinformation with this:

A year ago residents were facing HDC having to cut more than 120 jobs, ditch its CCTV surveillance scheme, double parking charges and cut the opening hours of its call centre and leisure centres, and a reduction from £485,000 a year to just £85,000 in funding for charities, as it tried to deal with the large hole left in its budget by the coalition Government’s cuts.

Yet many of these cuts were envisioned before the Coalition cuts came in. HDC had a massive deficit problem and was running out of reserves. This is main reason behind the cuts. Yes, the Coalition added to this but HDC and their cheerleader the Hunts Post hide behind the false premise.

Also in the article is the following:
"And while the Council Tax precept was frozen in April, residents faced the prospect that it could rise by nearly 20 per cent in April 2012."
Only if there was a referendum!

The answer to the original question: "Should we take what Cllr Ablewhite says on face value?", the answer is NO. The 24% figure is wildly wrong and gives a totally false impression of where the funding goes.

What Cllr Ablewhite should be talking about is how the New Homes Bonus nicked from St Neots et al is currently propping up a failing budget. And the Hunts Post should be looking into the finances and why cuts are necessary rather than doing puff pieces as a cheerleader. It doesn't even look into why HDC's own accounts are late.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lets Tax and Spend

Now I'm a tax and spend person. I believe that Government at all levels should tax and spend. What I mean by tax and spend is Government should determine what services it needs and wants to provide and at what service level and then tax accordingly. If our politicians don't like the level of tax then they go back to what services they want to provide. I know Government finances are more complicated than this simple principle, yet if Government and Council follow this simple principle we get the price of services and can decide what we want to be taxed.

Council Tax is the local tax for local services. In Cambridgeshire most of the money goes to the County Council, with some going to District and some going to the Town and Parish Councils.

Use of reserves is one of the biggest problems that distorts the Council Tax rates. Because it gives the impression that services are being paid for out of Council Tax and by using reserves to keep Council Tax down this gives a false impression of services costing less than they actually do.

The problem is compounded because of inflation.

Below is a simple example of using reserves to keep the cost of council tax down. In this example a £1,000,000 of reserves are used with a 10% increase in the net cost of services and Council Tax is kept at zero increase.
In Year 6 reserves have run out and the options are to either raise Council Tax by 50% or cut £500,000 from the net cost of services.

In the next example the amount of increase is 2.5% in the net cost of services and 2.5% increase in the Council Tax. This example assumes no increase in Government Grant or charges the Council can make which makes up the £14,000,000 difference between the Net service cost and Tax.
So having spent £3,588,600 in reserves, in Year 6 there is a deficit of £1,839,715.  To make this up Council tax would have to rise by 30% in Year 6 to make up this deficit.

In the next example the Net Cost of Services rises by 5% and the Council Tax increases by 2.5%. As in the previous example Government grants and service charges have a zero increase.
The deficit in Year 6 is £4,737,182.  This added to the Council Tax would mean a 69.7% rise on top of the 2.5% annual rise. Either the Council Tax goes up by 69.7% or the Net service cost has to be cut £4,737,182.

Over just 4 years the amount of Reserves spent is £9,129,655.

I know there are many other factors in the actual calculations with Government grants which do go up but are currently reducing. I know charges haven't been included, but charging for services is a double edged sword as pushing up charges can mean a loss of revenue as people may not be willing to pay higher charges. But this isn't the point of these examples. What I'm trying to show is using reserves to keep Council Tax down by using reserves is false and is wrong. The cost of services are not reflected in the amount of Council Tax increases and there comes a time when either Council Tax has to rise or services are cut and the same amount of Council Tax has to be paid.

Both the Town Council and the District Council have kept Council Tax down by using reserves. Under the Liberal Democrats, the Town Council eventually ran out of reserves and had to cut projects to maintain a low Council Tax rise. The same goes for HDC which had the problem of using reserves to keep services going in its "socialist utopia". The deficit caused by low tax/high services is being slowly dealt with by cuts.  What HDC needed to decide is whether it wants to be a high tax/high services council or a low tax/low services council. I feel they have decided to be neither.

In the coming budget round it will be interesting to see what the Town and District Councils will do with the spending pressures they are accumulating. The capping regime has gone and authorities can put up their portions that make up the Council Tax by whatever they like so long as it is approved by a referendum. The Zero Council Tax bribe by George Osbourne is also going to cause problems as this too makes a problem for the future as I does exactly what using reserves does. It will give a false impression on what the Council Tax rate should be. Also it HDC get £200,000 in extra grant this year without this money next year it will mean a greater rise in Council Tax or more cuts.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Olympic flame not coming to St Neots!

Oh well! The Olympic Flame is not coming to St Neots and Huntingdon and St Ives are hosting events. Our Town Councillors have faux outrage at this "snub" to St Neots. Here something from the usual rent-a-quote:

Bob Farrer told The Hunts Post: “I am disgusted. We are supposed to be the biggest town after Peterborough and Cambridge. You would think we’d have been included.”

But this "snub" may not have happened. Ignored as usual at the 2009 and 2010 Annual Town Meetings I asked what St Neots Town Council was going to do for the Olympics in 2012 and what financial provision was going to be made. The answer was nothing. Not a jot for the Olympics.
That was the Liberal Democrats with Gordon Thorpe answering for the Town Council. The Conservatives, in opposition, were there.

I am not surprised that St Neots had been "snubbed". If the Town Council wanted the flame to come through St Neots it needed to do events celebrating the Olympics and inform the organising committee. Simples!

It is not as though the Olympics are being held in secret or 2012 is a surprise. Instead of all the faux outrage the Town Council should plan ahead. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jubilee Hall going bust?

The 2010/11 accounts make grim reading for Jubilee Hall. With flooding closing the hall for sometime, the parlous state of its finances means it will have to either rely on a Town Council subsidy to continue or go bust.

The Hall made a surplus of £2,426 for the year. Of which £3,197 came from the Grants made by the Town Council. Without those grants the Hall would be close to bust.

The rent has risen from £1,197 to £6,500 for this current year, which according to the accounts they are not paying as their reserves are close to exhaustion. Even if the Town Council supports Jubilee Hall by doing a museum whereby the rent is charged and a grant is made for the same amount this doesn't undo the fundamentals that the Hall is nearly bust.

So what of the future. In 2009/10 the Hall made a loss of £4,876. Though £1,196 was for rent owed to the Town Council and another £1,196 for previous year. The fundamentals of this loss haven't changed. Unless the Town Council actually starts supporting this Hall financially there would be no alternative for the Town Council to take over this Hall.

But this isn't necessarily good as the money to run this Hall will therefore be charged to the Town Council.

This is not a good place to be in. Either option will cost the Town Council (and therefore the Council Taxpayer) money. If the Town Council does takeover this Hall it will have to pay out. If the Town Council
doesn't pay up then it will have to be ready to take this hall over.

The fate of this Hall is in the Town Councils hands. The Hall isn't paying the new rent and the Town Council hasn't decided on whether to pay the hall the equivalent of the rent.

Not an easy decision to take and my instincts are to take this building into the Town Council and run it with a Management Committee, instead of a charity, managing the bookings and day to day operations with the Town Council taking responsibility for the building, decoration, heating equipment and electricals. Or the Town Council could manage the Hall itself.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Town Council Grant to Magpas

The Conservative run Town Council made a Grant to MAGPAS for £2000. Nothing wrong in that I would have thought.
The Grant Aid policy states:

St Neots Town Council grants are made for the benefit of people and projects local to St Neots. Application will be considered for financial assistance towards a specific project or activity from community associations, cultural, educational, sporting and charitable organisations, which are non-commercial and whose membership and field of activity is centred in the area covered by St Neots Town Council. The Council is prevented by statute from giving financial assistance to individuals. Funds are allocated annually to provide grants to cultural, sporting and community groups serving St Neots (including Eaton Ford, Eaton Socon and Eynesbury).

It can be argued that MAGPAS is of "benefit of people local to St Neots", but I cannot argue the membership and field of activity us centred in the area covered by St Neots Town Council.

But there you go. This grant has been paid out to a worthy organisation which roughly meets the Town Council criteria.

What am I having a go at then?

MAGPAS didn't filed its accounts for 2010 on time. MAGPAS had 10 months to get its accounts in and has failed to meet this deadline. When it did it showed a massive loss of £313,589' I know the Town Council has a history of not getting its charity accounts in on time and the Conservatives put in the Town Councils accounts late. MAGPAS gets much publicity for its activities and fundraising efforts. It also runs a lottery and had a £250,000 donation campaign. MAGPAS has a duty to get its accounts in on time. The reason it didn't is because it is nearly bust.

With the "racist play group" incident the Conservatives, in opposition, set the bar higher. The Conservatives came up with the ruse that the Liberal Democrats should have known the Playgroup was racist before it gave it funds. Therefore should the Conservatives have known MAGPAS was going to put its accounts in late? The simple answer is YES!

The Conservatives set the bar higher in they expect the Town Council to foresee what might happen and act accordingly.

As I said during the "racist playgroup incident":

"Now I'm not having a go at the Town Council for making the grant. The Town Council has to trust that people will spend the money wisely and for why it was granted. Otherwise it is a new set of red tape which will cost the Council Taxpayer yet more."

It is easy to take pot shots at those in power. The Conservatives were very opportunistic with the "Racist Play Group" incident. By doing so they set the bar higher for themselves in that anyone in receipt of a grant who doesn't comply with the law will reflect badly on the Town Council. MAGPAS hasn't complied with the law.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Today is the day I would have to resign....

....if I was elected at the local elections as a Councillor to the District and/or the Town Council. Why? Because having been elected I wouldn't have turned up to any meetings. Therefore I would have to resign or forfeit my seat(s). Why won't I turn up to meetings? Because there are other things I want to do and the money for being a Councillor is pretty abysmal.

The public wants our Councillors to take informed decisions but without much remuneration. I could understand these low rates of pay if people were falling over themselves to stand for election. They are not.

At the last elections many Parish Councils failed to have an election because many didn't even have enough candidates. This also goes on at District. There maybe 3 candidates on the ballot paper but probably only one wants to stand and maybe even win.

This is the problem. The lack of candidates means many people how stand don't want to win. These are known as "paper candidates". This means there is an illusion of how many people actually are standing to win with many just standing for their party.

The local political system is slowly failing. This isn't something new and has been happening for decades. The electorate want our local politicians not to be paid, but are on the most part unwilling to do the job themselves. It is not as though the number of candidates for each seat is massive. Whilst the public want their local representatives to be paid nil they show no inclination to do the jobs themselves.

The problem is compounded with the political parties putting people up who don't want to win or if they do win they want to take a back seat and turn up every so often. These paper candidates do little for the political process and stop those who are willing to work for their community for nil or little payment from gaining a seat.

The only solution I see to this problem is to reform local politics. Do we need 21 Town Councillors? I don't think so. 7 or 9 are the right number. Do we need 52 District Councillors? Probably not. Cut the number by half. Do we need 69 County Councillors. We I say no. We need about 35.

Any pay them for doing this job. I feel being a Town Council should attract £20,000 a year but be paid pro-rata for a 4 hours a week would bring in £2,000. The same for District Councillors who should get roughly 2 days a week or £8,000. County Councillors should be paid £30,000 a year and be paid pro-rata at 2.5 days a week or £15,000. And I would dump the "Public Service discount" from their pay.

Special responsibility allowances should be scrapped. There is nothing special about being on say the Planning Committee. Nor is there anything special about chairing a committee. Leaders and Cabinet members should be paid more for doing what is really an extra job on top of being a Councillor.

For this money local Councillors should be accountable. Not turning up to meetings should mean a pay deduction and their attendance records should be public. Also they should only serve on one Council at a time. Gone should be the days of a Councillor being on 2 or 3 different Councils.

I still believe where the Council finances are out of balance the local politicians should take a pay cut. Though how this is determined might not be a simple as it seems.

The Councillors can be their own worst enemies by not standing up for more pay and wanting the "Public Service" discount to continue. The political parties continue to put up candidates who have no intention of winning.

And I can understand why those who seek election are put off. It sounds easy to stand but then you have to go round and campaign for a few months of the year to try to get elected. Much time and effort for little payback.

Instead of hanging onto the old public service discount Councillors must be elected to do a job and must be paid for doing so. Either we end up with properly paid local politicians or local democracy will continue to fail.

I do feel our local politicians must be paid and paid correctly. If it was as such an easy job people would be applying by their hundreds. They aren't. The political parties have problems in recruiting people to stand. Time to change and make being a local politician a job worth doing in terms of pay.

Friday, November 4, 2011

An answer as to why HDC accounts are late

I asked why HDC's annual accounts hadn't been approved by the deadline of 30th September 2011. Below is the response:

Thank you for your enquiry and I hope that the following information will provide an adequate explanation.

The reasons for the delay in publishing the Council’s final accounts for 2010/11 were reported to the Corporate Governance Panel at their September meeting and they were told that it was hoped that they could be completed in time for a meeting on the 2 November.

Members of the Panel were informed on 24 October that this would no longer be possible and the current intention is to submit them to the next programmed meeting of the Panel on the 7 December.

Three events led to this delay:

1) This is the first year of a new set of rules (International Financial Reporting Standards, IFRS) for the treatment of a range of items in the final accounts. These mainly relate to capital accounting including leasing and accounting for investment properties and are very much more complex than the previous regulations. They also require us to undertake some complex calculations to identify the appropriate treatment for each lease and retrospectively restate the Balance Sheets for March 2009 and March 2010 as well as providing the new figures for March 2011. It was appreciated that this would be more difficult but unfortunately we underestimated exactly how much more complex and time consuming it would be.

2) The Audit Commission decided that we must have new auditors this year. With hindsight, irrespective of any other problems, it was not a sound idea to change anyone’s auditor in this first IFRS year. It is only 5 years since we had our last change (Grant Thornton) and a very good knowledge of the authority and sound working relationships had been built up with them. We knew that we would have to explain our systems from scratch to the new auditors, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, but we did not anticipate the level of challenge on the treatment of various items that had been accepted by previous auditors. This should not be regarded as a criticism of the auditor’s work or approach but simply a reflection of the degree of thoroughness that can follow a change of auditors.

3) The Council needs to find financial savings and it was agreed that our capital accountant could take voluntary redundancy as long as he did not leave until mid-September, once the accounts should have been completed. Unfortunately, due to ill-health, he was not available during important stages of the final accounts preparation and audit before he left.

Whilst each event in isolation could probably have been coped with, the three, in combination, were too much for us. The rest of the accountancy team have worked very hard to try and overcome the problems but, without the detailed knowledge and experience of capital accounting, delay became unavoidable.

The expected changes affect the way that capital items are classified in the Balance Sheet but should not affect the Council’s revenue position and reserves. Whilst the audit is not yet complete the audit team has completed its work in many areas and expect this to be the case, though, until all the work is completed, they cannot formally confirm this.  There is therefore reasonable confidence that  the base revenue position that we are using for this year’s financial planning will prove to be robust.

It is clearly an important element of stewardship and good governance for the accounts to be completed to the official timescale and this will be referred to in the Auditor’s report to the Panel. It will also identify any problems they have identified and we will inform the Panel of the action that we will take to avoid a recurrence next year. This should not be too difficult because, once this first year on the IFRS basis is completed, the ongoing process becomes much more straightforward.

Each year there are a few Councils that run into difficulties with the time limits and it is expected that there will be more this year due to IFRS but it is important to stress that there is no evidence of any failures in the basic financial systems, simply the ability to overcome the various difficulties referred to in order to present the results in a timely fashion on the new basis.

Steve Couper
Head of Financial Services

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Liberal Democrats campaign for free parking?

I saw on the Huntingdonshire Liberal Democrat website that has come to life the following:

Lib Dems call for free parking for Christmas

October 31, 2011 10:16 AM
Huntingdon Liberal Democrats are launching their THREE 4 FREE Campaign today. 

"We are calling on Huntingdon District Council to help local businesses and residents this Christmas by providing FREE PARKING at all District Council Car Parks for the three weekends leading up to the festive season," comments Cllr. Mike Shellens, "We want to give local people every chance to support local shops and local jobs." 

Lib Dem Parliamentary Spokes, Martin Land, adds "By providing free parking on the 3rd and 4th, 10th and 11th and 17th and 18th December, HDC could show their support for our market towns of St Ives, Huntingdon and St Neots in these difficult economic times. This move could encourage residents to shop locally and not on-line or in Bedford, Cambridge or Peterborough." 

Except parking is already free on Sundays except at Hinchingbrooke Country Park. Saturdays sounds good. With HDC finances in such a state then how much will be lost by this initiative? What will have to be cut in its place? Car Parks are revenue for HDC. The Liberal Democrats have not fleshed the costs out.

Maybe the reason why Martin Land feels having Sunday free is such a good idea when it is already free is that Martin doesn't drive!
If the danger is people will drive to Bedford, Peterborough and Cambridge they will do so anyway. The higher parking costs and the fuel costs associated going to these towns will mean people will go there for better shops and are willing to pay to go and park there. Cutting 50 pence off the cost for parking for an hour will make no difference.

Good idea. Badly thought out. In the end just a gimmick.

If the Liberal Democrats and HDC want to attract more shoppers to St Neots then they need to change the shopping experience with larger retail units. Cutting the marginal cost of parking just means the Council taxpayer picks up the bill for this elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

2 years on....

.... and what has changed?

Djanogly was re-elected. Despite living in London and prominent in the MP's expenses scandal, the voters of the Huntingdon constituency re-elected Djanogly therefore forgiving him for his part in this scandal. Djanogly went onto become an Under secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice. This is a third rung on the Ministerial ladder with Minister of State above him and Secretary of State at the top. Djanogly became a bit of a lightning rod scandal. There was his spying on local Conservative members and his relationship with his brother-in-law. The spying was internal. The brother-in-law was really a non-story.

Useless Town Council Planning Committee. This has carried on being useless and a sheer waste of money. The new Conservative administration on the Town Council has carried with this sheer waste of money. The only real reason for this is the Town Councillors want to pontificate on the merits of planning applications without any real training or idea of what they are doing.

Cllr Ablewhite is new District Council Leader. Despite being party to costing the District Council £5,000 over a planning decision in St Ives, the District Council Conservatives deemed Cllr Ablewhite worthy of their leadership. Cllr Ian Bates stood down at from the leadership after the abortive merger talks with East Cambridgeshire and Fenland District Councils fell down.

Cinema progresses. The idea to squeeze the cinema into a totally inappropriate site continues. Turnstone Estates were given preferred status and went ahead and ripped the Development Brief to shreds. As the land owners HDC and SNTC must have been privy to these changes yet didn't say a thing. So much for transparency.

Rough waters for the Outdoor Swimming Pool. Having done a deal with McCarthy and Stone, rumour has it the SNTC/SNSPT has reneged on this deal. Whilst selling the land and using the proceeds to build a new swimming pool on other land made sense, unless SNTC/SNSPT have found a source of money it will make no sense to rebuild the swimming pool on the old site.

HCCA. The slow downfall of this once proud Conservative Association continues with HCCA running out of money.

Council Tax. HDC has, for many years, used reserves to keep Council Tax down. Combined with the previous Labour Government who used the threat of capping to keep the District Council tax rises down. Capping is due to end with a new referendum rules to ensure any excessive Council Tax rises are voted on by the electorate beforehand.

New Homes Bonus nicked. This becomes a large amount of money for HDC. According to the Coalition Government this money is for the communities which are accepting new housing developments. HDC is supposed to consult the locals over the use of this money. Think about £8000 a property and 5000 properties. £40 million would make a difference to St Neots.

Riverside Car Park. This was a joint approach that ended up as a pantomime. As the basic decision was correct as either the user pays or the Council Tax payer (and I prefer the user pays) this now looks to be revisited. The Liberal Democrats made hay over this. The St Neots Conservatives are against but voted for the budget. This issue went back and forth until it was decided by Cabinet and then Council make this a pay car park.

Councillors. Over the two years I've looked at Councillor attendances. Some are good. Some were bad. On Town Councillor did good by resigning. Mandy Thomas just didn't turn up or only to one minor meeting in 6 months. The dearth of candidates to be Councillors was also highlighted before the last elections. On one good note, Carl Jones stood as an Independent and won the Town Council East seat.

CPALC. It looks as though CPALC gave the Town Council Quality Status to SNTC with too much trouble. Though how they passed many of the tests didn't stand up to scrutiny. Anyway SNTC paid their sub and CPALC seems happy the Quality Town Status means absolutely nothing.

The Liberal Democrats. These have been a big disappointment. With Martin Land as both Agent and Parliamentary Candidate this was going to go wrong. The Conservatives are "closet racists and homophobes" quote did damage. Also if that is how Martin thinks the Liberal Democrats are destined to lose and lose again.

Gordon Thorpe. It is a pity that Gordon has gone. Although he called me the "Most Hated Man in St Neots" I hold no grudges against him. I did warn him at the time that Harrsion and Jennings were fighting hard for Eaton Socon and Gordon needed to get out and campaign. Gordon didn't take my advice and, I was informed, turned up about a week before the campaign finished to campaign. Miles too late.

Have I given up on the blog? Well no. But there will be fewer blog entries as time goes on. Of course if SNTC decides to alter the Priory Centre.......