Friday, 26 September 2014

Local Government Accounting - Warrington style

Warrington BC is the host authority for the Police and Crime and Panel ('PCP').  As host authority they are entitled to a Home Office Grant to pay for the work they do in facilitating the work of the panel.  The council is entitled to claim £53,300 for supporting the panel.

As panel members we asked for a report indicating how the money had been spent.  I was very unhappy with what we were told.

It appears far too much has been spent on administration and not enough, in my view, in providing research and assistance to the panel in fulfilling its role in scrutinising the Police and Crime Commissioner.  If you want to see me raising the issues you can watch the webcast of the panel (which incidentally saw 410 viewers watching at least part of the broadcast live.)

The following passage is a quote from the report considered today - the parts that piqued my interest I've highlighted in bold:

'The host authority undertakes a system of informal time-recording to estimate the number of hours spent by staff on activities related to the ... panel.  The process captures information by way of a spreadsheet, about the activities undertaken by key staff in units equivalent to one day (7.4 hours) based upon the salary rate of each member of staff.  The actual time logged by staff is normally rounded up or down to the nearest half-day (i.e. 0.5 unit) ...
The total hours worked by the 5 employees identified is 172, which is split between 136.5 hours (Solicitor to the Council and Monitoring Officer) and 35.5 hours (Performance and Policy).

Now as I work as a solicitor I know something about how solicitors work and how they calculate their fees.  I am expected to work to 6 minute units - not half day units and use a formal time recording system.  I noted the 'weasel words' about 'normally' rounding the figures claimed to the nearest half day.  Does the use of the word 'normally' suggest that, on occasion, the rounding (which I found excessively crude) didn't take place?  Could this mean that a short telephone call may have been charged as half a day's work?

Returning to the report - having set out the basis of calculation the report then indicated the figures used to make up the claimed £53,300.  It included the following two items:

Solicitor and Monitoring Officer team    £36,327
Performance and Policy  team                   £7,313

So we know that the Solicitor and his staff worked 136.5 hours for their claimed £36,327 and the Performance and Policy team worked 35.5 hours for their £7,313.  With these figures and a little division we can work out the hourly rates.

Solicitor and legal team  £36,327/136.5 = £266.13.  This is an average hourly rate for the 5 officers - and surprisingly in the range of reasonable commercial rates.

For the Performance and Policy Team £7,313/35.5 = £206 - a very high figure for administrative staff.

Unfortunately the council solicitor wasn't present to explain the figures so I asked, and the panel agreed, to defer this matter so that he can be present to explain himself.  Just as the discussion was concluding one of the council's administrative staff indicated that an apology was due.

Where the report referred to hours, it should have referred to days!

Now this in itself is astonishing.  Is it right that the report was so poorly written and checked that such an error had been made?  Was everything mis stated by a factor of 7.4?

Lets assume the we should read 'days' for hours we get the following calculation

136.5 days - with 7.4 hours per day - equates to 1,010.1 hours;
35.5 days - with 7.4 hours per day - equates to 262.7 hours.

So doing the maths again:

Solicitor and Monitoring officer team £36,327/1,010.1 = £35.96 per hour;
Performance and Policy team £7,313/262.7 hours = £27.84 per hour.

As anyone in the commercial world we know these figures are also highly questionable.

All this begs the question whether the council really knows what it is doing and whether its financial information is credible.

Now this isn't just an academic exercise.   The more money spent on administration means less money available to support the scrutiny function of the panel and all of us have to careful with public money.

I will be pressing for answers at the next panel meeting.    

Celebrating Frodsham's wonderful community

Following a change in the law that allows small councils like Frodsham Town Council to grant local honours, such as making an individual an honorary freeman or woman of the town, Frodsham Town Council is actively considering making its first grant.  More of this in due course.  The granting of the 'Freedom' of a place is a very special award to be granted very sparingly.

Following discussions earlier this week I am going to suggest to FTC at the October meeting that the council should also consider recognising the contribution of many of our unsung local heroes.  I think we should celebrate those wonderful people who for years, and often without thanks, have served our community wonderfully well and selflessly.  Frodsham would be a poorer place without them and their efforts.  So shouldn't we as a community make a little bit of a fuss of them and say 'thank-you'?  I think so.

Incidentally the Town Council has resolved that it will have a commemorative badge struck to celebrate the grant of the Freedom of Frodsham.   The badge will be awarded to the recipient of the honour. The indicative design is shown below.  It is based on the town's bee -which itself comes from  the memorial to the Rev Cotton at St Laurence church.

The Town Council is also taking this opportunity to catch up with what other Towns and Boroughs do in offering its outgoing civic representatives a badge commemorating their service.  Not only is this the right thing to do - it also helps bolster our civics and assists in promoting Frodsham elsewhere.  Those badges are of a similar design to the Freedom badge - but have different coloured outer circles and a different label on the bar - depending on what role is being commemorated.

These commemorative civic badges won't cost the council tax payer anything.  This is unlike other Towns and Boroughs who give their commemorative badges out free of charge.  Frodsham Town Council won't be issuing any badge to any outgoing civic representative unless they pay for them!  This is something I absolutely insisted upon and was glad that all the other councillors agreed with me.  I'm also delighted to report that the badges were designed free-of-charge.  You can do the right thing, you can bolster the civics - without burdening the tax payer!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Swing Bridge to be re-opened 10-11 October

CWaC and the Canals and Rivers Trust have announced that the Swing Bridge is to be re-opened on 10 & 11 October.  On the 10th, at around lunchtime, there will be a re-opening ceremony accompanied by boats and modern and historic lorries and then, at midnight on 11th October the swing bridge will re-open for traffic.

As the £4.5M refurbishment scheme is nearing its conclusion it was wonderful this morning to see the swing bridge in its 'open position' for river traffic no doubt as part of the recommissioning work.

So, if you are free on 10 October - especially around lunchtime - go and enjoy the festivities.  Unfortunately I'll miss the opening events as my day job sees me representing a client at an Inquest.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Sutton Weaver Swing Bridge Junction - the decision

The majority of this blog post was written by Cllr Lynn Riley who, in addition to being my colleague as a councillor for Frodsham on CWaC, as Executive Member for Localities had to make the decision on what the junction at the Sutton Weaver Swing Bridge would look like following the Traffic Regulation Order consultation.
 'What’s the Point?
This is a phrase too often heard and is guaranteed to send shivers down the spines of anyone involved in trying to achieve something, be that politicians, pressure groups or members of the PTA. The follow up sentence is invariably ‘ they’ll do what they want anyway’.
In a democracy this isn’t actually true but its understandable that for many people it feels true. As your local councillors we know only too well that Frodsham isn’t short of opinions; everywhere you go there are people willing to share their views be that in the pub or post office. The challenge for all of us is how we gather that opinion so that when decisions have to be made, they reflect “us” and not the amorphous “them”.
Decisions for any of us start with the facts and one of the reasons we write this blog, website, take space in Frodsham Life and other social media is to make sure that as many people as possible are aware and involved in all that’s going on. 
So it’s been great to see so many people sharing their views about a whole range of local issues over the summer period. It’s usually a quiet time, but not this year. The Swing Bridge is just one example. With work due to complete in a matter of weeks, the question about what happens next is out there. Moving the traffic back onto the refurbished bridge has been out to consultation. Not only has this triggered 267 people to write in with their comments about whether to retain the arrangements on the temporary bridge or not, but its also brought forward a new suggestion from a private developer and we are all interested to know more. Obviously any new scheme has along way to go and in the meantime we’ll soon be driving, walking and cycling over the much-improved Swing Bridge. 
Your views were overwhelmingly (242/267) in favour of reinstating the original layout and turning on the traffic lights. I have to confess being quite surprised by this given the huge amount of public support for the temporary bridge and the success of the traffic flow during the refurbishment. But it’s an important local issue and therefore important to ask the question. Predictably, the vast majority of people didn’t know, didn’t care one way or the other or didn’t see the point of bothering, but amongst those that did see ‘the point’ and wanted to make theirs, the overwhelming response back was objection. When there is a (legal) process as is the case with a TRO, it’s the basis of the objection that carries the weight and we tasked Highways officers with spelling these out in their formal report. All the local parish councils and the neighbouring Halton Council objected as did the Police, Highways Agency and Sustrans along with the local bus companies who can trigger a public inquiry. Whilst this is the formal process, we also have the findings from the joint Frodsham Town Council consultation where we made sure this question was raised and saw roughly an even split of those for and against retaining the temporary arrangements.  Interestingly many more people responded to the Frodsham wide consultation which covered  lots of things than responded to the TRO consultation (c1300 as against 267)
So the consultation is over. You have made your points and these have made a difference.  The comments you raised have helped us convince the Highways teams to reinstate the previous 3 lane working even though they wanted 2 and there will be marked improvements to pedestrian and cycling access. We’ve taken the positive comments about the temporary bridge and will be maintaining the left hand flow onto Clifton Road and have secured a give-way rather than a traffic light controlled left turn. It’s not so long ago that traffic used to regularly back-up from the bridge in all directions and we are keen to keep this situation under review, particularly if there are to be future proposals from private developers around this area.
So a big thanks you to everyone who did see the point of sharing his or her views – it really can and does make a difference. New Government thinking both nationally and locally has brought a new pragmatism and flexibility into play that has really helped us deliver this fix to a long-standing eyesore at the gateway to our town. 
This is a good example of the way that a small number of views can influence how things can and should work locally. So returning to the title, just try and imagine what more people supporting more ambitious projects might look like? '   Lynn
So there you have it.  We will be reverting to a traffic light controlled junction.  There will be 3 lanes over the bridge.  The left hand filter lane will be a 'give way' not a filter light.   
Personally, whilst I respect the decision I think it was the wrong decision - but that's democracy.  This was always going to be a difficult nuanced decision where not everyone could be satisfied.  I'm pleased we've been able to persuade the highway officers to revert to 3 lanes - the thought of a 2 lane bridge with traffic lights would have been too horrible to contemplate!
I do hope the road surface on the bridge will take the additional wear and tear of 3 lanes of traffic including braking on the bridge.   Don't forget it was the road surface 'letting-go' that proved to be the final catalyst in getting the bridge refurbished.  I'm concerned about the effect of queuing traffic on pollution and environmental quality.  One only has to go up the road to the Fluin Lane junction with the A56 to find a location where environmental standards are being breached through pollution from queuing traffic.  The only place outside Chester that happens in the Borough.
Ah well, at least this is one debate that looks like being parked for a generation or two - until the bridge needs to be refurbished again - or perhaps until the next time a developer suggests something different?

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Latest on the Steppingstone Group roundabout proposal

On Monday 11th August Lynn and I wrote to the Steppingstone Group's advisers asking them to answer six questions about their proposal.  I attach a copy of that letter below so you can read the questions and see how Steppingstones advisers have responded.  
This morning I received this reply:

Wednesday 13th August 2014

CC. Charlie Seward, Ralph Oultram and Lynn Riley

Dear Andrew,
Many thanks for your email of Friday, to which I replied, and for your subsequent letter on Monday. 
We’re delighted with the level of response that this initial consultation has gained from the local community and thanks both yourself and Lynn for your interest. So far there have been more than 750 responses, the vast majority of which have been positive.
This consultation was designed to see if there is support from the local community on the principle of such as development. As you’ll appreciate, the first step in any process is to see if there is an appetite for such a solution before taking it forward. The huge response from the community shows that to be the case so we are now taking the next step of meeting with CWaC officers to investigate options. That meeting has now been arranged.
If CWaC believes there is any value in the proposal we’ll be in a position to come back to stakeholders for further discussion. Hopefully we’ve already demonstrated our commitment to consulting with the community and we’ll continue to talk to Frodsham Town Council, Sutton Weaver Parish Council and Helsby Parish Council along with Halton Station Road residents and neighbours to the site, Ralph Oultram as the ward councillor for the area and of course yourself and Lynn as neighbouring ward councillors, as part of that process.
We look forward to meeting you to discuss this further when we have more to report.
With kind regards,

Rachel Smith 

To save anyone digging out the previous blog entry Lynn and my letter stated:

11 August 2014

Dear Ms Smith  

Re: Steppingstone Group - proposal for a roundabout controlled junction near Sutton Weaver Swing Bridge - A56 and Clifton Road

Following on from Steppingstone Group’s (‘Steppingstone’) proposal for a roundabout controlled junction on the eastern side of the Sutton Weaver Swing Bridge and the consultations you have reportedly carried out we set out here some questions that we would like you to answer.  We believe answers to these questions are important so that the wider community can fully understand the basis on which Steppingstone has put the proposal for a roundabout forward.  With this in mind we are publishing this letter.

  1. A Cheshire West and Chester Highways Officer has made an informal assessment that the highways works that would be necessary to produce the proposed roundabout shown in your indicative layout would cost of the order of £2M.  Has Steppingstone costed the proposed works, and if so what figure does Steppingstone estimate the roundabout and all other associated highways works would cost?
  2. It is not clear from the descriptions provided by Steppingstone whether Steppingstone is offering to carry out the highways works itself, or to pay for them, or whether it expects Cheshire West and Chester Council (‘CWaC’) to carry them out at the council’s cost.  CWaC does not have c£2M available to pay for these works as matters currently stand, nor is it anticipated that this sort of funding would be available in the medium term.  So, so far as Steppingstone is concerned - how are the highways works to be carried out and who is to pay for them?
  3. Is Steppingstone offering to transfer the land on which the proposed roundabout and related approach roads to CWaC, and if so, on what basis?
  4. The land where the proposed roundabout is to be sited is in green belt - as are the surrounding fields.  The emerging local plan has not sought to change this designation.  Does Steppingstone link its roundabout proposal with the development of the surrounding land it owns?  If it does, on what basis and what if any development is in mind?  How does Steppingstone seek to demonstrate the ‘very special circumstances’ that would be necessary?
  5. What discussions has Steppingstone had with CWaC planners regarding any development proposals in this vicinity - and are any such discussions proposed for the future?
  6. I’m sure you and your client readily appreciate that the Sutton Weaver Swing Bridge is likely to be re-opened following its refurbishment in the autumn of 2014.  Whatever the outcome of CWaC’s consultation regarding the proposed traffic regulation order and the choice of configuration of the road junction on the eastern side of the Swing Bridge the roundabout proposal suggested by Steppingstone could not be implemented by then.  Does Steppingstone have a timetable in mind for the construction of the roundabout and any linked development?  
  7. We confirm our willingness to meet with you and your client to discuss Steppingstone’s proposals.  We would be grateful if you would produce a response to this letter in a format that can be readily published.
    Yours sincerely

    Cllr Andrew Dawson Cllr Lynn Riley

    In the final analysis it is up to Steppingstone and their advisers how they choose to answer the questions put to them.  I take the view that their response of 13 August does not answer the direct questions put them - certainly not in the full way that I had hoped.  With this in mind I have already responded by email specifically requesting that they do answer the direct questions that were put to them in the letter of 11 August and previously.