Monday, 27 August 2018

Make the workers pay

It’s all about managing resources. Something that Northamptonshire County Council have been struggling with for quite some time. Decisions about the problems it has faced have been impeded by the lack of transparency and the failure to involve both councillors and the public in understanding issues and proposed solutions. I have written more about this hereOne of NCC’s many areas of mismanagement concerns decisions about the council workforce. Over the last few weeks it has emerged that 2015 seems to have been a critical year for Northamptonshire County Council. The Chief Finance Officer had written to the Council's political leadership stating an intention of issuing a section 114 notice effectively declaring the Council bankrupt. 

In 2015, with the whole country in the midst of the fifth year of austerity, within the Northamptonshire bubble the section 114 was never implemented. This was despite all of the then cabinet, including the current leader of the authority, Cllr Matt Golby, being aware of the statutory duty of the Chief Finance Officer to invoke it. Whilst the council didn’t go bankrupt, the butterfly-effect of its decisions fell heavy on the rest of Council resources. As a consequence, cuts to budgets had a dramatic impact on users of the county council’s services. It had an even starker impact on staff working for the county council. It was at this time that deliberate decisions were taken to make all staff pay for the privilege of working for the authority. The county council needed the dosh but, with an election looming, was unwilling to increase council tax and cut services dramatically.  So the staff had to make the sacrifice which included being taken out of nationally negotiated pay terms and conditions. This meant that if they could switch job to one in Bedford, Leicester, Rugby or Market Harborough they instantly had a better deal than any on offer in Northampton. Other changes included not paying staff for the first day they were off sick which had a bigger impact on part-time staff than anyone else. The way this was implemented was also brutal, with staff being effectively sacked and re hired on the new terms and conditions. 

The effects of this on the council’s ability to undertake its responsibilities to look after vulnerable people cannot be overstated. It is now extremely difficult to recruit for essential roles, such as social workers and some of the strategies designed to convert agency workers to being on the council’s books have massively backfired. Half of the social workers recruited by Northants County Council last year have already left. So, massive expenditure by NCC has failed to deliver the kind of services vulnerable local people deserve and have paid Council taxes for. The concept of conservative financial competence is dead in the water in Northamptonshire. 

A better  way of delivering essential public services is possible but honesty in local government governance is required for this to happen. It is possible to have properly funded and responsibly managed  local government but this needs to start with transparency about how the council will balance its books and openness about where any axe to services will fall. Only by doing this can we understand the funding gap from central government. Over a month after the second section 114 notice was published we’re still no clearer about this.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Openess and Transparency - Doing Democracy Well

It seems like Northamptonshire County Council has been facing stick forever. After the recent Judicial review victory by Library campaigners, it’s worth stating that the stick seems well justified. Most criticisms have focussed on the the deterioration in services but there have also been failures in the organisational culture, as anyone whose had any kind of engagement with the Council may have noticed. As an opposition councillor it is extremely hard to influence budget decisions and this is why my immediate focus will be on the organisational culture.

Here’s some statements made by others about this.

In the Local Government Authority (LGA) Peer Review;
“Decisions taken by the Cabinet need greater transparency. Council members and scrutiny chairs need access to more information. There was a desire expressed from some cabinet members for greater discussion and challenge across portfolios. However, where challenge has been provided, for example from the Audit Committee, that has not been welcomed.”
(Financial Peer Review - Northamptonshire County Council, Dates: 12th – 14th September 2017, Feedback Report)

Max Caller (the Government appointed Commissioner) in his report stated,
“the approach adopted made it very difficult for any backbench councillor to establish what was going on and the absence of effective controls made the job of budget management an exercise”. (2.12)
“Even if there was a concern about the publishing of confidential information, most authorities have protocols and practices which make it possible for key information to be shared and protect the authority. To refuse it outright is just wrong.” (3.82)
“challenge and criticism was to be discouraged as senior members and officers knew best.”
“The council did not respond well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism. Individual councillors appear to have been denied answers to questions that were entirely legitimate to ask and scrutiny arrangements were constrained by what was felt the executive would allow. When external agencies reported adverse findings these were not reported with an analysis of the issues and either a justification or an action led response to a relevant decision taking body. At its most extreme, the two KPMG ISA 260 reports, stating an adverse opinion on Value For Money matters were just reported to the Audit Committee without comment and the unprecedented KPMG Advisory Notice issued under the 2014 Act was reported to full council without any officer covering report giving advice on what the response was recommended to be.”

Since my first Council meeting, on 1st August, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in dealing with the public in County Council meetings. I’ve regularly attended Council meetings, as a member of the public, often registering to speak. Even when not registered to speak, as a member of the public I was able to sit in the public gallery and watch proceedings. But, since 1st August, members of the public who haven’t registered to speak at least two days before the Council meeting, are ushered into a side room where they can only view one camera angle from the Council chamber and thus unable to see all the speakers. This additional resource comes without council papers (which were previously available) but with a security guard. 

The creation of this distance from the public shows the Council failing in it’s requirement for transparency at the very time that it is most needed. Without transparency, there is less likely to be confidence in the decisions taken by the administration. It also indicates the Council’s wish for distance between decision making and the community. The Chair of the Council has on at least two occasions stated that members of the public who heckle in public would not be given the right to speak at Council again.

At a time when communities, families and staff are promised swingeing cuts and massive job losses, the Council’s Chairman requires decorum to continue above all else. This approach denies the reality of the pain being felt in the County. It denies the passion that local people have about their public services and denies the life and death nature of some of the decisions being taken in the Council. Hearing the views of members of the public who often give a context to how decisions made or about to be made would impact on their communities, is an important element in local democracy. But we are now seeing an erosion to these rights. The three minute limit is often reduced to two, which makes it more difficult to make a point.

Prior to February of this year Council meetings were webcast, so anyone across the world could see what was happening and the decisions being taken. But the contract was allowed to run out and because most meetings happen during the day it’s now impossible for the majority of the public to view what goes on. More evidence that the Council wants decisions taken out of sight and out of mind of the public.

So, whilst the people of Northampton can still express their views directly to the Council it is no longer possible to sit in the public gallery unless you have registered to speak (remember to register two days in advance).  And for those who choose to speak they would like you be polite, stick to your two minutes and go away and don’t expect anyone not able to be present to hear what you have to say.  Yet another example of the dysfunctional organisational culture at the heart of this Conservative administration.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Housing lack of options

Growing up on the east side of Northampton, Billing Aquadrome was something we generally associated with as fun. Over the years the park has changed in a number of different ways with increasing numbers of people choosing to live full time. For some it is being seen by some as a route to having stable housing. But the thing is it just isn’t. I was on the site yesterday, the day before it was shutting down for a month. With residents required to be off site for four weeks of the year, the stability is limited. A couple of years back my daughter took in a pensioner who’s family had said that they had saved for a hotel for the four weeks break. When push came to shove, when the money wasn’t there, the family went to a range of alternatives including sofa’s of friends and tents.  Unwilling to see a pensioner living in a tent over January, my daughter took her in for the four weeks.
Over the four week break, the site seems increasingly prone to flooding. Over the weekend much of the areas around the paths and community facilities on site seemed waterlogged. The burden on home makers and care givers increase in such conditions, particularly when making a move for four weeks. A far cry from the summer fun of the fair.
People talk about the advantages in only having to pay for ground rent rather than Council tax but this in itself goes into the thousands. Coupled to the fact that fuel has to be purchased from the camp management and gas is about twice the cost of that off site. There are other hidden costs such as the requirement for Gas safety certifications which have to purchased from the site management and any improvements to pitches (decking or fencing) having to be again be purchased from site management at inflated costs.
The concern is that people living in these environments are disconnected from the rest of the community. With no access to postal services and a long walk to most other facilities, it’s easy to see why people living on the site have no voice. As just a market opportunity to be exploited, the human cost of which is hidden. It is after all somebody else’s business, somebody else’s choice. Of the people that I know living on this site many have taken the option as a result of broken relationships, and with the leading cause of homelessness being the cessation of private sector tenancies, the option of living in a caravan park is increasingly an option. Much less of a choice than, an potion on an every reducing list of options.
Part of the reason for the voicelessness is the disconnect from the rest of the system. This includes electorally with few if any being registered to vote. With Tory Councillors on the borough and County Council having responsibility for the area for the last fourteen years, (with the notable interlude of a Tory councillor who defected to labour in 2011) there is no interest in addressing these issues.
Over the Christmas new year period, the has been quite rightly focus on the number of people sleeping rough on the streets, but homelessness is so much more complex than that. With at least one woman saying to me that the ones on the street are the only genuinely homeless people there seems to be a reticence to deal with the wider aspiration of affordable housing in the town that is available for all.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

County Council Cuts

Northampton communities are getting to grips with the shock and awe cost saving ideas from Northamptonshire County Council. After twelve years of Conservative control and over seven years of Tory and Lib Dem government austerity, council services that have survived are already cut to the bone.
There is understandable outrage about the effect these new proposals will have on library services but other proposed cuts will also have a sizeable impact on local communities.

One of the cuts that hasn't had a lot of exposure, is the proposed 42% reduction to the Trading Standards budget. Trading Standards staff play a vital role in protecting the public and their work covers a wide area:

  • Fraud (such things as rogue trading)
  • Age-restricted sales
  • Animal Health and Welfare
  • Consumer &  Business Advice
  • Environmental Controls
  • Consumer Product Safety
  • Fair Trading (including weights and measures, descriptions, pricing, consumer credit, etc.)
  • Food, Health and Agricultural Standards
  • Licensing and Registration

Their recent successes in Northamptonshire include:

getting compensation for a bride who had her wedding day ruined by a catering firm that included nuts in her wedding cake, despite her telling them that she had a nut allergy. You can read more here
Prosecuting shopkeepers who sold cigarettes to underage children. You can read more here
Taking dangerous skin creams off the shelves of shops. You can read more here
Taking a trader to court who sold an un-roadworthy and dangerous car to a local teenager. They also supported the young person taking the trader to court to get their money back. You can read more here.

The details about the cuts are in the Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA) here

The EqIA gives a lot of detail about how older people and people with disabilities will be particularly adversely affected. This is a service which has protecting the public at it's heart. After the Grenfell tragedy, the mood of local people is to be more and more critical of the decades of deregulation and cost cutting that can link back to hazards, risks and health concerns. In addition to this, cost cutting will lead to an increase in sales of illegal tobacco and product testing is likely to reduce by over 50%. 

Northamptonshire’s investment in the skills and equipment to provide a local product testing service generated income to a cash-strapped council. It now seems that investment will be collateral damage in the cuts to a service which is vital to the well-being of Northamptonshire people.

So what can be done?
Please sign my petition against all Council budget cuts here.

Please support my campaign to become the prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for Northampton North. If you are a member of the Labour Party, let me know that you are supporting my campaign. If you are not a member of the Labour Party, join us here.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Public Sector Pay Cap

Lorna Smith from UNISON Northants County Branch and Anjona Roy outside the Guildhall after lobbying a Conservative MP for Northampton on the public sector pay cap

Yesterday I went with Lorna Smith from UNISON Northants County Branch to lobby one of our MP's about the Public sector pay cap. The argument was made to us that that if the pay cap was lifted there would be less money to deliver local services. We said that this made public sector workers have an unfair burden of delivering local public services. We also pointed out the extreme financial pressure families of public sector workers are under after years of pay restraint.

If you want to find out how much impact the pay cap has had on you, there's a really handy tool you can use developed by our colleagues in PSC here. Try it out. You'll surprise yourself.

Monday, 16 October 2017

The most indebted place per capita in the country is Northampton at £749. Consumer debt in the UK has soared by almost 10% in the past year. Unsecured consumer credit topped £200bn in June, prompting the Bank of England to warn about the potential threat of growing debt to the economy. The average consumer debt per person in the UK stood at £603, while the average household debt was £1,441 at the end of 2016. This debt for local people is made of personal loans, overdrafts, credit cards and car loans. The rising cost of living as wages have stagnated has contributed to this as the extortionate cost of housing with many families having to downsize,  move out of town or access other helps such as food banks to manage. Northampton North needs a Labour candidate who understands the realities of what people are facing. The crippling impact of austerity has meant that public services aren’t meeting the needs of local people with these pressures.  I have been a part of the voluntary and community sector in Northampton over the last twenty-seven years which has tried to respond by the development of food and clothing banks and street kitchen. The most effective response is to get a Labour Government in to ensure better paid and more secure work. Managing a discrimination advice service, has given me first hand experience of the way that the move to pseudo-self employment and zero hours contracts have affected local people.

The Labour Party has launched a petition urging the government to rethink Universal Credit. You can sign it here.

Other things that you can do on this is to support the TUC  public rally to be held on October 21st, 12.00-14.00, Northampton Working Men's Club, 56 Sheep Street, NN1 2LZ.
Speakers include:
-          Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary
-          Lee Barron, TUC Midlands
-          Louise Regan, NEU President
-          Sara Carpenter, Unite Head of Health
-          Rachell Wilkins, GMB
-          Alan Hackett, NASUWT NEC
-          Gareth eales, CWU
-          Andrew Lloyd, PCS Regional Secretary
-          Penny Smith, Northants UNISON
Labour party members who have been members for more than 6 months get a vote. If you are in this fortunate position please support Anjona Roy’s campaign.
If you know other local Labour Party members please talk to them about Anjona Roy’s campaign
If you have friends and family that are not members please encourage them to join.
It’s our Labour Party and we’re campaigning for the many … Join us

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

More Money on Services Needed by People in Northampton

Nick Spoors of the Chronicle and Echo has set up a petition calling on the government for a fairer allocation scheme to better reflect today’s population growth and levels of deprivation in Northamptonshire. You can see it here.

He highlights Surrey as better funded.  You may remember they benefitted from a sweetheart deal from the government to persuade their Tory controlled County Council not to hold a referendum to increase Council Tax.  Jeremy Corbyn confronted Prime Minister Theresa May in February with leaked text messages involving the leader of Surrey County Council that appeared to show negotiations over a deal. Read more about it here.

Northamptonshire has been underfunded according to a number of commentators for decades, so it’s interesting to explore why so many Tory council leaders and Tory MP’s are suddenly drawing attention to it now. Whilst in control the Conservative administration in the County and the Borough has successively failed to put up Council tax to pay for services, essentially awarding themselves less and less income to manage delivering essential public services. Despite Labour calls to press government for more cash for our increasing needs and increasing population, Tory Councillors have failed to act over a number of years. Instead they have sought miraculous panacea-like solutions that they have invested hand over fist into. One of the latest of these was an online portal on which they spent £1 million pounds but which has just been abandoned after just 5 years. 

The Tory County Council administration has failed to increase income either by raising Council Tax or asking Government for a better settlement, nor has it managed finances well. The investment of £54 million on new offices was something that even Tory controlled Daventry District Council pleaded with the county not to go ahead with. The building remains 30% empty. All of this while axing 30% of the council's spending on vital services.

For a number of years I have attended and spoken at County Council budget- setting meetings arguing about the human cost of cuts. Austerity, from the coalition government’s time to the present day, has been critiqued as a damaging response to our economic situation by the majority of academics in the field. The fact that it has no economic justification exposes its true purpose; it is an ideological attack on working people. 

Last month, a number of senior Tory politicians sought to change tack and, after all these years, requested more from government. Local MP Michael Ellis, as of 14th September, is yet to state his position.

Is Northamptonshire underfunded? Yes.
Should local people be asking for more investment into the area? Yes, but we want it so that all areas get fair funding with well managed, well funded services so that all those in our community that need support get it. If you want to do something practical towards this, yes sign the petition, but also join those of us in the Labour party campaigning for a better more hopeful tomorrow. For a government which rejects austerity in favour of building public services and funding them in a way that works for all of us.

If you agree with these views, please support my campaign to become the Labour Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Northampton North. Get in touch and let me know that you are supporting me.