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Posted by: John Brace | 15th October 2010

Cabinet meeting 14th October 2010 (Wirral Council)

Cabinet meeting 14th October 2010 (Wirral Council)

                                                                     

To those who know me, they will realise I don’t deal with councillors of another political party in a partisan way. However I will tell a brief tale about what happened yesterday before the meeting.

Before the meeting I wrote a letter to all the Cabinet members, which I brought with me. Before Cabinet members arrive at the meeting they are in a different part of the Town Hall in a confidential briefing (otherwise known as a convenient way for certain councillors to avoid members of the public and make sure they decide what they’re going to do at the meeting). Three officers eventually came in to the room to turn on the computer and put the name plates out. As usual they hadn’t printed any public document packs for the 30 or 40 members of the public that came to the meeting and it seemed to require about four of them to get the computer working (although I’m sure the new wireless mouse had something to do with this).

I asked my wife to put one of the letters on the desk of each Cabinet member (which she did). There was another letter put out to each Cabinet Member too that Simon Holbrook read out during the meeting from someone else about the Sail Project.

Strangely they still have a name tag in the box for the retired Chief Executive Steve Maddox. One of the Cabinet members came in, saw the letters and flounced off back out of the room. Then the Borough Solicitor was instructed to do something about the letters. One of the officers (maybe egged on by someone else) was also overhead stating (in reference to the letter she hadn’t read) – “What’s this rubbish?”

So another officer of the Council came in to come and collect the letters I had written and do something with them (probably bin them although getting information out of people who’ve been told to keep their mouth shut by their superiors is difficult) on the basis that they were on the seats (which was untrue).

I went round the left collecting the letters, the officer went around the right. We both had about five each. So I asked him who had instructed him to take away the letters. He said he couldn’t tell me who and previous conversations have elicited the fact that officers fear the sack if they give me a straight answer; which shows an unhealthy culture of bullying council employees has been going on for some time.

So I said, ok then if that’s the case I’ll come with you to see where these letters go as they’re not addressed to you and I’m under the impression that you’re under instructions to bin them. He said I couldn’t follow him. I said I wouldn’t if he’d give me the letters back. If someone they weren’t addressed to wanted to see them; if they’d asked politely I’d have quite happily allowed them.

Then Shirley Hudspeth turned up. I told her I didn’t appreciate what was going on and that I wanted the letters I’d written back and that I’d quite happily hand them to Cabinet Members when they came in. I also asked her who had asked that the letters get taken away.

She said Bill Norman (Borough Solicitor) and asked the officer to hand me back the letters. So when the Cabinet Member for Community Engagement Cllr Ian Lewis came in I handed him one and he agreed that I should put them out again.

How much officer time (and therefore public money) was spent making sure a letter about getting right the council’s arrangements for gritting the roads this winter and other matters of concern to the wider public didn’t get seen by the people accountable to the public? In the interests of openness and accountability I provide the letter I wrote (with a comment about Cllr Foulkes’ views on the budget shortfall removed).

However, the good news is that as a result of the letter the Director of Technical Services was asked by the Cabinet Member to publicise better the map (or list) of gritting routes.

Onto the rest of the meeting. The agenda was reordered so the item on the Sail Project was heard first. This is what most of the public had turned up for. A number of local Conservative councillors spoke on the matter. I had heard all the arguments before. After ten minutes of delaying tactics into a special meeting called last year about the Sail Project, my local Labour councillor (along with the other Labour councillors) had left there may be a few things said the Labour Party hadn’t heard before.

Quite rightly, the project got knocked on the head. It’s deeply unpopular with the public (and not just in West Kirby/Hoylake) and however much two (of the three) Lib Dem councillors on the nine-strong Cabinet tried to come out with the line that West Kirby needs a hotel and “world-class” sailing school; all these arguments have been well rehearsed before. If you’re elected your job is to represent the public interest, not lecture the public as to why you think the commercial interests of a developer trump the public’s expectations of enjoying the Marine Lake and the continuing ability to park in the Council car park there.

At the moment the budget projections are largely guesswork, but currently state that Wirral Council will have to slash 8.7% of what it currently does by the next financial year (assuming Council Tax isn’t put up massively to compensate).

The IT stationery and consumables tender which combines purchasing across many local authorities is welcome as it’ll lead to cost savings. Slashing costs this way will protect jobs elsewhere.

The concept of Social Services and personal budgets was also discussed, as well as the critical CQC (Care Quality Commission) inspection report.

Housing continues to remain a problem as in this current economic climate Wirral is well below its targets for new houses. How first-time buyers can get a mortgage is a problem that faces many young people and developers are hardly likely to build new houses if there aren’t the people to buy them?

It’s welcome the apprenticeship scheme has been extended to a further hundred apprentices. The transfer of various community centres off Wirral Council’s hands also drew members of the public to the meeting concerned about the future of their local community centres.

I also notice a number of Cabinet members now have blogs. As far as I know the Lib Dem members don’t have blogs.

Conservative Party members

Leader of the Council/Cabinet, Cllr Jeff Green, Finance and Best Value At the time of writing this Cllr Green had a blog, but he has since deleted it.
Cllr Chris Blakeley, Cabinet member, Housing & Community Safety
Cllr Sheila Clarke MBE, Cabinet member – Children’s Services
Cllr David Elderton, Cabinet member culture, tourism and leisure
Cllr Andrew Hodson – Cabinet Member – Regeneration & Planning Strategy
Cllr Ian Lewis – Cabinet member – community & customer engagement
Cllr Lesley Rennie – Cabinet member Streetscene/Transport

Lib Dem members

Cllr Simon Holbrook – Coporate Services
Cllr Bob Moon – Social Care & Inclusion
Cllr Gill Gardiner – Environment

P.S. I welcome comments from anybody of any political persuasion.

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Responses

  1. I wonder why the govt workers in our political system try to keep the public away from politicians. Is it easier to manipulate them this way?

  2. Well…they put on the front that everything is fine and dandy, when its actually not.. So yes, I guess it is because its easier to manipulate :L

  3. You’ve nailed it on the head.

  4. John – I have read your posting and while I wasn’t present for much of what you have described, it is fair to say that the joint Conservative Liberal Democrat Administration is taking major steps to open up the Council – whether publishing more details of our spending, the largest-ever consultation on services and, as you will appreciate, fewer ‘exempt’ items at Cabinet meetings. Thanks for the link to my blog by the way!

    • I applaud the measures taken by the joint Conservative-Lib Dem administration on openness in areas of the Council that the public has had concerns about. I realise convincing the officers of openness may cause them more work; but it helps the administration by preventing some of the scaremongering by the opposition using fear, uncertainty and doubt that has gone on in past years. I’ll reply with a longer comment later; as I’m off to a regional conference today.

    • I agree with what you say. Whereas councillors may vote for openness and accountability; this isn’t always being implemented by officers.

      On of the points raised by the opposition was that unlike co-opted members on committees there wasn’t any openness or transparency in relation to the appointment or interests of those on the taskforces. However I’m sure this will be discussed on Monday.

      Yes, the details on spending are welcome. However local taxpayers were already entitled to this (and more information they’ve been refused on the commercial side if they’ve made FOI requests) under section 14/15 of the Audit Commission Act 1988.

      In order for things to get better, a change has got to happen among senior officers of being accountable to the public and councillors equally. For example a councillor shouldn’t get a response to a letter in a maximum of 10 days; whereas the target for a member of the public is 15 days.

      There are many others way that the system deliberately blocks attempts at multi-party democracy; or people working for Wirral Council are specifically instructed to be difficult and tell fibs.


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