Consultants, golf, politicians and Wirral Council: What could possibly go wrong?

Consultants, golf, politicians and Wirral Council: What could possibly go wrong?

Consultants, golf, politicians and Wirral Council: What could possibly go wrong?


Last Friday Wirral Council published a General Exception Notice about reporting to Cabinet the results of a soft market test exercise about Wirral’s golf courses. Interestingly it says the reason for the exception notice is that there is no Cabinet meeting in August (something that is hardly unsurprising as the draft calendar of meetings for this municipal year was agreed last December). The other reason given in the notice is that the earlier a decision happens, the greater the potential savings.

The Cabinet meets on the 7th July and Claire Fish’s report at the agenda item Soft Market Testing Exercise – Golf Courses and it can be read on Wirral Council’s website. It’s not what’s in the report itself, but what’s not in the report that is surprising.

As you can read in this tender notice published back in March, Wirral Council & Chester West and Chester Council jointly issued a “prior information notice” in the supplement to the Official Journal of the European Union. This referred to a prospectus and questionnaire (which were given to those responding to the notice) to decide whether there would be interest from golf operators in running eight golf courses (seven of which are in Wirral). Wirral Council was down as the contracting authority for this exercise, however the telephone number and email contact details given are that of a business consultancy called V4 Services Limited based in Stafford.

Wirral Council’s list of invoices over £500 paid for the month of April, which you can find on this page shows a payment made to V4 Services Limited for £18,757.68 from the technical services department with the description being “consultants”. This amount of £18,757.68 isn’t mentioned in the report, nor is any reference made to V4 Services Limited. As a slight aside I suppose no-one except me has yet spotted that the link to the pdf file for the May payments on that page, is in fact an identical file to the pdf for April payments?

There is a curious grammatical error made five times in the report that you wouldn’t expect the author of the report (Claire Fish (Strategic Director – Families and Wellbeing) on a salary of £121,807) to make. Here are the examples if it from the report (highlighted in bold):

  • 1.3 “Other Council’s have found that similar arrangements can eliminate subsidy entirely”
  • 3.2 “The terms of any agreement or leasehold interest would be determined if the Council’s proceed, and with dialogue the Council’s will seek to secure best consideration.”
  • 3.3 “Both Council’s made it very clear in the documentation released they are open to exploring innovative ways of structuring any prospective arrangement that delivers best consideration and secures arrangements that deliver mutual benefits. At present Wirral Council maintains its own courses, and carries out the green-keeping.”
  • 3.4 “Seven (7) suppliers completed and returned the market questionnaire with varying levels of interest across both Council’s, between full 18 hole golf courses and smaller, pitch and putt courses.”

There’s also a bit of the report that makes no sense at all, under the “legal implications” section is the rather cryptic “This report is based on the structure of delegation”. In my opinion vast sections of the report sound not like they’ve been written by Claire Fish at all, but by consultants. If V4 Services Ltd have been paid £18,757.68 for the soft market testing exercise (that could’ve been done by Wirral Council using in-house resources) they have a vested financial interest in persuading Cabinet to agree to proceed to the next stage of a full procurement exercise (that V4 Services will probably argue they are in a better position to run than anyone else as they ran the soft market testing exercise). So what do you think?

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Families and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee (Wirral Council) 9th July 2013

A report on the Families and Wellbeing Committee held in Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall on the 9th July 2013

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Video footage of the first meeting of Wirral Council’s Families and Wellbeing Committee (that replaces both the Health and Wellbeing Overview and Scrutiny Committee and its Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny Committee) can be watched above with a playlist of all parts here. If you’d like to be notified each time I upload a video, simply subscribe to my Youtube channel.

The agenda and reports for the meeting are as usual on Wirral Council’s website. In a meeting that lasted over two hours what was actually decided? Well they agreed the minutes of the previous two meetings of the Health and Wellbeing Overview and Scrutiny Committee and the previous meeting of the Children and Young Peoples Committee.

They noted a report and presentation on their terms of reference (which had previously been agreed at the last Extraordinary Council meeting back in April). They noted (and received a report on) the policy and performance procedure rules (which had already been agreed with minor amendments by the Coordinating Committee a week ago). All this (which along with a few interests being declared at the start of the meeting) took a staggeringly long thirteen minutes. These last two reports were something the Committee have no say over as it falls outside their terms of reference.

Then they went onto discuss the role of co-optees. There are ten co-optees on this Committee, some required by law, others were transferred over from the Families and Wellbeing Committee’s predecessor committees. Curiously none of the ten co-optees had been invited along to the meeting where their very existence was debated. I’ll point out here that who the co-optees are is decided by Council, not the Families and Wellbeing Committee. After much umming and ahhing as well as correction by Fiona Johnstone of the mistaken belief by one councillor (who shall remain nameless) that the Chief Executive of Arrowe Park Hospital and a doctor from the Clinical Commissioning Group had been co-optees of the former Health and Wellbeing Committee, Cllrs Moira McLaughlin, Denise Roberts, Mike Hornby and Pat Williams decided to meet in a task and finish group to mull over the co-optees’ future.

So after twenty minutes of noting reports and discussing things that fell outside their remit, did they finally at agenda item seven get to something within their committee’s remit and that it was worthwhile having fifteen councillors (plus two Cabinet Members) and about a dozen senior officers present for? Item seven was another Powerpoint presentation on the “Directorate Plan” given by Claire Fish, Julia Hassall and Chris Begya (in place of Graham Hodkinson).

The slides went on and on, the jargon and management phrases flowing seamlessly from senior officer’s lips. “We’re operating in a challenging fiscal environment” was said instead of the simpler “We’re making cuts”, “synergies” was used instead of cuts, “commissioning approach” instead of privatisation. Julia Hassall told councillors that that they had been “imagining where they’ll be in 2016” and invited them into her “vision of the future”. She then got onto slides about pyramids. You may think Ancient Egypt is way, way outside the remit of the Committee, but these weren’t Powerpoint slides about crumbling relics, these were “pyramids of need”.

Words cannot express how mind-numbingly dull it was watching the admittedly enthusiastic Julia Hassall explaining which children went where on each level of her “pyramids of need”. However it was, yes you’ve guessed it, more code for cuts as confirmed at the end by her saying that they had a balanced budget and were well on track to finding £11.4 million of cuts.

Cllr Williams complained that it was difficult to take in the information from the Powerpoint slides and could they have copies? Cllr McLaughlin also asked this (as well as a question about educational outcomes). Whilst Cllr McLaughlin was asking Julia Hassall a long question, Julia Hassall stood there nodding, seemingly doing a good impression of the Churchill insurance dog but without the “Oh yes”. When she wasn’t nodding, she had her head tilted to one side as if she was a teacher being asked a question by a pupil who hadn’t been paying attention. In a long answer with many, many, many hand gestures that really should’ve had their own accompanying music, Julia Hassall mentioned the Corporate Parenting Group and agreed in response to a question of Cllr McLaughlin that she would circulate the minutes of its last meeting to councillors (which was the subject of a recent FOI request of mine that was refused by Wirral Council on the basis it would take too long). Various other councillors asked questions or made comments, then Chris Begya of the Department of Adult Social Services gave her presentation.

This again was jargon heavy, “safeguarding peer challenge”, “Care Quality Commission” and “national sector led improvement organisation” peppered her talk which again was basically along the theme of the previous one, a hundred and one way to mention cuts without actually using the word. Bad budgets were mentioned, so were savings, so was a “more transparent leadership” and on that final point the Director of Adult Social Services was so transparent he wasn’t even there! As before councillors made comments and asked questions finishing with the Chair thanking Claire Fish, Julia Hassall and Chris Begya.

Claire Fish briefly (yes senior officers can actually be brief) talked about item eight, the Families and Wellbeing dashboard, but spent a lot longer fielding questions from councillors on it. A large print version of item nine (public health dashboard) was circulated to councillors, with a long summary from Fiona Johnstone, which again attracted questions from councillors (along with some very long answers).

Moving to item ten, the end was almost in sight! Cllr Povall gave a brief summary as to where the Task and Finish Group on the Francis Report had got to, there was a long discussion on the work program (eventually they agreed that the Chair and spokespersons would meet up to decide it), there were no questions on item twelve and finally after just over two hours in the sweltering heat of Committee Room 1 the meeting finished.