Wirral Council & Filming: Another Chapter in The Long Running Saga

A brief blog post outlining the long running saga regarding filming public meetings of Wirral Council, covering the recent ban by the Chair of the Planning Committee, Eric Pickle’s advice and a brief run down of the history.

Following reporting on the filming ban at Wirral Council’s Planning Committee on this blog last Thursday, the local newspapers have picked up the story (with quotes from Cllr Mooney), Liverpool Echo: Wirral Council defy Government to ban filming and Daily Post: Wirral Council defies government over filming ban. In addition to the local newspaper articles it’s been picked up by Prolific North: Wirral Council defends filming ban on blogger.

So, although the articles are broadly correct I’d like to correct a slight error and make a few clarifications.

Liverpool Echo
“At a meeting of the planning committee on Thursday, a local blogger was again told to stop filming.”

This should read “Shortly before a meeting of the planning committee on Thursday, a local blogger was again told to stop filming.” If it had been at the meeting itself I would’ve posted the footage online, however yes, it has happened before (18th December 2012) on a close 6:5 vote. Back then Cllr Mooney said it would be “just for this meeting” (see video below).

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After a ban on filming happened at a Health and Wellbeing Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting (on which Cllr Mooney sat) on the 28th March 2013 to discuss the controversial closure of Moreton Day Centre, I sent a letter before claim to Wirral Council (which is the first stage of a judicial review of a decision). I received this response by email back from Wirral Council’s Monitoring Officer Surjit Tour (the same Surjit Tour that Cllr Mooney said told her she could stop filming at meetings).

Tour, Surjit
stephengerrard, me
Tue, 2 Apr 2013 16:08:47 +0100

Dear Mr Brace

I am on annual leave until 15 April. I am somewhat surprised by your email and letter given that I have asked you a number of times to meet me to discuss this issue.

Furthermore, there no ban on filming as you and another have been filming a number of committee meetings.

I would suggest that no proceedings are issued until I have had the opportunity to respond. I therefore request an extension of time to 30 April.

I await your response.

Please can you also include Stephen Gerrard in any further response.

Yours sincerely

Surjit Tour

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I was allowed to film meetings until the Planning Committee meeting of 27th June 2013, a further letter before claim (with a proposed reply date of 12th July) was sent to Wirral Council’s legal department and interested parties on the 28th June 2013. At the time of writing I have not received a reply from either Wirral Council or the interested parties.

After I received Surjit Tour’s reply, Eric Pickles issued this press release entitled “Lights, camera, democracy in action” castigating Wirral Council for stopping filming previously on health and safety grounds (a claim that was refuted by the Health and Safety Executive). This led to a wide variety of press coverage (national newspapers (Guardian, Times), various bloggers and others) and this article in the Wirral Globe entitled “Legal review ordered into rules allowing citizens to video Wirral Council committees” (with an unusually high twenty-seven comments).

Last December councillors called for a review. Eight months later I’m still waiting for this review to finish!

I will also make one small response to Cllr Mooney’s comments, I did say that if she as Chair asked a petitioner if they didn’t want to be filmed and they said no I wouldn’t. However she said, “I can’t do that” rejecting what I felt was a reasonable compromise. Despite her assertion that Planning Committee is the only committee where members of the public regularly address it, there are in fact others ranging from the Highway and Traffic Representation Panel, Licensing Act 2003 committee, Licensing, Health and Safety & General Purposes Committee and full Council meetings (public question time). I hope the above sets the record straight somewhat.

Wirral Council writes off £11 million of bad debt by using £millions of financial reserves

How Wirral Council wrote off £11 million of bad debts by using £millions of financial reserves

Wirral Council writes off £11 million of bad debt by using £millions of financial reserves

Reading these two articles, Wirral Council social services in £27m ‘toxic debt’ shock (Wirral Globe) and Wirral council failed to collect £10m of debts (Daily Post) you may be a little confused about what the true financial situation is at Wirral Council.

I’ll deal first with the Wirral Globe article, the figure of £27 million for DASS (Department of Adult Social Services debt) seems to be incorrect. According to page 2 of the independent report and this table here, the figure for outstanding DASS debt was £24.7 million (not £27 million) on New Years Eve 2012 (the figure as of last month is £11.8 million).

This explains why the figures quoted in the article (14.8 million and “more than £10m” (which is £10.9 million) don’t add up to £27 million, but £25.7 million. There is also a discrepancy of a million pounds between this figure and the £24.7 million in the independent report as the figures for collectable debt (£14.8 million) and debt to be written off (£10.9 million) don’t add up to the figure given in the report (£24.7 million) but £25.7 million.

The independent report itself dated 15th March 2013 (ten days after the 2013/2014 Budget was agreed) states “The recent review concluded that only £14.8 million is collectable and recommended writing off £10.9 million of debt of which £4.8 million is already provided for in the financial accounts.” This reads to me that the 2013/14 Budget had a provision for writing off £4.8 million of debt which needs to be increased to £10.9 million (an increase of £6.1 million which would need to be found either from reserves and/or cuts to services).

However this report going to the same Cabinet meeting written by the Interim Director of Finance Peter Timmins states at 9.4 “There is a Bad Debt provision of £4.8m, against estimated bad debts of £10.9m. The further write-off of £6.1m was built into the 2013-14 budget, as part of the exceptional items that featured in the 2013-14 budget process.”

Now, seemingly they can’t both be right as they’re saying different things. How would a £10.9 million bad debt provision (which appeared in a report dated ten days after the Budget for 2013/2014 was agreed) be “built into the 2013-14 budget)? Of course it is possible that Wirral Council received earlier drafts of the report prior to March 5th hence why the report is entitled “Final report”.

So what figure was used for bad debt when this year’s budget was agreed?

This report to Budget Council entitled “Budget 2013/16 – Chief Officer Financial Statement” states at 7.3 in table 3 “Review of outstanding debts – potential write-off” “To be funded from reserves per the Revenue Monitoring report to Cabinet 24 January”.

This report, which was later revised does give a figure (both reports give the same figure) of £6.55 million of “unachieved income” in the Department of Adult Social Services. The report recommends using the £7.941 million in the “Debt Restructuring Fund” reserve to cover the shortfall in income. At the same meeting the Chief Executive estimates the bad debts to be £10 million, that their current provision for bad debts is £4 million, with the impact on the 2013/14 Budget as being £6 million. Interestingly he also states “Mr Sullivan had indicated that he would complete the investigation by mid February and his report would be available initially to the Cabinet and publicly shortly afterwards”. Mr. Sullivan’s final report is dated mid March and as to “his report would be available … publicly shortly afterwards”, a whole two months have passed between the date on his report and its publication in mid-May.

Bidston Wrexham line electrification

There’s an interesting story in the Daily Post about how a government minister is ruling this out between now and 2015. After that she says it’s up to Wirral Council and the other local authorities along the route putting forward a value for money plan.

I must say it’s broadly in agreement with what Neil Scales said, former Chief Executive/Director General of Merseytravel at Wirral Council’s Cabinet.

The Bidston/Wrexham line covers two countries (Wales and England) which makes things even more complex as the Welsh Assembly have oversight for transport in Wales.