20 minutes is a long time in politics

May 30, 2013

Cumbria County Council has now published the minutes of the meeting of its Chief Officers’ Panel (COP) which was held on Tuesday, 23rd April, 2013 at 11.00 am. This wouldn’t normally be an event of any great interest to the general public. However, this is the meeting which took the highly controversial decision to approve the departure of its Chief Executive, at a reported cost to the council tax payers of Cumbria of some £400k.

Councils have the power to exclude press and public from meetings when there are ‘exempt items’ being discussed. The Council used this power during this meeting, on the grounds that the meeting was considering Information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information) (paragraph 3 of part 1 of schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972). So anyone looking for a complete open book about this affair is likely to be disappointed.

Despite this, there were a couple of interesting notes in the minutes:

  • the meeting was considering a request from the Chief Executive for early retirement in the interest of efficiency of the service (ERIES)
  • at one point the council officers were asked to leave the room so private discussions could take place: following an adjournment of approximately twenty minutes the meeting reconvened

Let’s break the first one down:

  1. The request for voluntary early retirement had come from the employee, so it was entirely up to the COP to decide whether to accept the request
  2. If the request was approved, then under the rules of the pension scheme, the Council would have to make an additional payment into the scheme (this is a mathematical formula based on covering the ‘actuarial strain’)
  3. Because of this extra cost, the Council has a strict policy on granting ERIES requests: the full additional estimated cost of the termination must be shown to be recoverable within three years of the employee’s termination date

So, did the COP have the full business case in front of them as required by policy? did they know exactly how the Council was going to recover the costs over the next three years? Remember, only nine days after this meeting, all the members in the room would be up for election, and the Leader of the Council (and Chair of this COP) had already announced he would not be standing again.

And why were officers excluded from the room during the vital 20 minutes when the decision was taken? These are not junior staff members, but the Council’s legal, and financial and HR heavyweights: Assistant Director – Finance; Interim Assistant Director – Legal & Democratic Services; Assistant Director – People Management. In fact, just the sort of people you would want to have in the room when you were taking a sensitive and controversial decision.


Quit while you’re winning

May 28, 2013

One of the hardest decisions for any creative person to make must be to decide to call it a day. For common-or-garden wage slaves working as employees, the decision is often made by others. But for musicians, authors, artists … how do you decide when your best work is over?

book coverIf you look at my bookshelves, you’ll find pretty well the entire collected works of John le Carré. I believe if he had written in any genre other than ‘spy thrillers’, he’d be ranked highly as a serious novelist: from the depth of his characters, the quality of his prose, plus of course his excellence as a story-teller. A new le Carré is a matter of keen anticipation.

I’ve just had his latest work out of the library – A delicate Truth – and I’m afraid to say it isn’t a vintage work. The plot is really a bit thin, the characters are sketches, and the unexpected turns of phrase that stop you in your tracks are nowhere to be found. At over 80 years of age, is it time for the master to hang up his quill?

CD coverDifferent genre, but similar thoughts: if you look at my CD collection, you will find a good sprinkling of music by the prog rock band Renaissance  (the only rock band I have ever been introduced to while wearing green bri-nylon pyjamas). True to its name, this band has had more changes of lineup than most in its 40-plus years of existence. So when I saw an announcement of a new album on 1st June, I had two questions: who is left in it from the classic lineup (Camp, Dunford, Haslam, Sullivan, Tout), and is the album any good?

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions was disappointing. Only Annie Haslam is left, and one individual – however creative – will always struggle to replace the musical and lyrical talents of a group (never mind trying to design the album cover – stick to the day job, Annie). Judging from the sample tracks of Grandine il Vento, the results are disappointing. Even the famous Haslam voice has succumbed to the ravages of time. The sustained high notes have gone, and the vibrato is, well – ‘ageing soprano’.

Time to move on, and discover some new authors, and new musicians.


Undertaking council duties

May 16, 2013

The new Council

As the BBC reports, Cumbria County Council is back in business with a new political administration and a new temporary Chief Executive. The issues surrounding the departures of the previous Chief Exec have been well aired in this blog, so I will not repeat them now.

In an email to all Council Members and Staff, the Council claimed:

The new temporary arrangement could deliver net savings of over £97,000 in the first six months

Sadly, as I pointed out in the Council meeting this morning, this is not the case (apologies for the length of this – not very blog-friendly I’m afraid):

I’d like to draw members’ attention to paragraph 6.3, which shows the financial implications of these arrangements, as presented to the Chief Officers’ Panel. The figures show an estimated net saving of around £97k in the first six months.

This is based on the assumption that on handover day, the Council ceases paying the outgoing Chief Exec’s salary of £170k, and instead pays an ‘acting up’ allowance of £15k. £170k versus £15k – bit of a bargain really.

However, this is not what is actually being proposed. The Leader of the previous administration has stated that the outgoing Chief Exec will be paid salary in lieu of notice. This means that on handover day, the Council will start paying the acting Chief Exec an increased salary, but will also continue to pay the outgoing Chief Exec her full salary for the duration of the notice period. The Council will be paying salaries to two people: one to ‘act up’ as Chief Exec, and the other to stay at home.

Chair, the financial figures presented to the Chief Officers’ Panel as given in this report are partial, and do not show the full impact to the Council’s finances of this arrangement. The claimed saving of £97k in the six months following handover will not happen, as the Council will still be paying the outgoing Chief Exec her full salary during her notice period.

Chair, if the report in front of us today is accurate, then the Chief Officers’ Panel’s decision was made on a flawed business case. I would be grateful for clarification on this point.

Needless to say, I did not get any clarification, but a statement that all the figures would be put in the public domain in the statutory accounts – in June 2014! So a useful lesson for councils – if you want to bury bad news, and put it beyond the reach of councillors, do your digging during the interregnum between administrations.

Footnote: in welcoming the new Chair of the Council, reference was made to a time in his life when he worked as an undertaker: “he knows where all the bodies are buried”. Maybe we all will in a year’s time.


“Golden Goodbye” details exposed

May 6, 2013

The Mirror has the story: details of Jill Stannard’s “golden goodbye” from Cumbria County Council have at last entered the public domain. So the good people of Cumbria will not have to wait until summer 2014 to find out where their money has been spent.

However, the details raise as many questions as they answer:

  • why has she been paid £42k in lieu of notice? what was the urgency to get her off the premises immediately, rather than let her work through a phased transition to the new interim arrangements? Payment in lieu means the Council is still paying for her services, while she enjoys the summer in her garden – how can this contribute to “service efficiency”, the alleged reason for her departure?
  • why has she received a “maximum £45k payoff'”? payoff for what? for going quietly?

The Council needs to come clean with what has been going on here. The culture of omerta that characterised the old Council must go.


Why the mystery?

April 28, 2013

We seem to have a culture of secrecy here in the public sector in Cumbria. First of all the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office persecutes people who blow the whistle on their boss’s expenses – even though he now admits the claims were out of order and has repaid them – once the details came out into the open.

Now the County Council displays a similar level of paranoia over how and why its Chief Exec is making an untimely and hasty exit from her job, and how much it is costing the general public. The details will have to be published eventually, so why the unwillingness to publish them now? Instead, there is a steady trickle of titbits into the public domain as the beleaguered Tory Council leader, Eddie Martin, tries to respond to local criticism.

You couldn’t make it up – the local press tries to find out what’s going on, and then mysteriously pulls stories (you won’t find this story on the Westmorland Gazette site any more, but you will find it in Google’s cache)

The latest nugget to emerge from Eddie Martin is

The law requires that we top up her pension and she is entitled to payment in lieu

Payment in lieu of what? of notice presumably? I’ve queried earlier why Jill is leaving at such unholy speed, instead of working her (six months?) notice. Surely the council cannot be paying her off to leave quickly? Why?

Eddie may complain about the rumours and speculation over this issue, but the answer lies in his hands. If there is nothing to hide, then he should answer demands to publish the details, rather than wait for them to be published in summer 2014 – when curiously enough he will be long forgotten, leaving others to pick up the flack (Councillor Martin is not seeking re-election next week).


Something doesn’t add up

April 24, 2013

I’ve been reading reports in the press about Jill Stannard’s early retirement, and something doesn’t add up (until a few days ago, Jill was the pretty well thought of chief exec of Cumbria County Council).

Voluntary Early Retirement schemes (VER) are well established in the UK, and generally fall into one of two kinds:

  • VER at the employee’s request – once you reach a certain age, you can apply for VER and the company may at its discretion allow you to go with whatever pension you’ve earned
  • VER at the employer’s request – if a company is actively looking to shed employees, you can apply for VER and the company will agree a date at which you can leave, and will ‘top up’ your pension pot so you get the same pension as if you had stayed on to normal retirement age

So which did Jill get? As Chief Exec, it would be highly questionable for her to claim to be leaving at her employer’s request (“I have decided the Council no longer has need of my services”?), so one must assume she is leaving at her own request, i.e. without any top up of her pension pot.

The second odd feature is timing. At a salary of £170k, she’s likely to be on a minimum of six months’ notice. When applying for VER, it is normal for this to be extended until the employer is happy that a smooth transition has been completed. The employer is doing the employee a favour, so the employer dictates the terms. Jill’s departure is proceeding at a hell of a rush. She’ll be out the door at the worst possible time for the Council, right in the middle of elections and the creation of a new administration. “The decision to appoint an interim chief executive will have to be made by full council at a meeting on May 16. It must also put in place ‘acting up’ arrangements for other corporate directors.” Excuse me? this Council hasn’t been elected yet? who is making these decisions for it? Who agreed she could go without at least working her notice?

Finally, the justification that her departure will save money, and that an interim CEO can be appointed at a lower salary, is simply nonsense. No-one is suggesting that Jill was anything but a success in the role. To employ someone of equal calibre on an interim basis will cost more – significantly more, both in salary and expenses given Cumbria’s geography.

So why is this going ahead, right in the middle of an election campaign?

Is there nothing good to come out of this? well, the case for combined authorities (merging county and district into one or more unitary authorities) is overwhelming – see the Scrutiny report produced at the end of the last Council. The new Council could agree to appoint an interim CEO, with the specific remit of negotiating and implementing combined authorities within three years. That would be an appointment well worth making, and could be the best legacy the new council could leave to Cumbria.


How green is my county?

April 21, 2013

cccThe identity of the county of Cumbria is closely tied to the image of the Lake District, a National Park and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s no surprise then that the County Council likes to think of itself as ‘being green’, or as its website states:

Cutting carbon emissions as part of the fight against climate change is a key priority for the County Council. The Sustainability Team are leading an ambitious programme to reduce the County Council’s carbon emissions by 25% by 2012 against the 2007 baseline.

It was surprising then that no-one in the Council seemed aware of the County’s abysmal performance in the Government’s recently released ‘league table’ for how organisations are delivering against their carbon reduction commitments. To raise awareness of the issue (and to prompt some interest among the Council officers in the subject) I submitted the following written question to Council last Thursday:

The Council’s website states “Cutting carbon emissions as part of the fight against climate change is a key priority for the County Council”. If this is the case, why has the Council come third from bottom of all the forty or so county councils reporting in the recently published 2011/2012 CRC (Carbon Reduction Commitment) Performance League Table?

I’ve just received an emailed copy of the script that the relevant Cabinet member (Stewart Young) was given to read out at the meeting:

I’m grateful to Cllr McCreesh for raising this interesting situation as it gives me the opportunity to provide the Council with an overview of the progress we have made on our carbon emissions since the CRC performance league table was first published.

At face value the County Council’s position in this league table looks disappointing, but it reflects a snap shot in time and belies the considerable progress the County Council has made in respect of its carbon emissions since. I would also point out, just by way of context that the Council was ranked 1151 our of 2098 participants in the CRC Performance League Table, which is comparable to our nearby neighbours of Northumberland County Council (ranked 1861) and North Yorkshire County Council (ranked 1210).

Members will appreciate the greatest proportion of our carbon emissions is related to energy used in Council buildings (both “corporate” and schools), and many of these are old, in a poor state of repair and therefore difficult to heat, light and cool.

As we progress with our property rationalisation through the Better Places for Work programme we plan to deliver 25% reduction in our CO2 emissions for Corporate Properties. Any new buildings, or those being renovated, would be designed and built to a higher energy efficiency standard. Further, a prioritisation of maintenance and repair work would take place on the remaining stock and be linked to replacement of old/inefficient plant and appliances.

By March 2013 we estimate that we reduce our CO2 emissions through property rationalisation by 820 tonnes.

It didn’t strike me as a particularly impressive answer at the time, and reading it over in the cold light of day, it’s even less impressive. Carbon reduction – and environmental issues generally – were not a priority of the previous administration. Let’s hope the new Council after the elections on May 2nd will be more environmentally conscious. The environment is precious – if we in Cumbria don’t appreciate that, then what chance is there for the rest of the country?