5 December 2018

Evil plans afoot

Next week's Policy and Resources has got a long and complex agenda to be discussed. Fatigue sets in and later items like agreeing the procurement forward plan is likely to be rushed through due to the shortage of meeting time or glossed over but it is vital that councillors read all 13 pages as if they fail to challenge items on the list they are set in stone as things which 'officers ' (staff) can just plough on with.

Mr Mustard thought he would bring a few items to your attention, out of the 310 listed for council tax year 2019-20. Some are bog standard but others are more interesting. Firstly the headings:


Is this for checking what charges suppliers have made and then seeing if we can claw some of it back? What is the implication of Capita having done the purchasing of utilities to date?

This is a huge amount to spend on security, including within libraries. The period of the contract isn't stated though. There is scope to extend the current contract which has not been exercised.

Most of these items are probably for the new council offices. They are costing us a packet but are meant to save money. Will they?

Having sold a perfectly good depot before finding a new one the council are now having to fork out bundles to put us back where we used to be but somewhere else. Much of the income from selling the land at Mill Hill has been frittered away.

Expect to see hideous neon billboards at every turn.

Got a skip that is an hour overdue for removal from the public highway?, then expect a penalty notice (which goes to the skip hire company) which in turn will lead to higher skip prices and/or more fly tipping.

Mr Mustard has not yet asked to see the new contract (it might get published automatically which was the council's stated aim a few years back but hasn't happened) but the previous one had the contents of statutory documents allocated to the supplier to deal with as part of the contract price.

A workplace parking levy? Now Mr Mustard has your attention. There is so much money to be made from parking, PCNs (expect more cctv cameras aimed at catching you out) road user pricing, car parks cpzs etc that the council cannot resist.

What does 'outlet' mean? An anaerobic digester or a big mound of green waste rotting down in a semi-industrial setting next to residences? the schedule should specify exactly what is planned.

There will be fewer visitors to parks starting the slow process of softening them up for sale.

Your guess is as good as Mr Mustard's but hey, only £4m.

The council are keen on crowdfunding (although there are already sites for this sort of thing) as it means they don't have to contribute so much or at all to worthy projects.

It seems that the Residents' Perception Survey, which is currently not carried out, will make a comeback, presumably in a different form which provides 'better' answers.

The management of Barnet Council can't seem to tie their own shoelaces without a consultant to tell them how to.

Please, someone tell Mr Mustard that this is a mistake. Thirty eight million quid on glorified temps.

Now that has whetted your appetite to see how long councillors spend discussing these items, has it not. here is a link to the meeting. It is public. Do come along and start to get interested in the monstrosity that is Barnet Council.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

3 December 2018

Bin there, not done that

For the last week Mr Mustard has been trying to get Barnet Council's twitter account to tell him how many bin lorries there are. The unwritten but self evident ethos of the twitter account is that Barnet Council only ever tweet good news. Consequently, it is to be inferred that the council have an inadequate number of bin lorries. That is a question which may get answered later but Mr Mustard wants to get on and blog about bins, although bingate may go on for some time, despite what the vlogger Richard Cornelius had to say on youtube.
Mr Mustard does like to get his facts right but if Barnet Council want to treat a simple statistic such as the number of bin lorries as a matter of state secrecy he will just have to estimate as best he can. A bin man (not ruling this out as a career choice for ladies but don't believe there are any currently acting as loaders or drivers) will possibly confirm the facts in the comments box below.

The correspondence with the Mayor of London included the statistic that 12 loaders could be saved who dealt with the food waste bins, one for each bin round, so we have 12 lorries for black bin collection (some bins have become grey with old age). The latest reorganisation, or shambles as it is known in homes across Barnet, elicited the additional fact that blue bin recycling rounds and black bin rounds are the same, so there must be 12 lorries for blue bin collection. It isn't so much the number of lorries as spare ones will be needed to cover for breakdowns, servicing and accidents etc. as the number of collection rounds which is important. 

Now to Mr Mustard's reckoning as to why the new system isn't working and will never work 100%.

If the above numbers are correct each crew is expected to collect:

359,000 bins a week, as per Richard above, which divided by 5 days

= 72,000 bins a day, which divided by 24 lorries

= 3,000 bins a day per team (lorry) with 2 loading

= 1,500 bins per person, who usually does 2 bins at a time (if the street layout permits)
= 750 repetitions in 7.5 hours

= 100 reps an hour or a pair of bins being rounded up, moved, tipped and returned to the property/pavement

A pair of bins being tipped every 36 seconds.

That does not look possible. The team I saw this week had a driver + 2 and more staff doesn't make much sense as only 2 bins can be tipped at the same time so you have two on the lorry with 2 more being picked up / returned at the same time.

Of course not all bins are put out every week but still, to expect that many collections day in and day out will lead to binman burnout.

Please rubbish my figures if they are wrong.

The article from Barnet First claism the changes are to make the service more efficient (not happened) effective (not happened) and economical (not happened either due to up to £20,000 a week of extra costs being incurred for 98% of a service).

Mr Mustard thinks, and the budget cuts dictate, that the changes were motivated entirely by the need to save money but the budget has been cut at the same time as the number of proeprties in barnet has increased. You can only ever stretch an elastic band so far before it breaks and that is the point we have reached with bins.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

26 November 2018

Another massive loan being voted on.

When you first look at this it is a bit odd. You need to understand how savings proposals are noted. A proposal to save costs would be a positive figure and so an income, being the opposite, is presented as a negative. Then you are probably wondering why there is income for only two years from a commercial property? That is because it is assumed to repeat each year and it is only the change in income from one year to the next that is recorded. Thus we have an anticipated income from some unknown commercial properties purchased over 2 years (not sports stadia Mr Mustard hopes or anything at Brent Cross) which will give the council an income of £1.9m a year.

It isn't clear but Mr Mustard thinks the loan interest may get accounted for elsewhere. He doesn't think much of a 3.9% return. You don't want to be looking at anything less than 10%.

The council can borrow for 30 or 40 years at 3% a year. This £50m invested in property would, if there weren't any costs, see an income of £1.9m p.a. against a cost of £1.5m but nothing is ever that simple. The buildings will need to be insured. They will need to be let which will mean a commission has to be paid. They could be empty for a while so there will be security costs. If they are empty for more than 12 weeks then you are looking at a gross loss for that year and you'll still have costs to pay. The council would have to pick up the commercial rates tab, most of which goes to central government. Someone will also have to manage the loans & they will want a big salary because bankers aren't known for their bonuses for nothing. The building might need repairs and there will be initial survey & legal costs.

What with the £23m that is being borrowed to lend on to Saracens, the £50m being borrowed from Cheyne / Touchpoint at a spiralling rental cost to sell and rent back properties that the council bought in the last 12 months and the £304m in long term loans which were in the balance sheet at March 2018 (which includes some old LOBO loans) Mr Mustard thinks we already have enough borrowing and that the reward will not be adequate for the risk that is being taken. There is a dearth of detail, perhaps more will come out at the meeting of the Assets, Regeneration and Growth committee tomorrow evening. 

This is also the exact type of borrowing which is vexing CIPFA at present.

Mr Mustard thinks that a council that can't manage to collect 99.9% of bins on time really should go back to basics and learn how to walk before it tries to run in areas where it doesn't have much expertise. What he expects they will do though is buy some white elephant as is reported by Inside Croydon in their neck of the woods.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

Barnet Council propose a green bin tax

Hat tip to Mr Reasonable who assiduously reads council papers and then puts them to the sword if they don't make sense. You can read his excellent blog here. The above snippet is from the papers for the Environment Committee this Wednesday 28 November. Note the 6.30pm start (not the usual 7pm).

Update: 29 November 18. Mr Mustard attended the entire three hour Environment Committee meeting yesterday evening save for the first few minutes as traffic was awful in High Barnet and he couldn't escape. He missed a fraction of the first item about the bin fiasco. Later in the evening four conservative councillors out of 6 expressed reservations about the £50 green bin charge and then voted to go out to consultation on it. Bonkers. Mr Mustard presumes they want residents to give it a good kicking in the consultation so they can say they listen to the will of the people and proceed to make a different stupid decision.

Barnet Council worry more about saving money than value for money. The bin collection service is one that every council has to deliver by law to collect 'household waste' without charge. Doubtless lawn trimmings and the like come outside of that definition and hence why charging is being considered and as other councils have managed to introduce charges for it.

Mr Mustard wondered if the proposed charge was a fair one and to be fair he felt it had to be the actual collection cost + the green waste disposal cost.

He collected the statistics he needed.

Total cost of all waste collection in Barnet is budgeted at £5,909,350
There are 147,063 dwellings.
50% of dwellings have a green bin.
Thus an estimated 73,500 green bins
The North London Waste Authority processed 19,666 tonnes of green waste for Barnet last year.
The gate fee for green waste has been estimated at £60 a tonne.

If only 50% of households have a green bin and the collection frequency is half that of the blue & black bins, for every 100 blue or black bins being collected, there are 25 green bin collections.

Thus the collection cost of green bins is 25/225 of £5,909,350 = £656,594

The annual collection cost of a single green bin is £656,594 / 73,500 = £8.93

The average tonnage per green bin is 19,666 / 73,500 = 0.267 tonnes

Disposal cost of green waste per bin per year = £60 * 0.267 = £16.05 (but see below)

Total green bin costs per year per bin is £8.93 + £16.05 = £24.98

So why do the council plan to charge £50 which is twice the actual cost?

Mr Mustard has over-estimated the costs in the council's favour.

The annual running cost of £5.9m includes collection of food waste which no longer takes place and was intended to save £300,000

The annual running cost includes the collection of waste from businesses.

He has probably over-stated the cost to dispose of green waste. The green waste tonnage included that generated from parks.

If this idea comes to fruition lots of residents will stop having their green waste collected. That will make the collection of lower quantities less economic and rounds will need to be changed again. Bin wars will start and bins with a payment disc on them being 'borrowed' by naughty neighbours. Grass clippings will be dumped into any bin left on or near the pavement at night. Green waste will be put into the bottom of the black bin, under general waste, where it won't be spotted as bins are emptied. Green waste will be dumped all over the borough No-one can prove who put it there unless caught in the act.

What is the point of a council? 
To provide services, such as green waste recycling, to residents at a lower cost than they could arrange it for themselves.

How is this funded?
By council tax, a universal payment roughly related to usage of local services.
How does this benefit society?

Will council tax go down?
No, this extra fee is a disguised council tax, you will pay more for the same services.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

Update: Mr Mustard was just throwing away his council tax leaflet for 2013/14 having decided to recycle his 2013 Barnet Council archive box (that will get the recycling rate up) when he noticed something. The budget for Waste Collection back then was £6.36m i.e. £400,000 more than currently, and there was a separate payment of £9.76m to the North London Waste Authority.

Therefore, the costs that the council would save by making you pay for your green waste collection are only £8.93 per bin per year for which they want to extract five times as much from you the long suffering council tax payer.

In all the circumstances Mr Mustard does not see how an extra charge of £50 can be justified.

He also sees what good value we get from our in-house service.

22 November 2018

Barnet Council - another risky loan

There is fair bit of background reading as prep for this blog post in which Mr Mustard highlights the entirely avoidable financial risks that Barnet Council are taking, and which, if CPI rises, you, the council tax paper, will end up footing the bill for.

If you don't want to read the background, here is a summary.

Barnet Council wish to acquire up to 300 properties to use as temporary accommodation.

They will cost up to £50m.

This will be cheaper than paying for temporary accommodation on the open market on an as and when basis (currently all the time as about 2700 families are homeless). So far so good (apart from the number of homeless families).

Where the venture gets risky is that an apple & pears calculation has been done which shows that borrowing the money from an institutional investment firm with which to buy these properties, sell them to the investors and lease them back, saves money on the temporary accommodation bill. Well of course it does as you are not comparing the things which should be compared.

What should be compared is the cost of borrowing the money from the Public Works Loan Board to the cost of renting from Touchpoint (Cheyne) as both end up with Barnet Council owning the properties, either now, or in 40 year's time, but with the right to use them throughout.

A 40 year fixed rate loan is available at 3%. You know your costs for the next 40 years, interest rates are near a lifetime low. What is not to like about a loan at 3%. At any time in the next 40 years it may be an absolute bargain.

The rental cost of 3.4% doesn't look awful, although it is at least 0.4% more than ought to be paid, except for the stinger. The stinger is that every year the rental cost is increased by the percentage rise in the consumer prices index (CPI) which means that Touchpoint get 40 years of extra return on their investment without advancing a single penny more. You try and get 3.5% on your savings. The Halifax are offering you 0.7% for a 2 year fix, which they will then use to invest in properties at mortgage rates of 3.3% to 3.9% which gives you some idea of the profits to be made if you can lend people money at a starting rate of 3.4%. The Halifax won't, of course, increase the amount they charge you interest upon, it will be on the sum borrowed which reduces as you pay, rather than increasing.

Here is a table which shows you how the rental costs rack up.

In the left hand set of columns the £50m capital is also being repaid. It isn't in the second set. If remove that then you can see that interest payments amount to £36m. If the sale and rent back option is taken with Touchstone then they give the council £50m at the beginning so the net cost of that is £64m.

Thus, if CPI stays at the current rate of 2.5% for the next 40 years, renting will cost an extra £28m or 77% 

This does not look like a good deal to Mr Mustard.

The red bar in the chart shows the cash-flow break-even. Renting has less outlay for the first 10 years, so is superficially attractive from a cash flow viewpoint, but after you have crested that hill it is downhill all the way for the  next 30 years.

The only way in which this could save the council money is if CPI gets below 1.2% and stays there for the whole term, which, given the history of the last 40 years, seems unlikely.

Mr Mustard has no axe to grind with institutional investors. He works in money himself (he is overseeing the recovery of a portfolio of mortgages of this quantum). They exist for one reason only. To make money. Touchpoint Housing (LBB) Ltd has not been incorporated yet nor has Cheyne Social Property Impact Holdings LP UK which is a company mentioned in the report. A similar named one was found ('UK' is missing)

Mr Mustard looked at the Accounts of Cheyne Capital Management UK LLP. The employees are ace at making money

and they don't get paid an average salary of £740,000 by being anything less than sharp as a tack. Sadly Mr Mustard doesn't think that the same applies to the project assurance team listed at item 10 in the Barnet Homes business case who are being danced around at council taxpayers' expense.

When you are buying something you have not purchased before, you try and assess what you should be paying. if the organisation you are buying from makes this sort of profit, you are paying too much and need to negotiate harder.

Yes, Barnet Homes looked around at other possible providers but if you cast your net amongst a selection of pike, you will catch a pike, not a goldfish (Mr Mustard would like to state at this point is that he is sure that the Cheyne group aren't doing anything wrong in any way, just doing what they should do, which is to make bundles of money. His comparison is a criticism of Barnet Homes & Council). Mr Mustard is concerned that there doesn't appear to have been a proper tendering process, all he sees mentioned is 'soft market testing and analysis of potential schemes with over 15 private funds...'

One of the aims in the Barnet Homes report is to get 'value for money'. This is not being achieved. He will follow up on all costs next July when the books of the council are open to annual inspection.

One worry is that the Barnet Homes report shows that the 40 year rental does cost more than straight borrowing from the PWLB but still they plough on.

The bigger worry is that the councillors who approved this idea, didn't understand the financial costs of rental as opposed to purchase.

The 'exempt' report (which Mr Mustard downloaded from the council website but doesn't seem to contain any exempt data) is also worrying. The structure of dealing through two intermediate companies adds complexity and unknown problems. The list of risks include potential vat liabilities, possible extra stamp duty (stamp duty land tax as it is correctly known) loss of control and extra administrative burdens & therefore cost.

All things considered, this is not a deal that the council should be doing. They are out of their depth.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

21 November 2018

Tilling Road - Barnet Council get it right!

Tilling Road into Brentfield Gardens is a route that many motorists wrongly use to save about 10 seconds going up to the roundabout and they find it costs them £130.

Mr Mustard doesn't usually fight PCNs at that location as there are two no left turn signs, an arrow on the road and a blue go straight arrow so his sympathy runs out.

However, he came across a tribunal decision which held that the vital sign on the left was turned away from the driver, which is why the no entry sign is visible, the sign you need to see is on the back.

He challenged a recent PCN and to his surprise the council made a correct and reasonable decision. He isn't used to those.

Incidentally, in a moving traffic case there isn't a PCN and a Notice to Owner, only a PCN. The danger of cut and paste.

If you get a Tilling Road PCN best check the photographs on line here

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard