8 July 2011

Cllr. Cornelius - Out of touch not "in touch"

Accountants are alleged to be boring but the CIPFA conference certainly wasn't yesterday.

LGCplus had it all covered as you would expect. 

Mr Mustard was also delighted to hear from a Councillor from another London Borough who was at the conference and is probably pleased that Mr Mustard is safely ensconced in Barnet.

Now Mr Mustard is a fan of Mr Pickles and has written to him in the past, but Mr Pickles may not have realised this as Mr Mustard ( a fictional character ) used the name of his real alter ego so it wasn't as if Mr Mustard had been currying ( sorry, too many condiments ) favour.

Mr Pickles speaks in a very plain way and also has walked the walk as he was previously the Leader of Bradford Council so Mr Mustard doesn't expect that Cllr. Cornelius will have stopped Mr Pickles in his tracks and have him issuing an apology for telling the truth. Here is the draft of the entire speech ( the odd word or line may have been changed on the day ) obtained from the
www.communities.gov.uk website with some comments by Mr Mustard in red.

Many happy returns to CIPFA on its one hundred and twenty fifth annual meeting - celebrating century and a quarter of leadership, education and advocacy on behalf of public finance professionals.
It's appropriate that a grand anniversary should coincide with a momentous time for your members.
Because public finance professionals are facing a moment which calls on all their skills, expertise, and entrepreneurial zeal.
This Government inherited Britain's biggest ever peacetime deficit.
Getting public spending back within sustainable levels is non-negotiable.
You only have to look at the turmoil in Europe to see the alternative.
And let's be clear, whatever the outcome of last year's election, the Government would have been reducing public spending.
No-one is under any illusion about the scale of the challenge that adapting to tight budgets presents.
And don't be in any doubt that looking very closely at the quarter of public spending represented by local government was and is vital.  I want to thank you for your hard work.
But every stage we've sought to protect the most vulnerable.
And - as you know well - despite what certain parts of the media might suggest, the money hasn't somehow vanished into thin air.
Councils have £53bn of spending power this year.
£53bn to control and spend as they see fit, procuring local services.
But when taxpayers are looking hard at their own family budgets, it's even more important to make every penny of that money work as hard as it possibly can. ( Maybe not spend it on Fireworks Barnet )
So what you do.
Getting the basics right. Counting every penny. Getting more for less. Has never mattered more. ( The Basics i.e. not OneBarnet )
And you play the vital role of helping councils look not to short-term fixes, but long-term reform.
Trimming a corner here and there in the hope that things will go back the way is not a route to the sunlit uplands but to a cliff edge.
The right response to tight budgets is to innovate. To provide services in a different way. To transform them.
Now it feels like we've been talking about this for years.
Before Sir Philip Green there was Sir Michael Lyons, before him there was Sir Peter Gershon.
We've aced the theory. Some councils are getting on with the practical.
Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire have begun sharing legal, IT and HR services, cutting costs by more than a million pounds each year.
Six councils, including Cornwall and Dorset, have joined forces with the Environment Agency to reduce the admin costs on their pension funds. They estimate that they could cut overheads by around ten per cent. And on this topic, I'm grateful to CIPFA for the work your pensions panel has been doing with my Department to improve financial management across the Local Government Pension Scheme.
Meanwhile Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster are looking to save thirty-five million pounds and improve services by bringing together the front line.
I'm not saying change is easy. If it were easy, every council would be doing it already.
But these places show it can be done.
And the best councils are never content. They keep asking themselves the hard questions.
Such as: are we doing all we can to crack down on fraud?
Cheshire East Council investigated and found that nearly two thousand people had wrongly claimed council tax benefit. That investigation is helping them recover up to half a million pounds.
Councils are asking themselves - are we procuring in the most intelligent possible way?
Leeds City Council have held "procurement open days." ( Oh dear, that procurement question just won't go away )
Hillingdon, like many other Boroughs, use the "London Tenders Portal" to invite suppliers to bid on-line.
And here in Birmingham, the council has been using e-auctions for some years: helping firms large and small, from national names to local social enterprises, understand what services and goods are needed, and giving the council the option of choosing from a wide range of quotes.
And councils are asking themselves, are we managing our assets as sensibly as we can?
Lancashire County Council have moved to flexible working, and in doing so have been able to rationalise their office space, saving over one million pounds each year and cutting carbon emissions.
All of these examples show that with your expertise. Your understanding. Your leadership. Councils can make the leap to smarter, more effective ways of working.
So as we look ahead, we want to give you more scope to show that leadership. More scope to put your expertise to good use.
In order to make localism a reality, greater legal freedom needs to go hand in hand with greater freedom over finances.
In this first year we've started down the road. Radically cut ring-fencing. Freed up £2.1  billion from restrictions, comparing this financial year to last.
And simplified over 90 separate funding streams to fewer than 10.
This is just a small start. We are poised to go much further.
Our review of local government resourcing has looked at how we can restore freedom and accountability to a local level. Our starting point is that local funding should be more and more a local issue, determined by local initiative.
In the first stage of the review, we have confirmed that we will repatriate business rates. No more councils forced to come to Treasury with a begging bowl.
Let's be clear, we will make sure that more deprived areas continue to receive support and receive proper reward for the growth they generate.
But I am determined that councils should see a link between the success of local firms and the state of their own coffers.
Giving them even stronger reasons to work in partnership with the private sector. Even stronger reasons to create the conditions for enterprise for flourish.
Following the Localism Bill currently before the Lords, there will be a Local Government Finance Bill to put the local retention of business rates into practice and introduce Tax Increment Financing.
But if our work on business rates is about giving you greater control over the money you collect… our work on community budgets is about giving you greater control over the money that flows from central government.
Councils from Hull to Salford have led the way with the first round of community budgets, looking at problem families.
That is, the one hundred and twenty thousand or so families across the country who account for more than their fair share of calls on the police, the probation service, truancy officers, social workers, and A+E.
Instead of asking a dozen different people in a dozen different agencies, each in their own little room, to think about those families, let's bring those services together.
Giving a better result for those families. A better result for the communities they live in.
Now I think we've seen some great work, and some innovative approaches, with that first wave of community budgets.
But with the next phase, we want to be even more ambitious.
We'll be inviting two neighbourhoods, at a very local level, and two councils, on a bigger geographic scale, to put all public funding for local services into a single pot.
Then letting how services are designed and delivered be dictated not by the shape of Whitehall funding streams, and not by Ministerial command, but by what really counts: what local people want. ( Now that would be interesting in Barnet, probably every decision made by Councillors reversed starting with the increase in allowances, and every OneBarnet consultant back to where they came from )
And though we are starting on a small scale with these pilots, make no mistake.
This is the shape of things to come.
Local control over cash as the norm; not the exception.
If this is our offer to you, then this is our expectation: with greater local financial freedom must come greater local accountability.
You know my thoughts on the Audit Commission. An organisation that had, over time, become a creature of Whitehall, rather than a champion of local taxpayers. Intent on imposing Whitehall's ideology on councils - with gold stars for those who ticked the most boxes.
But it also lost sight of its own mantra - "protecting the public purse".  It is often the small things that speak volumes.
How can we have confidence in a spending watchdog which has held its Board meetings in an Oyster Bar to discuss 'improving corporate governance', and then lost the receipt for the £800 bill?
Or which was spending £1,500 a year on flowers for the reception of its Millbank office - which only stopped in September 2010. Didn't they sense the urgency of the Emergency Budget?
Spending watchdogs and district auditors are (in) no position to lecture councils on financial probity - if they themselves don't care about delivering value for money and protecting taxpayers' cash.
Now, we have published our proposals for the future of local government audit, and we will be looking carefully at your responses to this consultation.
Let's be absolutely clear, we need, and will always need, skilled professionals to oversee the efficient, effective and proper use of taxpayers' money.
I welcome the report by the Select Committee today - which finds that our proposals are "…consistent with […] wider moves to localism and greater financial independence for local government."
We'll now be refining our proposals, looking carefully at that report, and your responses to consultation.
But it's also clear that council finances should be much more open and accountable to local taxpayers. ( Bloggers are also taxpayers )
After all, it's their money. In other words: greater local financial control must go hand in hand with greater openness to local scrutiny. Extra scrutiny can help identify and eliminate duplication and waste. ( Like the May Gurney bonus of £889,000 )
Take the example of Islington. An independent audit of just 30 of the council's top 500 suppliers found that many invoices had even been paid two or even three times over, and four out of ten suppliers had no formal contract. Spending transparency - and the act of collating date for online publication - helps drive out inefficiency, and exposes waste to the light of day. ( No formal Contract. Even better in Barnet, no Contract at all - MetPro )
I'm not making a political point here, by the way. This isn't about political control. Too often, councillors are left in the dark. ( Nor is Mr Mustard; he is only concerned about finance and democracy. Councillors also need to come out of the shadows themselves. )
I was shocked by a recent case in Barnet. The council had hired a private security firm, MetPro, which included "keeping an eye" on local bloggers - at a cost of over a million pounds. The contract had been awarded without a tendering exercise, without a written contract, and no proper invoicing. An internal audit showed there "serious deficiencies in current procurement arrangements", and there were no guarantees that against a repeat of such practices. ( Mr Mustard is with you there Mr Pickles - Mr Mustard was flabbergasted & outraged )
Irony of ironies - this misuse of public money was uncovered thanks to the determination of local bloggers and activists, including Barnet Eye, Mr Mustard, and Mrs Angry (as she had every right to be.) Exactly the same people MetPro snooped upon. ( the Barnet Eye & Mrs Angry deserve most of the credit - Mr Mustard was late to the party )
I've got news for Barnet. Liveblogging from council meetings. Microjournalism. Call it what you like. It's here to stay. In fact this citizen samizdat - local people reporting on their local council's triumphs and shortcomings - is the perfect counterblast to town hall Pravdas. ( Listen to that bad news Barnet - maybe it is time to start working with us bloggers rather than using uncomplimentary terms ? )
And it's going further. The next wave of transparency after publishing spending over £500, will be councils publishing contracts and tenders over £500 online as well.
An online list of council contracts will prevent a repeat of the likes of Islington or Barnet, and will spur on greater competition and efficiency. ( At present that will probably only take half a side of A4 in Barnet )
It doesn't just strengthen the hand of citizens.  It strengthens the hand of ward councillors, letting them know what officials are doing on their behalf. ( Councillors also need to start asking more questions and not taking what Officers say as the truth - see my blog post "Economical with the truth" )
That's why, looking over the Welsh border, I think Carmathen Council were out of line in having a local blogger arrested for the offence of videoing a public council meeting.
It was immensely short-sighted, too. ( Councils really shouldn't try and set rules for Public meetings. If the public isn't throwing rotten tomatoes then a bit of heckling or filiming or tweeting isn't going to hurt
Because if councils can show that they can deliver what local people want, and respond to their communities, without relying on instructions, it undermines the centre's need to control. It paves the way for further localism still. ( When you get it right Barnet Council there will be nothing to read in the blogs )
So paradoxically - I think one of Whitehall's important jobs now is help councils behave in ways, which, in the long term, mean we need a bit less of Whitehall.
For example: as you know, councils must by law hold a financial open day, throwing wide their books and inviting local people to examine them - deeds, contracts, vouchers, bills and receipts - the lot.
I intend to collate a central list of the dates of those open days and publish it. So that it's easy for everyone, everywhere, to know when they can examine what their local council has been spending their hard-earned on.
I applaud those councils who have already let my Department know the date of their open day.  Those councils not on the list will be conspicuous by their absence.  So do let us know - we are here to help.
And I applaud the councils who have gone the extra mile. Who aren't waiting. Who are making fuller information available online right away.
I take my hat off to Tendring District Council who have already made publicly available not just their spending over five hundred pounds… but the whole lot.  Every single item. If tiny Tendring can do it - why not everyone else? ( How about it Barnet ? )
Finally, we are transferring power and freedom over finance because we have faith in councils' ability - in your ability - to spend cash wisely.  To be the guardians of the public's money. ( Mr Mustard is not sure he was including Barnet in this remark ).
With that power comes responsibility. To live up to taxpayers' expectations. Not even the best council can rest on the laurels. ( And the worst need to sharpen up fast )
When local government collectively has spending power of some fifty three billion pounds of public money each year, even a couple of per cent of improvements could unlock a billion pounds' worth of efficiencies.
So keep doing what you do.
Making taxpayers' money count. Making services come together. Making local government work.

So what was the Council Leader's response to this speech. This summary is from Patrick Butler's Cuts Blog in the Guardian

Leader of Barnet Council, Councillor Richard Cornelius, said: "Something seems to have got lost in translation here. At no point has Barnet Council ever paid £1 million to "snoop" on anyone. We will be in contact with Eric Pickles' office."

Oh dear, Mr Mustard does hope that Cllr Cornelius really wasn't going to do that. Barnet Council has been caught well and truly in a big hole of their won making and so the answer is not to keep digging, as everyone else knows. Sadly for you Cllr. Cornelius what Mr Pickles had to say was the absolute shameful shocking truth.

Mr Mustard will now suggest what you ought to have said, "Nothing at all" or even better "We are very sorry that we have completely failed the Taxpayers of Barnet"

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard


  1. Delighted to learn that Pickles and Mustard go well together. I have always found Pickles too vulgar for my taste - superficially appealing but distinctly sour when consumed. He argues root and branch reform (hurrah) but his speech betrays a nit-picking approach to detail (boo). Merging back office facilities is fine to save money but risks councils becoming even more remote from the people they serve. Pickles should think more fundamentally about the structure of Local Government. We have too many giant councils that are officer-dominated and inward looking (i.e. serving the interests of the organisation, not the public), councillors with little or no power (the dreaded Leader/cabinet set up we now have), and too much emphasis on national programs (e.g delivering housing benefit, social care, and most aspects of education that could just as easily be done by national agencies). These legislatively defined programs are suited to large bureaucracies, which is what councils have become. But all this is at the expense of civic engagement - e.g supporting voluntary groups, libraries, parks, museums, arts events. There is no engagement with the needs of the local economy - town centres are left to rot. The Big Society is a cover for dumping all these things. Councils are turning into nothing more than agencies for delivering national government legislation and diktats.

  2. Mr Mustard forgot to include this part earlier.

    Mr Mustard looked up the film "Lost in translation" and found a review that said "themes of loneliness, alienation, insomnia, existential ennui & culture shock". Quite


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