22 July 2014

Point of New Order



As part of moving forward from the past ‘nasty council’ days of fraudulent ‘village green’ claims using privately-owned property, and failed grandiose magistrates court schemes, New Mills town council will shortly have a modern set of Standing Orders.

Why do standing orders matter?

Standing orders are the written rules of a local council. Meetings of councils, councillors, the Responsible Financial Officer and Proper Officer are all subject to certain statutory requirements. Properly made standing orders set out the basics of those relevant laws for everybody to see.

Subject to cleaning up a few errors that it appeared may have crept into the standing orders at last night’s town council meeting convened to discuss them, the new standing orders should last for a few years.

What follows are some notes on the potential errors or apparent errors.

There were 16 closely written pages in the draft standing orders (published by NALC - the National Association of Local Councils). A few errors or misunderstandings are perhaps inevitable at the first formal council discussion of them.

Once approved in their finished form, the council’s new standing orders will be available for all council taxpayers and members of the public to see.

This article may be updated as comments, points and corrections come in from contributors.

Broadcast yourself

An unsatisfactory law that is shortly to be consigned to the history books nevertheless made it into the New Mills town council standing orders.

Recording and photographing meetings by the public is still prohibited in these standing orders (1).

Therefore, the council needs to watch carefully for the coming into force shortly of the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014, which abolishes all such bans.  On present information, these regulations take effect on 6 August 2014.

A funny thing happened on the way to the quorum 

The law on quorums of council meetings is crystal clear. The legal quorum of every local council is either three or one-third of the total membership, whichever is the greater (2). *

New Mills town council has a membership of 12. Therefore, the formula means that the legal quorum for this council is four councillors.

At last night’s meeting, some councillors appeared to be saying that the quorum for NMTC would now be three. If so, it may be that they have been misled by the ambiguous wording in NALC's draft model standing orders.

As long as NMTC’s quorum written in its new standing orders ends up as being four, the council will be complying with the law on this issue.

A chairman is needed before a committee can meet for the first time

The council appeared to vote to delete NALC’s paragraph 4(d)(iv). If so, this resulted from a misunderstanding of the text.

In the meeting, New Mills councillors said they want standing committees to choose their own chairmen. But that issue is dealt with in the subsequent paragraph in the standing orders.

The proposed paragraph deletion would mean a committee being selected but with no initial chairman to initiate the business of the first meeting.

This is a related issue to the memorable occasion - memorable for all the wrong reasons - when former town clerk Mrs Susan Stevens illegally chaired the start of a New Mills town council meeting. This happened after her husband Cllr Alistair Stevens had fallen out with the particular councillor who was required by law to chair the start of the meeting.

(Under the law, only a councillor can chair a council meeting, not an employee).

Enemy of transparency and future opportunity for fraud

The model standing orders state: ‘Upon a resolution which confirms the accuracy of the minutes of a meeting, the draft minutes or recordings of the meeting for which approved minutes exist shall be destroyed' (3).

Shame on NALC. The main purpose or effect of this nasty little paragraph is to gratuitously destroy evidence, and for no proper good reason.

In the light of the recent history of its council, the town of New Mills will be interested to see what their councillors now decide to do about this part of the council’s standing orders, and the reasons they give.

Fortunately, if councillors don’t choose the path of openness and transparency, parliament has now enacted the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014. Any interested party will shortly be able to preserve their own recordings of council meetings.

Councillors’ personal legal bills - will the public's money be taken to pay them?

At last night’s meeting there appeared to be some confusion about paragraphs 14 (c) and (d) in the standing orders.

If New Mills councillors try to put paragraph 14 (c) (iii) into the standing orders, which they appeared to do at last night’s meeting, this would mean the town council could try to use public money to indemnify councillors for their legal bills if a code of conduct complaint were to be made against them.

We await with interest to see if that particular paragraph makes it into the approved, published standing orders of New Mills town council.

Proposed service of summons and agenda by email

NALC have been a bit naughty in these model standing orders. In the law as it stands today, there is no provision for service of council agendas and meeting summons by email.

When the current law governing council agendas and summons was enacted (1972), neither email nor the internet existed in ordinary everyday society. They had never been heard of other than in a handful of esoteric computer science laboratories.

Yet NALC have put an optional paragraph in the model standing orders designed to encourage the use of email for the above purpose (4).

NALC themselves have publicly acknowledged that the law will need changing to enable email to be used for this purpose.

NALC have now started lobbying to try to get the law changed.

Since the law arguably does not permit email service of agendas and meeting summons, why is NALC - in its current model standing orders - enticing councils, councillors and officers to fall foul of it?



(1) Draft SO paragraph 3 (l)

(2) Draft SO paragraph 3 (u)

(3) Draft SO paragraph 12 (e)

(4) Draft SO paragraph 15 (b) i


* The law of quorums of local councils is the Local Government Act 1972 Schedule 12, paragraph 12




19 July 2014

Victory For Transparency In Council Meetings



From 6 August 2014, it will no longer be lawful for councils to prevent members of the public from recording the public part of council meetings.

The recordings can be broadcast, whether live or by way of a reporting blog such as this.

The relevant law is the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014.  These come into force on 6 August 2014.

From that date, the public has new rights to film and report council meetings, including meetings of committees and subcommittees, using digital and social media.

The Regulations will also require councils to publish a ‘decision record’ for certain significant decisions taken by officers acting under delegation from their councils.

A draft plain English guide to the Regulations is currently available and a final version will be published once the Regulations are in force.


Notes:

Different rules apply according to whether the council is a principal council or a town/parish council.

The confidential section of council meetings, if the public were to be lawfully excluded from the council meeting, is not affected by the new law.

18 July 2014

Translation Services


A Transparency well-wisher has delivered the latest edition of High Peak Labour's election publicity leaflet (pictured above).

Our mystery benefactor expressed the desire that this leaflet should receive the wider attention it deserves.

The electioneering covers New Mills and Hayfield (although with only two mentions of Hayfield). As a public service, what follows is a translation of some this leaflet's messages:


'Labour led High Peak supports town and parish councils'

The main focus of this leaflet is the town of New Mills. So when the battle to clean up the corruption and dishonesty in the town hall in New Mills was at its height, what did the Labour councillors do? Fight the good fight, for honesty and transparency?

One of them, Dishonest Ian Huddlestone, had asked the town clerk of New Mills (Mrs Susan Stevens) to write a letter to the rest of the councillors giving a deliberate, premeditated false statement.

Alan Barrow, the Labour High Peak mayor who is a personal friend of Dishonest Ian Huddlestone, left the council without giving a reason. Huddlestone followed suit.

So there is the reality of Labour's claim it 'supports' town and parish councils in the area actually covered by their electioneering leaflet.


'Labour - working hard in the High Peak all year round'

Labour's Alan Barrow in fact told the High Peak Borough Council meeting on 15 July 2014 of his activities as mayor.

His chosen trips were to France - no, that's not in the High Peak - and to the more salubrious part of Germany.  So far as can be established, the Federal Republic of Germany doesn't appear on maps of the High Peak.


'High Peak Borough Council has chosen not to pass on government cuts to council tax benefits, it has funded this by abolishing council tax reductions on second homes'

Ignoring the leaflet's incorrect use of the comma (it should be a semi-colon or a full stop), credit where credit is due. It is a scandal that - in the current national housing crisis - owners of second homes get discounts on council tax for their properties.


'(HPBC) has maintained grants to New Mills Town Council and Hayfield Parish Council'

Labour is trying to claim credit here for the increased HPBC grants to town and parish councils that were won by other parties, before Labour took over at HPBC.

It always needs mentioning in this context that the main reason New Mills Town Council needs any money grant at all is because it is an atypical town council: one that maintains a Parks Department.

Buxton and Glossop don't have town/parish councils and so do not need extra grants payments from the public purse.

Town/parish councils like Whaley Bridge and Hayfield don't maintain a Parks Department and so their council tax payers don't have to pay the extra money every year.


'Labour High Peak gives each councillor £1,000 each year to use in their community'

Translation for taxpayers: they are bribing you with your own money


'A Labour government would cut income tax for hardworking people with a 10p starting rate'

Strange. So why did Gordon Brown, when he was Labour prime minister, abolish the 10p starting rate?




Mr Tax and Mr Spend



17 July 2014

Councillor Debtors



A recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that some councillors at High Peak Borough Council have been late paying council tax.

29 Derbyshire councillors (district councils only, i.e. excluding the County Council and town and parish councils) have been late paying their council tax.

The elected members failed to pay their bills on time over the last four years, and some were late several times.

One councillor in Chesterfield has been issued with a court summons every year since 2010.

All the authorities said it was a private matter and they treated councillors the same as the public.

None of the 29 councillors have been named, but BBC Radio Derby's Freedom of Information request revealed of the nine councils responsible for collecting tax in Derbyshire - which have a total of 403 councillors - all but one of the councils had chased its own members for unpaid bills.

In North East Derbyshire, two councillors faced legal action because they failed to pay their bill and in the Derbyshire Dales one councillor was late paying their tax seven times.

The number of late-paying councillors on High Peak Borough Council is three.

It is interesting to learn that some people want to get elected to the council but then don't pay their bills, or at least don't pay them until chased by the council.

However, all High Peak Borough councillors receive money in their bank account just for being a councillor.

Local Plan Slagged Off By Councillors Then Approved Unanimously



Last night a meeting of High Peak Borough Council was held in the decorous surroundings of the Octagon in Pavilion Gardens, Buxton.

New Mills Labour Twosome

Notable by his failure to show up to the meeting was Dishonest Ian Huddlestone. This High Peak Councillor doesn't mind taking the councillor expenses but he did not obey the summons to attend the council meeting.

At the meeting, High Peak Mayor Alan Barrow proclaimed he had a marvellous time at various events he had been invited to, and looked forward to more of the same.

Alan Barrow was proposed as mayor by his close friend Dishonest Ian Huddlestone.

Whose Money?

A new £5,000,000 fund to aid so-called regeneration was re-named a ‘facility’ and then went back to being a ‘fund’.  Classic party political lines governed this discussion:  Labour wanted to spend all the money (it isn’t their money) and Conservatives thought government should stay well out of trying to ‘pick winners’ in business. The ghost of De Lorean’s Northern Ireland’s financial adventure was conjured up in aid of the Tories’ arguments. Labour having the majority won the vote in favour of the new fund.

Local Plan Debated

Finally, the main business of the meeting: whether to approve the Local Plan to go forward to the next stage, which is to send it to the Planning Inspectorate for assessment. This is called the submission stage of the Local Plan process.

Cllr A McKeown: Called out 'Localism'
During the lengthy discussions on this topic, the only new point of real substance about all of this was made by Labour Cllr Anthony McKeown. He called the government’s Localism label a ‘con’, designed to deflect unpopularity for current planning decisions away from parliament, where it is deserved, and on to local councillors.

Cllr Godfrey Claff pointed out the hypocrisy of Friends of the High Peak, denying affordable homes to people in dire need.

Cllr John Haken, possibly the fiercest critic of Labour in the whole town of Glossop, let alone just in the council, pointed out the curious fact that although there are about 70,000 - 80,000 people in the High Peak area, there were only about 200 respondents to this key Local Plan stage.

Conclusion of Current Local Plan Stage

Every councillor who spoke vociferously criticised the Local Plan, either in its process or its outcome, or both.

The end of the meeting came. When the votes were counted up, every councillor voted that the Local Plan should go forward, carrying it unanimously.

Meeting Management Notes

A record was set here by valued and well-known New Mills town councillor Lance Dowson.

Whilst in the New Mills council chamber he unwittingly likes to be centre of attention, and will generally occupy about half of the total time allotted for all councillors to talk.  Here at Buxton his only comment in the meeting occupied a mere few seconds.

It is obvious that all councillors should be allowed to make their points, but in the New Mills council chamber Cllr Dowson may reflect on the fact that brevity in council meetings is actually more powerful than rambling. A hidden little hint to the Chairman of New Mills town council is contained somewhere in this article.



There are places I remember...  other visitors to the Octagon, in 1963



16 July 2014

Catch-up Meeting Scheduled



Following the sudden ending of the last New Mills Town Council meeting (see HPT article 15 July 2014), a new extraordinary meeting has been scheduled for next Monday 21 July.

The two main important matters are to approve variations (if any) to NALC's model Standing Orders and NALC's model Financial Regulations. This is so the council has its constitutional affairs in proper order.

Surely there cannot be a lot to change from the proposed NALC models?  NALC is the National Association of Local Councils, so one has to assume they should know what they are doing.

The reason change is now needed is that some of the national laws governing local councils have changed recently.

At the last meeting a councillor told HPT that s/he felt 'railroaded', i.e. the Chair was rushing some things through inappropriately.

Also, about half of the meeting's speaking time was taken up by one councillor. This was in the person of dear Lance Dowson.

This aspect of meeting management can surely be improved on with a view to making the council meetings more efficient.  Valued contributor though he is, Cllr Dowson is surely unaware when he goes overboard in the 'length and quantity of speaking' stakes.  Therefore, other councillors may perform a public duty by drawing the councillor's attention to this phenomenon in the meeting as and when it happens.

The fact a whole new meeting has now had to be convened is surely a lesson for all concerned regarding the above 'length of councillor speaking time' aspect.

15 July 2014

Review of Council Meeting


Last night’s New Mills town council meeting, held on 14 July 2014, seemed to show that the local government part of public life in the town has now moved into a new phase.

The town council has recently had to deal with the most serious crisis in its history and has made great strides on the way to recovery.

However, some warning signs were evident at last night’s meeting.  These need to be heeded promptly by this council, or serious trouble will inevitably follow.

The following is a summary of some the main points of business at the meeting.  This article may be updated as comments and further points from contributors come in:

The Good Councillor’s Guide

A copy of the latest edition of The Good Councillor’s Guide was waiting at every councillor’s place before the meeting started.  These had been obtained for the councillors by new town clerk Lesley Bramwell.

Its sub-title title is “Being a good councillor – Essential guidance for parish and town councillors”. If all councillors were to a) follow the concise advice distilled in this clear little book and b) act in good faith, then conduct of council business will improve.

Interested members of the public can download a copy of The Good Councillor’s Guide from nalc.gov.uk. Another great source of information used by High Peak Transparency is the CPALC - Communities, Parish and Local Councils - website. (HPT is a Gold member).

The above sources give generally sound guidance. However, at all times the only definitive thing that matters in any council chamber dispute is the specific law governing the particular issue.

Get up to date - modernise the Minutes System

When the minutes of the two previous council meetings were discussed, an old and unsatisfactory problem became apparent yet again: this is the illogical, uninformative and anachronistic minutes numbering system used by New Mills town council.

In modern business and councils the ideal way of numbering meetings minutes is Year, Month, Minute Number.  So for example the first minute of the first meeting of this year would be 2014/01 - 01, and the minutes that will arise from last night’s meeting would be 2014/07 - 01, 2014/07 - 02 etc.

Instead, the way NMTC minutes are currently numbered appears random and is certainly uninformative. Over the years, there are several minutes just called, for example, ‘Minute 251’. The numbers restart, but not every January. The restarting of the numbers appears to happen in May with no signifier in the minute number itself.

This outdated and  poor method of trying to identify council decisions etc goes back to the creation of this council in the 1970s.

HR News

The HR Consultant’s term has come to an end.  It is to be hoped that any significant further HR work will now only be needed as part of the Employment Tribunal early next year.

This will deal with the employment-related claims that have been made by the former staff.

Heritage Centre Financial News

During discussion of the minutes from the last meeting, evidence was requested to substantiate the assertion that there was a £9,000 shortfall in the stock-in-hand at the Heritage Centre.

The records, such as they are, showed a ‘Stock at Valuation’ book figure of £11,515.68.  An informal on-site stock-take then came up with an approximate value of £2,000 to £3,000 for the real-life stock at the Heritage Centre.

This is how the apparent stock shortfall of approximately £9,000 came to be recorded in the council minutes for 9 June 2014.

Having an accountancy background, HPT Editor now makes the educated guess that part of what has happened here could be that sales are not accurately categorised in the accounts.

As stock is purchased by the council for the Heritage Centre, the bank cash balance goes down and the stock asset figure in the accounts goes up by the same amount.  But if HC sales income is then either not recorded, or is not properly apportioned as between coffee shop sales and sales of physical items like books, souvenirs etc, then the stock figure in the accounts does not come down as it should do.

That is how a disparity can grow between the stock figure recorded in the accounts and the actual stock at the Centre.

This problem, and other financial recording or er… ‘retail shrinkage’ issues, are insoluble under the present “single entry” system which is the practical consequence of Heritage Centre figures being mixed in with the town council’s accounts.

Only by the Heritage Centre having its own dedicated Bank Account and stand-alone double entry book-keeping can all financial questions concerning the Centre be definitively settled.  The records that would be kept under this system are very simple; any qualified book-keeper would find it easy.

This is not council money: it is the public’s money.

Now that at least one critical basis of the problem has been identified, what are councillors going to do about it?


Health and Safety Upgrade

A damning report was received from the town council’s newly appointed Health and Safety consultant.

H&S legislation is the bane of modern life, but it is the law and so law-abiding people must comply with it.  A prioritised list for action has now been presented to the council.

Just one of the things that were shocking (no pun intended) is that the town hall’s emergency lighting is run directly from the mains electricity.  This means that if the mains fail for any reason the emergency lights and exit direction signs fail.

No H&S risk assessments have been carried out for many years.  This is in spite of the building being regularly used by the public for weddings, BMD registrations, parties, Citizens' Advice Bureau etc.  Therefore, after many years of zero attention to this matter, there is now a lot of work to catch up with on Health and Safety.

In a separate but related matter, improvements to disability access at the front of the town hall are now being considered.

Add some music to your day

Music was regularly being played in the main public hall upstairs, but for many years past the necessary legal licence had not been obtained.  This is now in place.  Sir Elton John can sleep soundly in his bed tonight.  What do you call a drummer who’s split with his girlfriend?  Homeless.

Audit News

The council’s internal auditor indicated she did not want to audit the accounts.  Apparently she said “some of it might end up in court” or similar.  This Delphic comment may be referring to the unauthorised payments of town council money made to various offspring of the former town clerk and a serving councillor.  It may be referring to something else.  It may even be referring to something else not yet in the public domain, yet to be established. Obviously, we await developments.

Butler Cook of Codnor were appointed.  Listening to the discussions in the council meeting, this observer was not entirely clear what investigative depth this firm will be asked to go into regarding the past transactions in the accounts of this council.

Subsequent requests for information now lead us to believe that this is in the nature of a forensic examination of all town hall-related transactions going back up to 10 years.

Council decisions are only lawful if they are on the agenda

An emerging bad and dangerous habit in this council chamber needs to be nipped in the bud straight away.

Ordinary decisions were being asked for during the council meeting, but with no item on the agenda/summons to councillors permitting the decision to be made.

This tended to happen during various reports being presented to the council such as Chairman’s Report; Clerk’s Report; Responsible Financial Officer’s Report etc.

Councillor Alistair Stevens pointed out the relevant law: “Council decisions are only lawful if the matter to be decided is on the agenda”

Some councillors appeared to find this intervention annoying.  What councillors think of it is irrelevant: it is the law.  And in this case the law is there for a good reason: it is to protect the public and councillors.

Time, care and attention must be taken in compiling future council meeting agendas to ensure that the wording of the various items is done properly.  This is in order to allow lawful council decisions to be made.

If the town clerk’s hours are not sufficient for this critical council task then they must be increased to allow this vital part of the job to be done properly and conscientiously.

Extraordinary ending to the council meeting

The meeting had started at 7:30 pm.  At 9:45 pm the meeting reached Item 24 out of the 30 items on the agenda. Despite the council business not being finished, the meeting was abruptly stopped.

The chair announced the meeting was “out of time” according to Standing Orders. The remaining items on the meeting agenda were abandoned.

If Standing Orders say that, then Standing Orders need changing.





09 July 2014

The Public's Money



Word reaches High Peak Transparency that some councillors are pressing for a full independent investigation of all financial accounts connected with the New Mills town council going back a number of years.

These would include, but would not be limited to, the New Mills Heritage Centre and the Public Hall of New Mills charitable trust. The latter is commonly known as the town hall. Its formal ownership is in the hands of a trust but it is managed by the town council.

A councillor described the accounting situation left when some former employees were dismissed as "chaotic".  HPT Editor, who has completed many sets of satisfactory accounts over years in business, recognises that the accounting situation regarding the Heritage Centre and some parts of town hall business would probably be called "incomplete records" in professional accounting jargon.

Indeed, without a dedicated Bank Account solely for Heritage Centre transactions, it is hard to see how New Mills Heritage Centre financial accounts can ever be satisfactorily accurate.

We further understand that some valuable antique cabinets, which were town council property, were sold from the town hall offices in 2012-13 without town council approval.  Neither valuations nor competitive bids were obtained by the former member of staff responsible, who is married to a councillor.

The latest Annual Return of New Mills town council, which covers the period from 1 April 2013 before the recent employee dismissals, has not been signed off by the auditor.

Readers will be concerned to learn that some councillors appear to be opposing an investigation into these historic past problems.

This latest instalment of town hall clean-up news comes ahead of New Mills town council’s next meeting, which will be held on Monday 14 July 2014.


26 June 2014

An All Too Literal Stock Take



Following an anonymous comment received by this site, without pleasure we now reproduce the following dismal item from the draft Minutes of New Mills Town Council's meeting of 9 June 2014.

The commentary in italics has been added to the official minutes text by HPT:


SECURITY AT THE HERITAGE CENTRE
(Agenda item 28)

Fact or Apparent Fact:

It was reported that a stock take had been taken and there was a £9,000 retail value loss of stock at the Heritage Centre.

Speculation:

There was information (what information? - HPT Ed) that the Heritage Centre had been accessed by persons unbeknown to the Council.

Facts:

There was uncertainty over who had keys to access the centre.

The insurance companies would not look favourably on any claims unless the situation of key holders was managed appropriately.

As such, the Locks need changing as a priority.

Resolution of the Council:

RESOLVED:- That all locks be changed as a matter of priority.

----------------------------------------

High Peak Transparency offers the following initial comments:

1) This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs for the people whose money is used to maintain the Heritage Centre - i.e. the council taxpayers of New Mills.

2) The Chairman of the Heritage Centre Management Committee is understood to be Councillor Alistair Stevens.  No inference is intended or is to be drawn from this statement - it is simply a fact. Responsibility has to rest somewhere.  Let us see in due course where it rests in this case.

3) This council minute leaves out more information than it reveals.  A full, detailed, authoritative report on this loss of the public's money - i.e. whether it has happened or not and if so then the extent and causes of any loss - should be compiled and published as soon as possible.

4) The regular recorded stocktaking that all retail enterprises have to undertake as part of proper financial accounting should not be a problem to carry out here:  firstly, there is not really a great deal of stock at any one time; secondly, volunteers man/woman the centre, and so any two trustworthy ones can carry out the regular recorded stocktakes in the Heritage Centre at times to be agreed.

5) It's good practice for two people to carry out a retail stocktake per a detailed checklist and agree on the valuation, not for the same individual person to always do it