19 July 2016

Letter to New Mills Town Council from the council's internal auditor

Following requests to HPT from members of the New Mills public, we publish here the letter that accompanied the report on the Internal Audit of New Mills Town Council’s accounts for 2015-16.

The letter was read out during the council's 11 July 2016 meeting.

The letter is from the council’s internal auditors, Butler Cook of Codnor in Derbyshire and is dated 24 June 2016:

'We write to confirm that the internal Audit process has now been completed and again we are pleased to report that the accounting system under the Sage program continues to improve and strengthen, albeit with some notable lapses that should not be happening if the periodic results are subject to a reasonable analytical review.  We also note that changes in administration staff have not helped the situation this year.  This is discussed in more detail further on in this report.

'It is pleasing to see that the NALC Model Operating Standing Orders and Financial Regulations have been adopted but we would recommend that they are personalised to a much greater extent (e.g. Reference to Welsh Regulations are not appropriate).  Both these documents should be brought to the attention of all Council Members on at least an annual basis.

'However, we need to explain why it has been necessary to make some negative observations on the Internal Audit Report a follows:

'B:  We note that whilst minutes of the council meetings have been published the Financial Regulations have not been met in that NO MINUTES have been signed off at the following meeting by the Chairman of the Meeting and as such gives no authority to any decisions made during any of the meetings.

'It is also evident that on a number of occasions the technical advice of the Clerk has not been adopted or due regard taken of it.  It will follow that if the Clerk is advising on fact then that advice should be followed as it will be founded on your own Standing Orders and potentially Councillors could be leaving themselves open to personal liability or even a possible Constructive Dismissal Claim by the Clerk.

'E:  We identified an issue over VAT which, a mentioned above, could have been avoided with a more robust analytical review.  A large VAT input claim was coded to the wrong part of the Sage system resulting in an underclaim of over £3,600.  this has now been amended but could have been avoided if the balance on the VAT Control Account had been properly reconciled.

'In all other respects all other E objectives have been met.

'We trust the above comments will be useful to you.  If at a later stage you would wish me to address the Council on any of these matters that can be arranged.

'Yours sincerely etc…'

Note from HPT Editor:  the references to 'B' and 'E' refer to sections in the standard Annual Report for town and parish councils.

18 May 2016

St John Ambulance in High Peak

The following has been received from a High Peak Transparency contributor as a comment, but its content deserves to be more widely known so here it is on its own stand-alone page:

'New Mills St John Ambulance group are disbanding, it would be interesting to understand who owns their assets and also what has happened to the financial contribution from NMTC bonfire fund earlier this year.
Given that the group haven't covered any events recently I think they should pay the money back.
Hopefully they publish accounts and everyone can see where all their donations go, or perhaps that is why they are disbanding.'

This is not unconnected with the ownership of the caravan that New Mills Town Council ratepayers' money, unknown to the town councillors at the relevant time, was used to pay insurance on.

02 May 2016

High Peak Conservatives ex-Chairman Charged With Theft From War Veterans' Charity

The great New Mills poppies overstock, discovered in New Mills town hall in January 2014

Jeffrey Peter Lawton, a local organiser and collector for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal, has been arrested and charged in connection with more than £3,000 missing from the collections being made on behalf of the war widows and military veterans.

We understand he has been bailed to Derby Crown Court.

Mr Lawton's name has recently suddenly disappeared from High Peak Conservatives Association website, where he was Chairman of the Association.

Mr Lawton put himself forward as Conservative Party candidate in the 2015 New Mills local elections, and organised the party's candidates and campaign in the town.

Mr Lawton was the formal proposer to the Electoral Returning Officer for fellow Conservative Party election nominees John Ferns, Kath Garside, Josh Gaskell and Alistair Stevens.

HPT understands that, at the Magistrates Court, the sitting magistrate and Mr Lawton knew each other. The case was transferred to Crown Court at Derby.

One fact about Crown Court -  rather than magistrates court - is that only the Crown Court can impose significant custodial sentences, where particular crimes warrant it.

Presumably, stealing from funds intended for bereaved widows and wounded veterans - which is what the Poppy campaign is for - would be regarded as extremely serious by the UK's national media as well as by the Judge.


Editor's note:  In view of the seriousness of what has happened here, incoming comments on this matter will be carefully scrutinised before the decision is made whether to publish them.  As usual, a comment made by a person giving their real name is much more likely to be published than just 'Anon'.

15 April 2016

Urgent Derbyshire County Council survey: Don't miss the bus

The following has been received by email from a valued contributor.

All interested parties need to move quickly to tell the relevant decision makers their views:

"Dear HPT

"I made a comment on HPT, which you printed, about withdrawal of
subsidised bus services, and replies to that indicated that not many
people were aware of what is planned by DCC, who have clearly not
thought through their proposals or, more likely, don't care what effect
they will have.

"However, these plans will have a drastic consequences on Hayfield in
particular, but also New Mills (in that the Town service and the 62 are
to be withdrawn, as well as the Sunday 61 service, for example and there
are other far-reaching proposals).

"I wonder if you can give prominence to the necessity to respond to DCC's
consultation BY MONDAY 19th, i.e. in only 3 days' time. The questionaire
can be filled in anonymously, which means one can complete it as many
times as they want, and the more responses they get, the more likely (if
at all, she says cynically) they are to think again.

"I have written to Lance Dowson and Andrew Bingham asking for them to
take urgent steps to get DCC to review the situation, and  done as much
as I can on social media, but as so many people read HPT (especially
when there is a juicy scandal going on, as now), you are in a perfect
position to spread the word.

"Please help!"

(Signed etc)


The link to the consultation is: http://derbyshire.gov.uk/council/news_events/news-updates/2016/april/news_items/buses_consultation_-_last_chance_to_have_your_say.asp

You can also email Steve.Cannon@derbyshire.gov.uk, who is the Transport and Accessibility Manager or write to him at DCC.

13 April 2016

Insider Trading

High Lee Hall in New Mills is a large, prestigious property.  It was owned by High Peak Borough Council but they recently gave the valuable property away to New Mills town council.

Mismanagement by the town council’s Labour administration meant that most of this valuable asset was left unoccupied and deteriorating for years.

After Labour was thrown out of New Mills town hall in 2007, the new administration set about stopping the neglect of this valuable publicly-owned property.


The new town councillors started looking at getting the vacant parts of High Lee Hall restored and occupied.  In due course various remedial works were completed and then marketing for a tenant was started.

The ground floor is occupied at a low rent by voluntary group High Peak Community Arts.  The lease is cheap and flexible, so that a more valuable lease can be granted as and when appropriate.

The upper floors are a separate unit.  The estate agents recently reported - confidentially - to the town council owner that they had found a prospective tenant for the upper floors.  The proposed rent was £10,000 a year.  The lease term was to be five-years.

Rebecca Harman’s proposal

In her role as councillor, New Mills town councillor Rebecca Harman was privy to the confidential information that a tenant had been found and a lease was in the process of being signed between the tenant and the landlord.

The landlord is New Mills town council, of which Ms Harman is a member.

Using the confidential information in her possession, Ms Harman wrote a proposal for her to rent High Lee Hall.  She put this to the NMTC meeting of 30 March 2016.

To summarise Ms Harman’s proposal, it is to set up the ground floor for sales of refreshments to the public.  It would be, in effect, a hybrid of tea rooms, ice cream parlour, tuck shop and coffee shop.  The customers would be users of High Lee Park and other visitors.

This proposal has several benefits for the town council, for High Lee Park, and for the people of New Mills.  If Ms Harman had not abused her privileged position as a councillor to get the confidential information enabling her to write the proposal then there would not be a problem.

Disclosable Pecuniary Interest

Where a council member has a disclosable pecuniary interest in a matter they must not take part in a council meeting during the agenda item that discusses that matter.  To do so is a criminal offence.

The relevant statute that criminalises this kind of conduct by a councillor is Sections 26-34 of the Localism Act 2011.  The regulations made under that Act are the Relevant Authorities (Disclosable Pecuniary Interests) Regulations 2012.

The above laws are viewable at legislation.gov.uk

Bad conduct

On making her formal written proposal to New Mills town council for her business use of High Lee Hall, a pecuniary interest of Cllr Rebecca Harman came into existence.

Therefore, what should Cllr Harman have done when this agenda item relating to High Lee Hall rental came up for discussion during the last council meeting, on 11 April 2016?

She should have immediately withdrawn from the room while any discussions took place.

Instead, to the horror of some of the more perceptive council members, she kept trying to start a pitch to councillors as if she were a candidate on Dragons Den.

Various people in the meeting, both members and officer, repeatedly reminded her that according to the law she should not even be in the council chamber for this item.

Ground floor future

By whatever means the facts have now come out, it now seems clear that the prospective new upstairs tenant at High Lee Hall would also like ‘first refusal’ of the ground floor as well.

The council as landlord should ensure that all options are kept open regarding the ground floor of High Lee Hall until a proper detailed financial assessment is made of the general principle of tea shop/ice cream parlour/coffee shop/tuck shop/picnic hamper sales etc business concept for the space.

This would apply no matter who is eventually found to run it - assuming the business idea is deemed to be financially viable of course.

Duty to promote high standards

Let us end with the law as enacted by the following part of the Localism Act 2011:

Section 27: Duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct

(1) A relevant authority must promote and maintain high standards of conduct by members and co-opted members of the authority.

A town council is a relevant authority under the Act.

12 April 2016

New Mills Annual Parish Meeting 2016

The 2016 annual meeting for the electors of all New Mills wards (including Sett) will be held on Monday 25 April 2016.

Start time is 7.30 p.m.

Venue is the Public Hall of New Mills (also known as the upstairs large room at the town hall)

All are welcome, but only electors of New Mills wards can vote.

Definitively Establishing The Assets Held By New Mills Town Council

The town council has now established a working group charged with factually identifying and definitively recording all of the assets that it owns.

In due course this will lead to the council's Asset Register being an accurate and complete record.

This will be a first for this local council, which was established in 1974.

Forty-two years after the town council came into existence, New Mills will have a council finally abiding by the law governing this aspect of local government.

The assets would initially appear to be in three primary groups:

1. Freehold property.

2. Leasehold interests in property.  At the time of writing, the main current example of this would be a lease of the Heritage Centre.  Even if the lease has expired, the council has limited 'holding-over' rights.

3. Moveable property.  Vehicles will be a sub-set of this.  Office furniture, gardening and landscaping equipment and council-owned benches would be other examples of sub-sets.  These sub-sets are properly called 'Asset Type'

The group will not be making any decisions; its role is purely to establish the factual position and make accurate records for the council, backed up by documentary evidence.

If any formal decisions are needed at the end of this investigation/inquiry then these will be made by the full town council in the usual way, based on a specific council meeting agenda item.

On researching best practice, one finds that the origin of the ownership of each of the council's assets should be recorded.

This inquiry may expose various false assumptions by past town councillors 1974-2015.

If that happens, then so be it. Let all electors and council taxpayers be able to see one accurate, complete list of the assets that they have paid for.  Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

The town council's accurate and complete asset register will come too late for the missing town hall piano and the unauthorised disposal of valuable cabinets from the town hall office a few years ago. However, it will prevent similar future losses of public property from going unnoticed.

Torrs Land Ownership Issue: Conclusion

As a post-script to previous errors by some (not all) town councillors about land ownership at the Torrs Riverside Park, Land Registry records show as follows.

In plan view, TRP is roughly the shape of a three pointed star.  A river and its valley forms each of the three points to the 'star'; the three points are approximately north-west; north-east, and south.

Land Registry shows that part of the north-west land area of the TRP star, i.e. the Goyt outflow on its way to becoming the river Mersey, is not recorded as being owned by NMTC.

Some of the land in the north-east point of the star (the river Sett tributary inflow) is not recorded as being owned by NMTC.

A sub-set of this north-eastern non-NMTC area is however owned by Derbyshire County Council. DCC's land ownership in Torrs Riverside Park corresponds to the large area of former railway land there.

Most of the roughly southern area of the star (i.e. south of Church Road) is not shown by Land Registry as owned by NMTC. This area roughly corresponds to the River Goyt tributary inflow into the Torrs.

The central area of the TRP 'star' is recorded as being given to NMTC by former owners High Peak Borough Council in 2009.

Other significant areas of land in Torrs Riverside Park not owned by NMTC are along the route of the ancient cart road.  This runs between Rock Street in the town and the Rock public house on Wirksmoor Road.  Its route runs past the front of the former mill ruins.

Regular HPT readers will know that this non-NMTC owned part of the Torrs area has been the subject of two recent incidents: Runaway Dog Man's 'compensation culture' claim against the town council (even though the council does not own the land where Runaway Dog Man took his dog), and the rock fall from approximately the Kinder View area.

The town council's Asset Register is therefore inaccurate if it states that New Mills Town Council owns Torrs Riverside Park.

This error will be remedied as part of the work of the council's newly established Assets Register working group.  A precise wording will be found which will refer to specific Land Registry title numbers.

Those title numbers can then be easily compared by future town council staff to the council's copy of the Land Registry Plan for each title, also held as part of the new accurate Asset Register.

Result?  Saving of staff time, aggravation and mis-information.

24 March 2016

It's About Time

The ordinary meetings of New Mills town council are fixed in the calendar.  Unless notified differently, they always take place on the second Monday of every month.  A good, simple, easy-to-remember system.

The following comment has come in following public notice being given of an extraordinary meeting of New Mills Town Council to be held on Wednesday 30 March 2016 at 7:30 pm:
'Another extraordinary meeting for the Town Council (or those who have not resigned).  Is the council aiming for the Guinness Book of Records?'
Before we get onto the business of discussing potential solutions for - or at least improvements to - this recurring problem of how to properly control the length of town council meetings, for information here are the agenda items proper for the 30 March extraordinary meeting:


5  To receive and confirm the Minutes of the 27 January 2016 meeting

6  Room hire charges and implementation of the rules.

7  New Mills Market and the way forward.

To resolve that the press and public be excluded from the meeting for the following items because there may be disclosure to them of exempt information as defined in Schedule 12 A for the Local Government Act 1972.


8  Update from the Clerk on staffing matters.  – caretaking / Town Hall cleaning.

9  Valuation Report 2, Watburn Road.

10  Quotes for electrical remedial work at the Town Hall.

11  High Lea Hall – rental proposal.

12  Overdue Account from Tall Poppies

13  FOI – previous employee

The last council meeting ran too long and this meant there wasn't enough time to deal with some essential matters that were on Part Two of the Agenda of that meeting.

The Part One items at the last ordinary council meeting took up too much time.  Hence the need to now convene this extraordinary meeting.  This newly-convened 30 March meeting is for important stuff that has become urgent.

‘Extraordinary’ when referring to local council meetings does not mean extraordinary like a two-headed lamb being born, or it raining frogs, or a bearded man unsuccessful with the ladies getting it into his head that if he will maim and murder a lot of innocent women and children who have done no harm then there are 72 virgins around the corner just desperate to make his acquaintance.

In the context of council meetings, ‘extraordinary’ is the term in local government law for the meetings that are not on the council’s usual schedule of meetings.

Options for solutions to this recurring time-meetings problem include:

  • Ration the time for each councillor. For example, one particular cllr is noted for speaking on virtually every item and for speaking at unnecessary length when he does.
  • Ensure there are fewer items on each agenda
  • Delegate more matters to the council’s proper officer and to council staff (where appropriate)
  • Where time is clearly going to be tight at the meeting, perhaps consider not reading out aloud some or all of the regular Reports. The regular Reports can still be given to cllrs and any members of the public who ask for them, and published on Council website. The regular reports are from the Chair, Clerk and Parks Manager
  • Have a little alarm that goes off when the meeting has got say half an hour to run. This gives notice that Part Two section is approaching
  • Change Standing Orders so that council meetings can run longer. End-time of meetings is not set in stone; however it is currently set in Standing Orders.  Council has the say over what time its meetings end
  • Start council meetings earlier.

It is up to council to determine its standing orders (within the law of course). I was present at a High Peak Borough Council meeting that went on to nearly midnight, even though it was a very well-run meeting and could not reasonably have been shorter

No doubt Transparency’s esteemed readers will in due course have other potential ways forward to solve this recurring issue of New Mills Town Council meetings.