26 May 2013

Parks, Recreation and the Public's Money


The article Reforms Gathering Pace brought forth a lot of comments from residents in the area, mentioning one specific issue: restoring parks and recreation areas in New Mills to the ownership and/or the management of High Peak Borough Council.

How did we get here?

The background to this is as follows.

Up to 1974, New Mills Urban District Council was a 'full function' principal council.  In its area it dealt with building council housing, roads, sewerage, gas works and so on.  It was surrounded by similar councils such as Chapel-en-le-Frith Rural District Council, Glossop Borough Council and so on.

This system was streamlined in 1974.  A new local authority was created by statute, High Peak Borough Council, and all the Urban and Rural district councils were abolished on 1 April 1974.

Under the Local Government Act 1972, which came into effect on that date, the assets of the vanished councils became vested in High Peak Borough Council or Derbyshire County Council.

New Mills

So far as the town of New Mills was concerned all of the publicly-owned properties, with one specific named exception, were now owned by either High Peak Borough Council or Derbyshire County Council.

The division was determined by the local authority function of the property asset.  Education facilities and libraries became vested in Derbyshire County Council; parks and council housing became vested in High Peak Borough Council and so on.

The exception was the Public Hall of New Mills.  This building was funded by public subscription by the people of the town before the Urban District council existed, and owned by trustees.  It is the location of the current town hall.

The 17 Properties agreed to be transferred

In March 1974 the ‘shadow’ new HPBC agreed that “Parks and Recreation Grounds” in New Mills and Sett Valley House should transfer to New Mills Town Council.  This was at the request of the councillors in New Mills, who were about to lose their positions through the reorganisation.

The newly created town council was to have responsibility for maintaining the named parks and recreation grounds that would be transferred to it, and paying for their upkeep.  This arrangement would take effect after both new councils came into existence the following month.  A listing of the seventeen properties was compiled and agreed.

The description “Parks and Recreation Grounds”, which was adopted and put in writing by High Peak Borough Council in a memorandum along with the names of the seventeen sites, is important.  It is relevant both here and for future revelations about wrongful transfers of High Peak Borough Council property.

Aside from the Town Hall and Sett Valley House, every one of the seventeen properties on the list of transfer is either a park, a recreation ground, or a play area.

Up to now, all is clear and above board.

Duplication of costs

Once the decision to make the property transfers was made, a large part of the efficiency and cost-saving benefits of the 1974 local government re-organisation was lost to the people of New Mills.

Instead of having one organisation handling all of the parks and recreation in the High Peak area, with the economies of scale and mechanisation, a new ‘Parks Department’ had to be created in New Mills to duplicate the one at that already existed at High Peak Borough Council.

High Peak Borough Council has a ride-on lawnmower.  New Mills Town Council has a ride-on lawnmower.  HPBC has vehicles.  NMTC has vehicles.  HPBC has rest facilities for parks staff.  NMTC has rest facilities for parks staff.

As ex-councillor Norman Garlick put it in an article in the Buxton Advertiser some years ago, “You have got places like New Mills who still think it is 1973 and want to do everything.”

How it looks to the council taxpayers

From 1974 onwards, council taxpayers in the rest of High Peak could say ‘We've given the parks and recreation areas to New Mills town council.  So at least we won’t now have the costs of looking after them.’

But then NMTC came back to HPBC and asked for money for mowing the grass and so on.  Every year.

So by this point HPBC has lost the assets, and still pays out for their maintenance!

The most efficient system is like at Glossop and Buxton.  The parks are owned by High Peak Borough Council.  The maintenance is carried out by High Peak Borough Council.  That’s it.  It really couldn't be simpler.

Ad-hoc land transfers, with no control

Although not strictly a topic for this article, a very important issue has come to light as a result of the new discussions.

Regarding the 17 agreed properties, the necessary government transfer order under the Local Government Act 1972 was not applied for, either by the Borough or Town Council.  This needed to have been completed by 1976.

When this matter was looked at in February 1990, some NMTC councillors asked for more Borough Council property to be transferred than had been authorised.  Some of these HPBC assets are clearly not parks or recreation grounds.  They should never have been transferred to NMTC.

The list is dated 1990.  It is headed SITES NOW CLAIMED BY NEW MILLS TOWN COUNCIL and examination reveals it contains 23 properties, rather than the 17 that were agreed between the councils.

For example Derbyshire County Council’s public library asset, on Hall Street, appears to have been transferred to the town council.  Derbyshire County Council is paying out substantial amounts of money in rent as a tenant, on a property where it appears to be the rightful freeholder!  This public library was not on the list of 17 properties.

Another example: there are valuable garage sites owned by High Peak Borough Council that have been transferred out of its name.  No money has been paid to HPBC for these assets.  These sites were not on the list of 17 properties.

The subject of property transfers, and the financial losses suffered by HPBC and DCC ratepayers unless the relevant property titles are urgently rectified at Land Registry, will be the subject of a detailed future article on this website.

Current town councillors were not involved in the above ad hoc discussions which took place between unknown individuals in the 1970s and early 1990s.  These disclosures may come as much of a revelation to them as to the High Peak council taxpayers whose pockets have been raided in this long-running property scam.

Staff at New Mills

Almost all of the costs of having a town council in New Mills arise from the fact that in 1974 it made the choice to deal with the parks etc, rather than HPBC.  The annual ‘spend’ of this town council is now hundreds of thousands of pounds.  Within this, it takes in around £70,000 a year from other HPBC council taxpayers (i.e. outside of New Mills).  This is by way of an annual grant from the Borough Council, which is meant as a contribution to looking after the parks etc in New Mills.

The duplication of departments, and people and resources to look after the departments, is a cause of considerable cost and waste.

There may be parks staff who will be concerned for their jobs if this rationalisation and efficiency measure were to be adopted.  Obviously they will be offered the same posts and grades at HPBC.  The natural wastage over time - retirements, people leaving etc - in the larger organisation will in due course reduce its payroll and staffing levels back down to a normal, efficient level.

Options

The main options are:

  - Leave things as they are;

  - HPBC to take over just the management of all the parks and recreation areas in New Mills;

  - Both the management and the properties to be transferred back to HPBC.


This article is neither pro nor anti any option.  This subject is now out there on the public agenda and for debate in the public space.

23 May 2013

Don't Ask For An Appointment


More signals have emerged of the serious state of New Mills local government.  The impending crisis brought about by the acts, omissions and attitudes of the town clerk/responsible financial officer (it's the same person at the moment) cannot now be long in coming.

At the town's statutory annual town meeting, High Peak Transparency's Editor asked a simple question of two councillors who were 100% qualified to give an accurate answer.

Information had been received by this website that the town clerk of New Mills - an employee of the council - had refused to see ordinary members of the council.  That is to say councillors other than the chairs of the committees, of which at the relevant time there were three.  If true, this would be a quite extraordinary situation.

The direct question was asked of Chair of New Mills town council (Janet Carter).

Mrs Carter's reply was that it was not true: the clerk will see all councillors.

The direct question was then asked of New Mills town councillor Alistair Stevens.  (He is married to the town clerk, so could be expected to know the truth of this matter.)

Cllr Stevens' reply was that it was not true: the clerk will see all councillors.

The date of the above answers given to the public was 13 May 2013.

Word of this exchange obviously got out.  A copy of the relevant email has now been seen by High Peak Transparency.  It is not marked confidential.  It is dated 8 May 2013.  The subject is 'Statement of Fitness to Work'.  It is from the town clerk of New Mills.  Here is the text:
'I should like you to note and inform other members of the Council that for the foreseeable future, I will not be accepting Councillors in my office.  I shall meet with the Chairman of the Council and the Chairs of the Committees but only with a prior agreed appointment.  Appointments can be made with Marie or Jane.  I should also like it noted that I shall not be attending any appointment on my own, and I shall be accompanied by a person of my choice throughout the appointment.'
The email has been verified as genuine.  It was sent to Cllr Janet Carter and cc'd to Cllr Alistair Stevens.




Since the above article was published, ex-councillor Janet Carter has been in touch and states that her reply in the public meeting was her genuine belief, and that her statement was based on conversations she had had with the town clerk.

We have no reason to disbelieve Mrs Carter, and we accept that she gave an honest statement to the meeting so far as she understood the situation. However the email written personally by the town clerk, which was circulated to all town councillors, is very clear and explicit on the subject.

Since the public meeting referred to, Mrs Carter has resigned from the council, citing personal reasons. Her decision had been made some time before the public meeting.

22 May 2013

Reforms Gathering Pace


This is intended to be a website about High Peak, but the dishonesty and corruption in recent years appears to have emanated from inside New Mills town hall rather than the High Peak area in general.  So local public interest news is tending to concern that town council at present.

A councillor has been in touch to say that a proposal is being canvassed amongst some councillors in New Mills to split the roles of Town Clerk and Responsible Financial Officer.

This reform proposal is eminently sensible.

If and when a new Responsible Financial Officer ('RFO') is appointed, s/he must be a person of undoubted probity and integrity, who also knows about relevant local government law.  It is ideal for a retired solicitor or chartered accountant or auditor, or qualified legal executive, or retired senior magistrate or similar, provided that they have an unblemished record of honesty and are able to demonstrate the requisite knowledge of the local government legal framework.

It is a part-time position: clerical staff can still do the day-to-day activity, but the RFO has oversight and overall responsibility for all financial matters and for ensuring that the law is complied with by the council at all times.

The position of RFO is specified in statute: it is mandatory for one to be appointed by every council in England*.  The role of town clerk is not.

In many town and parish councils the town clerk also carries out the duties of RFO.  The vast majority of town and parish councils have tiny budgets, so for them it makes sense.  However New Mills does not fall into that category.

In New Mills in recent years a large amount of High Peak Borough Council property has been transferred to this local town council (some of it wrongfully, but that's for another day).  Because a lot of property has ended up in its name,  large amounts of public money are handled by this town council.

There is also a non-repayable grant of almost £100,000 every year handed to this council from the council taxpayers of the rest of the High Peak, i.e. outside of New Mills.

Therefore, given the budget and property in the hands of this particular town council, splitting the above roles between two properly qualified and unimpeachably honest individuals reporting to the council would now be a prudent, sensible reform.

It would also be a sign that councillors now mean business in a campaign to clean up the town hall and make its activities fully transparent to the public that pays for it.

If present councillors continue carrying on this way, the dysfunctional years may yet be consigned to history.

There's no such thing as a new cliché, so here goes:  only time will tell, and actions speak louder than words.


* Section 151 of the Local Government Act 1972 


16 May 2013

A Long Overdue Reform




The infamous dysfunctional town council may be slightly improved from next Monday 20 May 2013, if a proposed reform on that meeting's agenda is passed.

Cllr Tony Ashton is putting forward the idea that the council should be run by twelve regular monthly meetings a year.

Those uninitiated in the ways of New Mills Town Council might ask 'Isn't that a normal way for a small council to be run?'

At present, the meetings of the council are a confused mixture of committees and sub-committees.  On one memorable occasion, a contentious account for payment was smuggled through a favoured small committee by the town clerk and her husband Cllr Alistair Stevens, even when councillors had explicitly stated that only the full council can make a decision about that payment.*

The new streamlined system should help to reduce the 'power behind the scenes' that the town clerk has used to the detriment of the reputations of elected councillors.

Speaking of the town clerk, Mrs Susan Stevens has recently taken up limited duties after time off work when she said she was 'stressed'.

An unkind person might say that she shouldn't tamper with minutes, or alter the council's lawfully made decisions without authority, or favour one group of councillors over another, or make payments that haven't been authorised by the council, or get involved with a local political party that also has members on the council, and then there wouldn't be any risk of stress.

Another unkind person - a different one, obviously -  might point out that any job with such an unfeasibly large annual pay packet will always carry a degree of stress.

Unfortunately, like trying to improve most dysfunctional relationships, here we have a case of two steps forward, one step back.  The town clerk has announced that she will 'not attend any council meetings'.

That's right.  A town council where the town clerk has refused to attend the council meetings.

A council makes all its decisions through its resolutions.  Resolutions can only be made at council meetings.  Therefore, councillors need the town clerk on hand at those meetings to answer questions of detail and background.  Given those facts, Mrs Stevens' refusal to attend the council's meetings would appear to be effectively disqualifying herself from the position of town clerk.


* the payment was to Chafes solicitors, for lawyers' meetings about a forthcoming book exposing council wrongdoing.  This was public monies which the town council spent, even though the matter under discussion is nothing to do with the council: a council cannot start or maintain a legal action for defamation.  A Labour Party councillor, Ian Huddlestone, used the town council's credit account with Chafes.  Cllr Huddlestone then voted in the committee meeting that the council's money be used to make the payment, even though he was not entitled to be at the committee meeting (except as a member of the public) nor to vote there.  Cllr Alistair Stevens chaired this town council committee and voted to make the payment, even though the contentious matter intimately concerned his wife.