WRITTEN AND RESEARCHED BY MATT TURPIN AND THOMAS ROBERTS
HUMAN RESOURCES POLICY DEEMED ‘ILLEGAL’
COUNCIL STAFF ‘TREATED APPALLINGLY’
SERIES OF LEGAL CASES LEAD TO ‘ASTRONOMICAL COSTS’
COUNCIL FORCED TO CONSIDER SELLING OFF KEY ASSETS, DIP INTO RESERVES
MORALE AT AN ALL TIME LOW
ADMINISTRATION DESPERATE TO KEEP STORY OUT OF PUBLIC EYE
AS THE COUNCIL TRIES TO SELL BEESTON TOWN HALL, WE LOOK AT THE EYE-WATERING COSTLY SCANDAL BURNING THROUGH THE COUNCIL FORCING SUCH DECISIONS:
It may not have escaped your notice, but Broxtowe Borough Council seems to be in a bit of a desperate state: assets are being rapidly sold, services closing down; staff reporting a toxic workplace environment. Now, the Town Hall is mooted to be sold and demolished by a local developer with little scruples. If this isn’t the heftiest bit of symbolism imaginable, we don’t know what is. The flagship of local democracy is being razed due to…well what?
Before we get into the details of why this is, let’s go back to 2015.
ALL-CHANGE AT THE COUNCIL
In the run-up to the local (and general) elections, Broxtowe was hit by the most severe cut to its local government settlement – the amount it receives from the government each year. This blog asked our MP Anna Soubry to raise this with the local government minister (Eric Pickles), but the self-proclaimed Broxtowe’s Voice In Westminster didn’t bother – and why should she? The cuts wouldn’t touch her, securely away in her Charwood mansion.
The 2015 General Election surprised everyone, not least the Conservatives who, against expectations, came to power. Similarly, the Tories in Broxtowe took back control of the council, again against expectations. Suddenly, Cllr Richard Jackson was leader, with a council largely populated with Yes-men and Yes-women who stood not out of any strong party allegiance, but to bang their own particular campaign drum. Many would leave in the next couple of years, disillusioned and disappointed by the experience. The majority don’t do a great deal, rarely speaking at meetings and entrusting that to a core set of ideologues: Jackson, Mel Crow, Shane Easom, Philip and Jill Owen. The rest obligingly vote the way they’re told.
Election dust settled, stuff began to happen. Over at Foster Avenue, in strode a member of the new administration “I’m in charge of finances now” he crowed to the officers working at their desks. “Changes are going to come”. “It was intimidating” recalls an officer who witnessed it “It was arrogant and designed to make us all fear for our jobs. That was the start of the decline”.
Since then, we’ve been contacted on numerous occasions by council staff who have wanted to let us know – always off-record – about the troubles at the council. How the decisions made by Cllr. Jackson and co. were impacting on them, how they had to absorb the blame. How they felt harassed and disenchanted, years of experience and loyal service cast aside by the Thatcherite ideology of Jackon and his hatred of public services. It didn’t help when Cllr Jackson, in his role as a County Councillor, decided the very existence of Broxtowe Borough Council was a Bad Thing and voted to abolish it. Yes, abolish the very council he was head of.
A PAIN IN ARREARS
Rent arrears have been increasing at a steady rate between 2012/2013, then accelerated when the Tories took power, increasing in one 18 month period by an eye-watering 27%. This triggered alarm bells across the council, particularly when arrears topped £454,000 in 2015/16.
This figure is most likely a kind one: the way these figures have been reported is described to by one source as “a misrepresentation: the figures seem massaged to hide the true extent of arrears”.
One cost-saving policy implemented was a restructuring of the collection of rents, which it seems they paid KPMG approximately £30,000 to oversee.
This report was handed to the portfolio holder for Housing, Cllr Eric Kerry. Never the most competent of individuals (his tenure on the Notts County board coincided with the astonishing Munto Finance affair; while his own company has been repeatedly threatened with being wound up due to late submission of accounts ), this was probably a dubious idea. It seems, errrr, that swathes of the report were simply ignored.
The report did, however, recommend the merging of the Housing Department with the Rents Team, a move that an officer told us was ‘Utterly lacking nuance and implemented in an over-zealous fashion. It was hugely unpopular, and they said it was going to be a disaster but weren’t listened to”. The teams were effectively being pushed together, despite occasionally working at cross-purposes (housing are mandated to keep people in their homes; rents to enforce evictions if necessary). Staff engagement, a fairly decent indicator of morale, plummeted. Quite simply, it was a catastrophe.
To facilitate these changes, the top three officers in Rents were offered, and accepted, voluntary redundancy packages despite being an underperforming team. This is akin to seeing a building on fire, and thinking it best be tackled by laying off firefighters.
After implementation of this new shared service arrangement, collection rates did change – but not necessarily for the better. While the deficit decreased very slightly, more money would have to be set aside in ‘irrecoverables’: basically, bad debts increased. By 2018, rent arrears reached an unprecedented percentage of total rents.
Ah, you say, welfare changes such as the Bedroom Tax and Universal Credit would have seen increases irrespective of the administration: however, neither have been implemented in Broxtowe to date.
This is a clear failure of policy.
THE GAS ENGINEER AND THE BAILIFF
What happens when a council starts to become dysfunctional? Well, all sorts of stuff. One particular incident perhaps highlights this more than most.
In 2016, a council-employed gas engineer was on his rounds in Chilwell. He visits an elderly lady, who is in tears. When pressed, she tells him a bailiff has recently visited and made threats to evict. She feels utterly vulnerable, and the engineer decides to take action. He jumps in his van and seeing the bailiff’s vehicle, parks opposite. An altercation ensues on the street, and the bailiff drives off and reports the engineer to the council.
An investigation follows by a manager outside the Directorate, and the gas engineer is sacked. The engineer is miffed, understandably, and appeals. While the appeal is processing, the council overturn his dismissal and he is reinstated. The council’s HR policy is suddenly in the spotlight – which we’ll get around to later. Meanwhile, the incident triggers differences of opinions across the council: some supporting the engineer, some the bailiff. “Increased animosity forced a lot out, people started to argue,” a source tells us “Things began to bubble to the surface”.
To try and nip these problems in the bud the Chief Executive, Ruth Hyde, decides to send herself and around a dozen other high-ranking members of staff on a team-building course at Nottingham Business School. This course, which took place over several days, involved trust exercises, individual sessions and leadership training. The hope was the antagonism would be massaged away by all of this, and the council would return to Foster Avenue as close as the Waltons.
They ended up more like the Mansons.
This is unverified footage from the sessions:
Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to find how this was procured, or the cost of the failed exercise. However, similar courses at Nottingham Business School typically cost £1,350 +VAT per person. This would suggest a bill of around £27, 000 – not to mention working days lost.
THE UNLAWFUL HUMAN RESOURCES POLICY
Multiple grievances were aired, often at a high level. There was a strong feeling amongst those caught in the cross-fire that these were not taken seriously by HR. Personal attacks become commonplace. Whole swathes of the council become engaged in open warfare. Things become untenable. Eventually, councillors are asked to approve spending money on an investigation. They oblige.
On the recommendation of law firm Browne Jacobson, they hire a barrister, Richard Powell, to investigate allegations within the council about staff and what action should be taken. This isn’t cheap: a council were asked to approve a payment to Powell of £18,720 (with VAT) in 2017, this payment was duly made on the 18th July, 2017. However we have reason to believe the total bill will actually be higher: council invoices show another payment to a ‘Richard Powell Ltd” in April 2017 of £30,000 (inc VAT) from the council. The cost of this dysfunction begins to snowball. Between April and August 2017, a further £47,696.52 (inc VAT) is trousered by Browne Jacobson, in what is described in council invoices as ‘miscellaneous expenses and counsel fees’. Hmmm.
These are only the expenditures we can confirm, these only cover from April to September 2017. A number of individual sources suggest the figure is considerably higher if expenditure outside this period is taken into account. What the council does confirm is that they have estimated a further £35,000 be taken into account for further investigative work. Again, sources say this is wildly optimistic. According to the agenda of the Policy and Performance Committee. The approved budget for this was £29,200: this had been massively exceeded by September, with investigations set to rumble on for some time.
HEADS BEGIN TO ROLL
Following receipt of this report, in the Summer of 2017, four senior officers at Broxtowe are suspended. These are the Head of Legal; Head of Housing; Director of Housing, Leisure and Property Services; and the Housing Allocation and Options Manager. This is a significant blow to the smooth running of a council; even more so within a council with terminally low-morale.
But worse was to come. We understand from several sources, and from a leaked internal email, that large swathes of the Council’s own HR policy were not just lacking, they appear unlawful. While we have not been privy to this report, which was not made public, we believe the following areas required significant change:
- Grievance policy
- HR Data reporting
- Bullying and Harassment in the workplace
- Stress management
- Code of Conduct for agency staff
- Disciplinary rules, policy and procedure
- Removal of informal warnings, changes in formal warnings
- Amendments to the council’s whistleblowing (!) policy
These aren’t a few minor tweaks: they’re a comprehensive rewrite. A dysfunctional council appears to have been working with a dysfunctional HR policy for years. The aforementioned gas engineer case might not have appreciated the funny side of all this for his case: he was sacked and reinstated under a questionable HR policy. Does his temporary sacking actually count, or does it hover eternally in the ether? Perhaps Brian Cox could advise.
STUFFING THE CRACKS WITH CASH
With staff suspended as costly investigations roll on, jobs still have to be done. Finding staff with the level of specialist expertise required is neither cheap or easy. Here’s when The Venn Group rolls up.
Specialists in senior-level recruitment, they were tasked with filling the vacancies of staff forced to sit at home. While there are no figures for individual officer replacements, we can confirm that a staggering amount was spent with The Venn Group. The final implications of filling these roles will be quite significant, with Councillors being told the costs were:
- £150,000 p/a for Interim Deputy Chief Executive
- £107,000 p/a for Interim Strategic Director
- £99,000 p/a for Interim Housing Manager
(p/a: per annum: 40 weeks per year).
These are well above the expected salaries of the roles if they were permanent appointments. This is a costly business.
There are also the costs involving current staff. One of the suspended managers was paid off, receiving £14,693 as a kiss goodbye. Of course, if he had been found guilty he would have received not a penny in severance.
Total payments for 6 months (between April and September 2017) to the Venn Group total £269,982.20. That’s money that could be being spent on vital services, and retaining public buildings such as the Town Hall. This is frivolous, and the buck stops at Cllr. Richard Jackson’s desk.
As the situation is far from resolved, these costs continue to mount and put huge pressure on council budgets. The council were forced to admit employment savings targets will not be achieved, and any additions to the capital programme will have to be taken from the council reserves: something with anathema to Tory councils, which abhor touching reserves.
CONCLUSION OF PART ONE
So where are we right now? Council morale is still low, which is hitting productivity. Unnecessary, self-inflicted costs are spiralling, and as such services are being put at risk; the council are forced to look into selling assets such as the Town Hall. This symbol of local democracy is at risk due to the deficit of management and leadership at the council since Cllr Richard Jackson and his Conservative administration took over.
It’s not just symbols of democracy that are at risk: it’s local democracy itself
Cllr Jackson has already tried to destroy the council once and failed. This attempt seems like it might succeed. We deserve better.
We have only scratched the surface here. Next week we will detail further expenditure; the secret committees set up to look into the crisis; how a lack of transparency is leading to staff feeling threatened and under constant pressure; and how the final combined total of this affair could well exceed a seven-figure sum. Oh, and why Tories are at war with each other…
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