ATTEMPTS TO SAVE £60,000, “COUNCIL SPEND £600,000”
FAKE NEWS FROM SOUBRY
NUTHALL COUNCILLORS DECLARE WAR ON COLLEAGUES
KIMBERLEY COUNCILLORS UNDER INVESTIGATION BY THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT OMBUDSMAN
INTRODUCTION (AND A BEGGING BOWL)
When we pressed ‘post’ on Part 1 of this story, we expected it would cause something of a stir, but we wildly underestimated the scale of this. The article became the best read of anything previously written in ten years of this blog, and suddenly our inboxes were full of more whistleblowers than a referee’s convention and more leaks than a Welsh Country Fair. We realise the latter works best said out loud.
We have a colossal amount of information to work through, including reams of complex documents; windingly strange anecdotes and highly-sensitive information of potential criminal activity that needs very careful handling before publication. We are very aware of how fast certain people would be to get this blog offline and sling us both in the libel courts, so please be patient while we sift the accumulated info. If you have written to us and we haven’t replied, we will, in time. One of us is a full-time student and part-time worker; the other a full-time worker with a baby, a magazine and a raft of projects to nurture.
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“Do you know what it is like to go into work every day, and know that you might be made redundant?” She sips her coffee through pursed lips “To go in and try and serve the public when you know them upstairs want to get rid of you? It’s no way to live”.
Today’s source isn’t really telling us anything we haven’t heard before. She wrote to us after reading our article and felt she had to talk. We arrange to meet in a busy cafe and talk she does: of how her job has been ground down over the past couple of years, how she is forced to do more for less, and how she has to put up with a council that has lurched into dysfunction by a leader who is openly contemptuous of those he oversees: after all, “He voted to get rid of us that time didn’t he?”.
No, this isn’t new. We have heard this many times in the past week, as employees came forward in droves to tell us their experience of working at Broxtowe. Each contact came with a similar desperately sought condition: “this would be strictly confidential, yes? We’ve been threatened about speaking out before, and I can’t afford to lose my job”.
We assure each time that contact confidentiality is sacrosanct. Upsetting tales of jobs done under impossible conditions are related. Tears bud and flow. Coffee is sipped. Papers are handed over. Yesterday it was tea and an email address, the day before beer and a phone number. Days blur, stories pile in, notepads tot up anecdotes and evidence.
It seems that what we did last week was less shine a light, more burst a dam. The council troubles have been an open secret for some time, with both councillors and council workers having to work under an almost dictatorial code of silence. And as often is the case, once one person starts talking, they all do. Our inboxes are testimony to this.
Since our last article was published, stories of the systematic defunding and demoralising of the nation’s local authorities have hit the news. Council tax is set to rise this year due to central government starving councils of funding. Council -owned assets being sold off to make shortfalls, less the most vulnerable be denied care. Tory-controlled Northamptonshire County Council is effectively declaring bankruptcy. After 8 years of austerity, there is simply nothing left to cut.
Councils are teetering on the brink, and hundreds of thousands of workers devoted to public service see a bleak future. They also see the people they directly help suddenly plunged into peril. These are grim days, and a survey of local authority staff would probably turn up a similar sense of widespread discontent.
So what makes Broxtowe special? Well, while other council leaders try and mitigate against cuts, our own leader, Cllr Richard Jackson, seems to take great delight in grinding down a once-decent council. The current situation is to a great extent a self-inflicted wound that ordinary Broxtowe council tax payers are having to pay for. Our proud Town Hall, standing as a symbol of civic democracy for 80 years, is now having to be sold to pay for the destructive of Jackson and his acolytes, while a seemingly out -of-her-depth Chief Executive is caught frozen in the headlights.
THE KILLER LINE
“The original allegations are routine” they say, fixing me with a stern look, “the sort of thing you’d expect from any large organisation. It’s what happened afterwards that was the problem.” As documents pour from our desk it slowly becomes apparent how true that statement is. An independent investigation found “outdated” HR policies in need of “urgent review,” policies that were “inconsistent with current legislation.” Delegated powers are riddled with “ambiguities,” “inconsistencies” and “impracticalities.” Guidelines on conflict of interest are needed and implicitly the council has lost “staff confidence.”
Leaked emails show allegations flashing back and forward between departments accusing departmental heads of being “vindictive” and “malicious.” Legitimate grievances become buried in acres of personality clashes that stretch back to 2015. Weakness at the top allowed these squabbles to foment and develop to the point where council business is, according to one source, “crippled.” But the fact that rings true in all of this is that the original failings, the ones that the current “chaos” stems from, are routine. They happen, they are bad, but they happen.
The settlements agreed to staff to resolve them sit at a reported £60,000, although we are keen to intimate that we have only seen details of two payments, one for around £15,000 and one for around £35,000. But, as investigations rumble on, the desire to avoid paying £60k appears to have cost us £600,000 in investigations, interim staff and staff hours lost to interviews. The investigation allegedly interviewed over 100 staff, guzzling down 1000s of staff hours.
Poetically, £600,000 per annum is the exact amount that the Council have listed as a funding gap in the medium term for 2017. Told to save £600,000, the council SPENT £600,000. Brilliant.
As with Watergate, the problem is always the cover-up. How much do we have to pay to preserve the ego of the council’s leader?
And all the time, as our last episode explained, lawyers and recruitment firms are receiving vast amounts of public money that could be going to services, preserving both democracy as a concept, and its physical manifestation: the Town Hall. And it is to the Town Hall we will visit to see the ground-zero of this gross mismanagement of the council.
I’m told more than once by those gathering into the public gallery that this is the first time they’ve witnessed a council meeting. It’s a frigid Tuesday night in February, and we’re at a committee meeting where we can just watch, not interact. The room is, as always, ridiculously warm and overlit.
Yet the gallery is packed out with people who have gathered to hear what the elected representatives of the borough have to say about the future of the very building we sit in. “They should get rid of them councillors, not the building,” says an elderly lady as we take our seats, as Cllr Jackson glares over at the throngs gathering. This is where the Town Hall’s future will be debated, and the councillors can speak freely, albeit whipped to the party line by Jackson, who chairs the committee
The meeting opens with a bit of great news. Due to the sterling work of the Beeston and District Civic Society (who I urge you to join, find out more here), the building is being considered for Listing by Historic England, with the council formally advised the day before the committee meeting. As one of the main proponents for listing is Sir Neil Cossons, former Chair of English Heritage (and former Beestonian), which means it looks likely that the Town Hall will indeed be listed. Great news, for now.
What follows is a travesty of debate.
While the opposition parties whole-heartedly stick to the line that the building must be retained, the Tories throw up as many clunky rhetorical tactics as possible.
There is the false-dichotomy: “It’s either the Town Hall or key services” says Richard Jackson, forgetting to mention the astronomical amounts going directly to lawyers and employment agencies due to his gross failure at leadership.
There is the absurdist, with Councillors arguing that “there are people in Eastwood who don’t know where Beeston is, so why should we save the Town Hall?” Reductio ad absurdum, and Cllr Steve Carr, Lib Dem, points out this fallacy, to much applause and laughter “There are probably people in Eastwood that don’t know where Caernarfon Castle is; that doesn’t mean it should be knocked down.”
Despite claiming to have an open mind on the future of the building, it is abundantly clear that they are desperate to sell it, and sell it soon. Those lawyers aren’t free, you know.
In wades our MP, making a rare excursion to matters of her constituency rather than the more luxuriant surroundings of her Charnwood mansion / every TV + radio studio going. “Fake News” she cries in her newsletter
Errr, unfortunately, this in itself is fake news (fake soubz?) As the many, many people who completed the consultation form saw very clearly, it was Option C. When that option was requested to be removed, the council point-blank refused. “Everything is on the table” they stated.
Now, aren’t the Conservatives hell-bent on following the will of the people? Surely the result of the consultation should, therefore, be treated similarly?
So that’s where we are on the Town Hall right now: disassembling, diversion, and demolition very much on the cards. Let’s get back to what is driving all this.
Enter the Owens. The Nuthall Councillors (and married couple), Phil and Jill, have been causing some waves.
Say what you like about the Owens (and we have) but their commitment to the horrors of austerity is ideological, NOT practical.
Presiding over their fiefdom of Nuthall, staff at Foster Avenue have a very special place in their spleens for the dynamic duo. Aloof, snobbish and dripping with the idea that they have the divine right to rule, these are the sorts of characters that Roald Dahl wrote about. Curiously their ire now seems to be turned inwards, towards council leader Richard Jackson.
Phillip Owen apparently feels that he was overlooked for a suitably self-important role after the Tories took the council in 2015. Perhaps the deputy leadership would befit his stature? Or at least a decent chair to nap in…
No, Owen allegedly feels betrayed. After decades as an elected nuisance, he should have been rewarded and Jackson denied him the pomposity he felt he deserved. According to one source, the Tories have split into three factions, the bad, the also bad, and the ugly.
This may be a display of spontaneous solidarity with their national level colleagues. How does this tie into our investigation? Well, it appears that Phil’s feeling of exclusion extends to Council business itself. After being caught asking a few uncomfortable questions about what he wasn’t allowed to know he was handed a legal warning by the council.
This warning, allegedly approved by Ruth Hyde and sent by Richard Jackson, apparently cost an eye-watering £250 and became a talking point at the next council meeting. Owen supposedly waved the letter around like Augustus Gloop had caught Charlie’s ticket to meet Mr Wonka; proffering it to those in attendance and wondering loudly what it all meant. The authors would like to make it clear that we have not wrote this to imply that Mr Owen cannot read. However, wouldn’t it be funny if we did?
The Owens are wild cards here. They have opened a front on Cllr. Jackson when he least needs another battle to fight. More chaos ensues.
Slightly further North, we enter Kimberley, where Tory Councillors Mel Crow and Shane Easom hold sway. Their approach to democracy is certainly interesting.
A local woman, Stephanie Hather, born and bred in the town, decides to bring her business closer to home. Ms Hather, a single mother with a talent for tasty spuds, had previously traded happily in Stapleford without concern. Pitching her van in Kimberley, she proved an instant hit, and things looked good.
Then she was told, out of the blue, to sling her hook. In a letter from Broxtowe Borough Council, she was told her van might ‘damage mosaics’ near her pitch. She was not alone in thinking that this was a rather bizarre reason, but obliged and stopped trading.
Now, who was really behind this? It seems that the Cllrs. Crow and Easom were eager to prevent Ms Hather trading due to being friends with other traders who didn’t want the competition. Spurious reasons were thus concocted, and Ms Hather had to move on.
This doesn’t seem to be a one-off. Other businesses appear to be have suffered similar indignities and have been pushed out of the town, only to thrive elsewhere. This is hardly good for the town and local economy. Crow and Easom, it seems, care little for this. Kimberley: open for business (as long as you are on the right side of Crow and Easom)?
But Ms Hather didn’t take this lying down. She kept the story alive in the public eye, and the fuss subsequently made the press, reflecting badly on Crow and Easom. So badly, it seems, the Cllr Crow rang a journalist on the Eastwood and Kimberley Advertiser and demanded she stopped writing ‘negative’ stories about the potato affair. Open democracy, eh?
The Council eventually decided to stem the tide of bad publicity with money. £200 was plucked out of coffers and offered to Ms Hather as a way of saying sorry for what they’d done. This was dismissed by Ms Hather as risible bearing in mind everything she went through, the abuse suffered along with all of the obstacles to trade put in her way. Council officers then denied that a certain meeting took place where this issue was discussed (there is documentary proof of this) and papers were “temporarily” lost. It looks like a huge, potentially costly and utterly self-inflicted fiasco.
Instead of taking the £200, the plucky Ms Hather decided to take Cllrs. Crow and Easom to the Local Government Ombudsman, who are currently investigating. If allegations of gross mispractice are upheld, we could see further trouble from this council in the grips of chaos.
The Council is clearly in disarray. Dysfunction at the top is ruining the working environment of many. The ruling party are at one and others necks. Local businesses are treated like dirt. Councillors appear to be free to pursue their own agendas. Costs are spiralling all over the shop. As money haemorrhages from the coffers, central government cuts continue to deepen and the situation worsens.
This is, as we have clearly stated before, a self-inflicted wound. We are paying for the gross mismanagement and leadership failings of Cllr Richard Jackson and Chief Exec Ruth Hyde. It is now time they were open about their failings and take responsibility.
On Tuesday, Councillors will vote on increasing their allowances by 2%. Let’s hope they do the decent thing.
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