BY MATT TURPIN AND THOMAS ROBERTS
BROXTOWE ‘PUTTING TENANT’S LIVES AT RISK”
COUNCIL REFUSE TO DISCLOSE COST OF SCANDAL
HOW THE COVER-UP WAS ALLOWED TO HAPPEN
COUNCILLORS ‘DEMAND SPECIAL TREATMENT’
Welcome to our latest dispatch from the Foster Avenue Frontline: with our final (for now) uncovering of the scandal, gross profligacy and cover-up rocking Broxtowe Borough Council right now.
So where are we? You are probably feeling a little concussed with the slew of stories we’re putting out, so let’s have a TL;DR overview of the past two stories.
- Since 2015, Broxtowe Borough Council has been run by a hard-right bunch of Conservative ideologues who find the idea of public services – indeed, the council itself – contrary to their beliefs.
- Policies have been implemented that degrade council services and put locals at risk.
- Council workers who oppose these policies are ostracised and driven out. Those who remain are working under a strict code of silence, where morale is rock-bottom.
- Councillors are using their positions, not for the public good, but to further their own private causes /friends.
- These policies have proven to be counter-productive, and instead of keeping budgets low have led to a scandal that has seen hundreds of thousands of pounds of council tax pounds diverted into lawyers / temporary staff pockets.
- The council, seeing these spiralling costs, are attempting to sell off assets – such as the Town Hall- that we have all owned for years, to make ends meet.
- We think, that in light of the above, instead of getting rid of the Town Hall, it is time for Cllr. Richard Jackson to face up to his mistakes and resign.
So what have we for you this week? Read on, and find stories about the continued cover-up at Foster Avenue, how Cllr. Jackson has eroded scrutiny and democracy over the past three years and about another councillor abusing their position. However, we start with a severely serious issue: how the lives of tenants are being put directly at risk by council policy and mismanagement.
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Perhaps the most worrying detail is not the effect on staff morale but the effect on council duties. Whilst the council’s reports paint a rosy picture of gas safety a leaked Morgan Lambert report paints a far more unsettling picture. Between 2015 and 2016 Broxtowe Borough Council “[had] been in a position of high risk for several months.”
Whilst the report admits that “improvements have been made” it is at pains to stress that there are “still some high-risk areas.” From the start of the report, it was noted that Broxtowe’s gas servicing and repair procedure was “onerous and subject to human error.” The council’s trigger point for gaining access to properties reflected that of Gallion’s Housing Association, who were the first housing association to violate the Housing Regulator.
Several clear failings were identified in the council’s 10-month cycle. One property had not been accessed for 15 months, another for 13. The law requires properties to be inspected every 12 months. Beestonia has been reliably informed that there were at least four houses which had not been serviced for a number of years. Some of these properties were listed as wholly solar, with no record of gas attachment at all.
The Landlord Gas Servicing Record asks engineers to record carbon monoxide (a highly toxic gas) levels, however “it was evident that they are actually recording the CO2% readings.” “It [was] important to brief the engineers on [this] requirement.” “A complete overview of how the gas boiler programme is managed [needed] to be undertaken.”
According to a former operative approximately 100 houses were found to be non-compliant, whilst we have not seen documents to confirm this it pokes holes in the council’s reporting of 100% compliance. Moreover, our source suggests that despite this report dating to the end of 2016 it was not acted on for approximately 18 months and will take a further 9 months to implement all of its findings.
Our sources say that such a situation exposes Broxtowe to ‘a Grenfell-esque tragedy’. Of course, we’ll only know when it is too late.
Another week, another council meeting. Same sweltering building, same furious glares, same greying Councillors. Despite this, the room has a different ambience. I (Thomas) am the only person sat in the press gallery and a councillor takes time out to whisper “you’re not going to cause trouble, are you?” “Me,” I smile “Never.”
The Town Hall has dropped off the Agenda but it has been replaced by the budget. I have three questions I want answering, how much do the council believe the investigation has cost so far? How much more will it cost in future? And how long will it take? Thankfully, several Labour councillors have the same bee in their bonnet.
“We’ve heard estimates from some people in this room that this investigation is costing £400,000. Others say £500,000. If you read the local papers they’re saying £600,000,” Cllr Greg Marshall thunders, “Can you tell me how much has been spent? And how this compares to the original £38,000 that was agreed?”
“Obviously,” says Chief Executive, Ruth Hyde, “costs change. You have received monitoring reports as it progressed.”
The Interim Deputy Chief Executive starts to explain how spending has been accounted for. The provision of funds sits in the 2017/2018 budget and there are currently no funds allocated for 2018/2019. After being prodded by Cllr Dawn Elliott, Ruth Hyde explains that costs are paid from the normal legal fund, the Housing Revenue Account, and the general fund. The spiralling costs are now part of the overall over or underspend of the council.
This is one of the greatest difficulties with tracking how much has been spent.
A later debate discusses funding for the secret Ad-Hoc committee set up to deal with the findings of the investigation. The committee decides to delay the decision until the committee has delivered their findings, Cllr Dawn Elliott takes this opportunity to ask one of my questions.
“When will that be?”
“Cannot say,” says Ruth Hyde, “it’s not in our control.”
“Will it be this year? 2018/2019?”
“I cannot confirm.”
The resolution passes with Finance Chair, Paul Simpson saying that the decision on allowances will be made “on the delivery of their findings, whenever that is.” Which is reassuring.
“Do you have any estimate at all of the full cost?” Asks an exasperated Marshall.
“I will not share this figure with the public,” says Simpson.
I think he means me. And by extension, you.
“Is that because you do not know the figure or because it will never be made public?”
“The costs will be subject to a full audit,” interrupts Council Leader, Richard Jackson “and you will see how much our choices have saved.”. Italics our own.
I cannot wait.
The Deputy Chief Executive kindly offers to sit down the next morning and provide a figure of the costs so far. This was said on Thursday; the Councillors and I are still waiting.
CLOSING DOORS ON OPEN GOVERNMENT
How has this whole rotten, costly scandal evaded notice for so long? How has a (not particularly well covered-up) cover-up happened? Where is the scrutiny?
There are a couple of factors. Firstly, the strange death of local investigative journalism.
Once, the Nottingham Post (formally the Nottingham Evening Post) would have been over this story like a rash. Once, not so long ago, they would have a dedicated bunch of highly trained, well-resourced, contact-book crammed journalists keeping an eye all over the actions of the council.
Many of the whistle-blowing emails to us are prefaced with “I did send this to the Post 12 months ago…”. Once, they would have been read and reported on, followed up and splashed over front-pages and spreads. Alas, such days are long gone.
The Nottingham Post, like many elements of local media, has seen advertising and circulation drop significantly as online news sources usurp their exclusivity. This is not the fault of the journalists and editors involved, merely a symptom of the ongoing change in how we view news. Proper journalism is costly in terms of time and resources: why pore over five hundred pages of committee reports for the hope of one possible lead when you could write a dozen chunks of revenue-raising click-bait in the same time? This is not a criticism, we fully understand the economic realities but simply mention it to show the sad fact that scrutiny from the press has gone. Emboldened, councillors run rampant.
So how well does the council police itself? Well, some of the measures put in by Cllr Jackson would make a dictatorial regime blush.
Out go scrutiny committees. These were put in place for the council to monitor their own workings; Cllr Jackson abolished them. Why?
Staff at Broxtowe write to us telling of cover-ups, serious incidents not taking seriously, and a culture of secrecy that has made their job intolerable.
Once, Councillors could debate freely at full council meetings. This proved too uncomfortable for Cllr Jackson, and in 2016 that was abolished and replaced with a system that for full council councillors have to apply in advance, in writing, to ask a question. This stymies, and often outright extinguishes, any real debate.
Cllr.Jackson, as we have mentioned before, abhors free thinking and keeps his councillors tightly whipped. A disgruntled former councillor who served under him described this as ‘tantamount to bullying’.
Freedom of Information requests are not being dealt with in time, with a failure to reach the statutory response time. Chief Executive Ruth Hyde recently stated that this was due to the ‘complex nature of the requests”, which is really not an excuse. An FOI request we have made has gone well past the time allowed for a response, and as such, the case has been referred to the Information Commissioner. Another journalist working on a parallel story to ours reports that his requests are often betted away on the flimsiest of reason, or simply stonewalled. So it’s not just us.
The whole internal scandal rocking the council right now is masked behind a wall of secrecy. The secret committee that decides such things, the Ad Hoc Committee, is so secretive that members of the committee apparently don’t get to see the full documentation about the issues they have to subsequently pass judgment on: a bizarre situation that saw Labour members recuse themselves in disgust at the farce of it all.
We have a council that is rigid with stress, terrified that Cllr. Jackson and his cronies will identify them next to not being in-line with his scorched earth thinking. When stress counselling was offered to all staff in 2017, the applications to attend were so high they well exceeded the number of spaces available. As far as we’re aware, no further spaces were offered.
DOGSHIT COUNCILLORS / RUBBISH COUNCILLORS
As writers, we always love a ridiculously fitting analogy. Tories shitting all over their wards? Metaphorically, seemingly so. Literally? Well, sort of.
We are not sure if Kimberley Councillor Shane Easom’s dog is a Tory or not, and we don’t want to smear a hapless canine with such an assumption without knowing what rosette he’d choose to wear. But if a dog is the responsibility of the owner, then when the councillor was caught on CCTV letting his dog poo on a local park and not clear it up, we can be confident of what level of affection Cllr Easom has for those he represents.
He ended up being hauled before the law and fined. But what other councillors have contempt for those they perceive as below them?
Step forward, once again, the Owens, the married councillors for Awsworth. Sources tell
us that they don’t feel their bins are collected quite how they’d like them, so have made a few demands. Their bins must be pushed back into his drive (despite anyone else only getting theirs put curbside), and made demands that the refuse workers change their round so as to not wake him too early. We are well aware that Councilor Owen needs his sleep, (see pic) but surely this is the height of arrogance. Refuse workers feel ‘stressed, under pressure and hate how the Owen’s don’t see themselves as public servants, but Lords of the Manor.
We’ve had other stories about similar incidences of alleged abuse of power: we will report back once we get these stories verified.
We will be leaving this story for a few weeks now, while we work on processing information and carry out more interviews. We will also be getting this story to a national audience in a few days: follow me on @beeestonia for more details.
If you would like to help fund our investigative journalism, we’d be dead grateful. You can slip us a few quid (and many thanks for those who have done so already: it is gratefully received and will be spent solely on the hours we put into this: https://www.paypal.me/BEESTONIA
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