RESEARCHED AND WRITTEN BY MATT GRIMM AND THOMAS GRIMM
INTRO: CRISIS WHAT CRISIS
All is well in the state of Broxtowe. We have always been at war with Eastasia. These are days of milk and honey. That is, if the latest hurried-out Conservative campaign leaflet is to be believed. Councillors (and rather dodgily, the Tory Mayor) are shown in soft-focus
photos grinning at the camera in various parts of the Borough, supporting community projects (as long as they don’t take more than five minutes, and they can keep their shoes clean), and saying what a great job they are doing.
Crisis? What crisis? There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO SEE HERE. Life is rosy and they have in no way whatsoever engineered a crisis that will, in the words of a high-ranking Broxtowe officer ‘Kill this council within 18 months’. No mention of the scandal and cover-up presently not being very well covered-up at the council. No mention of the hundreds of thousands being haemorrhaged monthly on that scandal; no mention of the risk council tenants are under due to mandatory gas-safety checks not being conducted; no mention of the way that they are throwing up everything they can to stop you knowing what your council tax is going on. None of that. All is fine, as the leaky water main on Kirkbride Court isn’t leaking anymore*. Be grateful plebs, and move on. We are in control. Back to bed with you.
Similarly, this halcyon vision is one that is shared by the right honourable member for
Charnwood Broxtowe, Anna Soubry MP. Her latest email also sees Broxtowe as basking in the sunlit uplands, with the ruling Tories community heroes bending over backwards to please those they serve. Hurrah!
Now cast your mind back to 2014, and events up in Kimberley. The local town council was accused, by a local neo-nazi named Darren Warner, of misappropriating funds, on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. However, although the council isn’t organised on political grounds, Broxtowe Labour Councillors were also town councillors, so she called for an immediate investigation. This is Soubry in September 2014
…there is concern that the Council’s reserves have all but been spent and Councillors are consistently denied financial details.
I have already written to the district auditors and will take up all allegations with the Borough Council’s legal department. It now appears there will be a by-election for the two vacancies and I hope voters will exercise their right and send a clear message to the controlling Labour group that they are out of order, undemocratic and spending tax payers’money irresponsibly.
An audit and investigation went to work, unpaid and hard-working town councillors were dragged through the mud and… the investigation concluded that the town council was actually well-ran and financially sound. Did Anna apologise? Nope. Instead, she ignored it, and took the Darren Warner, BNP organiser and frequent contributor to the proudly racist Nottingham Patriot website to meet then-minister Nick Boles as a ‘valued community activist’. As for the councillors who were absolutely exonerated, despite being dragged through the mud? Well, that mud stuck, and they lost their seats in the Borough elections the following year. Soubry was reelected as an MP. Nastiness clearly pays off.
So now a REAL scandal is happening on her doorstep (well, the doorstep to her office in Beeston; I have no idea what is happening over in leafy Leicestershire) is she calling out for an investigation? Is she sending out a warning that money is being squandered on a totally avoidable, staggeringly mismanaged scandal? Of course not. It’s as if she puts party first, constituents second.
But now the scandal/cover-up isn’t just a thing happening in the background, a buzz of trouble over on Foster Avenue. It is hitting home, and it’s hitting YOU. It’s hitting the council finance and could very well see the end of the council and the vital services it provides. Slip off your rose-tinted spectacles. Let’s look at our latest findings. They make for Grimm (sic) reading….
*leaks in other areas of the council, however, are rather rife.
A further issue with the investigation is that there are significant questions over some testimony provided. Decisions about the suspension of chief officers can only be taken by:
- The council, or
- An appropriate committee, or
- The CEO acting under delegated authority
This is a limited number of individuals. However, according to several sections of Richard Powell’s report the decision to suspend one chief officer was taken by former Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Shane Flynn. At a separate point, Powell also states that the decision was taken by Chief Executive Officer, Ruth Hyde.
However, reports from a secret council meeting allege that the officer was told explicitly by Ruth Hyde that this was not the case. A quoted email from Ruth Hyde says that Ruth was “not responsible for the decision to suspend you as I was not here at the time.”
Our source suggests that there are two options. That Ruth Hyde lied in an email to a suspended officer and caused unnecessary harm due to the absence of any review, or she lied to Richard Powell about her role in sanctioning the suspension. If the former is true, then the council are liable for additional distress, if the latter is true then it casts doubts over the investigation itself and whether this suspension was handled properly.
Whilst we cannot reveal many details in the report they make for harrowing reading. The implications of this scandal reach far beyond the financial and affect countless lives. At the council meeting, the Conservative council voted against the union appeal, with little regard for the consequences.
INFO NO NO
Those following our work will have noticed the liberal use we make of the council’s open finance data. This is because it allows us to confidently state how much the council is spending by checking our figures against invoices. The Council are under obligation from their publication scheme to publish this data quarterly and it was last scheduled for an update in January 2018.
This update did not happen until late February 2018 and the council have now extended the deadline for the next quarter’s publication into May 2018. 3 months after the date it was published, not the date it was supposed to be released. This may seem petty but has a real effect on our work: despite publishing in February the released data contains no payments from 2018.
For us, this is a problem, it means that we now must wait a month longer to obtain figures for January. This makes it harder for us to scrutinise spending before the crucial budget and for the public to hold their government to account.
Sadly, this is a bit of a theme at the council with our FoI requests going either entirely unanswered or consistently deflected. A request for the financial data remains unanswered despite the council publicly releasing the data; estimates of proceeds from residential sites in the Beeston Square redevelopment has been unanswered and our request for specifics on the staff suspensions has turned into a farce of clarification and specification, now into its third month.
This has become so unmanageable that we have been faced with no choice but to report the council to the information commissioner, who oversees the public’s right to know. We’ll let you know how that proceeds.
SPEND SPEND SPEND!
Spending continues apace, as ever I (Thomas) am tracking spending with solicitors, Browne Jacobssen and the Venn Group Ltd who provide agency staff. Spending with the Venn Group sits at approximately £165,000 for the last 3 months and Brown Jacobsen have trousered a further £35,000.
Whilst I cannot provide a precise figure, due to the way the council releases data it appears that total spending on Agency staff at approximately £435,855.91 and on Legal fees at £131,500.68. If we include the settlements that have been paid then the total cost of this investigation appears to rest just over £600,000 in the last 9 months alone.
In this context it seems apropos to mention that the audit of the council’s 2016/17 accounts has been delayed from September 2017 and is expected to be delivered at some point this year. The reason given was that the auditors “wished to undertake further work and make additional enquiries of Council officers.” Which is certainly curious, even if we cannot confirm a link to our investigation.
Less amusingly it seems clear how vital this £600,000 figure is. The Policy and Performance Committee agreed on 18 January 2017 to an Employee Savings Programme intended to address a £600,000 per annum budget gap over the then medium-term financial strategy period.
BUDGET AND BULLYS
Due to an exam the following morning, Thomas could not attend the full council meeting to discuss and vote on the council budget, so, with notepad and camera, I (Matt) went down to live-blog the event via FB. I’ve been to many, many council meetings at the Town Hall, but never have I seen such contempt for democracy, such utter cognitive dissonance, such disassembling, such absolute outright pomposity. To top it all, it ended with a report filed with the council complaints department after Tory councillors, clearly rattled by our revelations, verbally abused me in the chamber.
This was where the colossal mismanagement was made apparent. Broxtowe has been forced into dipping into its reserves to accommodate the cost of the scandal; to the tune of £1.2 million. Remember, this is a self-inflicted, avoidable wound. Cllr Richard Jackson, perhaps distracted elsewhere, has failed to negotiate a better central government with Westminster. Does he not have the same charm as other Tory Councils, stuffed with extra cash to stop their MP rebelling? Or, by letting Broxtowe suffer, his own career prospects as a future MP brighten considerably?
No plans have been put in for the introduction of Universal Credit to Broxtowe, scheduled for Autumn. This will very likely see a significant rise in rent arrears: Broxtowe are moving towards rents being collected weekly, and as the move over to UC leaves the recipient without anything for 6 weeks, will most likely lead to eviction notices flying out. Not a penny has been set aside to cushion this.
Opposition councillors stood up to express their utter dismay at the general situation. Council officers at senior level haven’t just been telling me that the council will, under current conditions, collapse within 18 months. Several have put forward this opinion, and when it was mentioned by opposition councillors, the ruling party jeered.
When the subject of the scandal/ investigation/cover up came up (since we revealed the story, councillors are getting the item on the agenda without fear) they prevaricated, obstructed or plainly ignored the question. Once Tory instead tried to talk about housing, despite this having nothing to do with the budget. His intention? After stinging attacks from the opposition, he would throw up five minutes of tedium, a droning word-salad to stop the attack.
Cllr John Doddy (Cons) went down an even more bizarre path, praising Cllr Jackson of a ‘radical, wonderful budget’ which, due to some money going towards parks, ‘Will significantly tackle the obesity crisis, which in turn will bring down rates of cancer’. Honestly. Vote austerity, eliminate leukaemia.
And on it went. Impassioned speeches from the opposition benches swotted away with every democracy-degrading technique in the playbook. Real concerns of Broxtonians don’t touch these people.
Then sleepy Cllr Phil Owen snapped awake, and stood up “I’m fed up with Beeston” said Broxtowe’s most bumptious man “I’m fed up with the moaning, all this about public toilets, about the Town Hall, everything. I’m fed up with Beeston’
On the public benches, a collective gasp. But he was far from finished.
“I’m fed up with those awful people, Beeston’s own Grimm Brothers writing fairy tales about us and the death of democracy. Fed up with it”, and as I heard the woman sitting next to me say “I think they mean you”, the Tory benches all glanced over, smirking and laughing.
Now, the thing about council meetings is that the public merely observes procedures. They do not have any right to say anything, they have no right of reply. So I had to have this happen to me without any chance of pointing out this was a slander, lest I was ejected. This was not a passing incident. This was targeted, designed to intimidate. And it did.
It didn’t stop there. After the meeting, I was talking to a fellow member of the public, who was telling me how depressed she was at witnessing, for the first time, a full council meeting. Suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by an irate Cllr Shane Easom,
Glare he is: Shane Easom
currently under investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman for the mistreatment of a local resident (see Beestonia passim). Visibly angry, he jabbed a finger at me and launched into a tirade about the blog mentioning that he was fined for letting his dog poo in public, and not clearing it up. We thought this a very appropriate metaphor, but Easom didn’t want it brought up. He then mentioned that the dog had died two years ago, before swearing at me and storming out.
However, this was a two-pronged attack, and his former partner, Cllr Mel Crow, was next: “That story’s ten years old. How dare you, the dog died two years ago under tragic circumstances” Whilst Beestonia appreciates the implication that we developed time travel technology it raises one, speculative eyebrow at the implication that we did so simply to kill an innocent dog.
Also, when it comes to murderous brutality to canines, it’s the Tories who have strong form.
David Cameron, hunting foxes.
“You are disgusting’ continued the elected member for Kimberley, and one of the Conservatives top -tips to be a future MP.
“Not clearing up dog mess is disgusting” I countered.
“What you write is rubbish and lies” she shouted, now really annoyed. “Well, sue me” I replied: and believe me, she would. She is a lawyer, apparently, and would jump at the chance of serving us with a writ.
It shook me up, and shocked the other members of the public who witnessed it. “They can’t do that, can they?” asked one. “Report that immediately,” another told me. And so I did. It was an unsavoury, seemingly coordinated attempt to intimidate, and I hope Broxtowe take appropriate action. I’m not sure how much faith I have in the complaints process but will take to the ombudsman if necessary. I hope the ombudsman is local, and doesn’t have much else on.
A consolation is that our journalism has clearly shaken them. As someone once said, “If your journalism doesn’t make you enemies, you’re in public relations”.
While I was still sitting gob-smacked at Cllr Phil Owen’s comment that Thomas and i were ‘Beeston’s Grimm Brothers’, my neighbour in the public benches said “He acts more like a character from kid’s book, self-satisfied and pompous. That one by Kenneth Grahame” I think I get who she meant:
Our sympathies to the council comms officer who had to put the news of the budget onto Twitter. Imagine having to do so knowing that the very same budget will lead to your job being even more precarious. Imagine putting a brave face on when writing it.
In solidarity, we corrected it:
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
We have been astonished by the reaction to these articles. This site has been running for just shy of a decade and has always had a decent amount of interest: Beeston is a highly-civic minded place, so this is perhaps unsurprising.
However, nothing has attracted quite so much attention as this series of articles. Our readership is in the thousands, and we have had a veritable tsunami of responses. These have mainly been from concerned locals, council workers and other people across the borough. However, we’ve also had responses from across the UK, particularly those who work in senior local authority positions. They are watching the story with interest and giving some very strong advice. To all those who have been in touch, thank you so much: we really appreciate it. If we haven’t replied to your email, our apologies. Please feel free to resend, and nudge as. The week following the initial story breaking saw so much correspondence flood in we know we probably lost a fair bit.
However, our revelations have also sparked a feeling of frustration. Readers are livid that this is happening and want it addressed forthwith. But how? We have a few suggestions that we really hope you’ll do asap
- VOTE! Well, naturally. The next borough elections are in May 2019, however, and who knows what a state the council will be in then? So encourage you to do your democratic duty, but with the disclaimer, it might be too late by then.
- WRITE TO YOUR MP. Assuming that is Anna Soubry, of course. Be polite, calm and factual. Ask for a response. Prepare to be disappointed: she has a habit of simply ignoring difficult questions that come in (I’m -Matt- still waiting for an explanation why she used the abuse I suffered at the hands of my mother as a fitting way of attacking me in public. It has been 9 months Anna. Get your skates on).
- WRITE TO YOUR LOCAL COUNCILLOR. They have a duty to serve you: they do not rule you, despite what they may think. Send them an email asking for an explanation of why they think this is right, and what they are doing to address it. There are many, many issues we have uncovered lately to ask about, choose at will. You can send an email to your elected representative even if you’re not sure who they are, by simply going here: www.writetothem.com/ and entering your postcode. Dead easy: you can even copy in leader of the council, Cllr. Richard Jackson: email@example.com Let us know how you get on.
- WRITE TO BROXTOWE’S CHIEF EXECUTIVE, RUTH HYDE: you can get her on firstname.lastname@example.org
- GET THIS STORY TO OTHER MEDIA: Send this blog up to larger organisations than us two part-time citizen journalists: email/tweet/ FB The Nottingham Post, the Independent, The Guardian. Perhaps the most interested party will be Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, which focusses particularly on local gov shenanigans. Email
- STAY TUNED! We are looking into arranging a major public event soon, to show the Councillors we demand they stop their asset-stripping, fiscally ludicrous craziness. The first manifestation of this will be a council meeting in May. More info to follow,
- DONATE TO OUR FUND: We do this work in our spare time, which we don’t have a great deal of. As such, a few quid to keep us in coffees, cake and suchlike are most welcome and show us (and others) that there is a hunger for local investigative journalism. It’s easy to do: go to https://www.paypal.me/BEESTONIA
NEXT WEEK: HOW THE COUNCIL BROKE DATA PROTECTION LAWS – AND HOW THEY COVERED IT UP / CLLR JACKSON LIES TO COUNCIL REGARDING TENANT SAFETY / HEMLOCK NOT VERY HAPPENING