Saturday, 7 February 2009
Medium Term Financial Strategy 2009/2010 to 2011/2012 Supporting Documentation Booklet
I usually try to keep my posts short and pithy, not always succeeding I know, but I couldn’t even pretend to brevity when trying to make sense of the contents of a whopping tome that I received this week, over half an inch thick of paper, entitled “Medium Term Financial Strategy 2009/2010 to 2011/2012 Supporting Documentation Booklet”
When this arrived I set about trying to understand it for the Council Meeting on Thursday 12th February and prepare meaningful comments and questions on a document that runs to 100’s of pages and which has been produced by dozens of highly paid local government officers who work full time on this sort of thing. The questions of course having to be limited to 1 minute maximum as that’s all the time I am allowed in a Council Meeting to ask such questions. It’s an impossible task. It’s like expecting a part time game keeper to keep tabs on dozens of professional poachers over an estate covering hundreds and hundreds of acres. If he’s lucky he might catch one red handed but the vast majority will get away Scot free.
Even catching a poacher won’t be enough if the Magistrates, police and the other estate workers are all supporting the poachers. In Hartlepool’s case of course the Magistrate is the Mayor, the Police are the cabinet and the other estate workers are the Lib/Lab/Con Councillors who all co-operate with each other to make sure the poor long suffering public outside the civic centre are kept in the dark as much as possible and any Councillor like me, who dares to ask questions, is hounded out or at least marginalised as far as possible to minimise the "damage" they can do.
The buzzword bingo card filled rapidly as I read the document. Strategy, framework, challenging, structural deficits and income stream all appeared on the first page. Demand lead nature, business transformation program, sustainable basis, efficiency targets, headroom in budgets, comprehensive spending review and cost pressures were scattered about page 2. The word Prudential didn’t appear for several more pages but then prudential borrowing began to crop up more and more. Is this the same Prudence that Gordon Brown applied while Chancellor to get us all in the mess we are in now?
Of course not everyone is in a mess! According to Section 6.5 on Page 15 “the Council is isolated and largely protected from the turmoil in the world economy” At last an admission that the Council and the Civic Centre exist in a different world to the rest of us. Page 15 also contained the suggestion that the Council should borrow money to buy land and property while it was cheap since the private sector (not living in an insulated and protected bubble) were having to sell assets and reduce overheads. The Cabinet approved this idea? We had thousands of houses a few years ago that we just gave away and we still give Housing Hartlepool land at knock down prices whenever they want it. The lunatics really are taking over the asylum!
Unfortunately it makes no difference how many questions I ask since the Mayor and Cabinet have agreed to it all already and the ordinary Councillor like myself is mealy an inconvenient rubber stamping exercise.
The document did also finally put in black and white the fact that the Tall Ships budget depends entirely on Park and Ride Income and also noted the impossibility of getting insurance against the risk that the income didn’t cover expenditure. Insurance companies identifying too many variables to adequately assess the risk. Don’t worry though; if it doesn’t work the Council taxpayer will pick up the bill.
A potential saviour appeared on Page 31, the Business Transformation Program has identified £8.2M in “gross cashable opportunities” I think that means savings? However reading further showed that taking these savings would incur £3.1M in redundancy and early retirement costs and of course it didn’t allow for the cost of employing the consultants or the costs of actually implementing the other suggestions. I learned for example that the cabinet have already agreed to reduce the existing 5 departments to 3. No doubt this is in the confidential papers that I'm not allowed to see as I can't demonstrate a "need to know" after all who do I think I am? Anyone might think I am trying to do my job and represent the people who elected me!
The reduction of 5 departments to 3 will doubtless allow for the creation of three “super directors” who will all need big pay rises. This in turn will trigger rises for the Chief Executive and Assistant Chief Executives to maintain their salary differentials. The last time Hartlepool Council reduced the departments, from 6 to 5, it ended up with a bigger bill because the increases given to the Chief Executive, Assistant Chief Executives, remaining Directors and Assistant Directors totaled more than the savings made by removing a director (who also trousered a £400,000 pay off). The cumulative savings by the Business transformation program it was claimed will eventually be £5.9M. Unfortunately not until 2016/2017. For an organisation “largely protected from the turmoil in the world economy” then that sort of time scale is no problem and anyway most of the current people involved will have moved to pastures new long before that and so have moved far beyond any possible accountability or responsibility for their decisions. For the general public, people being made redundant now (and without six figure pay offs), people losing their homes now, pensioners living on fixed incomes or those people reliant on investment income to survive and not being “largely protected from the turmoil in the world economy” for them 7 or 8 years in the future is a long way away. People need help now!