Saturday, 18 July 2015

Belper Town Council ............ due diligence

This week has proved troublesome as our Belper Town Council correspondent is showing signs of council meeting fatigue. It's not that he has to suffer placing that broad backside of his on the very unforgiving benches provided for the public in St.John's Chapel, it's more the nature of the proceedings that are proving hard to endure. His notes liken it to a french farce where nothing is ever resolved; the actors constantly losing their trousers but never noticing the breeze blowing around their parishional nakedness. Our man has been following events for 2 years but apparently not much has changed.in that time. It is not surprising that a Labour supporting correspondent would have such sensibilities but he had hoped to see the BTC learning from its mistakes, to put its house in order and start to concentrate on the real issues that confront the town. He has spoken from the public gallery on a few occasions about procedural issues, trying to bring the council's attention to departures from their own "Standing Orders" or "Financial Regulations". He has described the effect of his words as being like cooking with Teflon .......... nothing ever sticks.

So what can be done? Well there is one way that BelperStuff can be supportive ............ imagine that the BTC is a company that you are interested in buying and you are commissioning a due diligence report that will highlight strengths and weaknesses (already I can see signs of interest re-appearing on our BTC correspondent's face). We can start by defining our objectives and as this is a Tory council we could do no better than to adopt the famous St.Francis of Assisi speech Margaret Thatcher gave in 1979 (I know .... a Labour blog posting a video of a triumphant Thatcher but stay with me ........ this is just in case there is a Tory BTC Councillor reading this blog):



Yes that's what we are going for ...... HARMONY - TRUTH - FAITH - HOPE. Personally I would like to add TRANSPARENCY to that little list but I suppose that can be considered a principle element of TRUTH. Let's start with that one first:

TRUTH

Last Tuesday evening there was an item on the agenda concerning a claim against the council for either a judicial review (nearly wrote revue) or an out of court settlement. This has to be in relation to the BTC voting to suppress the CH&I report, commissioned by the AVBC Standards Committee, in response to the 2013/4 town mayor plus one other councillor being suspended from office; resulting in no end of problems for the council. Our correspondent comments that all that fuss could have been easily avoided if someone on the council had taken the trouble to study the relevant legislation and ensured compliance. Instead of that the two individuals were barred from meetings and a substitute "Working Group" was established to supplant the usual monthly council meetings. Look I could go on about this but I think enough has been written already .......... suffice it to say that the CH&I report has never been made public but the council has made an unreserved apology for their behaviour even though they refuse to disclose what it was they did wrong. In my book, for an apology to have any meaning it has to make some reference to what you consider you have done wrong so that apology is worthless.

Our wearied correspondent could sense that this issue was not ended by the election of a new council in May when John Morrisey spoke at the BTC AGM in May:
with John Porter speaking on the same issue the following month:

Their concern was that this matter would dog the new council (as it has) so urged that the CH&I report should be published so that the council could put this matter behind it and concentrate on the real issues that affect the town. This is a very serious matter because if a council has the power to suppress reports about its behaviour there is no route for a complainant to take. In this instance the publication of the AVBC Standards Committee report is controlled by those who were the subject of that complaint so the two individuals have been left with no natural justice. The only recourse left to them is to take legal action against the BTC.

It is not too late for the council to reverse it's decision and publish the report. Such a gesture would be seen as providing natural justice to all. The public acknowledgement of wrong doing by all parties would I am sure lead to HARMONY in the town. Well we can but hope.



One of the new councillors commented at the last meeting that he had no idea what this was all about but was then asked to vote upon the request for a judicial review. I sympathise with that poor chap; he is in the same boat as the rest of us.

FAITH


Now where does Faith come into our due diligence? I'm sorry to disappoint those blog readers possessing a more trusting nature but Faith is in short supply on BelperStuff. We have no faith that the BTC will manage compliance with the "Local Government Transparency Code" issued in 2014. It has long been a frustration that the BTC website is not reliable. To illustrate this we undertook an audit of published agendas and minutes of full council meetings. Between January 2013 and June 2015 there have been 36 meetings, 33 agendas and 27 minutes uploaded to the website. This is a serious matter when any public record is suppressed and was brought to the attention of the council earlier this year but nothing has been done to improve things. This means that we have no record of proceedings at 25% of full council meetings.

Add to this that there are no published minutes of committee proceedings and we cannot find any "Declarations of Interest". I feel sure they exist on paper but why not on the website?

Then there are the year end accounts that should be audited and approved within one month of the end of the financial year at the start of April. Formal acceptance has not yet taken place so we have to wait until the BTC meeting in September before they are available ..................... we hope this year online. Contrast this with the AVBC State of Account 2014/5 which is online here: Amber Valley Borough Council year end financial statement.

HOPE

All we are left with is HOPE. Hope that meetings will be run in compliance with Standing Orders, hope that proposals will be placed on the agenda backed by some modicum of research and background information (or is that what is contained on those fabled pink pages?).

Oh and is there any hope that this new council will not waste months planning in secret to buy new council premises as they did last year or decide at an inquorate meeting to hatch the plan to forgo the annual precept (that's basically the element of council tax we pay for BTC).

BelperStuff thinks that there is hope

I know that is something of a shocker ............ a Labour blog with hope that a Tory council can improve ............ but that is the nature of due diligence, you highlight not only the bad but the good as well. We have hope that some of these new councillors will start to scent the fact that the preoccupation in this town with blooms is really an attempt to cover up the smell of CH&IGATE.

For example, the performance of the two councillors tasked with facilitating the Neighbourhood Plan for Belper (NP4B) has been good so far despite them receiving an initially testy reception at the setup meeting last Wednesday evening. BelperStuff has to admit that they did well  (despite being Tories) and we have the hope that they will soon acquaint themselves with the relevant legislation, codes, standards and guidelines so that they can influence conduct in other areas of BTC business.

It would help them if they took a look at this: The Seven Principles of Public Life @ gov.uk

In conclusion:  I wish I'd never started the Margaret Thatcher 1979 speech motif for this post. Now all I can think about is the devastation of the 1980's.

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