Wednesday, 15 December 2010

It's the Brand That Matters...

Another one from Cllr 'Trembling' Trimble.

He's authorised a contract with 'Large Creative Ltd' to do the branding for Nottingham's leisure centres. Not sure what that actually involves but it sounds less important than, say, not cutting a couple of youth worker posts or improving the actual facilities.

Sneakily, the decision doesn't say how much is being actually spent but a supporting document does say that it is above the EU lower limit for tenders, which is £156,442 for the life of the contract and elsewhere it says that the contract is to run for three years. This means that it will average at least £52k per year.

NCC's financial rules state that at least three tenders must be INVITED for contracts of this size, although not necessarily received. However, following the Harold Tinworth saga the Overview and Scrutiny Committee made a recommendation that every effort should be made to OBTAIN three tenders. Obviously such major changes only happen slowly...

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Those Proposed Terms and Conditions in Full

Have been sent a copy of the recent NCC Bulletin telling staff about proposed changes to their terms and conditions.

The main change to what I wrote before is that the bit about reducing hours for over 55s is to be voluntary and, in fact, appears to be available for all. Certainly less incendiary than the original rumour that crept out.

The bits about reducing time on the redeployment register, cuts to redundancy pay and the removal of sick pay for the first three days of sickness are all present and correct. Extra stuff includes the introduction of staff car parking charges, a two-year pay freeze and the "removal of Senior Leadership Management Group Competency based pay", whatever that means, presumably some kind of performance related pay for senior managers. Can't see that one being missed, the chances of NCC senior managers ever getting any performance related pay seems remote to me. Guffaw.

I'd hazard a guess that the sick pay thing is one of those sacrificial negotiating items, designed to use up unions' resolve and allow them to claim victory when it's not pursued. I imagine there'll be a bit of stick over those car parking charges mind, NCC staff are very possessive of their car user rights and as far as I know, despite the fact that there genuinely are posts which require car use, NCC doesn't pay essential car user allowance like they did back in the old days.

So there will be battles I'm sure, Can't help thinking that the savings achieved will be more than offset by the time spent in negotiations, lost productivity from stress and staff leaving etc.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Shit. My Wheelie Bin's Gone.

You know what's most embarrassing about writing this? It's essentially a campaigning blogpost on an issue that the Lib Dems picked up on over 18 months ago. Look out for me proposing increased tuition fees sometime mid 2012*...

It's also largely motivated by self interest but I'm not at all embarrassed by that. After all, what's writing a blog for apart from pushing your own selfish agenda at the expense of all others?

Anyway, as you can see, I've had my wheelie bin stolen. Not the first time it happened either, nor for that matter is it the first act of what I have to refer to as 'anti-social behaviour' (dread phrase) I've been subjected to.

The problem is you get charged for replacements now you see and I can't find an authoritative statement of what the charges are. After some squirrelling around I found that it was introduced in the 2009 council budget (see page 72 of this document) and you get the first one for free but I still can't find out how much the charge is or if there are any concessions.

However, what I did notice was that the measure was/is only expected to raise about £8,000 a year which wouldn't keep the thriftiest of chickens in light snacks for any length of time so it looks a bit mean spirited, in a kind of 'because we can' kind of way. That seems to be the only justification for it by the way, well, that and 'everyone else is doing it'. Policy via the school playground in other words.

But then I remembered another issue which was also 'debated' at the same full council meeting, special allowances for Executive Assistants. I wrote about it at the time, when I was still a bit new at this blogging game. You see the Independent Remuneration Committee recommended that special allowances for EAs should be £2710 pa, whereas JoCo decided that they should get £5579 and as you know, what JoCo decides, NCC votes for. With three EAs (it used to four but Hassan Ahmed was promoted to full portfolio status) that costs an extra £8607 per year. About the same amount as those bloody wheelie bin charges are expected to fetch in other words.

So, when I'm sent a bill for my shiny new wheelie bin I shall reflect on the fact that I am helping to keep former 'high class' (self defined) escort and serial email ignorer Cat Arnold off the streets and stocked up with biros. And never sleep again cos I'll guard the bugger with my life.

Update - been told that as I'm on Income Support there will be no charge so you can stop feeling sorry for me now. Still thinking of setting up a network of machine gun nests around it when it arrives though.

*Should note here that actually local Lib Dems are still against increasing tuition fees, in case the guilt tips one of them over the edge.

Mayor Collins to be a Reality


The Post is reporting an announcement from Communities Secretary Eric 'Pieface' Pickles that Nottingham WILL have a referendum as to whether to have an elected mayor, despite JoCo's 'recommendation' that we don't. This was sort of expected and the publication of the 'Localism Bill' has confirmed it.

I wonder if the Extraordinary General Meeting were told in time?

As if that's not bad enough JoCo will be made a 'Shadow Mayor' (more of a night mayor surely? Badum tish!) next summer to get us used to the idea before the referendum is held in 2012. I'm sure that JoCo is just as unhappy as I am because he's said in the past that elected mayors are a stupid idea. He may not be unhappy about being an unelected one however, even if only for a temporary period.

Of course, this temporary appointment does rely on him remaining as leader after the local elections next May and that, in turn, relies on him being re-elected as one of the councillors of St Anns.

People of St Anns, you know what to do...

For more on some of the measures in the Localism Bill see Alanadale's take on it.

And from the Dept of Communities and Local Govt.

Update - council funding settlements now released (MSExcel file). Nottingham faces overall cut of 8.44%. Ouch.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Rumours of Shocking Cuts to Staff Terms and Conditions at NCC

I mentioned before that the Appointments and Conditions of Service Committee met last week with all discussion items hidden under a veil of secrecy. After all you don't want to be embarrassed by the ridiculous spend on consultants when you're discussing redundancies and cuts to terms and conditions for permanent staff, benevolently titled "Managing the Impact on Colleagues of the Financial Challenges Facing the Council".

I've heard some rumours about what the latest cuts to staff terms will be as agreed at the meeting. I should stress that I can't verify the accuracy of this but the person I heard it from does know what s/he's talking about.

Apparently then, the following changes are afoot -

Big reductions to redundancy payments
No longer being paid for first three days off sick
Reducing time on redeployment from 3 to 6 months
and most bizzarrely, forcing over 55s to reduce their hours

The first three changes come straight from Daily Mail land and, as such, will probably face limited criticism in the media. Apart from complaining that the 'gold plated' pensions are still in place of course. But the last one is barmy and is certain to face legal challenge under age discrimination rules if it really does go ahead.

I really do wonder if NCC's 'equalities and diversity' advisers even have the beginnings of a clue. After all there was their appalling abuse of Equality Impact Assessments as a weapon against CERN and only last week there was the introduction of age discrimination into the sports and leisure concessions scheme.

It will be interesting if there is any suggestion of cuts to senior management pay and perks, after all we've been reassured that 'we're all in this together' by the PM and who are NCC to go against that? This has added resonance because it looks like the cost cutting measure to get rid of the Director of Adult Services has been effectively reversed, meaning the loss of those savings.

Still, I'm sure we can guess how that will go eh?

Audit Committee Fooled Again

I was largely right in my last post about the latest shit tsunami that the Housing Benefits service is embroiled in. Essentially, the Audit Committee fell for it again.

Dear old Lisa Black who, lets remember, has no special difficulty with misleading an employment tribunal on oath and so could probably lie to the Audit Committee in her sleep, seems to have got the excuses in early.

She claimed that a review of the single persons' discounts for Council Tax had been a 'focus for the service' which supposedly 'highlighted 3000 cases' for the Housing Benefits visiting service and raised £900k. Let's have a look at that in more detail.

First of all, while both Council Tax and Benefits are on her patch they are two separate things and will have different teams, although I suspect that the visiting staff will be shared because, for the most part Council Tax doesn't really need visits carried out apart from one-off projects like this. But, once the visiting officer has done the visit and collected the required information, it will be passed to Council Tax staff and not bother the Housing Benefits workstream any more. And I'm sure that a significant number of those visits could be combined with benefits visits that would be happening anyway. So, although it might have been a big chunk of work for Council Tax staff I can't see how it would have affected the benefits side of her empire very much, beyond the visiting staff.

Except it didn't cause a big chunk of extra work for Council Tax staff because the job was outsourced. And the decision to do so contained a justification to use outside consultants along the lines that doing it in-house would be too onerous and costly. But Lisa doesn't bother mentioning all that, she preferred to leave members with the impression that the lack of quality control in Housing Benefits was a mere aberration which was caused by this huge onerous one off project, even though the 'experienced staff' mentioned by Internal Audit who 'despite training' still messed up the overpayments process wouldn't have been involved.

And if you fancy a full house in 'Management Bollockspeak Bingo' get a load of this sentence -

"...the amount of training had increased significantly and targeted training was being identified through continued training needs analysis, quality assurance checks and support requests..."

I mean it's just rhubarb isn't it?

And when one councillor (it's not recorded who) did ask a slightly tricky question about how much subsidy could be reclaimed for overpayments either the minute taker fell asleep or Black sold him a bully, saying that the subsidy was 40%. In fact the situation is a bit more complicated as I described in my last piece on the subject -

Essentially, it seems that if errors in benefit assessments caused by the council itself (as opposed to claimants) are below a certain level (approx £616k) NCC still gets full subsidy on it. If it's between a certain range (£616k - £693k) only 40% of subsidy is paid and above that latter figure they get none. In other words there's a pretty strong incentive to keep council caused errors down, which makes sense.

Other types of error are
treated differently (see para 400 onwards), for example, error caused by claimants always attracts a 40% subsidy. Errors which are the fault of the DWP or HMRC are fully reimbursed.

So it depends on the cause of the error and, in the case of overpayments caused by the council itself, on the amount of overpayment identified. This in turn means that there is a subsidy advantage in identifying council caused overpayments as something else once the amount gets too high. Like I say, it was never explicitly stated by Internal Audit that this was deliberately being done, just that the process was 'shortcut'.

Now, a member of the Audit Committee who was doing her/his job properly, and once armed with the facts about varying subsidy levels, might want to be reassured that such a thing definitely was not going on and might ask a question about it. But having been told that the subsidy rate is the same, no matter what, they'd have no cause to probe any further.

Same old...

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Cuts to Sports and Leisure Discounts - Confusion Reigns

Cllr Trimble has delivered a portfolio holder decision to reduce the range of concessions available for use of the City's sports and leisure facilities. Unfortunately, it's a case study of what happens if you don't get someone who knows what they're talking about in to help.

According to the decision and its accompanying report the following city residents could get a 50% discount under the old scheme-

Over 60 or under 16
In receipt of Jobseekers Allowance
in receipt of Working Tax Credit, Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit
In receipt of Income Support
In receipt of 'disability allowance'

Already this differs to what is said on the website because that includes students and also includes Disability Living Allowance, Severe Disablement Allowance (an obsolete benefit almost entirely phased out) and Incapacity Benefit. There is actually no such benefit as 'disability allowance' and Incapacity Benefit is being phased out in favour of Employment Support Allowance, which isn't mentioned.  The website also makes clear that only the Income Based version of JSA counts and not the National Insurance based version which isn't means tested. So it's already a bit mixed up.

The proposed new rules, which council officials will no doubt be told MUST be followed strictly and to the letter in these 'difficult times', say the following city residents are entitled to concessions -

Those who have reached pension age or aged under 17
In receipt of Jobseekers Allowance
In receipt of 'disability allowance' or 'registered disabled' depending on which part of the decision you look at

Now as we've already said, 'disability allowance' doesn't exist so we have no way of knowing whether this includes people getting DLA, Incapacity Benefit, Employment Support Allowance or whatever. And there's no such thing as being 'registered disabled' anymore. Just to make things even more confusing there is also a benefit called Disablement Benefit in the Industrial Injuries scheme, is that included too? This might sound pedantic but you wait until you try and get your concessionary pass and they won't give it to you because you're on ESA. And if the policy intention is in fact to exclude ESA or other illness/disability related benefits then there is a real possibility of a disability discrimination case.

Also, the decision doesn't specify whether all JSA claimants are entitled to concessions. I suspect that the intention is that only Income Based claimants are like the previous scheme, I only hope that someone decides to make that clear. Otherwise, while you're stood there fuming because the council officer won't accept that your ESA is the same as a 'disability allowance', the millionaire's wife who has just been made redundant will be waltzing past you for her half price go in the sauna.

Interestingly they have appended an Equality Impact Assessment to the decision. It says that there is absolutely no gender discrimination in the new concessionary scheme, clearly failing to realise that men and women still retire at different ages for the time being. Therefore tying the concessions scheme to reaching pension age will be potentially discriminatory for the next 8 years.

What's more, the decision may not be constitutional. According to NCC's constitution (see p22), a decision is a 'key decision' if it will cost more than £500k in revenue and/or will affect two or more wards in the city. I put and/or because the constitution doesn't specify which it is. If it's 'or' then this change will be a key decision and should only be made by the executive board. If it's 'and' then, presumably, as long as the effect of the decision is restricted to a single ward there's no financial limit to a portfolio decision. To be honest this lack of clarity pops up fairly regularly and I suspect it suits certain people to look the other way.

I'd always presumed that it was an either/or situation i.e. if either the financial limit or the two or more wards condition applied then it was a key decision. If that's right then this change to the concessions scheme should have been put before the Executive Board.

So, all in all, this one's a bit of a dog's dinner. We sort of know that there are cuts but we have no real idea who is to be affected. Really the decision should be subject to call-in to get it clarified but I doubt anybody will bother. After all, what's a bit of sex and potential disability discrimination among friends?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy Moment

Remember that bit at the beginning of H2G2 when the planning officer is explaining to Arthur Dent where the planning notice for the demolition of his house was displayed? I think NCC has just done something similar.

NCC is to hold an extraordinary meeting to decide which new form of 'executive governance' the council is to take next year.

Under provisions contained in an Act of Parliament from 2007 all councils have to adopt a new form of government, choosing from two options, the 'elected mayor' or 'strong leader and cabinet' models. They are not allowed to keep the status quo.

As JoCo is on record as being against elected mayors it's no surprise that he has 'recommended' that NCC adopts the strong leader and cabinet option. This is similar to the current arrangements except that the leader is elected for a four year term. Clearly he isn't confident of getting the whole city to vote for him.

They could have held a referendum to decide but they decided that we weren't interested. However you may be surprised to hear that they did hold a consultation exercise on the matter. This lasted for barely three weeks and the consultation document was posted at Loxley House and in the 'council government and democracy' pages on the website. Not much more 'public' than the planning department in Douglas Adam's finest.

As the only people who actually go into Loxley house are the people that work there and I'm probably the only person who ever reads that section of the website it's not surprising that nobody responded to the consultation. Not one. The pathetically short consultation period can't have helped. Despite this Information Governance still managed to be out of time in its response to a FoIA request on the matter.

I didn't respond myself for the simple reason that I honestly couldn't decide on which was the least worst of the two scenarios. However I actually do think that the report makes a fair point in that the recommended option causes least disruption and change which, considering it could all be upended by the forthcoming Localism Bill, seems sensible.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

One Nottingham and Freedom of Information

As you will be aware from my last post on the matter One Nottingham now claims to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

I have submitted my complaint about this to the Information Commissioner and broadly my case is that ON is simply a part of NCC and thus is covered by the FoIA.

Following a comment on the above post and my reply explaining my understanding of ON's legal stature I thought I'd post up the grounds of my case and, well here they are -

"The respondent is refusing to provide details of the tender process for a decision it made to award funding to an organisation called Nottingham Equal. It has only provided copies of meeting minutes that vaguely discussed the project but I was hoping to receive details of why NE was awarded funding which would only be in the tender discussion documents, which the respondent has refused to provide. They do not appear to have made any attempt to carry out a public interest assessment.

The respondent is now claiming to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act seeking, presumably, to rely on a claim that 'One Nottingham' is a separate autonomous organisation. This claim is not credible for the following reasons -

1. One Nottingham is an unincorporated body with Nottingham City Coucil as the accountable body (see

2. All ON workers are NCC employees and its Chief Executive reports directly to the Chief Exec of NCC in NCC's senior management structure (see

3. ON's own funding guidance states that it's documents would be subject to the FoIA (see Tender Panel Guidance Notes attached).

4. ON's website is a subsection of NCC's website.

5. The funding decision purportedly made by ON had to be ratified by a separate decision by NCC (see .

With the above in mind my view is that the ON Board is merely an advisory committee for decisions that are ultimately those of NCC. As such those decisions are subject to the FoIA."

Of course that will give NCC's legal team a bit of a head start (and make no mistake, it will be them who are onto this unless ON decides to waste some public money on a lawyer who knows what they are talking about) but I don't mind that. I'll leave the 'rabbit out of the hat' thing to them.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Council to Debate Motion Asking Government to Reconsider Tuition Fees Increase

This doesn't happen often but I am absolutely behind something that NCC plans to do.

Cllr David Mellen, who is the portfolio holder for education, is to propose a motion at the next full council meeting on  13 December requesting that the government 'review and change' their policies to avoid 'leading to a wasted generation in Nottingham and the UK'.

Ok it's a bit wishy washy but it's a start. Would perhaps carry more weight if the motion called on the Leader of the Opposition to commit to reversing the cuts if Labour are elected next time and sent a message of support to the students currently occupying the University Great Hall.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

One Nottingham Battens Down the FoI Hatches

Just had this email back from One Nottingham -

"We have been advised that One Nottingham is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

We will not release to you the minutes from the tender panel that you requested.

As previously mentioned the decison to award Nottingham Equal the contract was following the approved tender process that One Nottingham has followed for many years and this was explained in my email of the 2nd November."

Ok, at least we know where we all stand. When I get a minute I'll start the process rolling to see if they're right.

One thing this proves beyond any doubt however. One Nottingham is little more than a front to hide dirty linen behind.

How Councils Work Pt 94 etc

The minutes of the last Development Control Committee meeting are out!

This fascinating document details all the latest planning and enforcement decisions the council makes, apart from the boring routine ones of course.

What's interesting in this one is the declarations of interest* at the start. Cllrs Clark (who is also the portfolio holder for neighbourhood regeneration), Gibson, James, Munir and Wood, five of the eleven councillors present at the meeting, all declared the following interest -

"...a personal interest in agenda item 4(c), 15-16 Long Row, (minute 84), as James Mellors of the applicant company was personally known to him and he had accepted hospitality from the applicant in the past..."

and yet this didn't preclude them from speaking or voting because, under the code of conduct, it's not counted as prejudicial.

Mellors has applied to turn the old Midland Bank on Long Row into a Bingo Hall. It's not without objections, mainly based on it being a 'primary shopping frontage' and a suspicion that the bingo will be ancillary to it's intended main moneyspinner, fruit machines. I have absolutely no idea of the merits of these objections but I mention them to show the application wasn't without controversy and yet the committee meeting is packed with the applicant's mates. Four councillors didn't attend, I'm not sure whether that indicates a normal attendance rate.

It probably won't surprise you that the application was approved then. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that.

Ok, so there's nothing unconstitutional about this but does anybody think it's a coincidence that five ruling party members of the planning committee, including an executive member, have been targeted by a large local business for a bit of the old winin' 'n' dinin'? Do these councillors stop and think that it might look a bit dodgy to accept these invitations? You know, for the look of the thing at least?

*Mind you, at least they declared the interests, unlike some *cough* Hassan Ahmed *cough* I could mention, small mercies at least.