Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ineffective Scrutiny

As the council emerges slowly from hibernation (seven meetings cancelled in September) the first set of minutes for one of the new scrutiny committees -'Community' - were published the other day. The meeting records the attendance of thirteen Members and the presence of no less than eleven managers, which included seven heads of service and two senior accountants. Wow.

Amongst the points raised, (and without any bloggers present we only have a sanitised account) were concerns about the difficulty of obtaining rural planning, the Head of Planning made it clear that planning reforms in England didn't apply to Wales and applicants who were refused had a right of appeal. So no change there then.

Another questioned the provision of affordable housing in new developments, they were told that local authorities had been told to 'relax the relevant regulations' due to the 'state of the economy'. Section 106 financial agreements will be used instead and alternative methods of addressing the housing crisis will have to be found. It makes one wonder how, if all new developments are entirely market priced, the rest of us struggling under the 'state of the economy' could possibly afford to buy them. Without a similar relaxation of rural planning for families trying to live and work in the vast tracts of Carmarthenshire countryside it would appear that the big developers again have the advantage.

A question arose concerning the continued funding of vacant posts, if I understand this correctly then (and maybe this is common practice) departmental budgets include financial provision for posts which are no longer filled, which seems a little odd given the council's apparent 'efficiency drive' and a current overall departmental overspend of £1.6m. Vacant posts, for example in the planning service are maintained just in case there's an increase in demand, but as demand has steadily fallen in the last three years it would seem unlikely. Filling the posts, some of which are managerial, with 'modern apprentices' is being considered as an option.

The matter of the £200,000 subsidy to the new owners of Garnant Golf Club cropped up again but with the usual panache, the relevant officer stated that other tenders had incurred a cost of £500k so it was a cheap deal. The option of a deal which didn't involve an ongoing subsidy of public money at all was clearly not considered.

'Community' covers public and private housing, planning policy, regeneration, leisure, sport, European grants, external funding, and economic development - I suspect that even with the best efforts by some Members, democratic scrutiny will decrease even further down the Carmarthenshire Scale. If that's possible.

One of the roles of scrutiny is to review and question, as necessary, decisions taken by the Executive Board and Council and, somewhere along the line, delegated decisions by officers. With the reduction of the number of scrutiny committees from seven to five, as recommended by the Wales Audit Office ('to improve their effectiveness'); one of the main concerns expressed at the 'Community' meeting was the hefty remit of the committee and therefore it's ability to be effective at all. Although, with thirteen members and a shedload of managers, maybe they should be able to cope.

The Education and Children's Scrutiny Committee meets next week where it will consider the Estyn school inspection report. To the casual observers of council press releases/local news articles all is well, but if you care to dig a little deeper and read the, er, 'EESSTTYYNN AACCTTIIOONN PPLLAANN' (here) you will see that despite extensive investment since 2001 in school buildings, monitoring the benefits in terms of 'condition, suitability or efficiency of its schools' is insufficient. A little further down and we learn that the authority 'has the second highest number of appeals to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales'. Lastly it appears that their methods of 'self-evaluation' are a little incomplete; 'inconsistencies in the use of data led to over generous evaluations of the authority’s progress in some areas of its work…' With this last point (my italics) we could almost assume that only positive data is included in self-evaluation.

And we only have a couple of months until next year's budget comes under the 'spotlight' - and with another election several years away, effective scrutiny in Carmarthenshire is essential.

It should be noted however that controversial decisions, whether they are 'spending' or 'operational', never seem to crop up in scrutiny meetings. Or any meetings for that matter.

Still with scrutiny in mind, or lack of it, it looks like the council's accounts are about to be signed off by the Wales Audit Office. The WAO's audit report will be considered at the Audit Committee meeting on Friday.

The report pulls the council up on a few things, particularly their management of capital accounting and fixed assets, including a requirement to ensure leases are reported in the financial statements. It was also found that the council had forgotten to include in their senior staff salary disclosure a member of staff earning over £100,000. Oops. And the Head of Education Services earned £10,000 more than was stated on the disclosure. Oops again.

As the WAO is so fond of saying, they do not make value judgements on the wisdom of any particular spending decision, they are only there to ensure the procedures are correct.

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