Felixstowe Book Festival

OK, you didn’t make it. That doesn’t have to be the end of the world. http://www.felixstowebookfestival.co.uk/speakers/ you can find me on this page, somewhere.

You can listen to what I said right here. Well, not exactly. this is a recording of what I thought I would say, no idea if it will be (or was) anything like the real world.

And, as an extra bonus, here’s my Powerpoint presentation (which I didn’t use).

Loire Valley

Bridge at Montrichard

Bridge over River Cher at Montrichard

I took a break, driving down to a small village close to the River Cher, a tributary of the Loire. It’s the centre of the Touraine wine-growing region. We don’t see too many bottles of wine from this region, certainly not on our supermarket shelves. In the upper reaches of the Loire is the Sancerre vineyards, rich and luscious predominately white wines. Touraine is close to Chinon, Vouvray, and as you glide down the majestic Loire there’s Anjou and Muscadet.

It all depends upon the grape variety and the soils in which they are grown, and the energy and skills of the local people. Wine is central to the local economy. France is very lucky having a population about the same as ours but with twice the land area.

That makes me wonder why our Kings ever gave up our French territories but I’m uncertain that we, the British, could do a better job than the French. Everywhere all is clean and tidy, there’s no litter anywhere, everyone looks affluent, all are driving vehicles made in France, and that must ensure that a few bob stays in the country.

Well done France. I had a good holiday. I’m back with a case of good wine, which I shall sip as I recall my good time in the Loire valley.

Not everything goes smoothly in my life, as I explain in a chapter of what may become a book Not Quite in France

Have a read of this trial chapter then tell me if I should continue.

Felixstowe Town Council Accounts

Felixstowe Town CouncilYou will recall the disquiet following the resignation of the last Town Clerk and the refusal of the Council to spend £17,000 employing a fresh auditor.

The official auditor will report in July 2014 and that will be viewed with interest. Our cursory glance highlights a few weaknesses but a proper review is required.

Thankfully we have had the closest co-operation from the Acting Town Clerk, Mr Mussett. He supplied copies of the Accounts and then gave of his time to answers the questions we had raised.

From the start it was obvious that Councillors have not scrutinised the accounts very well. To some extent that’s excusable because they are different from those of a normal trading company.

The problems go back some years, and the last Town Clerk does not appear to be at fault. She tried, and to some extent, failed but should not be castigated, even though she was rewarded for leaving.

Town Council Accounts do not value assets as expected. The Council owns land and buildings, ten in total, including the Town Hall, Broadway House, Walton Community Centre. Each have the nominal value of £1, as do paintings, war memorials, play equipment and furniture.

Other items are at value; tools, IT equipment and vehicles, although how these values are depreciated is not clear. There’s a strange arrangement with Orwell Housing Association with just peppercorn rents at at Broadway House and Walton Community Hall that deserves explanation.

Nor do the Accounts show the £500,000 loan we obtained to buy the Town Hall (which we once owned) from SCDC (a Council which represents us). If you look hard enough you can find it costs us £34,000 a year and will have taken 25 years to clear.

The Council has considerable reserves of which £305,000 are earmarked to meet anticipated costs, including £85,000 to repair the Town Hall. Apparently when £500,000 was spent renovating the building the façade was not dealt with properly. That may be how the rumour about spending loads of money on windows has arisen.

The Community Fund has £120,000 and that reveals a weakness in our Council. They do not have a Plan! There’s no way forward identified. Not even an idea of how to spend this money, which steadily accrues every year

There’s a first challenge to Felixstowe people. How would you spend £120,000 to improve the town? Remember this is just the Town Council, it is rumoured that Suffolk Coastal District Council has £3 million unspent on community projects from S106 agreements, and with our peninsular having over 30% of SCDC taxpayers there may be £1 million available.

There are other earmarked reserves that should be examined. That’s a job for Councillors and it is encouraging to know that Mr Mussett is running training courses for our Councillors, that’s never been done before. Trustees of charities, of any size, have induction courses, and regular professional development sessions yet our Councillors can be left ignorant.

Lack of knowledge does not seem to be a barrier for some Councillors who allow their personal dogmatism to make decisions, and (and this is only an impression I gained) fail to allow the employed and qualified professional Town Clerk any real autonomy. Decisions can be made without reference to the rules.

There are anomalies and perhaps the Council were right not to peer too closely into the murky depths of the past. What they must do is ensure that the Accounts are properly prepared in future, and publicly accountable.

The Mayoral Chain of Office has cost much to repair. Apparently the links were worn and enamelling had to be replaced. Perhaps our Mayor should be given a gilt replacement if the original is to get so much wear.

There is a web site, managed by a Devon-based company. In itself that creates delay and misinformation. A local contractor should be employed, not just for that but for many other contracts. The Town Hall and the bus stops are cleaned by a Norwich-based company. That’s because there is not a clear separation between the two Councils. Too many Councillors serve on both Councils giving Felixstowe no real independence. That’s abundantly clear when we look at our facilities. Would Felixstowe people have allowed the mismanagement of the Spa Pavilion?

The vexed question of salaries, tax and NI and pensions is much more difficult to investigate. It’s clear that a sum of money was paid to the last Town Clerk. That payment is hidden within the accounts.

It is the preparation and presentation of accounts that raises real problems. It is clear that the software package used is not fit for purpose, and that it has been set up in a way to make true costs difficult to identify. Some debts are split into cost centres. A contractor may be called upon to do some work at the cemetery and the allotments. Two cost centres, one invoice, that is usually split 50/50 which may not be the true position. The allotment account is mixed in with the Town Hall and Cemetery income leaving the suspicion that allotment holders are paying too much.

Where to now?

A proper finance software package designed for local councils is required and should be set up by local people.

Too many contracts are farmed out to companies who have no interest in our town. There’s too much ‘old boy’ network and not enough skilled supervision.

We pay the full fees of RICS membership for a part-time Technical Officer. That seems an excessive cost.

The relationship between Felixstowe Town and Suffolk Coastal Councils needs to be sharply delineated. Piggy-backing occurs and SCDC has too much power. Recent changes in the law could assist.

Twinning needs to be examined. At present it’s just a jolly for a few people. There’s EU finance available to create a more realistic structure and should be used. It’s not aged politicians who need to forge links but our young people.

Open and honest accounts. The Councillors should monitor expenditure each month. All contracts should be publicly displayed and discussed. Be aware that fraud and corruption are ever-present so close monitoring by many eyes always helps.

Grants need to be evaluated. We are a stingy bunch when compared to other towns. Our Old Peoples Welfare Association is forced to pay £1260 pa for Broadway House, while the tenant above pays nothing. The sums payable are derisory and do nothing to engender a spirit of community.

There’s talk of buying the offices beside the Town Hall for £350,000. Bloomin cheek as we once owned this building. All this does is transfer assets (valued at £1) and everlasting cost to Felixstowe. The plan to use it for weddings needs thorough evaluation by experts before we proceed.

We need a Town Plan in which we are all involved.

What would you spend £120,000 on to help the Town?

Mr Mussett submitted the following evidence to Parliament:

Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by Gordon Mussett, Town Clerk to Haverhill Town Council (STA 05)

1.  This evidence is submitted by Gordon Mussett, Town Clerk to Haverhill Town Council.

2.  I have served in local government since 1970, and in Parish/Town Councils since 1982, and welcomed the creation of the Standards Board, and the introduction of a Model Code of Conduct.

3.  The Standards Board was very effective in its promotion of the Code of Conduct, with ample supplies of videos, brochures, and leaflets. However the introduction of the Code failed to recognise the difficulties faced by Clerks in many Parish Councils. In Parish Councils the Clerk has to “sell” new legislation to the elected Councillors. Most times such a process is easy, with everyone understanding the need for the legislation. However, and I would include both the Code of Conduct and the Accounts and Audit Regulations in this number, some legislation is harder to “sell”, particularly when those required to implement it believe that they have always acted properly.

4.  Although training sessions on the Model Code were arranged by the National and County Associations of Local Councils, many Councillors are unwilling to attend training (on any subject), and in some counties the distances involved in attending venues prohibited attendance. My Council, as part of its risk assessment, has tried to promote attendance at training sessions, but has failed dismally to achieve a 50% attendance.

5.   Proposal—That attendance, within one month of election, at a recognised training session organised by the National Association of Local Councils (and funded via Central Government) is obligatory for all “first-time” Councillors.

6.  Over time, guidance from the Standards Board on the interpretation of the Code has evolved. Sadly, communication of this evolving guidance has not been as comprehensive as communication of the code itself. Recent updates seem to have been contained to Monitoring Officers who have not always circulated it to Town/Parish Clerks (eg recent guidance on dual-hatted Councillors).

7.   Proposal—Issue updated guidance no more frequently than three-monthly, and circulate to every Council.

8.  The introduction of a written Code gave an unexpected opportunity for those “mischief-makers” in the Community to “settle old scores” or to achieve political gain. Whilst such persons are not plentiful, my own Council has been the subject of a co-ordinated and sustained campaign of allegations aimed at disrupting its ability to function.

9.  Sadly the procedures and process of referral for investigation, and the delays in commencing investigations gave these “mischief-makers” ample opportunity to use the Standards Board to achieve their aim of embarrassing Councillors. Often the Councillor who had been reported, and referred for investigation, read about it in the local press (courtesy of a press release from the “mischief-maker”) before receiving confirmation from the Standards Board.

10.   Proposal—That all complaints to the Standards Board are copied to those Councillors being reported before determining whether to refer for investigation.

11.  Councillors who were under investigation received letters advising them not to confer with anyone other than a Solicitor or representative. This left them unable to respond to the “mischief-maker” in the public domain.

12.   Proposal—That once a complaint has been referred for investigation all parties are required not to make public comment on it.

13.  The time from initial referral to commencement of the investigation has been overlong, with some Councillors waiting over six months. For those ultimately found guilty, this gives them too long to continue breaching the Code. For the innocent, it can be a stressful time.

14.  Whilst the Standards Board has now realised that it will be used by vexatious persons, greater consultation should have taken place with other monitoring agencies to establish how to recognise, and deal with, such persons. In my Council the Standards Board accepted more than 50 complaints before there seemed to be acknowledgement that something was wrong.

15.   Proposal—That for persons submitting more than two complaints in one year a check is made with other agencies, including the police, to establish whether the complainant is known to be vexatious.

16.  The process of determining whether to refer needs review. Many of the complaints referred for investigation in my Council could have been dismissed if, for example, the Standards Board had asked for a copy of the minutes, or a copy of legal opinion obtained by the Council. Instead, considerable time, and effort, has been devoted to investigating complaints.

17.   Proposal—Involve the Town or Parish Clerk at an early stage prior to determining whether to refer for investigation.

18.  Whilst publicly championing that the Standards Board would protect Town and Parish Clerks from bullying, during 2003 my experience was that it concentrated on other priorities. Greater recognition needs to be given to complaints from employees, especially where these relate to bullying and/or inappropriate conduct towards them by Councillors. Most employees will think long and hard before exposing themselves further by making a public complaint to the Standards Board, and recognise that failure of a complaint is likely to lead to increased bullying or their engineered dismissal. My complaint to the Standards Board (which was dismissed but has since been acknowledged to being “one which would be investigated if it came in today”) brought in its wake 11 complaints about my conduct from that Councillor, and countless public criticisms (which continue today). However my experience means that I will not make another complaint about this Councillor’s conduct, however extreme, and has tailored the views of my fellow Clerks who are aware of my situation.

19.   Proposal—Fast-track all complaints from employees.

Englishman helps Romanian girl

CeausescuSome decades ago an Englishman was on holiday in Romania. In itself that was unusual. The political conditions did not make it easy to enter the country when Ceausescu was in power.

The Englishman was lost, driving a car, trying to find the coast. He stopped a young woman to ask the way. He was lucky. Just 17 she had been taught English by her father.

She pointed out the route, saying she was going in that direction. He offered her a lift, which she reluctantly accepted although she welcomed the chance to practise her English. They talked during that short journey and exchanged addresses. He agreed to write to her to help to improve her English.

Shortly afterwards she was arrested, subjected to a full physical examination, and accused of having sex with a foreigner, a charge later reduced when it was found she was a virgin.

Her family were all interviewed. Her father was implicated because he had been teaching his daughter English.

She began to write to the Englishman, explaining the perils her family now faced. He decided to help. So began a five-year battle to get the girl out of Romania. Eventually he decided that the only legal way was to offer to marry the girl, as that would give her British citizenship.

More battles with the authorities who eventually agreed that they could marry. Soon she was in England. She decided she wanted to go to university. Her Romanian qualifications and lack of money made it difficult for her to obtain a place at a British university.

She was accepted by an Austrian college and began a science degree. She fell in love with a theology student, and wanted to marry. A divorce from the Englishman was quickly arranged. It had been a which was a marriage of convenience,

Married, with two children, she now lives in Austria, teaching genetics at a university. Her life is well established and successful. She did not forget the Englishman.

As her fortunes increased she bought a house for the Englishman in a lovely seaside town. As he grew older it was converted into two apartments. He lived on the ground floor, she often visited during holidays because she loved the contrast of the two landscapes; the mountains of Austria and the flat landscape of East Anglia offering such wonderful skies.

In itself this is a touching tale. An Englishman helps a hapless Romanian girl who later repays bountifully, and a friendship is retained.

Beyond the tale of two people is the recognition that we are all human. We are all people. We all find it easier to love than to be angry or wary of strange folk.

Gerrman Banking

SparkasseGermany is to be admired.  The success it has enjoyed over the last sixty years is related to the financial and overall economic support that has been provided by the German Sparkassen.

The Sparkassen are unique. They provide finance but their their constitution requires they support the sustainable development of the total economy within their defined geographic area. They also have social responsibilities that extend well beyond provision of banking services.

They are credit institutions operating under public law. Each Sparkasse is independent although they all join an umbrella organisation, which can only work by consent, which helps to ensure effective and efficient operation.

Like the UK most German businesses are small to medium size and so do not seek market finance. For them the Sparkasse is the ‘house bank’ where a close relationship with commercial customers is maintained. During the recent recession loans have steadily increased with emphasis placed upon skilled worker retention, training and R&D.

It’s a simple structure, with each savings bank working autonomously but relying on central structures to bring economies of scale. They employ about 350,000 people, they operate to commercial principles but without the aim of profit maximisation. There is no pressure for dividend distribution, they cannot be taken over, and a supervisory board is made up of customers, staff and the local Council. The management board must have at least two banking professionals.

Over 43% of all finance for businesses, especially SMEs and self-employed comes from the Savings Bank Finance Group with over 40% of all customer deposits held by the Group.

More than half of all German bank customers have their principal account with a Sparkasse.

This is not to suggest that they are an easy touch. Applications for business loans are closely scrutinised, and subjected to detailed analysis as well as local knowledge and banking history.

Business start-up survival rates after three years are as high as 85%.

It sponsors arts, culture, sport, social sector and educational scholarship.

It is the customer who gains from the productivity gains, with falling prices for bank services. Yet German Savings Banks have profit margins comfortably higher than commercial banks when measured on return on capital.

This model is not a perfect fit for the UK but there are core principles that should be adopted. Serving the local community, not working solely to make a profit, although profits are ploughed back into the community. A long-term view that acknowledges that short-term gains are not productive. A recognition that it is small and medium sized businesses that maintain our society.

We need to investigate further.

Watch this space!

Banks

Our banks have caused us all a lot of grief over the past years. Whatever they may suggest it was their fault that our economic system collapsed and we were left with massive debts.

It’s practically a conspiracy theory as the debt we now all owe – allegedly – is payable to the very organisations  that caused the trouble in the first place – the banks.

Part of the problem with our financial systems, and it s only part, is that our High Street banks are no longer part of our community. Huge international conglomerates no longer concerned with the welfare of their customers but just obsessed with making profits. Those profits, or even losses, allow the people running these banks to run off with the cream.

Nobody is worth the millions they demand they should be paid. Nobody should be able to make such ludicrous decisions.

Small and medium-sized British industrial companies suffer because of the British banking system; even when finance is available it is often on unacceptable terms.

Decisions are made using formulas, ‘The Computer Says No’ is designed to maximise profit, rarely to satisfy the customer, and never with any consideration of past history, let alone potential.

One mantra constantly being spouted is the need for more housing. That’s because banks see property development as easy and safe lending.

In England we talk. In Germany and elsewhere they tend to ‘do’. The Bank of England’s Initiative on Finance for Small Firms said it was: ‘Convinced of the vital contribution that small firms make to the economy as a whole (not least in terms of employment creation), and concerned at the breakdown in relationships between the clearing banks and their small business customers, the Bank has become closely involved in discussions and initiatives aimed at improving the financing of the small business sector.’

We hope so because we are working on an initiative that many people will welcome and support.

Keep watching this site!

Felixstowe Town Council

Felixstowe Town CouncilI hate rumours. When they concern our local Council then I’m with David Cameron, who says they should be open and above board. After all it is Council Tax payers money.

Felixstowe Town Council is beset with rumours. It was argued the accounts should be examined (even though they had been audited?). Allegations of over-payment to staff, lump sums paid to a Town Clerk for agreeing to leave – all sorts of stuff.

Usually there is an explanation. It began to smell a bit when the Council was told it would cost £17,000 to examine the accounts. One Councillor, Andy Smith, persuaded his fellow Members that they should move on. It wasn’t necessary.

We have taken a different view. So we asked for the accounts and supporting documents, as we are able to do, because that’s what the law allows.

We didn’t get much supporting documentation but enough to make us ask a few questions.

So, here we are on 4th June 2014, with an email to the Acting Town Clerk, Mr Musset:

Dear Town Clerk

Thank you for responding to my request for copies of the Annual Accounts and supporting documents of the Council up to 31 March 2014.

We have begun our examination which has immediately raised several questions that cannot be explained by the documents you have provided.

We presume the external auditors BDO LLP provided a statement of their conclusions. Can that be supplied?

The Consolidated Balance Sheet

Which draws together the elements of the total account, prompts the following questions;

Under Current Assets:

  1. Investments; £200,000 is shown for y/e 2014 yet there is nothing shown for 2013. What is this money, where did it come from?

  2. Some £535, 059 is shown as Cash at Bank at year end. Is that correct?

  3. No buildings or other assets are shown. Is there a current valuation available?

Current Liabilities:

  1. No loans are shown on the Balance Sheet, yet we know that over £34,000 pa is paid to the Public Works Loan Board. What is the purpose of this Loan, its total value, term of the loan and interest payable? Does the repayment shown cover capital and interest repayment?

Net Assets:

  1. The General Fund shows £391, 354 for 2013 but omits any figure for 2014. Can that be explained?
  2. Rather than detail each of the Items at this stage it is clear there is confusion and we welcome the supporting documents to explain these entries. Items such as £108,000 for the Cemetery extension, the 50% increase in the Community Fund, £41,000 CCTV cabinet, £74,904 Council Tax Reduction and other items all require supporting documents in explanation. Perhaps a meeting could resolve these issues?

Income and Expenditure Account

Income

  1. We understood that some £53,000 had been over-claimed under the Precept. That does not appear within the Accounts.
  2. Bank interest at £831 seems low considering the Cash at Bank at year end 2014. Can that be explained?
  3. A breakdown of the elements that make up the Rent of Town Council Buildings and Allotments is needed. These are not related Items and should be separately identified.
  4. Some knowledge of the breakdown of the Olympics/Jubilee/Wings on Waves income would be welcomed.

Expenditure

  1. Office and Establishment has increased by nearly £65,000 in one year, and Town Hall expenses by £3,000 to over £25,000. Is there an explanation?
  2. Salaries are not easily identified, although the Paid Expenditure Transactions do provide some explanation of Wages. It would appear, from these documents that over £10,000 per month is paid in basic salary, with Tax & NI and Pension contributions shown separately amounting to considerable sums in excess of that required by the net salary. A breakdown of staff numbers, positions held, hours worked is required in order to understand these amounts.

  3. We presume that 2014 salary levels for the Town Clerk are as shown in the adverts for a new Clerk: Salary SCP 52-55 (£45,268-£48,743). As Felixstowe Town Council is, in effect, a Parish Council with a turnover of about £500K per annum, has this salary been properly evaluated?

Many more questions remain as entries are intriguing:

  1. Under £500 was spent with local firms in 13/2014 with much more spent on contractors outside the Town. Local cleaners can be found for Broadway House and Walton Community Centre yet the Town Hall and Bus Stops require a Norwich-based facilities management company. Is there an explanation?
  2. The Mayoral Chain cost nearly £5,000 to repair in 2014. Was the accident serious? Was it covered by insurance?
  3. We pay £20,000 pa for Felixstowe Futures to SCDC. What do they do for that money? Does SCDC pay rent for the use of the Town Hall offices by this team?

  4. Many Councils have stopped Twinning arrangements. Whilst that is questionable we spent over £3,700 in 2014 to send the Mayor and Town Clerk to our Twin Towns. Is that justified when the Twinning Associations appear to receive nothing?
  5. Clearly there is a complex tale to tell about our Town Clerk. Monies for ACAS, legal advice and the Law Society are shown. It is rumoured that the last Town Clerk received a separation payment – where is that sum shown in the accounts?
  6. The Mayor’s Allowance is £7,000. Does supporting evidence need to be supplied about that expenditure?

We have tried to identify the major causes for concern in these accounts. There are difficulties, as the accountants who proposed it would cost £17,000 to investigate suggested. We are prepared to continue, on behalf of local Tax-payers because it is their money that is being spent, and they deserve an adequate explanation.

Trevor Lockwood