You 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.