A newspaper and the non-story of a council’s travel expenses

Because some spending details are available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request does not mean they are scandalous. Take the Evening Star’s latest revelation under the headline “Suffolk: County Council staff takes 175 trips abroad — at a cost of £98,000″.

That is in a period of six years making the cost of foreign travel less than £16,500 a year. The average cost of a trip is £560.

That looks to me like careful control of expenses. I doubt if many organisations of similar size would appear so frugal if their travel expenses were exposed to scrutiny.

The figures suggest budget airlines and far from luxurious hotels.

The newspaper reports a county spokesman saying that one trip to Africa, which cost £16,000 was mainly funded through the children partaking in the trip raising money. He said that the reason was to take eight children in care to visit orphanages in Africa.

That sounds like a commendable project.

And “almost £500 was forked out” to visit an exhibition in Amsterdam to consider the best speed cameras for the county. It lasted three days which hardly suggests an official living the high life.

We need our officials to get out and talk to people, to hear the experiences of others so that they are better able to advise councillors.

One employee had £2,000 to attend a five day course in Boston as a part of a masters degree. This kind of spending is clearly not common and providing development opportunities to staff is important in recruiting and retaining the able people we need working for us.

Wordblog in its earlier incarnation was about the media, and it is the decision that this story was worth running that worries me.

It is the job of the press to hold public bodies to account. Enquiring into all aspects of spending is an important part of this. And the Evening Star has produced some important stories including the revelation of the money spent on photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The chief executive’s spending on hotel stays in Suffolk, now a part of the investigation into her conduct, is another.

But this story about travel expenses undermines the good work. It enables those who should be held to account to turn on the media with valid complaints. “Just another example of the press pursuing a vendetta,” they can say with credibility.

I fear that FoI requests have given regional newspapers, hit by declining sales, reduced advertising revenue, and the resulting loss of reporters, a cheap semblance of investigative reporting.

The in-depth analysis of what the county council is really doing is expensive, demanding staff time which is no longer available. But that is what we need.

The challenge to our regional media is how to respond the the challenges of changes which are much more long-term than the current economic low. The internet has changed everything but I believe print will be with us for a long time.

I will return to this subject to look at ways in which our regional press could operate in a world of hyperlocal web news and social media to better serve its print readers.

Running Scared from Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan wins Eurovision with a song called Running Scared. On Thursday the country had been condemned by the European Parliament for human rights abuses.

And Nigel Pickover, editor of the Enening Star tweets that Azerbaijan are coming closer to home. Their Olympic team is staying in Ipswich next year.

A European parliament press release said:

A few weeks after the two young activists Jabbar Savalan and Bakhtiyar Hajiev used Facebook to call for antigovernment protests in Azerbaijan, charges brought against them for alleged possession of drugs or evasion of military service could result in jail terms of up to two and a half years. MEPs denounce both cases along with the worsening human rights situation in the country, in a resolution that blames the Azerbaijani authorities for increasing harassment and intimidation of journalists and political activists.

MEPs call for the release of the two young bloggers and the newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev. They urge the government to drop the illegal charges against them and guarantee the protection of journalists in the country.

Denying the unsaid: a mystery inside an enigma

Denying something you have not been accused of is mind-bending public relations technique. The only reason I can see for Suffolk County Council to use it in the matter of Evening Star reporter Paul Geater was to confuse the issue.

To recap, Geater is the local government reporter on the Star who on Monday was told by a SCC press officer that all his questions would be met with “no comment”. The paper then splashed the story on it’s front page.

For a journalist to be sent to Coventry by a council press office is a serious matter which makes it much harder to keep the readers informed. By its nature, the relationship is sometimes difficult, but it is a cornerstone of democracy.

I read the original story and noted that they had not tried to ban Geater from meeting or receiving council papers. Sensible, on the part of the council, because that would have been illegal. We all have a statutory right to enter Endeavour House and attend meetings.

But in response to the ensuing storm, the council denies that Geater had been banned from entering Endeavour House. As Geater said, that had not been a part of his complaint.

But, in a letter to the Evening Star, council leader Jeremy Pembroke said:

It has never been suggested that Mr Geater is banned from Endeavour House or, for that matter, any other Council building.

The communications team will deal with enquiries from Mr Geater as appropriate, as they have always done.

This was not some mistake, denying the unsaid, because the same approach was used by the council’s head of communications, Simon Higgins, who also said there was no ban on entering Endeavour House. He had been asked ten questions by the Star, one of which asked if the chief executive, Andrea Hill, knew of the ban (on answering questions) before it was made. His reply: “No because there is no ban.”

It is little more than a month ago that the council scored another spectacular PR own goal by removing a petition for the chief executive, Andrea Hill, to have her pay cut from it’s web site.

Behaviour inside Endeavour House is daily looking more and more dysfunctional. And that leads to questions about the rationality of decision making.

Transfering a library to the community is not as easy as it sounds

Details of what Suffolk County Council expects it will cost communities to keep their library, if they choose to keep it open rather than let it close, are emerging

Roger McMaster, head of the county libraries, told Debenham Parish Council he estimated it would cost them, or a community group, £17,000 a year.

Debenham is one of 29 libraries in the county threatened by the ultimatum: take  it over or it will be closed.

Mr McMaster said there could be cheaper options. His figure included retention of a library manager, part time as at present. But other part-time staff would be replaced by volunteers.

County Council support would be, he suggested, providing books and IT services.

Debenham Parish Council is considering what it can do and is contacting nearby parish councils. This is a real issue because only about a third of the population served by the library lives in the village.

This year the parish precept costs a Band D taxpayer in Debenham £76.40. In  nearby parishes the figure is much lower — Aspall £0, Winston £8.88, Kenton £3.37, Helmingham £22.33, Monk Soham £19.04, Stonham Aspal £21.60.

The parish councils system is not really designed for situations like this. If Debenham library is saved by the Parish Council there is a real danger that it is achieved by transferring taxation from the county council, which is designed to provide services for a wide area to a parish which is not.

Worse, there is the possibility of double taxation (paying twice for a service) and that issue has been discussed by county council officials.

In Debenham there is a strong sense of community and volunteering which dates from long before the political concept of a “Big Society” was mooted. The Parish Council wants to save the library and many people are coming forward to volunteer. We all want to keep the library here.

I have a lot of doubts about the reliability of data in the county council’s consultation documents, but there are some curious things which emerge from it. The main county library in Ipswich has a “cost per issue” of £5.06, while Debenham at £4.89 is cheaper.

Another comparison: Ipswich library (travel to work area population 315,000) makes 340,000 loans a year. In adjoining Norfolk the library in Norwich (travel to work area population 376,000) makes 1,124,000 loans. Explanations in the comment area below please.

Where is coherent opposition to council cuts?

Ipswich Spy has a thoughtful piece about political opposition to county and borough council spending cuts. It concludes:

David Ellesmere [Labour leader on Ipswich council] and his colleagues want the people of Ipswich to vote for them in May and to return them to the leadership of Ipswich Borough Council. Yet he is unable to articulate one single cut that he would be making to the current council services in order to save money. That is not a credible position. Nor is it credible to say this is all the fault of the Tory led Government, since the only plan put forward by Labour so far would lead to roughly the same, if not greater, financial squeeze on local government. Labour needs to think very hard and very quickly about what it is offering the electorate in Ipswich, otherwise Cllr Ellesmere will once again wake up the morning after the election as the Leader of the Opposition group.

Suffolk cuts free bus pass benefits

News of another cut by Suffolk Council Council arrives in today’s post. The letter tells me that the county is taking over responsibility for the free travel bus pass scheme from the district council and that from April 1 I will not be able to travel free on buses before 9.30am.

Also free travel on park and ride buses in Ipswich will be stopped. I guess I can go shopping in Norwich or Cambridge, unless they are making the same cut.

One small concession is that if a village does not have a bus to any destination (never mind where you want to go) between 9.30 and and 11.59am, free travel before 9.30 will be allowed.  SCC webpage on changes.

We are still waiting to hear about plans to slash rural bus subsidies in the county, but if rumours are true, the bus pass could become pretty worthless anyway. Any news on these plans would be welcome.

At the bottom of the letter there is this line: “We are working towards making Suffolk the Greenest County.” D’oh!

PS: Checked the minutes of the meeting which approved the changes. In part it says (my emphasis):

Reasons for Decision:
(a)The Cabinet agreed that County Councils were considered better to manage concessionary travel schemes as opposed to District Councils.
(b)The proposals benefited everyone, including the bus operators.

Pickles orders Suffolk councils to publish expenditure within a week

Eric Pickles, the Communities secretary, has today given Suffolk County Council — and five other Suffolk councils– a week to start publishing details of their spending.

They were told last June to publish online all spending over £500 by the end of January this year.

Today (January 25) he said in a press release:

I’ve called for every council to become more open and accountable about every aspect of their work, starting with getting all expenditure over £500 online by the end of this month. Transparency can help save money in tough times protecting frontline services, by cutting waste and unnecessary costs.

The final countdown for councils has begun. In the last six months more than half of all councils have got their house in order. Today I’m putting those councils still to open up on one week’s notice.

The public have a right to know how their tax pounds are spent, and those yet to deliver are running out of excuses and time before they have to face their electorate – I hope every council chooses to do so openly, transparently and democratically.

The list he also published shows that only two Suffolk councils — Babergh and Forest Heath — have complied. Leaving Mid Suffolk, (see next paragraph) Suffolk Coastal, St Edmundsbury, Suffolk Coastal, Ipswich and Waveney as well as the county council to get their skates on. Nationally more than 210 councils have published lists while about 150 have not.

Jan 26: Mid Suffolk District Council has now told me (see comment below)  they have published the spending details. Follow the link in the previous paragraph to find them. Jan 27: Ipswich Spy tells me Ipswich Borough Council has also published details. Link has been added above. the list published by the Communities department seems not to be entirely up to date.

It would be good to know why thee-quarters of Suffolk councils are so tardy.

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