Re-written blog article,originallypublished on 12th December 2015.
As the result of a Code of Conduct Complaint submitted by me, Keith Barrow was found guilty of a serious breach of Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct.
At the time it was reported in some quarters that…
In accordance with the Council’s procedure for the resolution of findings of a failure to comply with the Code of Conduct, Members of the [Standards] Sub-Committee were satisfied that the proposed apology and commitment of Councillor Barrow to undertake training represented a reasonable outcome without the need to hold a formal hearing.
For the record, as is obvious from the Shropshire Star article, he didn’t actually make a public apology but he did resign as Chairman of the council-owned trading company, ip&e, which he had established. A week later he resigned as the Conservative councillor for Oswestry South, ending his tenure as Leader of Shropshire Council, a post he’d held since the authority became a unitary one in 2009.
In fact I had the final choice whether the matter should be taken further or whether it should be dealt with “in house”. I chose the latter because Keith Barrow had been found guilty of something I hadn’t actually accused him of!
I’ll give you some of the back-story because it has significance for the electorate of Shropshire who have a justifiable expectation that their elected representatives are seen to promote and maintain the highest values of public office, observing standards that are, by any measure, beyond reproach.
Now I’m going to have to take a step back here because events began to merge, confusing the chronology, so bear with me.
Keith Barrow was a partner in Peakfast, a company that existed solely to hold interest in land immediately adjacent to a potential development site in Morda, just outside Oswestry. Setting aside the propriety of the Leader of the Local Planning Authority owning a share in a potential development site whose value was wholly dependent on decisions made by the Local Planning Authority that he led, of far greater significance than Peakfast’s ownership of that land was the link between Keith Barrow and one of his fellow partners in Peakfast, Tony Mathews, who just happened to be the principle partner in accountants DRE of Oswestry, a potentially beneficial interest (known as a ‘pecuniary interest’) that Keith Barrow failed to declare at crucial times during the process that led to DRE being appointed as independent auditors of ip&e, a failure that not only breached Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct but breached the guidelines of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
It was the link between Keith Barrow and Tony Mathews that was the basis of my complaint, the breach of the guidelines of the ICAEW, not what was subsequently revealed to the independent solicitor investigating my Code of Conduct Complaint: the non-disclosure of Keith Barrow’s pecuniary interest in the mutual business dealings with Tony Mathews during the appointment of Peakfast as ip&e’s auditors.
My written Member’s Question to Full Council questioned the propriety of DRE’s appointment as auditors to ip&e, I never for one moment believed that ANYONE, let alone an experienced businessman like Keith Barrow, Leader of the local authority that ‘owned’ the company he was chairman of, would be stupid enough NOT to declare that pecuniary interest prior to a meeting of ip&e’s directors to select the accounting firm that would become ip&e’s auditors.
My question was in fact intended to give Keith Barrow the opportunity to put the record straight. This is the first time the original Member’s Question has appeared in print…
Given the extent of public disquiet surrounding the creation of ip&e wouldCouncil agree that, purely in the interests of probity, the appointment of auditors for ip&e should have been on the basis of competitive tender from companies throughout the county, rather than on the basis of what could unfairly be interpreted as along-standing personal and professional relationship with a director of ip&e?
[Note: I subsequently stated in the phone call to Claire Porter (in response to her voicemail to me) that, had the question gone through, I wanted “probity” to be replaced with “prudent accounting practice”.]
It was in that exchange with the Head of Legal & Democratic Services that the suggestion that a formal Code of Conduct Complaint would be a more appropriate vehicle – “given the seriousness of my allegations” – to address the issue I’d raised.
Who was I to argue?
As to the eventual outcome? Of considerable significance was the subsequent testimonies to the independent investigating solicitor by directors and senior council officers involved in ip&e that, despite Keith Barrow’s failing to formally declare his connection with DRE and Tony Mathews, they insisted that Keith Barrow had never “influenced” the process that led to DRE being chosen over the other three candidate firms who had tendered for the contract. They were, in effect, expecting us to accept that they were ignorant of the distinction between a sin of omission and a sin of commission.
I know from my own attempts at discovering what’s behind some of the happenings at Shirehall just how difficult it is to get at the truth when you’re following up on the vaguest of clues that make up just a small part of what you sense to be a much larger picture you have only a vague outline of.
It’s a process of iteration, often depressingly slow because it often happens that the only way of obtaining the information you need is with a Freedom of Information request to Shropshire Council, a process that should get you a response “within” the 20 day time limit but which is grudgingly taken to the extent of that limit.
When that happens, it is tempting to blame a natural bureaucratic reluctance to release information on the grounds that such information is no one’s business but the Administration’s – and you’d be right, although there can be occasions when you suspect something more sinister is afoot, but when such thoughts do occur they’re usually attributable to the paranoia generated by the council’s anticipated knee-jerk reaction in putting up obstacles rather than it being a case of their openly defying the law, although that can occasionally happen…
What is particularly significant about that local case is what was said by the Group Manager in Enforcement at the Information Commissioners Office:
“This case is about the public’s right to know, and we will not hesitate to take action to protect people’s right to access the information they are entitled to.”
“This case emphasises the critical importance of transparency for public authorities in the way they carry out their business.”
“People should have trust and confidence that they can access public information without the danger of it being doctored, fabricated or corrupted in any way.”
So, you ask a question and get an answer that often raises further questions by intimating something you wouldn’t otherwise have known existed and which points to a new avenue of enquiry; such moments are golden.
Either way, further questions, often to the same officer or department, have to be asked in order to either confirm a line of inquiry or dismiss it and move on, and that’s when an enquirer can find themselves labelled as vexatious, the questions are too close to an earlier line of enquiry. Can you see how that can happen? You’re following clues, but on that basis how do you “prove” the legitimacy of your enquiry until those clues are linked? And how do you know they’re linked if they’re still out of sight in a folder in someone’s desk drawer?
Keith Barrow’s forced resignation in 2015 brought a change of Administration to Shirehall and the cancellation of his disastrous plan to sell off Shirehall and scatter council staff to locations around the county. That change would not have happened if a situation that had been ignored for years been allowed to continue unchecked ever since Shropshire Council went unitary in 2009.
There is only one way to apply sanction to someone wielding that kind of power and that is to use whatever information is out there about what they have been up to, when and with whom, in order to determine beyond reasonable doubt whether they have a case to answer which, in the case of someone holding public office, will concern the extent to which they may have brought that office into disrepute and opened themselves up to a charge of misconduct in public office, a criminal offence under the Localism Act 2011.
But back then, Shirehall labelled ‘vexatious’ one of the people I had worked with for a number of years gathering the complex information needed to make the case against Keith Barrow. I was not impressed to be told that the justification for Shirehall’s action against Steve Mulloy was that they considered the sheer number of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests placed too great a strain on limited resources.
It’s perhaps worth taking a look at what the courts say about the term ‘vexatious’ in the context of FoI requests…
‘…emphasis should be on an objective standard, and the starting point is that vexatiousness primarily involves making a request which has no reasonable foundation, that is, no reasonable foundation for thinking that the information sought would be of value to the requester, or to the public or any section of the public.’
Interestingly, the court (in Dransfield v Information Commissioner) has said that even a vengeful request could be non-vexatious if the information that would be disclosed is important, ought to be publicly available and promotes the FoI Act.
That’s where the problems came in for us, because the onus was shunted onto us to prove that, in our opinion, the information that would be disclosed was indeed “important [and] ought to be publicly available”.
Shirehall insisted (and still insists) that it is at THEIR discretion to make that distinction. I don’t blame them, if I was in their position I’d probably do the same, except that I’m not in their position because I’m coming at it from my position as an elected Member, not as a salaried officer protective of my organisation’s (and, by implication, my professional) reputation, especially if the information I’m choosing to withhold could seriously compromise that reputation if it proves damning.
In Steve Mulloy’s case it was down to him to formally appeal against his being labelled vexatious because the onus is on the appellant, who is, effectively, guilty until they have proven themselves innocent. Hardly fair. But then:
“Law is a human invention; Justice is a divine inspiration.”
I’d interpret that as saying: “You’ll get justice if and when you get to heaven, meanwhile you’ll have to make do with English Law.”
But in Steve’s case he proved that Shropshire Council had based their labelling of him as vexatious on the wrong section of the law, forcing them to back down although, churlishly, Shropshire Council insisted they had the right to reserve their position at the next opportunity confrontation.
So what have such attempts at censoring meant for ongoing investigations into the more shadowy corners of Shropshire Council? Well, it has obviously slowed them down but it certainly hasn’t stopped them.
At the time of going to press investigations are ongoing into a particularly disturbing case too sensitive to be other than hinted at here.
Watch this space.
“Law is a human invention; Justice is a divine inspiration.”
In its original version, this first appeared in the July 2013 edition of the Highley Forum, since when events have overtaken it to exceed even the extent of the break-up that I foresaw back then.
Well, local democracy as we used to know it, anyway? The sort that channelled a collective local voice into the decision making processes of what used to be “the local council”, whether parish, district or county, the last two long defunct in Shropshire since 2009 when unitary and its ‘Strong Leader with Cabinet’ model of governance came in.
Conversion to the unitary council model in 2009 channelled decision-making into the hands of the individuals chosen by the Leader (capital ‘L’), who is voted into place by members of the largest political grouping at Shirehall which in Shropshire’s case is the Conservative Party. The chosen few form a ‘Cabinet’ and assume the authority to make decisions as an executive not answerable, and certainly not accountable, to anyone.
In theory scrutiny committees do exist, with the nominal power to question proposed policy changes but which, in reality, are able only to “recommend” changes which the Cabinet is under no obligation to accept.
If the shift of power started when Shropshire went unitary under Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009, it was when the Conservatives under David Cameron won the May 2010 general election that the consequences of that shift in power really took hold.
Council offices in Ludlow and Bridgnorth were off-loaded and staff offered voluntary redundancy. Only later, with the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2013, would the full implication of the resultant loss of 40% of the authority’s senior, more experienced planning staff begin to manifest itself, and continues to be felt now, in 2020!
We councillors were told (usually via the Shropshire Star) to get ready to come to terms with changes to the way local government would operate in Shropshire because central government was determined that things would change and the Executive at Shirehall were determined to toe their Party’s line.
The ‘For Sale’ signs went up on Shirehall and Shirehall started working to render itself obsolete by moving many of its functions into the council-owned company established by Keith Barrow, ‘ip&e’ (wound up in 2016 after Keith Barrow was forced to stand down at the end of 2015).
The sale of Shirehall was pretty much a foregone conclusion; earlier optimistic talk of a move to the Guildhall in Shrewsbury – retaining at least a semblance of the old way of doing things – was out because it was earmarked for use as part of the ‘campus’ of the University of Shrewsbury.
With Stonehouse in Ludlow and Westgate in Bridgnorth closed down, officers were even then either ‘hot-desking’ or operating from home or from their car, the Executive’s ambition for the wholesale move to a virtual council was only slowed by the poor-to-non-existent broadband coverage over great swathes of the county, particularly in the west.
But as internet connection improved, that impediment was overcome and the way was open to complete the transition to a truly remote council with all the advantages that offered to an Administration intent on cementing itself in place and, moreover, cementing itself in place in perpetuity.
But how to sell that idea?
Well, along came Covid-19 and handed them the solution on a plate.
On Friday 22 May 2020 all elected Members were copied-in to the daily Covid-19 “up-dating” text from one of the interim Chief Executives, Andy Begley. In the middle of the text it said…
Over the past several weeks we have all been working differently. Our new ways of working, specifically the use of technology to deliver services, are foundations for a brighter, better and more sustainable authority.
We have mentioned changes and the new normal many times, but what has perhaps not been as clear is the fact that we will not be returning to the old ways of working. We cannot return to how we worked for many reasons.Covid is an obvious issue, but the reality is we need to make sure that our services and our organisation, as a whole, is fit for purpose going forward, and able to serve our residents as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Funding, advances in technology, changes in service requirements and closer working with the NHS are all fundamental shifts in how we work and Coronavirus has been a huge catalyst to accelerate necessary changes – propelling us into a future we would have strived for over years, but one we can now step into together, as a better, more vibrant, inclusive and innovative Council.
We have discussed the idea of public sector staff being doers and right now we need you to continue doing your jobs, but we also need you to be curious about what could be better and work to truly transform.
There is no more room for inefficiencies, there is no more time to delay – this is here, the need is now.
As a management team, and with the support of several council services, plans are being drawn up as to what Shropshire Council could look like. These plans are being fed by responses from the staff survey, data we have about how we are working now, service requirements and Shropshire’s future needs.
Throughout this process we will work with staff to make sure everyone has a voice and right now we need you to stay strong, keep innovating and to consider the best bits from how we used to work, whilst planning for a new tomorrow – one we’ll shape together to be the best local authority we can be.
A new tomorrow? That’s the first Elected Members had been told of it.
I read through it again.
“…foundations for a brighter, better and more sustainable authority” … A sentence we saw many times during the changes wreaked wrought back in the dark days of 2013.
“… the fact that we will not be returning to the old ways of working” … So no talk of consultation with elected councillors or the thousands of people they were elected to represent, so essentially an unequivocal statement of intent sealed with that one word “fact”.
“… propelling us into a future we would have strived for over years” … Except there has never been a “would” in there since 2013, that bit should more accurately have read: “propelling us into a future we have strived for over years”.
The old-fashioned concept of democratic representation had long ago moved into the cross-hair sights of the Executive, its finger poised over the trigger which, given the opportunity to blow a hole in democracy’s head, just needed a nudge.
And just in case anyone had any doubts about how serious the Executive was about finally realising that ambition…
“There is no more room for inefficiencies, there is no more time to delay – this is here, the need is now.”
“These plans are being fed by responses from the staff survey, data we have about how we are working now, service requirements and Shropshire’s future needs. […] Throughout this process we will work with staff to make sure everyone has a voice”.
And all that achieved without once consulting with elected Members outside of the ten-person Cabinet?
“… everyone has a voice”?
Whilst I’m obviously not happy about the distancing of people from the administration of their affairs through the diminution of local representation as indicated in that email, given the increasing apathy of people towards the machinery of government, local as well as central, I can understand people believing (wanting to believe?) that the profound changes that are happening will not impact directly on them.
Perhaps democracy is increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives?
Ah well, as long as nobody goes looking for a council office door to knock on. Oh, and they pick whatever the right time is to do it, just in case…
Technology, message from ICT:
Some people experienced issues this morning with their technology and we can only apologise. We believe the issue resulted from high demand on the infrastructure. This increase has been seen across the country, potentially as a result of organisations returning to somewhat normal work. Whilst we hope this issue does not recur tomorrow, we cannot guarantee, so please be mindful if there are problems tomorrow and if there are, they will likely ease mid-morning.
We are monitoring this, looking for opportunities to overcome the issues and have developed a plan to overcome the issues. We will keep you posted on your Directorate Teams sites.
I am determined that this case should not be lost in the chaos and confusion of the Covid-19 pandemic because it is symptomatic of what is wrong with some parts of Shropshire Council.
The parts of Shropshire Council that are right tend to be at the lower operational, individual officer levels, it’s when you start looking at the very top that things start to get a bit questionable – and whilst politics isn’t always to blame there are systemic faults that run to its very core.
The case of what happened to one particular senior officer has a significance that taints everyone by association, not least because as one long-established Tory councillor said to me in a discussion about the issues that have seen Shropshire Council making regular appearances in the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ section of Private Eye: “When we’re elected we hand our reputation to Shropshire Council and have every right to expect them to look after it”.
We’re talking here about how an organisation goes about its business, and that affects everyone engaged with whatever business that organisation is engaged in, severally and collectively, because everyone in that organisation is accountable “by association”.
Everyone. Well, apart from the few who arrogate to themselves the apparently immutable right of privilege they assume comes with the ability to face down anyone who challenges them.
But this is a case deserving of challenge, especially under the present conditions, with everyone’s attention so focused on Covid-19, which is proving to be a carpet big enough to sweep a lot of highly questionable stuff under.
What set it all off.
What made this case go from a curious incident to a worrying case worth looking into was a chance meeting with the person at the centre of it all in, of all places, the dairy aisle of Sainsbury’s in Shrewsbury, when the usual niceties of a chance meeting went from the usual niceties to worrying tales of a betrayal that led to an over-reaction by Shropshire Council’s then Chief Executive that would have significant cost implications, although the extent of those costs wouldn’t become obvious until much later. About eighteen months later in fact.
So, stepping back in time, imagine that you’re engaged in negotiations with colleagues less qualified, less senior and less experienced than you, and there is a disagreement amongst the group about the way to go about making changes to the way the organisation is set up, and one of the more junior colleagues goes to the Chief Executive and complains that you’re “being difficult”, and the Chief Executive calls you in and tells you that, on the basis of that junior colleague’s word, he is suspending you and then emails the wider organisation telling them that he’s suspending you for having committed a very serious breach of some unspecified protocol.
And if, a few months later, your suspension is lifted without so much as a public apology or follow-up statement about the facts of the case, which meant your accuser gets away with having been responsible for adding the insult of that original public statement to the personal injury of impugning a reputation you’d built up over an unblemished career spanning 37 years well, without putting too fine a point on it, you’d be more than a bit pissed off.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is the email, widely distributed to all Shropshire councillors, that started it all off…
From: Clive Wright Sent: Thursday, August 30, 2018 5:36:12 PM To: Members Subject: Strictly Confidential
This is to advise you that I have suspended (let’s call him ‘Jim Smith’) from his duties at the Council pending an investigation.
The investigation concerns a potentially serious matter which I cannot disclose at this juncture.
The fact that we are investigating does not mean that there is any guilt or wrong doing.
In the meantime the following staff are dealing with operational issues:
[LIST OF STAFF]
For strategic matters please contact me.
Please contact me to discuss any concerns you may have.
Due to the sensitivity of this matter it is extremely important that you do not discuss this further.
Clive Wright Chief Executive Shropshire Council
I read it again and did a double-take at…
“The investigation concerns a potentially serious matter which I cannot disclose at this juncture.”
“The fact that we are investigating does not mean that there is any guilt or wrong doing.”
So what was with the bit that said: “a potentially serious matter […] does not mean that there is any guilt or wrong doing.”
I thought, OK, so a potentially serious matter? Surely it’s either serious or it’s not, and if there’s potentially no guilt or wrong-doing then:
“…suspended pending an investigation into allegations of a breach of standards”
…would have sufficed?
You’d have thought so. I certainly did. Chief Executive Clive Wright obviously didn’t.
Unless seriously serious, an everyday breach of standards leads to a formal Code of Conduct Complaint which is referred to the council’s Standards Committee, in this case I was surprised that what was being called “a potentially serious matter” wasn’t referred to the police, although in my experience such a referral usually results in the complaint being dropped because of ‘insufficient evidence’, even if it’s actually the case that the law has been broken, because the police aren’t interested in the internal affairs of the council if they lack the “aggravating factors” that would make it a “real” crime; basically, that nobody’s lost out financially. Breaches of the Localism Act being a case in point.
But this “potentially serious matter” wasn’t being referred to either of those two channels. It wouldn’t be the first time in this case that I’d ask: “What’s occurring?”
There are in fact a number of options.
Part 5 of Shropshire Council’s Codes and Protocols says:
Any concerns regarding Members’ conduct in relation to the relevant protocols listed at paragraph 1 above should be considered in the first instance by the Monitoring Officer. If the conduct gives rise to section 151 statutory officer issues, the Monitoring Officer will consult with that officer. Where the concerns relate to potential criminal actions, the Monitoring Officer shall make an immediate referral to the Police. Where there has been a potential breach of the Code of Conduct the “Procedure for Local Assessment and Investigation of Complaints that Councillors have Breached the Code of Conduct” shall be followed.
On completion of the report and any response from any affected Members, the Monitoring Officer will determine whether to:-
i) take no further action
ii) resolve the matter informally
iii) refer the matter to the Assessment Sub-Committee to decide what action to take
iv) refer the matter to any outside agency, e.g. Ombudsman
But not a word followed that original email notification of that senior officer’s suspension.
The officer in question had been central to a lot of stuff going on in my constituency, his name was on a lot of paperwork, including his being copied-in to emails from (civil) partners outside the council who wouldn’t have received that initial email because it was marked “Strictly confidential”.
People needed to be told because business needed to continue, hence on receipt of that email advising of the suspension I wrote to Clive Wright…
31 Aug 2018, 09:19
Jeez! Still reeling.
There is one area that ‘Jim Smith’ was closely involved with and ‘Jim Smith’ would have been First Point of Contact about, issues concerning the Severn Centre.
‘Jim Smith’ was in direct contact with the CEO of Halo Leisure, especially about an ongoing issue. Will correspondence be diverted or can Scott be advised of an alternative contact without revealing details?
And are the parish council clerks ‘Jim Smith’ had direct (not just through the CET) dealings with being advised of “alternative arrangements”?
To which Clive Wright answered…
31 August 2018 09:40
I will do my best to ensure that these loose ends are picked up.
And that’s when it all went quiet. Not a word until, in May 2019, eight months later, the new Senior Management Structure was circulated which clearly showed ‘Jim Smith’ where you’d expect to find him, just below the head of the structure!
So why, as far as anyone knew, was ‘Jim Smith’ still suspended.
What the hell was going on?
Busy with local issues, I left things as they were to see what, if anything, transpired. I hadn’t pushed it further because at this point I was anyway more curious than suspicious.
I checked that management structure diagram again to see whether Shropshire Council’s imported “highly experienced” highways consultant (at £1,000 a day for six months, an unnecessary indulgence given that our own ‘Jim Smith’ was probably equally as “highly experienced”) appeared in a permanent post, he didn’t and, seeing ‘Jim Smith’s’ name still there, I phoned around to ask if anyone knew whether ‘Jim Smith’ was STILL employed by the council. No one knew.
Now that struck me as odd because ‘Jim Smith’ had been heavily involved with a lot of projects in a lot of different departments, he was known and well-liked by everyone he’d worked with, so hardly likely to be overlooked by anyone he was supposed to be working with if he was, as that management structure indicated, still in the building.
This was showing all the signs that I’d seen so many times before in dealings with both elected and salaried members of the Shirehall Establishment, an Establishment so jealous of its power that it would do anything to protect itself from anything that threatened that power. I call it ‘The Purple Cloud of Obfuscation’, but choose any colour you like.
That someone could just disappear seemed a bit ‘Soviet’ to me – ‘Jim Smith’ had been Photoshopped out of the picture.
I don’t like loose ends, so…
22 Dec 2019, 11:13
Good day, Clive.
Given the size of this organisation, it always amazes me that it doesn’t operate like other organisations of its size and complexity, although perhaps I’m unfairly comparing it with organisations I’ve worked with in the past who appreciate how important it is to maintain their management information systems.
Or perhaps ‘Jim Smith’, on the basis of the excellent work he could always be relied upon to do, has been taken back on because according to the attached “Senior Management Structure” dated, note, May 2019, and available on the council’s website, shows either ‘Jim Smith’ or someone with the same name employed by us in the same capacity.
Unsurprisingly, I was not reassured by Clive Wright’s reply…
From:Clive Wright Sent: 23 December 2019 07:17 To: Dave Tremellen Cc: Peter Nutting; Claire Porter Subject: Re: Senior admin roles
Dear Councillor Tremellen
Thank you for your email.
‘Jim Smith’ has not left the organisation and so the organisation structure diagram reflects accurately the current situation.
I assure you that the Council does take seriously the maintenance of its management information systems.
I hope this is helpful.
… not least because of the significant change to the formal form of address: “Dear Councillor Tremellen” instead of “Dear Dave” or just “Dave”. In terms of making me take notice, that was like throwing a brick through a plate-glass window.
So quite apart from the change in tone, we now have Council Leader Peter Nutting and Head of Legal & Democratic Services Claire Porter copied-in and Clive Wright is no longer marking it “Strictly Confidential” which, together with the new players, was significant because the sensitivity that he judged made it “strictly confidential” he no longer thought applied because he wasn’t broadcasting it to all and sundry but just to me, but why would he bring in the big guns and bring them in over a year since the original suspension and 6 months since that Senior Management Structure was published showing ‘Jim Smith’ still in post?
I picked up that email three hours after it was sent and emailed Clive Wright by return…
23 Dec 2019, 10:19
Sorry, how on earth could I have got it so wrong, I must have completely misunderstood the conversation I had with ‘Jim Smith’ in Sainsburys some time back.
Has anyone actually told him that he’s still in post, or are we talking about two different ‘Jim Smith’s?
Independent Member for Highley Ward
I wasn’t expecting a response and didn’t plan to push for one because experience has told me that I’d be wasting my time because above a certain pay grade few consider themselves answerable to anyone, especially not a ‘non executive’ councillor.
But then Clive Wright phoned me.
When I got over my initial surprise, why he was phoning soon became clear, not by what he was saying but by what he wasn’t spelling out whilst at the same time emphasising that “the whole situation was still very sensitive”.
He wouldn’t tell me why.
It was a conversation of about five minutes duration during which the less he said the more uncomfortable he sounded and the more I became convinced that he was trying desperately hard not to say something he’d regret later, something that it was obvious he desperately wanted to tell me but couldn’t.
I said goodbye first to end his misery and sat there frowning at the phone trying to make sense of what had just happened.
When people go out of their way to help you “understand” a situation without actually helping you understand, it’s because “something” is going on and they want you on-side, or at the very least neutralised!
And why copy-in the Leader of the Council and the Head of Legal & Democratic Services, because that last email of mine was in reply to an email that hadn’t been addressed to either the Leader of the Council or the Head of Legal & Democratic Services and which, moreover, on its own would not have made sense to anyone who hadn’t been party to preceding emails.
Conclusion? The Leader of the Council and the Head of Legal & Democratic Services had been party to whatever had been going on up to that point. Whether they had agreed with what had gone on was moot. They may not have been party to that original suspension but it was eminently likely that its consequences were beginning to be felt, sending a shudder right up to the fifth floor.
Some things are more somethings than other things.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that in this case the “something” was something legal-ish and, given the dodgy responses, the fact that ‘Jim Smith’ had apparently continued in Shropshire Council’s employ without actually taking up his senior post after being released from suspension without anyone being told…….?
Cue ominous music.
Ominous music indeed because on the 25th February, just two days before Full Council on the 27th, it was announced that Clive Wright had been summarily dismissed (sorry) “stepped down” at the meeting of the council’s ruling Conservative group on the evening of the 24th.
The reason for his going is still open to speculation. The reason in general circulation at the time had to do with his appearance on TV news saying that Bridgnorth hadn’t experienced flooding as bad as Ironbridge (upriver) or Bewdley (downriver). My own reaction to that as being the reason can be summed up in one naughty word.
The question that should have been asked – was begging to be asked – was:
Did the costs of hiring consultants over recent years (in excess of half a million pounds), added to the costs of what, if the ‘Jim Smith’ case turned out to be more than just a bit of an administrative nuisance, push Peter Nutting and the more conservative of his Conservative Party colleagues to do a few sums and decide that Clive Wright had committed a cash-strapped Shropshire Council to more commitments than it could afford to pay?
Which is when I brought in the guy who can sniff out a fact hiding under a mile-high pile of bullshit, Steve Mulloy, and we started taking a long, hard look at what passed for facts in the case of a council officer suspended for what was allegedly a potentially serious breach of an unspecified protocol that apparently didn’t carry any guilt.
There was a whiff of something in the air and there’s only one thing that carries a more distinctive smell than a case of constructive dismissal and that’s a Non-Disclosure Agreement.
The signs were there.
1. Senior officer suspended from duty for an alleged serious breach of an unspecified protocol that apparently didn’t carry any guilt and then quietly reinstated without his making an appearance, his post remaining open and empty for months.
2. A Chief Executive phoning me to explain things too sensitive to commit to email, but saying what amounted to bugger all.
3. The Council Leader and the Head of Legal & Democratic Services of Shropshire Council now involved.
Just begs a question, doesn’t it.
There had obviously (?) been an awakening to the fact that the sanctioning of ‘Jim Smith’ had consequences that went beyond anything that had been expected when the word of that junior officer had been taken without question, “pending investigation” of course.
So where to go from there? Perhaps an indirect approach might open a few cracks up?
So at the February 2020 Full Council I submitted a written question to no one in particular…
2. Question from Councillor Dave Tremellen Before employing outside consultants, could I, on behalf of what would appear to be a substantial majority of Shropshire residents, respectfully suggest that this Council submits any such proposal to whatever Scrutiny Committee is considered most appropriate so that this Council’s own internal fund of expertise, whether in the form of relevantly experienced officers or elected Members, is first examined to determine whether outside intervention is needed?
The idea was to open the way for the verbal supplementary question you’re allowed in response to the written answer you get to your original written question, which has to be submitted well in advance of the council meeting, in fact well in advance of Clive Wright’s dismissal, as it turned out.
I wasn’t holding my breath for anything other than a stock response and Peter Nutting didn’t disappoint on that expectation, instead of addressing the wider principle I was alluding to he did, as hoped, refer to the most recent highways consultant hiring, but as I said that didn’t matter.
Response from the Leader of the Council COUNCILLOR PETER NUTTING, LEADER
As Members will be aware, this Council rarely engages consultants and only does so if other opportunities have been exhausted. In this case it is obvious to us all that the effective management of our Highways Services has been an issue for some time. Indeed, highways issues is the most complained about in the Council. With respect, the Conservative Party is in power and has been elected to run this Council. Whilst we are open to and welcome challenge through the Scrutiny process we should not, and will not, make decisions through Scrutiny Committees, which, as Members will know, is not a decision-making function of the Council. I believe that our decision to engage this consultant was the best course of action. Whilst the short-term costs are significant, on balance the savings and improvement we are making far out-weigh this and so the arrangement offers value for money on an ‘invest to save basis’. This is the key point I would make to the public, the savings and improvement we will make as a result of engaging this consultant will be far greater than the costs. I want to pay tribute to all of our Highways staff who I know have welcomed the leadership changes we have made. The dedication and commitment this service has shown during the recent storms for example, demonstrates just how fantastic we can be when it really matters, and people are depending on us. Such dedication deserves good leadership. Sometimes when in power, tough and potentially unpopular decisions have to be made. We will not shy away from making these decisions in the best interests of Shropshire and our residents.
My supplementary question, adhering to the Keep-It-Simple-Stupid policy, allowed me to ask…
“Where did I specifically mention highways? But as you’ve raised it: On the matter of employing the highways consultant, my primary concern is whether that consultant was needed given that a traffic engineer with 37 years experience is *still on suspension for an unspecified breach of a standard that has still to be investigated since September 2018.”
* NOTE: Still under the impression that ‘Jim Smith’ was suspended, it was a week after the council meeting that a confidential phone call from a council officer – who didn’t want to be identified – informed me that the suspension had been lifted almost a year earlier. This is how information relating to investigations involving the council often comes to light.
The person who answered the original question has the right of reply to a supplementary question, but Peter Nutting had to leave the meeting to meet a visiting MP, so all he said was that he didn’t think it appropriate to discuss matters relating to an officer who wasn’t present and asked me to speak to his PA to arrange a separate meeting in private. Fair enough. I thanked him and agreed. Under the circumstances and in such a public arena that was a generous gesture, it certainly took me by surprise – and I wasn’t alone in that.
It was reported to me afterwards that the face of the Head of Legal & Democratic Services “was a picture”. She was not happy.
A subsequent meeting was arranged but then the Covid19 lockdown intervened, meaning any meeting was likely to be postponed well beyond the foreseeable future.
Quite apart from Peter Nutting tacitly admitting that there was a matter of high sensitivity concerning the “traffic engineer” I’d referred to in my supplementary question, you don’t have to look far to see the position Peter Nutting had just placed the Head of Legal & Democratic Services in. He had acted like someone who was party to something shifty involving the unnamed person alluded to in my Question, we both knew who I’d been referring to, so did many of the rest of the Council Members. In fact one acquaintance wrote to me afterwards and said: “A number of us were asking ourselves ‘why Dave Tremellen’, why not the other 72 Members?”
The immediate question that sprang to mind that would have been asked had that meeting taken place was, given my earlier reference to the cost to the council of employing consultants at a minimum of over half a million pounds in the very recent past: “IF there IS an NDA, how much is it costing us?”
The focus shifts to the public interest factor.
I asked Steve to look for information on NDAs that might be relevant to this case and he found:
Solicitors engaged in drawing up non disclosure agreements (NDAs} on employment severance settlements have been reminded that, in any conflict of principles, the public interest in the proper administration of justice must came first. The warning appears in a practice note published today entitled Non-disclosure Agreements and Confidentiality Clauses in an Employment Law Context.
The position of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on ‘The Public Interest Test’ can be found here:
We know the response we’re likely to get from Shropshire Council from the dealings we’ve had with them before, when they’ve actually challenged our insistence that the public interest is best served through openness and transparency. The most obvious case of Shropshire Council’s intransigence on this being the barring of Steve Mulloy from making FoI requests, a move that got them a bollocking off the Information Commissioner’s Office for citing the wrong section of law.
Which leaves us where?
We need to get a response to an FOI request before dissecting all the arguments available in the above so that in the event of Shropshire Council denying the case we can let the Information Commissioner’s Office decide – again!
But come what may, we need to take away the lesson that decisions made by executives should always be open to scrutiny, or at least that executives making decisions should always act as if they are accountable to someone for the consequences of those decisions, and that clear records of those decisions are available for scrutiny in a genuine spirit of openness and transparency, because public interest is a matter for the public to decide, it should never be left to salaried executives or politicians to define.
Steve looked for information that gave us an idea of the prevalence of NDA’s within the local government sector, what came out was surprising – or perhaps not.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done a settlement agreement without a confidentiality clause,” says Siobhan Fitzgerald, partner at law firm TLT. “Confidentiality is nearly always in there.” For instance, a 2016 investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live found that UK local authorities spent more than £225m on settlement agreements between 2010 and 2015 – most of which included an NDA. More than 2,000 agreements totalling £5.5m were attributed to Cardiff Council alone, which had used them routinely following redundancies, though it said that policy stopped in 2015.
What we turned up in Shropshire Council’s case didn’t really surprise us, because whilst out of sight often means out of mind, council’s depending on keeping their murkier stuff out of the public gaze can only bank on that staying the case if the subject is out of record. And whilst that record is often hidden away in some obscure filing cabinet, if someone who knows what they’re doing knows where to look…
In the minutes of Shropshire Council’s meeting of 24 November 2011, a question from a Mrs H Lillington, asked:
How many employees, faced with redundancy or dismissal from their job with the Authority for any reason, have pursued legal redress through either Employment Tribunal or Civil Court action?
How many of those cases have resulted in an out of court settlement with the Authority?
Of these cases, how many out of court settlement agreements have included one or more confidentiality clauses or binding non-disclosure clauses or what is commonly known as a “gagging order”?
In which year were these settlement agreements made?
How many employees who have left their job with the Authority, have had additional confidentiality clauses/binding non-disclosure clauses/gagging orders included in their settlement agreement above and beyond those nondisclosure commitments pertaining to the normal and reasonable confidentiality requirements of their job role?
Have any such confidentiality clauses applied specifically to the settlement agreement rather than to the employee’s job role?
Has the Authority made any discretionary payments associated with the agreement of such confidentiality clauses?
The question was answered by the then Deputy Leader of the Council, Councillor Ann Hartley (currently Chair of Shropshire Council):
It is quite wrong to refer to confidentiality agreements as ‘gagging orders’. It is
accepted employment practice that, where there is a dispute between an employer and employee, and both parties agree to a settlement of the proceedings without recourse to a full contested hearing, both parties will agree to terms and conditions of settlement which are beneficial to both parties. This often includes a ‘non disclosure’ clause for both parties not to discuss the terms of the agreement, to enable them to resolve disputes without any potential detriment to either party’s reputation.
Settlement agreements are a common practice for all employers and are good employment practice. The Council uses such agreements to assist in maintaining good employer/employee relations, but only a handful of such agreements are completed every year- only four have been used in the past 18 months.
Any settlement agreement relies upon some form of consideration from both parties. However, there is no agreement that has been undertaken by the Council that specifically applies to any employee being offered any settlement money as a consequence of maintaining confidentiality.
It’s that last bit that’s the killer exposé…
“Any settlement agreement relies upon some form of consideration from both parties. However, there is no agreement that has been undertaken by the Council that specifically applies to any employee being offered any settlement money as a consequence of maintaining confidentiality.”
In other words, it doesn’t happen in this Authority.
To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men. The human race Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised Against injustice, ignorance, and lust, The inquisition yet would serve the law, And guillotines decide our least disputes. The few who dare, must speak and speak again To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God, No vested power in this great day and land Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry Loud disapproval of existing ills; May criticise oppression and condemn The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws That let the children and childbearers toil To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast Of independence in this mighty land. Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link. Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave. Until the manacled slim wrists of babes Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee, Until the mother bears no burden, save The precious one beneath her heart, until God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed And given back to labor, let no man Call this the land of freedom.
My last report generated quite a bit of comment on the local Facebook pages, but no one appreciated the full significance of the decision to allow those 20 ‘affordable’ houses intended for the site alongside the bridleway behind the telephone exchange. Understandable because there was a lot of smoke and mirrors involved in the process because the underlying sensitivity of this site lies in the impact the earlier decision to refuse permission would have had on Council plans for the larger site just yards away to the north.
I can only imagine the panic when the full import of that refusal by that case officer became known to the rest of the planning department. I bet it wasn’t long before the full weight of the more senior principle plannning officers descended on the poor man’s head.
Another refusal for that smaller site, especially on the grounds of “over-development” outlined by earlier Planning Inspectors, would call into question all of Shropshire Council planning department’s plans for the much larger neighbouring site, just a bridleway-width away, for 122 houses, a housing development equal to every housing development we’ve seen built here since 2013; that’s another Hitchens Way (58), another Staley Grove (35), another St Peters View (19) and Whittles Close (10).
As I said in April, I was particularly angry that the application repeated assertions about the low impact that those 20 affordable houses will have on the traffic situation at what is LOCALLY (Shropshire Council highways have a different take on things) considered to be one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Highley, both for vehicles and, critically, given the “affordable” category of family housing proposed, young children of school age.
Whilst that assertion of ‘low impact’ persisted throughout the officer and consultee comments on the earlier application for nine bungalows, it acknowledged that the relatively low impact was BECAUSE they were bungalows!
“On the basis that a typical domestic dwelling generates on average 6 vehicle movements per day, the 9 dwellings proposed would generate possibly 54 movements plus any associated with the farm access, although it is noted that the dwellings are bungalows and are likely to be occupied by older people who may not make as many journeys each day.”
But by carefully phrasing his report to committee to emphasise the classification of those 20 houses as “affordable homes” and the site itself as an “exception site” (= outside the development boundary of a settlement) the planning officer assigned to the resubmission over-rode all other considerations, amongst which I’d have to put ‘common sense’. What was also over-ridden and hence this second article on the subject, was the cumulative impact on Highley of that proposal for the 122-house development alongside it, using the same access exiting onto the same bend on the same stretch of road.
On the basis of those official calculations for the amount of traffic generated by one house, “on average 6 vehicle movements per day”, 122 houses would generate “on average” 732 (= 6 x 122) movements “plus any associated with the farm access” to Hazelwells Farm at the other end of the bridleway.
But hey, what the heck am I doing forgetting Tremellen’s First Law of Fundamental Errors, which has do with the disappointment generated by the lack of joined-up thinking being directly proportional to expectation. The greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment when that expectation isn’t met. Silly me.
Back in 2013 I was so naive that I didn’t understand the lack of joined-up thinking behind some of the decisions I saw being made at Shirehall. What was there seemed to follow an agenda that had a beginning and an end but nothing in between. Sleight of hand and tongue, the definition of words that took semantics into the higher realms of deniability was the norm, which sums up the report that the case officer on that application for those 20 houses presented to the planning committee. I can’t wait to see what he does in his report for those 122 houses, I’m sure it’ll be fascinating.
First appeared in the February edition of the Highley Forum.
Back in September 2014 I wrote…
Perhaps democracy is increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives.
I was talking then about the way changes at Shropshire Council were impacting on the way the council engaged with the people of Shropshire, although more accurately I should say increasingly disengaged with the people of Shropshire, a process that, if anything, has increased since then.
There are still a lot of people who persist in thinking that “the council” is still what they’ve always thought of as “the council” – it ain’t!
When, in 2009, the old district councils and county council became a single unitary council, changing from a committee system to one known as (and I kid you not) ‘Strong Leader Plus Cabinet’, Shropshire Council has increasingly become what I would call a “Service Director led administration”, where the directors of service departments, in close partnership with consultants, no longer just advise the elected councillors in the Cabinet but determine policy which is rubber-stamped by Cabinet portfolio holders and presented to ‘Full Council’ (which no longer meets monthly) where it is voted through by the majority of votes of the ruling group from which Cabinet is drawn.
Directors of Service and consultants are not answerable – and certainly not accountable – to the electorate whose lives they influence and who have to drive over the roads they have allowed to deteriorate to the point of absolute misery, adding insult to injury by forcing the electorate who pay the taxes that pay their salaries and consultancy fees to then pay for the resulting damage caused by their failure to do the job they’re employed to do.
For years the North Shropshire MPs and North Shropshire councillors who are nine of the ten members of the Cabinet have campaigned for the North West Relief Road around Shrewsbury. (Those of an uncertain disposition who have paid for new tyres and/or wheels try to contain yourselves.)
‘The Department of Transport has agreed to give £54m towards the construction of Shrewsbury’s north-west relief road, with work expected to start in 2022.’
‘The full cost of the road is estimated at £71m, with the council to provide any remaining funds.’
[My note: Do the sums: £71m – £54m = £17m of OUR money.]
‘Steve Davenport, cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “The North West Relief Road will benefit not just Shrewsbury but the whole of Shropshire…”’
Define “whole”. There is an argument for the NWRR, but there is an over-riding argument for the roads in the rest of Shropshire to be addressed with more than a passing sympathetic remark and an explanation of how cash-strapped the Authority is and therefore, “sorry, (forced smile, slight tilt of the head to one side and a shrug of the shoulders) you’ll have to wait a bit longer”.
Our MP (Philip Dunne, a nice chap) has just stepped up to the mark on behalf of South Shropshire. A little late, but welcome aboard Philip. Let’s see if anything changes on the B4555.
Article first appeared in the Highley Forum, March 2020 edition.
County Councillor’s Report
£130,000 + £380,000 = £510,000
Nice work if you can get it. Bit late for me to scramble onto the consultancy bandwagon, though, even with an Upper Second Honours degree in Business Studies I’ve spent too long in the real world to convince potential clients that I’m the right person to tell them what they want to hear rather than the truth.
A lifetime ago, after graduating, I looked into going into business consultancy with an ex-copper friend, Ron, who I’d been at college with and the name we decided on was ‘NBS Consultancy’, the first initial standing for ‘No’ . But Ron’s circumstances changed and the idea was dropped, although I did do two and a half years freelance work for various local and central government agencies, but soon tired of finding myself sitting on the opposite side of some executive’s desk, dying to tell him (women execs were usually more switched on) that he was actually the problem he’d called me in to try and find!
As far as the recent furore over Shropshire Council’s employing consultants at the £510,000 cost given at the head of this article (£130K to advise on “solutions” to our highways issues and £380K to advise on the refurbishment of Shirehall), what angered me was that within the Council we had people who were more than able to tell anyone who asked what the problems were and what needed to be done to put them right.
In response to the Chief Executive’s email to all Elected Members telling us of his unilateral decision to appoint a highways consultant, I wrote back…
This is some kind of joke, right?
Everything’s falling apart so “we” employ another consultant when we’ve got all the expertise we need in-house and have done since the district and county councils were operating prior to going unitary, expertise that has the detailed LOCAL knowledge that informs the work programme of the efficient highways department we WOULD have had if only officers had been allowed to do the job they’ve trained to do, if only they were given the resources they so desperately need to do the job they’re professionally qualified to do!
Let the people we’ve got do their job and give them the resources they need to do it. It really is that simple.
Angry? Me? It’s gone beyond angry, especially given that five years ago, in February 2014 – yes 2014 – I asked this question of the highways portfolio holder at Full Council…
Will the Portfolio Holder for Highways admit that they have lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire? In the event that they still cling to the delusion that they are in fact still in control of roads in my part of the county, would they point to the evidence to support that claim.
Claire Wild, Portfolio Holder for Highways and Transport, replied: Shropshire Council has not lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire.
She went on to list a number of major jobs that were programmed for Highley (including the complete resurfacing of High Street), NONE of which were ever started, so if her argument was open to challenge back then, her successor has even more of a challenge to contend with because we’ve had five years of a crumbling highways network getting even further beyond hope of being salvaged by anyone, let alone a consultant at the going rate of £1,000 a day for six months.
Too much and too late anyway.
(The very) Independent Member for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.
It was not marked Confidential nor did it come with a notice that circulation was in any way restricted, hence…
On 29 Jan 2020, at 14:44, Clive Wright wrote:
I want to inform you of changes I am making, with the support of the Portfolio Holder, Steve Davenport, in Highways with immediate effect. As you are all aware, we need to improve performance and delivery at pace. To achieve this the following actions have been taken:
1) We have appointed a consultant, Tom Blackburn-Maze, who will be with us until the end of June. Tom is providing advice on how to make crucial improvements based on his experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere. Tom will be providing advice to myself, Mark Barrow and the Highways team.
2) ******** has been asked to take on a different role. He will continue to deal with front facing issues and add vital management capacity to the work of highways which is so critical to members, town and parish councils and the public.
3) ******** will continue as Interim Head of Highways and will manage the day to day operation of Highway repairs and maintenance.
4) Alun and Steve will act on the advice of Tom but will report to Mark Barrow or me in Mark’s absence (on leave for 2 weeks).
5) We are moving the Highways front of house into the Customer Service Centre. This will coincide with reconfiguring CONFIRM (the Highways computerised management system) to provide Members with up to date information on line. The Customer Contact Centre already successfully handles complex referrals such as, for example, children and/or adults requiring social care.
6) Robust conversations have taken place with Kier at the highest levels. We have agreed an up scaling of Kier mobilisation and I expect to see a change over the next few weeks.
7) We will be working at faster pace focusing on areas of highest need over coming months. We will work to eliminate unproductive behaviour such as, for example, fixing one pothole whilst leaving the one next to it. Concentrating on areas will enable more work to be done faster and make it easier for us to supervise and ensure quality.
8) We will experiment with using local contractors as an alternative to using Kier. We can do this within the terms of our contract with Kier. This will provide evidence of the best way to proceed going forwards.
9) I expect highways repair costs to increase and these costs are being projected. We also anticipate that the Government will again make available additional ‘Pothole Funding’, though this is not yet confirmed.
10) We will reduce the rate of temporary repairs with an initial target of less than 5%.
11) We will hold a Members workshop at the end of February to update all Members.
12) The Portfolio Holder has requested that Scrutiny take a look at Highways improvement to provide a forum for all Members to be as involved as they wish. This is, of course, a decision to be made by Scrutiny as to whether they wish to include Highways in their programme.
As it stands there is currently 3500 reported highway defects on our systems. Clearing this backlog is our priority. We would ask Members to please use the on line portal to report further defects as this is the fastest way to ensure that issues are logged and acted upon. We understand that some Members prefer to call the engineers or email officers directly. Where this occurs the response will be for those staff to refer these enquiries in to the Customer Service Centre and let Members know. Having multiple channels of reporting is causing defects to be missed or double logging of the same defect. We can review this as we move forward and once we are on top of outstanding work.
I hope this keeps you informed.
My furious response was…
Dave Tremellen 30 Jan 2020, 09:43 (4 days ago)
to Clive, Members, Directors, Tom, Alun, Steven
This is some kind of joke, right?
Everything’s falling apart so “we” employ another consultant when we’ve got all the expertise we need in-house and have done since the district and county councils were operating prior to going unitary and, moreover, expertise that has the intimate, detailed LOCAL knowledge that informs the work programme of the efficient highways department that we WOULD have if only the officers we’ve ALWAYS had had been allowed to do the job they’ve trained to do – if only they were given the resources they so desperately need to do the job they’re professionally qualified to do!
What you’ve done is an insult to every one of those highways professionals and a poke in the eye for David Evans with his arms-length list of highways problems across Craven Arms; David Turner with his catalogue of highways problems across Much Wenlock; Kevin Pardy and a lethal roundabout he’s been trying to get made less lethal for years; Me, with collapsing carriageways and an army of residents with damaged cars (one phoned me yesterday to report her EIGHTH smashed wheel) not to mention a GP practice who can’t get a locum to attend because they refuse to travel the B4555; so what do “we” do, we employ another highways consultant on top of the department full of consultants we’ve already got in WSP, all of whom, presumably, were taken on because they come with “…experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere”.
No way a consultant will sort that lot out, let alone the rest of the county, but now he’s here, whilst he’s at it perhaps he’ll explain to the rest of us how the hell the North West Relief Road is going to benefit the rest of Shropshire, as Steve so confidently assured those us concerned about where the £17 million difference in the predicted cost of the scheme of £71 million and the grant of £54 million is going to come from, because we KNOW where it’s going to come from – US!
Let the people we’ve got do their job and give them the resources they need to do it. It really is that simple.
Angry? Me? It’s gone beyond angry, Clive.
Independent Member for Highley Ward
Which got me this response…
Sent: 31 January 2020 08:41
To: Dave Tremellen <Dave.Tremellen@shropshire.gov.uk>
Cc: Members; Directors; Tom Blackburne-Maze; Alun Morgan.Highways
Subject: Re: Highways Management Changes
Thank you for your comments. I appreciate that there has been a number of false starts and ongoing problems in the Highways service. This is why I have now stepped in directly and personally as other management action has failed.
I agree with the thrust of what you are saying. My first port of call in initiating action was to approach and work with front line staff. The time had come to roll up sleeves etc. I have listened to what they consider is needed and I hope and believe we are winning their support. I offered to make immediately available budgets of £2.5m, their response was that this alone would not fix the problems and might make things worse. We must fix the the budget (and we have, albeit in times where resources are limited); our working processes (we are engaging our staff on this, not serving it up to them); incentivise our contractor to mobilise (we are doing this) or find alternative arrangements for small works (we are also doing this with local contractors); and provide different leadership (and I have made swift changes). We are continuing to engage the Highways staff and I met them all for an open conversation earlier this week and to feedback how we are acting on their input, what specific actions are being taken and today how we can only be successful through them.
Solutions are often seem simple from the outside and are more complicated in reality. My approach has been to understand the problem before we come up with the solution. Having said that, what we have to do in this case is not rocket science. There are four components: leadership and motivation; right process; contractor will and capability; resources – money and right skills in the right place. We have to fix all four. The goal is high quality and efficient delivery.
I agree that we should have been able to fix this ourselves without consultant input but we are way past that point and with the support of the Portfolio Holder we agreed it was time to bring things to a head. The consultant is here to bring experience, but his remit is to work with our staff and design solutions with them, not for them. The solutions for Shropshire are likely to be different to those in other places, though there are some fundamental things that we are currently getting wrong. Experience is a massive lift in this respect. I am not blaming our staff but an example is where we have been temporary fixing 74% of potholes, this should be closer to zero or no more than 5%. This change alone implemented quickly will likely pay for the cost of the consultant.
Some of the problems we have, such as parts of the network not being designed for heavy agricultural vehicles won’t be solved anytime soon (though we are lobbying and applying for funding). However, I do intend to dramatically improve our performance on the issues you raise, particularly small works and maintenance. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating and I hope you will afford me the chance to demonstrate the change.
Finally, as you know, I too live in South Shropshire, and I’m not proud of our performance or with our contractor. All services are stretched but overall staff motivation and optimism is good and we will continue to perform beyond what might be reasonable with the resources we have. We can and must do better with the resources we have in Highways, we will need to add funding and ensure this is well spent. I hope that Members will continue to support and work with us towards this goal. Challenge is always welcome, it provides opportunity to see things from a different perspective and this is a great strength in our Council. I am always open to finding better solutions. Right now, confidence is low in all quarters (Members, the Public, staff and our contractor), but we can and will rebuild this by getting things done on the ground.
I hope this provides you with some assurance.
Assurance it did not provide. Well, not entirely, although as a statement of intent it doesn’t leave much to challenge.
My fear is that circumstances will overtake the good intentions listed there for the simple reason that Shropshire Council’s priorities do not have to do with the concerns of ALL its citizens, as witness an economic growth policy predicated entirely on HS2 and the development of the north west of the county, everywhere else can “do one”.
There is not even any support for anywhere in the other three-quarters of the county to even think about doing something for themselves because all those of us representing that rest of the county can get is advice because it comes cheap – unless it comes via a consultant at £1,000 a day!
As I said in my response to Clive Wright’s announcement, we already had all the expertise we ever needed, it was just ignored, by-passed, marginalised, take your pick.
In the case of my own electoral ward, significant programmes of work had been planned over the last several years by our existing highways engineers, designed and costed and all of them subsequently pulled in favour of works elsewhere by people who “knew better where to allocate resources”.