понеделник, ноември 26


COVER UP: Estimated Exposure of WBC is £1.8m

How strange! The Lobster has highlighted in bold praise from the Audit Commission for Watford Borough Council recorded in two sections of the council's Comprehensive Performance Assessment.
47 Partnerships are used effectively to increase the Council's capacity to deliver its ambitions and priorities. Partnership with the County Council has enabled the Council to improve the town centre environment. It is achieving housing priorities by effective partnership work with residents, tenants, voluntary organisations and Registered Social Landlords; and the planned transfer of its housing stock will improve capacity to achieve the decent homes standard. The transfer of management of community centres to community associations and agreement on a three-year funding programme for voluntary and community groups helps those bodies better support the Council's priorities. The Council is working with two neighbouring authorities to develop shared services on HR, finance, ICT and revenues and benefits. It has taken a lead role in the development of the county-wide pathfinder bid, which is planned to make savings of 3.5 per cent. Partnership working with a consortium including Watford Hospital and Watford Football Club is central to the health campus plan. The Council's good use of partnerships is successfully increasing its capacity to deliver its priorities.

68. Service users are actively involved in performance management. Scrutiny actively seeks to involve the public and stakeholders in the policy review process, leading to improved participation rates in a number of reviews including those on the future of the Colosseum and on transport (buses). In a stakeholder survey over 60 per cent of respondents agreed that the Council was involving service users, residents and partners in monitoring services. In particular, housing was cited as a service that was good at engaging with and involving tenants and residents. Over half of respondents thought that the Council reported in an open and transparent way about levels of performance. Service standards are not universally in place but are currently being developed in a number of services. The Council clearly engages well with its stakeholders.
From the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessment for WBC, July 2007

Strange because the Local Government Ombudsman, Tony Redmond, has just said (Lobster's emphasis):
33. Hertfordshire County Council and Watford Borough Council should also consider their arrangements for partnerships with other bodies and may wish to consider the advice contained in the Ombudsman’s recently published Special Report on Partnerships.
This forms part of his official ruling on 24th October 2007 that Watford Borough Council and Hertfordshire County Council were guilty of Maladministration causing injustice.

Why does it matter?
A finding of maladministration will affect the reputation of both councils. Watford has ambitious plans for partnership working with neighbouring authorities and a local health campus/road scheme. Should these still go ahead while there are questions about Watford's competence? Or should a proper investigation take place as to why the Audit Commission was told one version of events, but the Ombudsman found another? But Mr Redmond's report also contained this bombshell:
26. The Borough’s housing manager says that [the complainant] had received the same poor standard of service as other Borough tenants. A note in his tenancy file said that external decorations were done in 1987 and were not due again until 1992. She says that the Borough’s properties have not been externally decorated for years unless the tenants complained or officers identified particular problems.
(Again the Lobster's emphasis.) This means that the complainant, who has just successfully won an offer of compensation, might not be alone. There may be other equally dissatisfied former tenants who are eligible for compensation. It's time to do a quick sum. There were 4,468 dwellings under WBC's control at the time they were transferred to Watford Community Housing Trust on 10th September 2007. The complainant's home in this case was actually part of a small number of additional dwellings that were owned by Herts CC and managed by WBC. So let's assume a total of 4,500 dwellings were previously managed by WBC. Section 2.7 of this report prepared for Marion Harris, Head of Housing at WBC on 5 September 2006 indicates that 20.1% of tenants were not "very satisfied" with the service offered by the council’s Housing Department. This means there could be up to 900 former tenants who may be eligible for compensation payouts.

Cllr Andy Wylie, portfolio holder for Housing, recently tried to imply that the tenants in the Ombudsman's case had accepted £2,000 from the council. It wasn't true. The tenants appear to be reserving their legal rights, and may well receive a larger payout. In their case there had been deficiencies over a very long period of time. These fell outside the Ombudsman's time limits, so he exercised his discretion to limit his investigation to just the final two years of their tenancy. But even if we just take the £2,000 figure, then the council's potential exposure to compensation claims is of the order of £1.8 million.

Cllr Iain Sharpe, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group at WBC, was clearly very rattled when he made this comment on Lobster Blogster:
If we were trying to cover this up we have certainly gone a rather odd way about it.

The Ombudsman's report was reported to full council and the subject of a full debate, with the public present, as evidenced by the fact that you were there and able to report on it.

Cllr Wylie made it absolutely clear that compensation had been offered but not accepted.

The Ombudsman states that he had exercised his discretion to limit his formal investigation to events between 2005 and 2007, it is pretty clear from the tenor of his report that the failures go back much longer. Which makes Andy Wylie's comment pretty accurate.

In the circumstances, therefore, it seems to me that in using the term 'cover up' you are using emotive language to make a bogus point, in contrast to your leader Cllr Rackett last night.
Lobster Blogster now demands that Cllr Sharpe withdraws his comments above, and offers the Lobster a personal written apology.

There's quite a bit to follow up from this post. There's the matter of informing the Audit Commission and the Ombudsman of serious discrepancies between the reports they have independently produced, and there is the procedural issue of getting the matters raised here properly investigated at the council. The Lobster already has one outstanding urgent enquiry* to which the council has not even bothered to reply to, and so will continue to pursue these matters as and when time permits. As ever, watch this space for further developments.

* refers to a handcrafted LobsterGram, delivered to the front letter box of Watford Town Hall on Saturday morning

Marion Harris was Head of Housing between 27th October 2003 and 9th September 2007 when she transferred to the Watford Community Housing Trust.

Update 21/12/07
WBC's Head of Legal and Democratic Services has written to Lobster Blogster to establish that it was Cllr Andy Wylie who was the portfolio holder for housing during the period of maladministration. Mrs Chen confirms that no compensation has been paid.

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