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Thursday, 6 November 2014

Tower Hamlets and Brent

Eric Pickles has intervened in Tower Hamlets, and effectively taken over control of parts of the Council.  Something similar was done by the Welsh government in Anglesey, and I have warned it is a danger for any authority that fails to meet its legal obligations, including Brent.  The full statement is here.  I thought it would be useful to go through his statement and see how it could be applied to Brent.  His words are in italics.

PwC found that the mayoral administration’s grants programme handed out taxpayers’ money with no apparent rationale for the grant awards... There was no proper monitoring. Grants were systematically made without transparency.

This has been a fear in many local authorities.  Brent has made long strides to try make its grant giving systematic and transparent, but there have been problems in individual cases.  I particularly think of the "offer" around the former Preston Library as running into difficulties as not being in line with the Council's established policy on libraries or its fiduciary duty.  A lot of people seem to have trouble connecting this kind of concrete example to these rather abstract principles, but I think there is a real danger of the former Preston Library case offering a possible reason for SoS intervention.

This has also often been a danger in some cases of ward working grants.  Hence, it is vitally important to have a paper trail to show that everything is above board.  The fact that some councillors and groups find this irksome makes it no less important.  Eric Pickles has explicitly justified his intervention on the failure of Tower Hamlets to carry out its "best value" duty. 

On land disposal, properties were sold to third parties without proper process.

Again this is a danger for any Council.  Undeclared interests, leaks of confidential information in the bidding process and "sweetheart" deals are all dangers.  Whether any of these have applied to Brent Council I cannot say.

Taxpayers’ money was spent on unlawful political advertising for the mayor.

As far as I know, Brent has not run into this kind of difficulty.  Occasional complaints by one or other party have struck me as essentially groundless.  However, the number of communications staff has grown in the past couple of years, which is rather odd as in some cases communications work has been outsourced.  Whether there is anything wrong about this is impossible to say without further information. 

Irregular practice took place in the awarding of contracts. For example, PwC identified cases in which one of the council’s officers recalls that, during a meeting, the mayor allegedly annotated a list of suppliers to indicate which suppliers he did not wish to be selected. 

There were attempts to do this in the case of the award of the Public Realm Contract to Veolia.  Despite some rather unnecessary toing and froing, that attempt failed, and the Public Realm Contract was awarded on proper criteria. 

The council’s core governance arrangements have centred on the three statutory officers: the head of paid service, the chief financial officer, and the monitoring officer. The council has failed to make permanent appointments to those key positions. Currently, all three posts are held by interim appointments. PwC concludes that the governance arrangements do not appear capable of preventing or responding to the succession of failures by the mayoral administration. Executive power is unchecked and executive power has been misused.

This is a very serious danger for Brent Council.  Brent last had a permanent Chief Executive in October 2012, when the incumbent was removed without explanation by Cllr Muhammed Butt.  Since then the post has been held by an interim Chief Executive.  This is part of a pattern of relying on a growing number of interim staff, and has caused me concern in the past

Free and fair elections must be the bedrock of local democracy.

As far as I know, there is no substantial reason to be concerned by the conduct of local elections in Brent.

In addition to the reasons given above for intervention, Brent Council has credible concerns over the possible misconduct and/or incompetence of its human resources.  There has been a well documented Employment Tribunal case involving racist bullying, but I believe that there have been other cases of bullying and victimisation, and that there is currently no effective mechanism addressing this.  The rise in the use of interim staff also concerns me as its may well point to wasted public resources.

At the same time, institutional barriers to corruption have been weakened, and the Scrutiny functions that should provide a check on abuses have been virtually abolished.  In addition, the switch away from collegiate decision making to a more Leader led model makes all the operations of the Council less transparent, and arguably less competent.  

Hilary Benn's response shows that there is cross party agreement that competent and honest decision making in local government must be safeguarded.  I certainly don't think that Brent has got to anything like the depth of Tower Hamlets, but there is a real danger that standards are slipping, and I hope Brent councillors take action before outside parties do.  If Brent were ever to lose its reputation in the way Tower Hamlets has done, it would take many years to recover.

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