Tag: Monty

A shameful failure of scrutiny

A deal has been done between Mr Bluh and Mr Montaut, apparently in an attempt to suppress further scrutiny of Swindon Borough Council’s dealings with Digital City (UK) Ltd.

I have reached an agreement with the Labour Group Leader that as and when the wi-fi project, which is fully supported by both the Conservative and Labour Groups, has been finally cleared by the Scrutiny and Audit Committees then in the interests of allowing the wi-fi project to move forward without further damaging publicity, without incurring additional costs to the taxpayer and to stop the enormous amount of officer time being spent on this issue to date, I will ask the external auditor to confirm the findings of the internal audit report and also to confirm that due process has been followed throughout. It is time to allow this fantastic, innovative opportunity to get properly underway to deliver for Swindon.

There’s nothing fantastic about squandering local taxpayers’ money, Mr Bluh; nor in being so careless in the deal that much of what councillors and council officers have said on the matter has turned out to be untrue; nor in investing in a project so laxly run that even though it was eight months behind schedule and had to ask for its loan conditions to be relaxed, the company board had not met. And just how arrogant it is of Mr Bluh to think the District Auditor needs his permission to investigate. As I noted a couple of days ago, the District Auditor has already been asked to investigate the wifi deal.

What has this acheived for Mr Montaut? Nothing, just an external enquiry that would have happened anyway.

I have been calling for an external enquiry for months now, because this council needs to focus on the things that matter to all Swindoners, like getting value for money for our council tax payers and ensuring that our public services are working to suit the needs of our townspeople. With the external auditors now investigating the Conservative administration’s wi-fi deal, I believe the council can do this.

That sounds to me like Mr Montaut, the chair of the Swindon Borough Council’s Scrutiny Committee, wants to abandon scrutiny of this deal.

The role of the chair of a council’s scrutiny committee is to hold the council administration to account. To shirk that responsibility through worthless back-room deals like this is a shameful failure.

Contemptuous — pouring our money after bad

It seem that the wi-fi company to which Swindon Borough Council has loaned almost £½M of our money may be running a little short of cash. At a meeting of the council’s cabinet this coming Wednesday, there is a request to significantly relax some of the conditions of the loan.

Whilst fifteen out of the original nineteen Highworth progress measures have been considered to have been met, four have not been fully met to date…. These four measures, however, do not represent a significant enough risk to justify placing constraints on generating revenue by slowing down the roll-out of the Wi-Fi network across the rest of Swindon. All four measures are still expected to be achieved, however, variations are requested on the timing and scale of these.

Four out of 19 measures failed is not good, especially as they are some of the more measurable measures. And the failure to fulfil them indicates that the business case was significantly less robust than the likes of Mr Bluh would have us believe.

Measure 1: Originally stated: “Highworth network installed, working and accessible.”
Proposed variation: Highworth network installed, working and accessible to 90% of households and a commitment made that the two remaining router installations that enable consistent coverage for the outstanding 10% of Highworth will be completed within a week of planning consent being granted.

That’s not too significant of itself: 100% coverage is never a sensible measure. That it’s a consequence of the company not noticing that there are hills in Highworth, is rather more worrying. One would hope that they have learnt from this.

Measure 2: Originally stated: “Private sector sponsorship or commitment to future funding, to the value of at least £20,000, secured by end of Quarter 1.”
Proposed Variation: Expressions of interest received from the private and or public sector for investment once a Borough wide network is available.

So that’s replacing private sector money with a vague promise of more tax-payers’ money.

Measure 3: Originally stated: “Sold – at least 100 private use packages by the end of Quarter 1.”
Measure 4: Originally stated: “Sold – at least 25 business packages by the end of Quarter 1.”
Proposed Variation: The measures 3 and 4 be combined and changed into a single measure : “Sold – some business and private packages by end March”.

That’s a clear, easily measurable sales target being replaced by something vague and far less stringent. Just how many less than 125 packages is ‘some’? The council paper states the number of ‘packages’ sold:

as of Monday the 2nd March 5 packages were sold.

5 out of a planned 100. That’s not just poor, that’s pathetic. Just how badly does the company need to fail to meet its sales targets for Mr Bluh to recognise a commercial disaster?

Mr Montaut has expressed some concerns about these changes.

I understand that the Conservative administration are eager to get wi-fi rolled out throughout the borough. However, there is an investigation into the wi-fi deal being undertaken by the council’s Internal Audit and there have been enquiries made by the district auditor into the deal…. The council and Digital City stand to be in a much worse financial position if the auditors find the wi-fi deal to be contemptuous.

As has become all too familiar, the response from Mr Bluh to those expressing concern, rather than addressing those concerns, is just dismissive.

I am deeply disappointed that the opposition party should be so desperate to score political points that they are willing to sabotage and undermine private sector investment in Swindon.

Just how stupid does Mr Bluh think we are? Since when has £½M of taxpayers’ money been regarded as private sector investment?

The Labour opposition is being contemptuous of the residents of the borough by failing to support this investment. The Labour opposition is jeopardising the borough’s economic future by trying to bring down Digital City.

The only contempt I can see is from Mr Bluh, who seems to behave as those this is his own private investment, rather than taxpayers’ money. Has Mr Bluh ever asked the residents of the borough if they wanted this investment?

Mr Hunt also appears either naïve or to take his funders — Swindon council tax payers — as fools.

First of all the investment is a contract — the council pull out of this, they break the contract and face penalties.

Err… remind me, who is it that has failed to meet 4 of 19 contractual obligations under the loan agreement?

This political scrap is 100 per cent damaging our business plan.

The plan seems rather damaged even without any political problems. And if you don’t like politics, you shouldn’t go begging for public sector money. And if Mr Hunt doesn’t like politics, he shouldn’t be making political comments himself.

It has been very, very frustrating and what stuns me is that the Labour group are preventing us getting on with rolling out free wi-fi, which is something that will increase social inclusion – something I thought was at the heart of their group.

Let’s also be clear that concern on this isn’t just political. If the decision to spend almost £½M of our money had been made openly, there would be far less concern. It was not. The basis on which the decision was made remains a secret. Whilst that secrecy remains, the scrutiny will continue. Investigation by the Audit Commission would be more than welcome.

Monday night at the playpen

On Monday night, for the first time, I went to observe a meeting of Swindon Borough Council. This was the budget setting full council meeting. Even allowing for the poor reputation of politicians, one might expect that for an important issue like this the debate would be serious and behaviour respectable. Instead, there was a display of infantile posturing and bad temper.

The meeting started with a minute’s silence to mark the death of Ms Fowles, chief executive of the local NHS who died of cancer at the weekend. In tribute, Mr Bluh suggested that councillors should try and have a reasoned debate. It was advice that few — including Mr Bluh and his own cabinet — chose to follow.

During the first item on the agenda — confirmation of the minutes of the last meeting — Mr Perkins delivered the first of many ranting political lectures. Indeed, one of the three consistent features of the evening — the others being the number 21 bus and Mr Bluh’s now infamous smug arrogance — was Mr Perkins’ aggressive contempt for all those he disagreed with.

Next up were questions from the public. In response to one question Mr Young admitted that the £2M benefits to the local economy claimed for the Radio 1 Big Weekend were ‘partly speculative’. In response to another question, Mr Bluh claimed that ‘due process was followed’ when investing almost £½M in Digital City (UK) Ltd. He also said

As far as I am aware there is no Audit Commission investigation.

Awareness may not be one of Mr Bluh’s strong points.

Next were general questions from the councillors, during which Mr Wright got very hot and bothered over the matter of naming streets and announced he was referring the matter to the borough solicitor. The names of streets seemed to worry Mr Wright more than how the council spends our money.

After ¾ hour it was on to the main item for the evening: the council budget. According to Mr Edwards his budget was ‘brilliant’. Naturally, Mr Montaut disagreed and proposed an amended budget, for the same cost but different services. Much knockabout political squabbling then followed, with Mr Perkins and Ms Foley in rather a lot of words accusing the opposition of being stupid and Mr Bluh taking the ‘nice try but should have done better; much better’ approach, and the red nest trying to make up for lack of numbers by shouting all their speeches.

Most bizarre moments of the evening for me were Mr Bawden making a speech opposing a budget needing a higher council tax, even though that wasn’t what the opposition had proposed, and Mr Ali delivering a political speech that made almost no mention of budget plans but wouldn’t have been out of place in a general election hustings for his candidature in Devizes.

However, perhaps the most telling point was when Mr Wright observed that an essential element of civic pride is ensuring that basic things, like keeping the streets clean, are done and done well. To this Mr Bluh responded

The Tabernacle stones and canal are about the bigger picture and Swindon moving forward.

For Mr Bluh running a council during a financial crisis is clearly more about vain legacy projects than serving the basic needs of Swindon.

Over confident

The local red nest have chosen a candidate to replace Mr Wills — if the electorate are willing, that is. So, for what does Mr Agarwal stand?

As a county councillor for Stanwell & Stanwell Moor in Surrey — of which he has been a lifelong resident —, Mr Agarwal, the self-styled Stanwell’s Voice, has expressed opinions on some topics that will be familiar to people in Swindon. He is, for example, a fan of council-supported wi-fi, unlike his Swindon colleagues.

I am currently working with Council Officers to see if it is possible that Stanwell & Stanwell Moor could have wi-fi access…. As Stanwell residents we could all work where we want to, when we want to, in the park, in the pub, in the garden…. The only city which has already done this is Seattle in America where residents have seen an enhancement to the quality of life.

Not surprisingly, he’s also no fan of blue nest dominated councils.

When you become a one-party local authority, things can get pushed through ‘on the nod’.

Rather like decisions on wifi provision? He supports the government’s national identity card scheme, which will win him no favours with Swindon’s No2ID campaigners.

He is also, apparently, committed to serving his local community in Stanwell and the Moor…

As someone brought up in Stanwell since infancy I am committed to serving my community and fellow residents.

Though obviously not quite as committed as he once was.

Some, such as Mr Montaut are taking the will of the people of North Swindon for granted.

This is a Labour town, and this is our seat.

Just what parts of ‘marginal constituency’ and ‘Conservative controlled council’ has Mr Montaut not understood? Mr Agarwal has managed to survive as Surrey’s only Labour county councillor by placing great emphasis on his long-term residence in the area. He can’t do that here; his main opponent can.

Falling trees

Remains of the fallen tree. © komadoriCentral Swindon’s clown councillor, Mr Montaut, has been quick to political point scoring after a tree fell during the Armed Forces Family Fun Day in Faringdon Road Park.

Coun Montaut questioned whether Swindon Council was carrying out sufficient checks on the trees after recent cuts to its ground maintenance budget. He said: “What we cannot have is this type of thing happening in a public arena especially at a time when hundreds of people attend events like this. We need to make sure people can enjoy themselves in a safe environment.”

In fact the tree surgeons from Swindon Commercial Services spent much of last week in the park, but working on the trees on the opposite side of the park from the one that fell this weekend. As the tree surgeon who was called to the scene said, trees are unpredictable.

It can still happen — the tree is in full leaf so you wouldn’t expect anything to happen. If there’s decaying trees in the area we take them down straight away, we don’t take any chances, but trees are unpredictable.

From what’s left of it, the tree was clearly rotten at the core of its trunk. But so are many trees for many years. If Mr Montaut had his way, many substantially healthy trees would be felled, just in case an accident happened. Unnecessary felling of trees is a longstanding habit of councillors throughout the country. There’s already been enough instances in Swindon without Mr Montaut encouraging more.

Predictable

One might think that, with politicians, rightly, getting such a bad press at the moment, they might make some effort to appear to be working purely in the interests of their electorate. But no, of course not. They’re politicians: playing politics comes first.

Thus it is that within a month of the leaders of the local red and blue nests making conciliatory noises about trying to work together more, they’re back to squabbling. Predictable squabbling, with exactly the same accusations as they make every time there’s a similar situation. The council applies for extra subsidy, and each side claims it was entirely down to them and that t’other party was a hindrance. Just what is it about applying for subsidy that they think is worth crowing about? Especially when the conditions attached to the application are such that if the application is unsuccessful we’ll be left worse off than if the application had never been made. And now Mr Montaut has reverted to slinging political jibes, accusing the blues running Swindon Borough Council of being arrogant.

The Tory administration in Swindon is becoming increasingly arrogant in the way that it runs the council…. People feel disconnected from politicians at the moment and it is vital that we show we want to listen to the people who have put their trust in us.

It seems to have escaped Mr Montaut’s attention that at the moment almost nobody is putting any trust in politicians. If they want some of that trust back, not only do they need to get their snouts out of the tax-payers’ trough, they also need to stop indulging in vacuous political point scoring.

Who is he representing?… yet again

As I’ve said before, Mr Montaut puts political posturing above representing those in Central ward where he is a councillor. Mr Greenhalgh has suggested putting up cameras at road junctions to catch those jumping red lights. Mr Montaut’s response? He claims speed cameras would be more effective.

The idea of red light cameras is an interesting one and I’m sure it would have an effect but the problem is that they will not be situated in the areas which are accident blackspots, which is where we need to be focusing our attention. The fixed speed cameras were put in positions which were accident blackspots in order to make those areas safer.

I’ll leave aside for the moment that it’s an odd belief that the only way to make an accident blackspot safe is to put up a speed camera. I’ll also let pass the wasteful idea that cameras should be placed where most accidents happen rather than where they will be most effective.

For the moment, just think about the roads in central Swindon. Most of them are slow speed — the traffic is too heavy for anyone to get anywhere near the speed limit for much of the day. However, there are a large number of traffic light controlled junctions, some of which already have cameras installed. By following his party’s line, Mr Montaut seems to value the safety in the ward he’s meant to represent less than he does in the suburbs in which he himself lives.

Penhill and Ride

Today brings that rarest of rare events: Mr Montaut making a sensible and understandable suggestion. Here’s his utterance from that rare lucid moment.

We can keep the car park open and redirect people on to existing public transport. This will cut the costs to the council taxpayers while preventing the traffic nightmare that will be caused by completely closing the site. It would also support Thamesdown Transport through these tough times while supporting the administration in delivering promise 43.

Promise 43, for those that have forgotten, is

We will work with bus companies to increase the frequency and hours of operation. We will also work with parish councils to develop good rural transport links and increase overall the number of bus journeys by 13% by 2006 and a further 20% in the following five years.

There’s only one slight flaw in Mr Montaut’s argument. Currently there are no Thamesdown Transport services that pass by the Groundwell Park & Ride car park. The number 17 service does pass very close though, as it loops round Penhill before heading directly into town along Cricklade Road. It seems this isn’t good enough for the campaigners.

As a commuter, normal buses take too long to get to work, particularly for users living in village areas. It would just add to journey times.

Even with a loop round Penhill, would taking a bus service that uses the bus lanes really take longer than driving a car and joining the traffic jam? Is it really the journey time that bothers Ms Spinks, or is it the thought of having to share a bus with residents of one of Swindon’s more maligned estates?

Never happy

There’s no pleasing some people. Take Mr Montaut for example. First he complains that a Christmas tree in the Magic Roundabout might be too distracting to drivers. Now that the tree’s in place, he’s complaining that it’s too dull!

Still, if nothing else he’s given us yet another montyism*:

I was disappointed, but not in a negative way.

*Montyism n Statement that is so illogical and contradictory as to be humorous.

Who is he representing?… again

It really is time that Mr Montaut remembered that he is a councillor for Central ward and should be representing the interests of the people that live there. Not for the first time, central Swindon’s clown councillor seems to be putting political interests before those of his ward. Given the choice of putting a Christmas tree on the Magic Roundabout, or putting it somewhere else, Mr Montaut prefers the somewhere else option.

There are other parts of the town that could benefit from something like this and I think the money would be better spent in those areas.

With representatives like this, who needs enemies? Mr Montaut also seems to know some giant football hooligans.

There is also the possible problems you could have with the sad minority of people who go to football matches to cause trouble – it could be seen as a trophy to opposing fans.

It’d take a rather substantially built hooligan to carry away a 49 ft tree as a trophy… but apparently in Monty’s fantasy world, anything is possible.