Will Waltham Forest Labour Group finally take proper action to deal with the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund scandal?

Over the last year or so I have become increasingly exasperated by the failure of the Labour Group Leadership on Waltham Forest Council to respond effectively to the widening concerns about how Neighbourhood Renewal Fund monies have been used in the Borough.

In February of last year, I asked a series of Parliamentary Questions about the concerns that were being raised: firstly about the use of money by EduAction who were at that time running the Borough’s education service, then to what extent Government Offices properly monitor the use of Neighbourhood Renewal Funds (checking the outcomes claimed) and whether the Government was satisfied with the work done by Dr Foster Intelligence for Waltham Forest (using central government monies), and finally about whether the Government Office for London was happy that money intended for five wards with high deprivation had been spent elsewhere.

These questions related to information passed to me from local residents that suggested that outcomes relating to non-existent children had been claimed in respect of the Youth at Risk programme, that £47,000 had been paid for a health needs assessment of the area that had not been reclaimed despite the organisation that provided the assessment acknowledging that the work concerned was inadequate and broke its own standards for accuracy, and that money had been diverted away from the areas targetted towards other pet projects.  The answers I received suggested that there was no formal process by which Government Offices checked whether the outcomes claimed for particular projects funded by them as the individual local authorities were the accountable bodies for the expenditure.  The Government Office confined itself to monitoring the progress of the local authority as a whole towards theoverall targets set.

I followed this up with a long series of requests to the Council under the Freedom of Information Act, as did local residents and others.  Eventually, the Council was goaded into action and published some of the findings of its own internal auditors and commissioned external reviews of some of its processes. 

These raised even more concerns – such as, the £6,000 received by one external contractor although £66,000 had been paid to him according to the documentation in the accounts.  Significantly, one of the external inquiries found that the documents about how individual decisions on payment of specific grants were made, by whom and the purpose for which the grants had been made were missing in a large number of cases.

In respect of a number of these issues, local residents have asked the police to investigate.

Now, the Council’s new Chief Executive has proposed a further and broader inquiry that will look at ALL of the Council’s procurement processes.  As the local newspaper says:

Documents reveal a systemic failure within the council to correctly allocate, administer and monitor Neighbourhood Renewal Fund spending since 2004.

A police investigation is currently conducted into allegations that EduAction, the company which used to manage education in the borough, used NRF money to boost profits.

The Better Neighbourhood Initiative (BNI) was launched in an attempt to target NRF more effectively, but it later emerged that many BNI contracts, totalling millions of pounds, did not follow rules to prevent fraud.

Throughout the developing scandal, the leadership of the Labour Group in Waltham Forest seems to have been hoping that the problem would simply go away.  Initially, they declared themselves confident that all decisions had been properly taken.  They resisted further investigations – so much so, that the traditional questions of “What did they know and when did they know it?” started to be asked.

At one stage, I received a phone message from one of them, noting that I was asking all these questions and inviting me to “resolve it within the Party”.  I am afraid there are wider public interest questions at stake here and these matters need to be seen to be resolved openly and transparently.

Now they have an opportunity: the Chief Executive has proposed a further inquiry (I assume this is not intended as another delaying tactic), so when they discuss his recommendation tomorrow night, they should acknowledge that things have gone seriously wrong, commit themselves to being totally open about who was responsible, and put in place all the necessary steps to restore public confidence.  Nothing less will be sufficient.

Would you want to be known as “The Chicken Cottage Crew”?

I hear that Kensington and Chelsea Council have revoked the late trading licence of a take-away fried chicken establishment called “Chicken Cottage”.  It will now have to close by 11pm after police had to attend over seventy incidents there in the last year, involving gang-related attacks, intimidation, theft and criminal damage.

The Royal (as it prefers to be known) Borough’s spokesperson commented:

“This case sends a clear message to other late night establishments that
they can’t sit back and let their premises become a magnet for crime and

What I find amazing is that the gang who frequented the place liked to be known as “The Chicken Cottage Crew”. 

Dictionary definitions of chicken include: “A coward” and “A young gay male, especially as sought by an older man”.  As for cottage …..

Given how often gang members like to appear macho and are frequently overtly homophobic, this particular crew must have had an advanced sense of irony.

Whose fault will it be if London is in chaos tomorrow?

I gave Mayor Johnson the benefit of the doubt over Monday’s chaos in snow-bound London.  However, if the expected snowfall promised for tomorrow/Saturday materialises AND there is chaos again, it will be harder for him to escape the blame this time.

Some suggested that Mayor Johnson had been too busy writing his Daily Telegraph article last Sunday to check that the London borough councils had the appropriate number of gritting lorries ready to roll and at least ensure that the major routes were open so that the bus network could operate.  Maybe he did or maybe he didn’t.  If he did, no doubt he was assured that it was all going to be alright.  Even if he didn’t, he might reasonably have assumed that with the amount of warning that had been given of the bad weather, the various councils would have got their act together.

This time, those excuses will not be sufficient.

There is ample evidence from last Monday that the London Boroughs hadn’t got proper plans in place and, if they gave Mayor Johnson assurances that they had (assuming he asked), he now knows that those assurances aren’t worth very much.

What is more we have been warned all week that a second wave of heavy snow is likely, if not certain.

London Councils have now said that they have sufficient grit supplies to last the next few days, and that grit supplies will continue to be replenished – but, given the record of last Monday, is that enough reassurance?

By Tuesday of this week, Mayor Johnson was so confident that the situation was under control that he turned up unexpectedly at the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.  (He originally had been let off attending because he would be too busy keeping London functioning during the snow, but even after the Committee Chairman had announced at the beginning of the meeting that the Mayor would not be attending he showed up 90 minutes later.  It may be that his appearance was intended to deflect attention from what had been happening on the streets of London because he started a few other hares running …….)

So on the basis of all that can we assume it is all going to be OK, if the snow comes again in heavy quantities?

I hear, in fact, that the Councils are running short of grit and that it is at least possible that chaos will occur again.  If it does, the Mayor will look at best complacent and gullible and at worst incompetent.

Apparently local councils planned their gritting failures “meticulously”

According to the new Chief Executive of the (national) Local Government Association, John Ransford, councils had planned “meticulously” for three days with every resource deployed in the run up to Monday’s snow chaos with many key routes – in London at least – apparently ungritted.  Now, I know that Ransford has been appointed following his predecessor being pushed out for not being robust enough in defending local authorities’ over-exposure to Icelandic banks, but to call the planning meticulous …….

Meanwhile, Hopi Sen’s blog from the backroom asks what Mayor Boris Johnson was doing last weekend.

So was it Mayor Johnson’s fault that there were no buses in London today?

The answer is probably not.  Yes, this was the worst snow London has faced in many years.  However, it was not exactly unexpected: the Met Office had been issuing severe weather warnings for several days and it was clear that London was likely to be badly hit.

Transport for London (Chairman: Mayor Boris Johnson) made the judgement very early this morning that it would be unsafe for the buses to run.  This was probably correct: an out-of-control double-decker or bendie-bus skidding down a hill is a pretty scary prospect.

However, the real issue is why were so few roads around London adequately gritted?  Even by midday some major arterial roads had still not been gritted by the relevant local borough councils.  When I was a London Council leader – admittedly more than ten years ago – I remember an annual ritual when as elected members we would be asking the Borough Engineer and his staff about the “gritting plan” for the Borough’s roads.

So Mayor Johnson – rather than appealing to heaven for no more snow (“it’s the right kind of snow, but the wrong sort of quantities”) – should be asking his mates in London Councils (now majority Conservative led) why they let Londoners down so badly.

The whole of London should be able to use the Olympic logo

An unedifying spat has broken out between London Boroughs as to which Councils can use the Olympics rings logo in the run up to the 2012 Games.  Apparently, the five Boroughs around the Olympics Park believe that they should have the exclusive right to use the logo.

They are wrong.  The bid was for London as a whole.  All of London (and indeed the rest of the country as well) should feel ownership of the Olympics.  Yes, of course, the five Boroughs face more disruption than the rest, but they will also get more of the long-term benefits.

Grow up and stop being parochial.

Mayor Johnson at the Mansion House – lots of style but not much substance

Last night was the annual dinner presided over by the Lord Mayor of London for the Governing Bodies of London.  The Lord Mayor is not, of course, Boris Johnson, who is the elected Mayor for all of London (not just the square mile administered by the Corporation of London).  This dinner packed several hundred of the capital’s politicians and administrators into an intimate dining room in the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence.

The occasion importantly provides a platform for the elected Mayor to set out his views on the state of London and there was a bravura performance by Mayor Johnson, responding to a sober speech from the Lord Mayor on what is needed for London to survive the economic situation.  Essential the message was “times are tough” but “we are going to get through it”.  The package humorously presented (I suspect the audience would have been disappointed if Mayor Johnson’s style had been as straitlaced as the Lord Mayor’s) essentially boiled down to avoiding the over-regulation of bankers, some apprenticeships in tunnelling (building a “cloaca maxima” under the Thames), the new Routemaster (restoring every Londoner’s inalienable right to injure themselves jumping on and off a moving bus), the rent-a-cycle scheme (even if it’s wrong, we’re still going to do it), and a freeze on the Mayor’s precept on London Council Tax.

It was entertaining stuff, but on the day when the Bank of England had cut interest rates to their lowest level since the Bank was established in 1694 it all felt a bit light on substance.

Mayor Johnson was in many ways upstaged by Merrick Cockell, the Chair of London Councils (the umbrella body for the London Boroughs, which was known as the Association of London Government when I chaired it).  His speech set out what the Boroughs are and will do to help Londoners ride out the economic downturn and set out how the Boroughs, the Greater London Authority and central government should work together to deliver the most effective policies to enable London – the economic driver of the UK economy – to emerge stronger at the end of the current period and so best deliver a kick-start to the rest of the UK.

Merrick Cockell also got the best laugh of the evening, comparing the  GLA and London Councils with (among other things) Rod Hull and Emu with Mayor Johnson cast in the role of Emu

Strangely, Mayor Johnson referred to a couple of London Assembly members by name in his speech.  He highlighted the referral by Len Duvall of remarks made by the Mayor to the Standards Board (if the Conservatives are so confident that the issue is now going to go away following the decision to set up a “timely and proportionate” inquiry why mention it?) and he also made some remarks about how nice the Mansion House was and the sort of building appropriate for the style and status of an Assembly Member like Caroline Pidgeon – now what did he mean by singling her out?

The most shocking thing about Mayor Johnson’s performance was, however, his attitude to London itself.  He rightly said that 200 years ago London was the greatest city in the world.  Apparently, now, however, it is only “one of the greatest cities in the world” – can’t we expect a more upbeat attitude from our elected Mayor?

Should Gordon Brown set his sights higher than 100,000 jobs created through public works?

In his New Year interview with The Observer today, Gordon Brown talks about creating 100,000 jobs by a programme of public works, focused on school repairs, new rail links, hospital projects, investment in eco-friendly projects and the broadband infrastructure.

This is all eminently sensible, but should really be on a much greater scale. The 100,000 jobs presumably equates to the £3 billion of public investment included in last month’s PBR statement. I argued then that the balance was wrong with too great an emphasis on boosting consumer spending by cutting VAT.
Nothing that has happened since alters my view.
Yes, there has been a splurge of High Street buying – mainly of imported goods (this will no doubt help maintain world employment levels, but won’t do a lot in the UK and will further push down the value of the £ against the € and the $). Interestingly, elsewhere in The Observer, the excellent Bill Keegan (delightfully appointed a CBE in the New Year honours) points out that much of this High Street spending may have been overseas visitors capitalising on the low exchange rate.
Instead, we should be treating the economic situation as an opportunity to invest in the UK’s long-term future. The Government should set a series of infrastructure objectives to be achieved over the next four or five years and put in place the resources and mechanisms for these objectives to be met. For example, local councils could be tasked to achieve better insulation and energy efficiency in the housing stock in their areas, a major programme to further improve school buildings and health care facilities should be instituted, every home, every school and every NHS facility should be cabled and enabled to have high speed broadband access with public wi-fi access in every town centre etc..
The opportunity should be taken to improve skills and equip young people (and indeed any adult) with the training needed to achieve their aspirations in the modern world.
No doubt this is ambitious, but – as Barack Obama has preached about ‘The Audacity of Hope’ – perhaps in the UK a Labour Government should dare to put that hope into practice.

Huge chaos remains in the arrangements for public and patient involvement in health

I have just been to a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, which heard from representatives of the National Association of LINks’ Members. 

For those with long memories, each health district used to have a local Community Health Council (CHC) which was there to represent the interests of NHS users in that area (I should declare an interest in that from 1987 to 1998, I was the Director of the Association of CHCs for England and Wales.)  In 1999, the Government decided to abolish CHCs on the basis that the reforms then being introduced in the NHS would make separate patients’ representation unnecessary.  After a big campaign, the Government conceded that, while CHCs in England would still be abolished, new structures called Patient and Public Involvement Forums would replace them around the country.  These were still finding their feet (and were still in many instances weak and watery substitutes for the old-style CHCs) when their abolition in turn was announced.  Again there was a campaign and as a result the Forums did not finally close until the end of March this year.  In the Forums’ place were to be new structures to be called Local Involvement Networks (LINks).   These would be funded via a Department of Health allocation to the local authorities in their areas.  The local authorities would then contract with another organisation to “host” the LINk for the area.

Inevitably, the new arrangements took some time to be set up and the Department of Health has acknowleded that they will not really be ready to operate until next year – leaving a gap of nine months to a year when there will have been no formal mechanism for patient representation in place.

The evidence from the National Association of LINks’ Members (an informal grouping of individuals who were involved in the Forums and want to see the new system work as well as it can) is that there are huge variations around the country in what has been done to get LINks up and running.  As indicated above, the process is a convoluted one: local councils receive an allocation for this work and must appoint a “host” organisation to run the local network.  According to the Association, some local authorities have retained substantial sums for “administration” and have not passed all of the allocation on to the “hosts”.  There is in most parts of the country a lack of clarity about what the “hosts” will provide for their allocation of money (what guidelines there are from the Department of Health are very permissive to allow local variation).  The Association feel that some “hosts” see their role as a money-making venture for their organisations (and in a number of instances have bidded to act as “hosts” in several local authority areas) and that often only limited resources have been made available to support the local volunteers who are trying to act as patient representatives and visit/inspect healthcare establishments.

All in all the Association presented a picture of precisely the sort of chaos that was predicted when the legislation went through Parliament.