Courier 31 January 2003 Front Page and Page 7

Failing Council under scrutiny - Improve now or lose your powers, says watchdog

By Ian Read

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council must improve its service or face the embarrassment of having its power taken away after a scathing assemssment by an influential watchdog.

The Audit Commission report comes as the threat of job cuts and a council tax rise loom.

Now councillors fear if they do not improve their performance deputy prime minister John Prescott could send in a Whitehall hit squad.

The annual assessment rated 44 per cent of council services as below average in 2001/02 - putting management, e-mail accessibility, speed of housing benefit claims and the entire planning service in the bottom 25 per cent of the country.

The report said: "Members and senior officers must set the culture and begin to demonstrate that performance matters. Given the lack of progress to date it is imperative that this work is completed and delivered."

Council chief executive Rodney Stone agreed there was a chance of the government stepping in, which would affect staff morale and the council's reputation.
He said: "That could only happen if we make no progress or negative progress. That is an extremely remote possibility but we should not be complacent. I have identified 15 areas that we need to sustain progress on or make progress on in advance of the inspectors coming next year."
"All the nasty things said [in the report] have now been addressed and I am reasonably confident that there won't be any problems."
"We can't let up on this. These are things like people getting their benefit cheque or their planning application turned round wihtin a reasonable time - it is not just an academic exercise, it matters to people."

Scrutiny committee chairman Cllr Bruce Ballantine ( * ) said: "If we cohtinue to under-perform there is a real danger that the government will declare TWBC to be a failing council and it will then intervene.
"The implication is that the council is very poor but that is just an implication. When the Liberal Democrats were kicked out of power one of the reasons was because of a headline saying 'council in crisis'. The same applies here."

Auditors were critical of the new cabinet system of governing introduced last May which caused confusion among councillors.

Another fault was the council had no corporate plan. The report said: "The continued lack of a corporate plan with prioritised objectives means there is no strategic framework against which to undertake the best value reviews and to make decisions about resource allocation."
Council leader Len Horwood said: "The criticisms are being addressed. What is important is the action the council has taken since - a corporate plan will be in use by March."

There were some positives to be taken from the audit - the amount of below average services were down from the 2000/01 and the finances were called "sound".

A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said it would not intervene after this audit but did not rule out action in the future.
He said: "It depends on the individual council - the preferred method is to let councils identify their own failings and let them rectify them."

( * )
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council
Chairmain of the SCRUTINY COMMITTEE is: Councillors Bruce Ballantine (Liberal Democrat)
Vice-Chairman of the SCRUTINY COMMITTEE is: Councillor Miss Barbara Barber-Hughes (Conservative)
Other Members: Councillors Jukes (Cons), Smith (Cons), Waldock (Cons), Neve (Lib Dem), Mrs Blackmore (Labour)
Substitute Members: Councillors Mrs Paulson-Ellis (Cons), Price (Cons), Mrs Thomas (Cons), Mrs Lewis (Lib Dem), Mills (Lib Dem)

Courier 31 January 2003 Page 7

Senior Officers and Councillors Comments:

Workers may face the sack

Workers at Tunbridge Wells Borough council could face the sack as it attempts to tighten its belt to the tune of 1 million.
The Council is running low on spare cash and has already promised a rise in council tax.
It is trying to save at least 250,000 every year for the next four years and council chiefs have said the cutbacks could come through job cuts.

Council finance director Geoff Levitt said: "We have 12 million of staff costs a year and you can't avoid that cost in the grand scheme of things. there is no plan in place at teh moment but members will look at all options."
Council chief Rodney Stone said: "I don't know whether those savings are necessarily going to be staff-related or not.
In an organisation like ours, where almost three quarters of our costs are related to staff costs, we struggle to see how to make savings that would not involve some reductions in the number of staff."

A decision will be announced in March 2003.

Clash over audit report

Tunbridge Wells councillors clashed on Wednesday [29 January 2003] over a scathing report from a government watchdog.
Inspectors from the Audit commission were critical of Tunbridge Wells Borough council's services - and some members fear the government could step in if there is no improvement.
The annual report slammed the council for lack of a corporate plan, its handling of the new decision-making process and for 44 % of services performing in the bottom quarter (25 %) of the country.

At full council meeting Lib Dem Cllr David Mills said: "This is the sort of report which, unless we can radically turn things around, will lead towards a worse report and we are not that far from being labelled a failing council and having our responsiblities administerd by Whitehall."
But Conservative Cllr Roy Bullock said: "We should be making a judgment on what quality of service we want to provide to meet the expectations of our public, not the Audit Commission and not the government."

What went wrong with the Telephone House Planning Applications ?
The uneasy questions to the Chief Executive Rodney Stone and other senior officers of TWBC

2003, the questions are still unanswered - they are as intriguing as in 2001.
April 2002 - CALA Homes bought this planning application.
With an ever increasing awareness of the flaws in the design? - Foundations for sustainable and viable development?

more than 12 months before: 14.12.2001 - Council attacked over contracts

A guide through Tunbridge Wells Local Press since January 2003 - "Failing Council under Scrutiny"