Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Monday 19th October 2009 7pm

Full Council

Four motions were presented for debate at this full meeting of the Council: Value for Money; 10:10 Climate Change; Council Housing and Concessionary Fares Scheme.

 The First motion to be debated was Value for Money which had been proposed by the Conservative Opposition Group. I was surprised that the opposition persist with their accusations that this Council does not offer value for money which flies in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. As was listed by Councillor John Drage, Executive Member for Resources in his amendment to the motion, this Liberal Democrat run Council has been awarded by the independent body the Audit Commission the highest possible rating of four stars improving strongly for the last two years running and the international accountancy firm PriceWaterhouse Coopers rated Sutton as the best performing borough in London.

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In a specific Use of Resources Assessment by an external auditor Sutton achieved the highest possible overall score of 4 with individual assessments for ‘achievement of value for money’ and ‘managing and improving value for money’ both attaining 4s. In 2009 under a tougher assessment arrangement Sutton still achieved a 3 ‘performing well’ assessment both for value for money and overall use of resources.

And that is not all; in its April 2009 review of financial management in local government the Audit Commission uses Sutton as its best practice case study on understanding costs and achieving efficiencies.

I can only suppose that the Opposition believe that if they repeat their mantra often enough people will come to believe it.

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I found it amusing that whilst the Tories claimed the credit for our announcement of a council tax freeze for 2010/11 they didn’t appear to be the slightest bit pleased about it. Personally I felt that they only called for a freeze last year because they know the difficulties the council faces eking out its central government grant allocation and felt they could safely assume it would be impossible for the Liberal Democrat administration to achieve it. Fortunately our long term savings plans and determination to minimise the impact of the recession on our residents managed to come to fruition and enable us to maintain the council tax level for the next year. A bonus in the form of a grant refund had also allowed the Liberal Democrat administration to make it possible.

I took a one minute intervention to highlight the ludicracy of the Conservatives’ inclusion in their motion to apply a zero based budget review across the entire council. I quoted from my Chartered Accountancy Exam Revision Guide to set out the inappropriateness and excessive cost of applying zero-based budgeting to an entire organisation, never mind one as complex as a local authority.

The amended motion was passed by a majority vote.

The second motion debated was for the Council to sign up to the 10:10 climate change campaign to cut Britain’s carbon emissions by 10% by the end of 2010. An amendment had been submitted by Councillor Scully, leader of the Conservative opposition basically making some punctuation amendments and removing the reference to the Council’s One Planet Living strategy. Councillor Hall as Executive Member for the Environment had proposed the original motion but in the interests of reaching accord he agreed to support the amendment on the basis that whilst the Council was very much committed to achieving One Planet Living, he accepted that it was unlikely it would be attained by 2010.

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The debate consisted of members from both sides talking about the importance of taking measures to reduce our emissions and making practical suggestions. As all the Liberal Democrat members had pledged their commitment as a group some of our members spoke of the personal measures they would be taking to reduce their impact on the planet. Conservative Councillor Graham Witham made a bold speech about how the most important way to reduce our depletion of the Earth’s resources was to tackle population growth. This point was acknowledged, but I noted that it was probably too late for most members of the Council to make any personal pledges on this particular issue, myself included!

The next motion on Council Housing was much more of the usual verbal fisticuffs. Conservative Councillor Barry Russell proposed the motion with much posturing and foaming at the mouth and ended the debate in much the same mode, only redder. The Tories’ righteous indignation at the state of Sutton’s council housing was a strange pantomime and Lib Dem councillors took pains to highlight the lack of any real commitment to the cause shown by the Opposition. The absence of any Conservative representation on the Housing Panel was excused confusingly by the preferred member being ill and on honeymoon, and the lack of any suitably qualified substitute. I presume by that they meant the lack of any Conservative member with experience of living in council housing.

Apparently the absence of Tory support for the tenants at the recent town centre petitioning event was because they were doing their own petitioning elsewhere. And Philippa Strouds’ brief appearance for a photograph with the tenants only to disappear immediately was acceptable to the Tories who then accused us of hijacking the event as a photo opportunity.

London Mayor Boris Johnson was held up as a hero by the Conservatives for promising to unlock the funds previously pledged to Sutton by the Government for investment in Decent Homes only to have my colleagues point out that Boris had no authority over these funding arrangements and so was not in a position to promise anything.

The Lib Dems countered the accusation from the Tories about lack of investment in council housing by pointing out the millions spent on regenerating Roundshaw and Durand Close. They also pointed out how council housing stock had been depleted under the Thatcher implemented right-to-buy policy.

The Council agreed the amendment proposed by Councillor Stears with a majority vote.

There was insufficient time to debate the motion on the Concessionary Fares Scheme but earlier in the meeting we had the hilarious spectacle of every member of the Council being asked to declare whether they could be considered to have a personal interest in this particular item. As the yes replies cut a swathe through the room some of our more modest lady members conceded only a ‘possibly’ to some amusement. Less amusing is the potential effect the proposed changes to funding the concessionary scheme will have on council finances.concession[1]

This motion was unanimously agreed.

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November 11, 2009 - Posted by | Committee Meeting

10 Comments »

  1. Instead of relying an audit report would it not be better to find out if your services really are good? Don’t rely on the stars handed out by the Audit Commission. What happens if they are wrong? Won’t it be a shock at election time to find that there was a mismatch between what matters to your residents and the criteria that the Audit Commission assesses you on? Why don’t you go an listen to calls into your call centre. I will bet that your surgeries and postbag is full of complaints. Log how many are failure calls. Calls where somebody has had to phone more than once to try and get service. Do this in all of your services and then read a book called Systems Thinking in the Public Sector.

    Comment by Barton F | November 12, 2009 | Reply

    • We do that too.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | November 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. So you personally have gone down to listen to phone calls as they come into your call centre? How many were calls related to the failure to deliver the service right first time?

    Comment by Barton F | November 13, 2009 | Reply

    • There is a system which records calls and tracks complaints. The information is collated and regularly reported internally. The Council also has a ‘How did we do’ system in Civic Offices which asks residents to record their experience of dealing with the Council. I do not personally oversee these systems.

      We also look at information gathered by MORI Polls.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | November 13, 2009 | Reply

  3. Why don’t you personally go and listen to the demand hitting your system? You will find a massive gap between what your internal complaints and MORI polls tell you and what actually hits your system on a daily basis. If there is a gap between the two, wouldn’t you rather know about it now? This will tell you the truth about performance rather than the reality presented by your reporting systems. It also might help you to explain why as a 4 star council there may still be problems. Complaints systems rely on people being bothered to complain after an awful experience and the MORI poll asks people questions often about services that they have never received or how they feel about the council on the day and with other influences.

    Comment by Barton F | November 14, 2009 | Reply

  4. So as a leader you expect that the systems that are used to measure performance relate to the true experience of your customers? When the Staffordshire hospital debacle took place, the board also relied on exactly the same kind of information. That is why it came as such a huge shock when the truth was uncovered. The reality is that the Audit Commission reports and these other mechanisms do not relate to the experience of service users. The true way to understand what is happening in your organisation is to connect with the point where demand hits your system. It is the only way to tell if a gap between the two exists.

    I note that my previous comment was deleted – it may have been an accident – If it is deleted again I will happily forward my comments direct to you and your fellow councillors

    Comment by Barton F | November 14, 2009 | Reply

    • Your previous comment wasn’t deleted. Comments don’t appear until they have been moderated – see under ‘Comment policy’.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | November 14, 2009 | Reply

  5. The posting you have commented on was an account of the Council meeting I attended and the debate on Value for Money. I noted the independent assessments that relate specifically to that topic. The issue you are raising is slightly different.

    As the majority leadership the Liberal Democrats set the strategy & policies of the Council. They decide what to prioritise and how to allocate resources. It is then down to council officers and staff to implement those policies using the allocated resources.

    With their other hats on councillors also act as local champions for residents, taking up cases where services have not been delivered or residents are experiencing problems dealing with the Council and its partners. In this way we do get to hear about the gripes and grumbles of the residents, and as well as trying to help with the individual problem, as councillors we use this knowledge to alert management to places where service is not being delivered as expected or to change or amend policy. An example of this in practice is where a local service was not being carried out effectively and after a number of councillors alerting the council department to the problem the contractors for this service were changed.

    In this way the monitoring of the delivery of services against our policies is an on going process, combining our contact from local residents and internal reviews with independent external surveys, reports and audits. This combined knowledge is a tool which allows us to see where problems are occurring and take action to address it.
    We do not rely solely on external reports, which to a large extent are comparatives between councils, but which are a useful tool in allowing us to see whether we are moving in the right direction or not. I have added a link in the posting to the Audit Commission report on Sutton which can be explored to find out exactly what the scope of their work covers.

    From your comments it seems likely that you have personally had a bad experience in your dealings with the Council. If so I would recommend that you take this up with your ward councillor so that the problem can be looked into.

    Comment by jaynemccoy | November 14, 2009 | Reply

  6. Faced with the possibility that there might be a difference between my experience and performance as reported by your reports you aren’t interested to go and listen to see if this is the case?

    Comment by Barton F | November 15, 2009 | Reply

    • If I am your ward councillor or you are a carer then I am happy to look into your case. I suggest you write to me off site with the details.

      I have asked for a copy of the report of complaints and repeat calls logged for my ward over the past few months from all three call centres.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | November 16, 2009 | Reply


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