‘Mewsings’ of a Member. 18th October – 22nd October.

(I write entirely in my own private capacity and the views of Flintshire County Council form no part of this personal blog).                I was going to start by moaning that my council  work continues to mount and I was close to being overloaded.  I was a member of 17 committees when I first represented Ewloe ward in 1996-9 and I was anxious not to get to this level of “busyness” again but then I had another think. “If you want to get something done”, goes the saying, “give it to a busy person”. So, no moaning! My days are mostly fully occupied with interesting and useful activities and I’m playing a part in assisting to help people plus the fact I’m being paid.    The week started with a  meeting with Head of Planning and my ever knowledgeable colleague, Cllr Patrick Heesom  Vice Chair of Planning.  The last Planning committee meeting was too long and an item was deferred at short notice which caused understandable annoyance to residents who had taken time off work etc. to hear the debate.  We also had the unusual experience of a 3rd Party Speaker wishing to address us in Welsh.  Planning staff had secured the services of an interpretor but it was necessary to explain how the headsets worked and it all took time.  Members of the public are now allowed to speak for or against the motion and are allowed three  minutes each.  A Town Cllr also has the right to speak as has the local member so that’s 12 minutes per application if all 3rd Party speakers exercise their right to address the committee. I  understand the frustrations  of all parties who arrived at the proper time, to be registered to speak and either not called through deferment or having to wait until 6pm before being called.  If some items had not been deferred, that particular meeting would not have finished until after 8pm.  Head of Planning is open to any suggestion to ensure things run smoothly but its difficult trying to find the right formula and if an application is ready to come before the committee, it should do just that as applicants are entitled to be heard within a given period of time. I hope that the October meeting was a one off and we can all get home at a more reasonable hour with all the items on the agenda heard. Community & Housing committee sat on Wednesday (20th) and as I was free I went and heard Clare Budden, Head of Housing introduce the result of a Council Customer Satisfaction Survey.  It was a very detailed piece of work I thought was worth very penny of the £15K it had cost. The Authority’s tenants were generally very satisfied with the Council’s Landlord Service with all residents  being 74% satisfied with only 12% being dissatisfied. The result for key neighbourhood issues were interesting.  Car parking made up the larger problem, coming at 41% whilst drug dealing and vandalism only scoring 12 and 17% respectively. Disruptive children/teenagers scored a high 23% coming third behind rubbish and litter complaints. We were all taken aback by the graph that focussed on “Residents Profile and learnt that some tenants are having to exist on £200 a week/£10K a year and that few few heads of the household were actually in work.  All very sobering information and with the promised cuts that will affect this Authority, the future for some appears very bleak indeed. For the first time, the Housing Department had a benchmark of performance and tenant satisfaction based on results, and we were disappointed that the Press had not been present to report the good work of the Housing team.  Although the general survey results appeared seemingly good & we lavished hearty praise on officers, our euphoria was short lived when bluntly told by a member that the survey did not reflect the full picture. This member had obtained the full National Housing report which gave a different slant on this Authority’s performance; which apparently showed that in all areas, this Authority came out the  lowest in Wales in every measurement. Clare Budden expressed disappointment with this jaundiced view and felt Housing was improving rapidly.  She was pleased with the 48% who had completed the survey and felt very upbeat that the tenants were getting a good deal from their landlord and the survey showed just that. Members were right to be cautious as the former interim Head of Housing that Clare Budden replaced, painted only the rosiest of pictures on performance and progress that  then turned out to spectacularly optimistic.   We also remembered how we had been told under the former regime, we all welcome this new openness and willingness to share information with members.  Of course such sharing will always lead to more questions but that’s how it works. The slide on “Contact Attributes” attracted interest as categories were explored: “satisfied with outcome of enquiry”, “staff to deal with problem”, “staff helpfulness”,and “Staff easy to get hold of”. This was not a good average against the national average so we asked if there was a problem.  We  learnt that all Housing staff have mobile phones, (important for their security) but  their numbers are not widely distributed nor does there appear to be offered a voice mail facility for the caller to leave a message.  Warning bells began to ring as it was clear staff were not the easiest to get hold of, so why were mobile phones not coming to the rescue?  ‘Numbers held, cost and who monitors the Corporate use from private use,’ I queried.  Executive Member did not know and I was firmly told off by another member for asking such an up front question.  “I don’t expect the answer now” I muttered “but we are here to scrutinise and I would like answers.”     “If you don’t get the information” I growled, knowing that this information should be available, “I shall use Freedom of Information”.  It won’t have to come to that of course. We work together as a team. Another cllr complained that he had asked for the cost of all Blackberries months ago but nothing had happened.  A result was promised. When, I’m not so sure. Several of us are still smarting  over officers’  ability to fob off the Audit committee for months over questions on the machinations & cost of bringing AD Waste in house only to learn by chance that the deal was done with AD Waste behind closed doors the day before Audit committee sat.  Talking to other members on other committees especially the Corporate Governance committee, or whatever its now changed its name to, probing questions are not encouraged and reasons for delay in proving important data in good time are wearing very thin. Members wanted answers on budgets and expenditure but  complaints arise because data is often late in its production and little is easily obtained when tricky areas of finance are investigated. This present Administration’s seeming unhealthy desire to share important data  is worrying as that surely means skeletons are lurking  to bite us at a later date! This lack of openness in some areas, (not all I hasten to add) may be addressed now that the New Independent Group was approved by the full Council on 22nd October.  Although Cllr Woolley welcomed the 9 strong group as ‘his critical friend’ and it is rumoured even offered Cllr Heesom, the main  player in this new Party’s formation, a place on his Executive, this offer was declined. This group means business.  They feel let down and frustrated that back benchers have very little say in policy and we are simply used as voting fodder. Codes of Conduct hang over the backbenchers like the sword of Damocles and one Executive member has really left a bad impression by being described as treating a particular cllr as “shite on the shoe”.  Not good!  Under the present regime, cllrs feel emasculated and having been voted in on a manifesto for change and value for money when first elected in 2008, the new Group feel they must make a stand for change in the last year or so of this Administration.  Its good that my Group support the New Independent 9 and will work in partnership for the good of the community we all serve.  Success breeds success & I imagine that before long, others will drift away from the rump of the original Alliance Group and seek membership of the New Independents team. Patrick Heesom has taken with him major scalps in the form of Carolyn Cattermoul and Tim Newhouse from the LibDems together with a handful of dedicated, impressive and very loyal members who are keen to start afresh under a Leadership they trust will deliver at last. Patrick Heesom’s strength and courage should be recognised as he has managed to turn negatives into positives even though he has been allegedly maligned, seemingly brought low by a long running external enquiry, & now unfairly accused of ensuring the Coalition is in “turmoil” in the local newspaper.  He is by far the most experienced and hard working member of the entire elected membership. His knowledge of planning, sheltered accommodation and tenants issues and all things Housing are second to none.  That this Authority has been denied his many talents and commitment to call to account failing departments and officers so as as to secure much needed change is a scandal. Why did this happen? Of course I know the full and shocking truth.  This truth will be revealed at the appropriate time in the interest of accountability to the public purse.  It’s rumoured that a position has frantically been offered to Cllr Heesom despite being  tipped off the Executive in March 09.  Its rumoured that the offer has been firmly rejected.  I should imagine that after months of being under the cosh and with loss of status and allowances, he wants to distance himself from this current  Administration. I share his sentiments.  After all that he has endured, Cllr Heesom must surely feel that he has been bullied, threatened and treated with disrespect by a fellow councillor.  I wonder if Patrick Heesom has any redress if this assertion is  true?  The way things work in my experience, I doubt it very much.

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