A guest post by Dan Haycocks
Firstly, I'd like to thank Daz for allowing me to make a guest post on the Bracknell Blog. I don't run a blog myself, and I admire the effort and commitment it takes to keep a blog current as Daz and many others do, so having the opportunity to reach a wider audience through his hard work is very much appreciated.
Right, on to the story at hand. Regular readers might remember me – I'm the amateur film maker/thorn in the side of the elected, who stood in the general election against MP's abusing their expenses, and in particular, our ex local MP who helped himself in royal style. I've been concentrating on work since then, but something recently caught my eye, so I had to investigate.
Visitors to Bracknell town centre might be delighted to note the new mural that has been painted on the subway between the town centre and Bracknell and Wokingham College. Much like a visit to Sea World in Florida but without leaving Blighty, residents can enjoy an 'undersea tunnel' of fish, turtles, sharks and rays as they make their way through to the shopping area, and I'm sure the children in our community enjoy it greatly. What follows calls into question the wisdom of this work, but I want to be clear from the start – I have no objection at all with making our environment a nice place to be – if we have the funds of course.
One thing puzzled me, though – when cuts are being made to social care for the elderly, teaching places for local schools, social support for the vulnerable and many other services that I think most compassionate residents would consider 'essential', is it right that we're spending big money painting subways with such elaborate paint schemes? So, inevitably, a Freedom of Information request was submitted, to understand what the cost to the taxpayer was. Here's the initial response: FoI1 LINK
From my observations, it took the company performing the painting about 4 weeks to complete the job, and there were between two and four decorators working at any one time. I calculated that if it took four people four weeks, and they were paid £500/week each, it would come to around £6,000 in wages, and then some more for the materials and paint – still a silly amount of money to spend, but I thought I must be overestimating. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the final figure came through - £16,635. Or, in real terms, a teaching assistant for a year, a community nurse, or perhaps two part time carers for the elderly or vulnerable. And all for one subway?!
Now, I could do a Victor Meldrew as I did with the Andrew 'Fingers' Mackay episode and have a good rant about the stupidity of this and try and shame the council, but I don't think that would make any difference. In the cold light of day, it's pretty clear that this funding was allocated to the responsible department, and they were spending their budget, as they're told to, in isolation from other departments. So I thought to myself, do something positive – get a meeting with the head of the department responsible, explain in simple terms how I understand things to be working with regards to departmental budgets, ask him or her to acknowledge that spending this much decorating a subway while we're reducing the 'essential' public services seems a bit loopy (a polite way of acknowledging the madness), and then ask him or her to join me in making an effort to change the way council funding is controlled. Clearly, if departmental budgets are the reason that spending this much renovating a subway is OK during times of austerity, then the process has to be changed. I can't, as a compassionate human, believe anyone would think that having our elderly die alone through lack of resources, children not getting the education they need, or social workers being too busy to save the abused child, is acceptable when £16,635 is spent painting a subway.
I did pass the FoI response to a few friends and asked them to comment. My good friend Dom suggested alternative ways of achieving a revamped subway, such as allowing the art department in the college to take ownership of it and allow the students to use it as a gallery for their work. I loved this idea, and it reeks of 'Big Society' so I contacted Lorraine Zutshi, the head of the Arts team at the college. She informed me that they used to be invited to decorate the subways, but this time round they weren't consulted at all. She also noted that she'd be delighted to be given the opportunity again, as they have a Community Art element to their syllabus – perfect!
Or perhaps having the long term unemployed engaged to paint them, allowing them to gain work skills, a bit of confidence, the feeling of doing something worthy with their time, and something to add to their CV's. I also had many people comment that a coat of paint would have sufficed, if indeed the subway painting is that important. Some also suggested using Community Service to get the job done and get them giving something back to the community.
For me, however, this issue runs deeper. I do appreciate that this is one small spend the council have made that seems to defy logic – I'm sure there are plenty more, and to be frank, I don't have the time or patience to uncover them all. But that doesn't matter – the important thing here, in my opinion, is to have the council think about how they organise their budgets, and make sure that this type of spend occurs after those services we all need (rather than those we would like) are funded. I think most other taxpayers would feel the same – at least my straw poll seems to suggest that's the case.
I therefore made an appointment to meet with Steve Loudoun, the Head of Environment and Public Protection, on Monday 6th June at 3pm. I took my camera along, and a copy of the memo sent by Bob Neill MP, the Under Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government, a link to which is here. In his memo, Bob makes clear that for open, transparent politics, it's perfectly acceptable for local bloggers and citizen journalists to film meetings with council staff, and to publish the film online. I genuinely had no intention of putting Steve on the spot, so I asked him for permission to film the meeting, which he declined. I then brought up the memo and he dismissed that straight away too. When I then asked if we could plan a subsequent meeting where he would be happy to talk to camera, he also refused. Hmmmm – so much for transparency and open government! Perhaps I broke the rules by filming him refusing to be filmed, but I did do the right thing and switched it off once it was clear he was not going to agree to be filmed that day. I wanted to be sure I'd given him every opportunity to decline and meet at a later date if that was his preference, with evidence of the same.
One other oddity with the brief meeting I had with Steve – he presented me with a response to question 4 of my FoI (FoI2 LINK), after the compliance officer had declared that the data wasn't held by the council and couldn't be provided – why is it one has to insist and be pushy to get answers to FoI requests? Or are they just routinely dismissing requests as a matter of course, showing more contempt to the residents of the borough? I think he probably thought he could hand over that answer to question 4, and that was his final word on the matter. Why are questions so difficult to deal with for public servants? You can see for yourself that there's nothing in his response to suggest he's thinking of anything outside his own remit. Oddly enough, he also mentions that 'there is no specific budget to repaint any other underpasses in the current fiscal year', yet the same company are painting the one outside Easthampstead House as I type! Has he got a grip on his own department? Who knows….
I don't want to get on the bad side of Steve. I'm convinced that as a compassionate man, he can, in his heart, see that spending £16,635 on subway decorating is madness when we're cutting essential services, but he's doing what he needs to do to be an effective Head of Environment and Public Protection. He might have a family, children to feed, the pressures we all have in our daily lives, so maybe he doesn't feel he can make that much difference without risking his position.
However, what he's not doing, along with other departmental heads at his level, is arguing that if the system allows this to happen, then the system must be broken and needs to be fixed. I wanted to suggest to him that this wasn't a witch hunt, or an embarrassing episode online to shame him into acting, but he refused me that opportunity. I honestly wanted to find an ally in the management hierarchy at BFBC who I could work alongside to try and change the systems and processes that can allow this to happen, and simply out of what I think is a reasonable, responsible, mature and compassionate need to see the right thing being done with the limited resources the council has, but Steve had decided before I'd even been given the chance to explain that he wasn't going to play ball.
I should know by now – video cameras and those spending tax payers money aren't happy bedfellows, and I can appreciate that he might not want to be 'on the record' with this somewhat controversial FoI response, but then what about open government? What about accountability? If Steve is comfortable spending this much money in times of austerity, why isn't he happy to talk about it on camera? I'm assuming he has nothing to hide? And lets not forget who actually pays for this – you and me, and Steve if he lives in Bracknell!!
I'm going to send Steve an email, asking him for another meeting, this time on camera. I'll also send him the memo from Bob Neill in the hope that he'll have a change of heart, and join me in a campaign to redress the processes that can allow this to happen.
I'm also not daft – if Steve isn't happy about talking on camera, then obviously he feels uncomfortable with being accountable and transparent which, as a public servant, is his responsibility, so I'm also planning to write to Bob Neill, and ask him to remind Steve of his obligations. Anything less than complete openness would be an insult to those who have lost essential services, contempt for the council taxpayer, and ignorance of central government policy. And I can't believe Steve is naïve to all that!
If you'd like to join me in an effort to turn the big BFBC ship round to serving the community, rather than it's own processes and methods, then please pipe up and drop me an email – the more of us shout about this, the more BFBC can't ignore, dismiss and refuse to engage. After all, do you feel happy losing your important public services so that you can have fancy subways? Me neither….