A grim-faced photo of Leader Bedford loomed above a mostly rehashed pastiche of his thoughts on flooding and the Boston Barrier – and as you've heard them all many times before, we’ll not bore you any further.
But a comparison of the writing style with last week’s example of the leader’s e-mail diplomacy suggests that if he’s ever looking for an escape hatch, he can claim that someone else wrote the piece for him!
Instead of grasping the nettle of current reality, Chairman Pete instead left that thankless task to Chief Executive Richard Harbord, who explained that government support for the council has been cut and it needs to find an estimated £1,795,000 by 2018/19 – £639,000 of which has to be found in 2015/16. “That can only come from increased income or from savings,” he proclaimed.
Having set the tone, the report looks back over the period between April 2013 and April this year in a digest of borough bulletin stories from the past twelve months.
Whilst the list combines the good news with the bad, for us it served to highlight how little has really been achieved in a relatively long period.
And, it seemed that the bad outweighed the good as we read a litany of litter, houses in multiple occupation, immigration, dog poo, drunkenness, spitting, urination and defecation in the streets, rogue landlords, CCTV and flooding.
In an almost futile attempt to claw victory from the jaws of defeat, the council listed ways in which it planned to do better, the first of which was to examine reasons for a decline in car parking tickets sold, and a resulting fall in income.
We would have thought that this was obvious – even to councillors wearing a gadget to simulate blindness.
Parking in Boston is too expensive.
And why is it that we think that any solution will involve yet another “reluctant” increase in parking fees?
The report also noted a small reduction in market occupancy, but glossed over the broken promises to make the Market Place more vibrant and attractive by introducing a range of different markets.
“Sadly” it went on “one of the highest dissatisfaction levels remains street cleanliness – a new environmental crime strategy has been drawn up to deal with this.”
But whatever you do, don’t blame the council.
“It must be remembered that the cause is people who litter, fly tip and refuse (to avoid confusion, that’s pronounced ree-fuse, not reff-youss) to take responsibility for their own waste” the report preached – ignoring the fact that if you were to place an item of litter on the ground in some parts of the town it would still be there weeks later, as we have witnessed first-hand.
There was “a decrease in satisfaction with the council’s value for money” – which translated means an increase in dissatisfaction with the council’s value for money – and the highest levels highlighted by the council’s Have Your Say survey were for car parking, street cleaning and the town centre.
The street cleaning task and finish group took on board comments when developing their action plan.
That ought to do it.
Not a year to recall with much by way of affection.
On the financial side, the report says that past 12 months have been extremely challenging from a financial perspective given “on-going severe reductions in government funding and increasing demand for services.”
Yet the council reserves increased from £7.3m to £9.8m “mainly due to flood grants received.”
Just one question … if Boston received flood grants, why are they in the reserves?
Are they sitting there in case there’s another flood; are they to be spent on the purpose for which they were given (and if so, where and when will that be) … or what?
The report says that the reserves are “to support future spending plans and to ensure enough money is in hand in working balances,” which sounds as if they are simply there to gloat over, like a miser’s hoard.
In overall budgets, one of the biggest was “cultural and related services” which came to £3,088,000.
Three million quid?
Again, a little more detail would be appreciated.
But at least someone kept a sense of humour amid all the gloom,
Councillor Raymond Singleton-McGuire, the council’s finance portfolio holder, said in the report that the recommendation not to increase council tax was thanks to “the hard work of this administration and prudent housekeeping.”
That’s strange; we always thought that council tax remained frozen because of a government bribe to local authorities to keep it that way.
He said: “We will spend every penny wisely for the benefit of the people we serve. This budget ensures we do more with less.”
And the concept that the current leadership seeks to serve people for their benefit is one that fills us with mirth.
In his pre-ramble to the report, Chief Executive Richard Harbord recommends reading the council’s declared priorities in its corporate plan which was drawn up in 2011, alongside the annual report.
So we did.
It opens as you might expect with another sermon from The Leader – this one alongside an earlier, more mellow portrait totally unlike that in the annual report … which is the sort of picture that you put on the mantelpiece to keep the kids away from the fire.
As if we needed reminding, it recalls that we elected The Leader and his Merrie People in May 2011 to “serve” us for the following five years – or so we believed at the time.
“This plan is our commitment for dealing with what is important to you during our time in office. We will not deliver this alone but will work with our partners across a range of organisations to help us achieve.
“Our council plan shows what we and our partners are committed to doing now and in the future to improve Boston for you.”
It might have been believable then, but it certainly isn’t now.
Unfortunately, one of the few partners mentioned in the report was the useless and doomed Boston Business “Improvement” District, which the leadership fought tooth and nail to force down the throats of local businesses who were only able to throw it out after suffering five years of incompetence, wastefulness and expense.
By and large, the corporate plan is a list of the job you would normally expect district council to perform – but turned into a list of promises that we’ve heard before – although against the background of the annual report, some serve to show just how little has been done
For instance, the corporate plan tells us: “Having litter free streets and public areas helps you to feel proud of your community. We are investing time and resources into these services as you have told us they are important to you.”
Three years after that appeared the annual report is admitting that the highest dissatisfaction level remains street cleanliness – but promises its now traditional approach to a solution, which is to criminalise people for its own incompetence.
Similarly with car parking, where we are told: “Where services are chargeable … we have to balance the need to retain affordable charges with the need to obtain sufficient income … (and) make them affordable …”
Interestingly, future threats to local government budgets have generated a gloomy outlook among an overwhelming majority of 434 local government chief executives and senior officers responding to a confidence survey by the Local Government Chronicle.
They believe that the worst of the cuts is still to come, with nearly a fifth anticipating that their council faces a financial crisis in the next year.
Of the officers surveyed, 93% believed their council faced significant further budget difficulties, while 17% thought their council faced a financial crisis which would leave it unable to provide the statutory minimum level of service required.
The level of pessimism was such that one in five senior district council staff believed their employer would no longer be in existence by the end of the next parliament.
Asked if they thought their council would still exist in 2020, 15% said “no.”
The negative figure was 21% for districts in comparison with 12% at unitaries, 11% at metropolitan councils, 8% at counties and 6% at London boroughs.
A reader who spotted the survey told us: “While we may criticise Worst Street, wait until Lincolnshire gets its way and all is run from Lincoln and you cannot influence anything.
“The new administration will not only find itself wondering what to do over the chief executive but could find itself fighting to survive unless it is proactive, which seems beyond the current administration.
“West Devon with a population of 55,000 is merging all its officers with its neighbours, South Hams (one chief exec etc.) but keeping two separate councils.
“It’s not wonderful but it maximises budget efficiencies and retains political identity.”
But apparently the disappearance of Boston as a borough council can’t come soon enough for one member of the County Hall hierarchy.
County Councillor Richard (Bob the Builder) Davies – the man politically responsible for Boston’s disastrous transport chaos – posted the item above on his Facebook page.
Thanks for that Bob … er Dick.
If the rest of his henchpeople in the county cabinet feel the same, then Boston has even fewer friends in higher places than we might have hoped.
When we heard a sound like the bottom of a barrel being scraped, we thought that it might have been one of the town’s many flood victims baling out the last of the water that inundated their homes last year.
But no, it was merely Boston Borough Council coming up with a justification for its refusal to help people out during the floods by issuing sandbags.
Beneath the headline “Council is right not to issue sandbags’ – expert” the council quotes “a nationally-recognised flooding expert” who has “backed” its “stand” on sandbags.
Mary Dhonau, a flood victim turned adviser, is surely right when she says sandbags are extremely heavy and can be beyond the capability of most ordinary householders to lift into place – let alone the elderly and vulnerable.
But the glee with which The Leader – who now it seems is an expert on sandbags as well as all his other attributes – seizes the moment to whitewash the council’s lack of social conscience.
“It’s easy to see that it would take massive resources to deliver an expectation of all properties at risk being provided with sandbags,” he bleats.
“The council doesn’t have the manpower or the fleet of vehicles required to meet this expectation, and that is why we issued public information as far back as last October that the council would not provide sandbags and urged property owners to take responsibility for protecting their premises from the potential of flooding.
“It is reassuring to hear that someone as high-profile and knowledgeable as Mary Dhonau agrees with us where provision of sandbags is concerned.”
That October warning – reissued bluntly in December at a time when people were beside themselves with worry – was terse, to the point, and completely lacking any kind of consideration to people facing disaster.
“For the avoidance of doubt, in a flooding incident, Boston Borough Council does not supply sandbags, neither empty nor filled, to any resident or business in Boston borough as the responsibility for safeguarding homes and businesses lies with the owner.”
But this was not, apparently, because sandbags were about as much use as a chocolate teapot, as the council “advice” continued: “If there is time, sandbags and sharp sand are available from many builders' merchants and DIY stores but far better to be prepared and have a supply of sandbags to hand rather than waiting for an emergency to occur.”
So it seems that sandbags have their uses – as long as Boston Borough Council does not have to buy and distribute them.
The subject was raised earlier this month by the council’s Labour group.
It learned from the Chairman of the Environment Agency that “Boston Borough Council had taken an executive decision not to use sandbags” – which sounds more to do with costs than care … but then we’re used to that aren’t we?
The group also pointed out that some of the few buildings to actually have sandbags at their doors on the 5th December were Boston Borough Council buildings, which “strongly suggests it is one rule for us and one rule for them.”
In fact – although the information has been widely withdrawn – it is still possible to find the “Lincolnshire Local Authority Sandbag Policy online, which makes is clear that: “Local Authorities will maintain a stock of sandbags and sand strategically located within their district.
“During a flooding event the local authority will attempt to deliver sandbags to properties occupied by vulnerable people within the flood warning zone directly e.g. the elderly, the infirm and those without their own transport etc.
“Other groups will be asked to collect sandbags either from designated distribution points identified in public literature or radio broadcasts, from each local authority or from local builder’s merchants.
No charge will be made for sandbags issued by the local authority during a flooding event but costs will be recorded for possible cost recovery by the local authority from central government.”
But, like so many thinks that represent thoughtfulness, and “service” this does not happen in Boston – even though millions have been stashed under the Worst Street mattress … in case of a rainy day, perhaps?
Despite Boston Borough Council’s terse dismissal of claims that the choice of venue for the planning meeting called to rubber stamp the Quadrant development in Wyberton is undemocratic, “no” campaigner Brian Rush has reservations in other areas as well.
Mr Rush – a former Boston borough councillor – is concerned about impartiality – as well he might be.
He tells Boston Eye: Mr Richard Austin now takes the chair on Wyberton Parish Council.
“This cannot be politically correct, given his involvement with borough decisions (note: Councillor Austin represents Wyberton at Worst Street.)
“His first test was to declare one way or the other his political stance, or interest as a resident! He, it seems, has an open mind on this issue.
“For heaven’s sake, borough councillors should not be allowed to have an interest in both camps; it really must be parish or borough!
“Question: if an issue in Wyberton somehow causes a problem in Kirton, what position should a dual councillor take, given we cannot serve two masters?
Still with that annoying matter of democracy, we note that people wanting tickets for the Quadrant circus at the Haven High next month appear to be unable to obtain them online – instead they have to telephone a planning information officer.
We have to say that this rule seems a little out-dated in the internet age, especially coming from a council which boasts of its “interactivity.”
The maximum allocation is two tickets, and both ticket holder names must be given at the time, which again is a bit of a chore – but “under our evacuation procedures we will require a confirmed list of attendees at the meeting and tickets will be checked at the door.”
Does this happen at other council meetings attended by the public, we wonder?
A cynic might think that having to get tickets the hard way, and submit to a third degree to obtain them could be seen as putting obstacles in the way of people wishing to attend.
We couldn’t possibly comment!
Last week’s mention of the Chief Executive, his pay arrangements and his contract extension beyond next year’s elections produced an e-mail that pointed out that the decision will bring him a generous farewell payment – that’s unless his contract is further extended … which might well prove to be the only option for a floundering, newly-elected council.
A reader told us: “Mr Harbord’s leaving date means that he will be returning officer for a joint local and national election, which I believe will be substantially beneficial to him on top of his normal pay.
“In the old days the Chief Executive would retire after just such an event as it had such an effect on increasing the pension pot.”
Figures to support this are hard to find – but from what we have read, the payments for comparable council areas run into many thousands of pounds.
Nice work if you can get it, eh?
We mentioned Boston Business “Improvement” District earlier on, and one-time levy payers to that organisation will certainly be pleased to learn that the company’s former manager Niall Armstrong, who was roundly humiliated when Boston businesses decided to vote the BID out of existence, has landed on his feet at last.
He has popped up on LinkedIn with a new look to match his new job.
Clearly, his time since leaving Boston BID has been well spent, as among his talents, he now lists business strategy and planning, management, event management, strategy and leadership.
And before you ask … yes, it is the same Niall Armstrong.
Whilst we are sure that the use is an important one, we wish that some alternative could have been found for the former Haven Art Gallery in Boston’s “Cultural Quarter” as it is laughingly described, than to turn it into a training centre for 16-19 year olds who are not in education, employment or training – NEETs.
The £1 million pound gallery – another of Boston Borough Council’s great white elephants – opened in 2005 and was mothballed five years later as a cost-cutting exercise.
For years it has been on the market to rent, with a tenant sought for a five to ten year period at £38,000 a year.
Now, Nacro – formerly the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, and now styled the crime reduction charity – will offer a programme of courses, including sport, child care, retail, English, maths and ICT qualifications, “employability” plus traineeships and work placements.
If the names of these courses sound familiar, it’s because most of them are already on offer at Boston College, and around half a dozen other training centres that litter the town centre.
The Haven failed as a gallery because it never had anything worth looking at on offer – and like many other costly ventures involving local taxpayers’ money was another example of how the eyes of Boston Borough Council are bigger than its mouth.
We hope that Boston Borough Council will put the income from the rent to good use – perhaps some more hanging baskets to try to coax a badge out of next year’s Britain in Bloom competition judges – but we would be interested to know whether it achieved anything like the £38,000 rental that was being sought. Somehow we doubt it.
So, Boston is now the go-to centre for ‘phone shops, charity shops and training organisations.
How about a few shop shops for a change?
And talking of Britain in Bloom, we note the chortling from Boston Borough Council after last Friday’s visit from the judges – who were herded along a carefully chosen and adorned route guaranteed to get them into medal-minting mood.
According to the council’s Daily Drone, “All the indications are good – judge Ian Cooke, from the Royal Horticultural Society, said “Wow” after touring the town and “Wow” again when he and fellow RHS judge Diane Moore concluded with a visit to Boston West Academy.”
That could, or course, mean that they were simply lost for words – or just that they might have simply been intimidated by the numbers of hangers-on who dogged their visit … in one photo the two judges are swamped by no fewer than 23 and in another by fifteen!
However, confidence remains high after the Drone reports “Asked for a clue as to the final result” one of the judges said: “You won’t be disappointed” – which seems a rather unfair position in which to put a so-called independent judge.
As the judges toured the pristine, cared for route, the rest of us had to make do with Boston in the raw.
Users of the borough council’s Botolph Street car park had to negotiate water some inches deep, as did pedestrians.
It’s a problem that we have highlighted time and again, but as there are no medals involved, and it’s only the riff raff who live here who are inconvenienced, we imagine that the problem will come and go with the rains for years to come.
It sounds as though our local MP Mark Simmonds can combine business with pleasure in that arduous job that takes him to almost everywhere in the world aside from regular stays in Boston.
The MP enjoyed a brief flash of fame – or rather notoriety – after the Westminster expenses debacle when it emerged that he was charging for the wine lovers’ magazine Decanter.
Now he is back in the news in a oenophilic context as the man tasked with issuing a written statement to parliament about the annual health of the government wine cellar – which is run by the Foreign Office and lies beneath a grand London mansion owned by the Queen and leased to the government – and which has stocks valued at £824,406.
We’ll drink to that!
It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
Last week’s item about the problems at the Assembly Rooms and the rumours about the company Activ Leisure became slightly more understandable when we realised just how many companies the owner Matt Clark and his family have to keep an eye on.
The Assembly Rooms was connected with the name of a company called Totally Ordinary Limited with an address at a Lincoln postcode used by no fewer than 324 companies.
According to internet sources the company has £31,634 in cash, with assets of £59,576, liabilities of £281,458 and net worth of £-590.
But Mr Clark is also connected with so many other companies – or has been – that keeping track can’t be easy.
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Then there are family connections with other companies such as the subtly named Honeybars Leisure as well.
Isn’t it complicated being an entrepreneur?
Another burst of schadenfreude came our way with the news that the £100m bypass to ease congestion in Lincoln has been rejected by the transport secretary because of a lack of pedestrian access.
Plans for the scheme, to link Wragby Road, north of Lincoln, with the A15 Sleaford Road to the south, will have to be revised and resubmitted.
Councillor Richard (Bob the Builder) Davies, Lincolnshire’s Unilateralist cabinet member for highways, said he was "completely gutted" with the decision.
Work on the road was expected to start later this year but the plans were rejected following a planning inquiry.
The Department of Transport said: "Lincolnshire County Council's plans for a bypass did not make adequate provision for pedestrians and cyclists wishing to access Hawthorn Road, via a footbridge.
"The council is welcome to consider these conclusions and submit a fresh application."
The road was to be funded by the government with contributions from the county council and developers.
Hopefully, the delay will give Lincoln motorists a feel for the problems we face here in Boston – but without any hope of a bypass or distributor road in sight – although we doubt that it will generate any sympathy for us.
Finally, given that the essence of the written word ought to be that it is as widely understood as possible, we weren’t quite sure what this headline in the Boston Daily Burble was trying to tell us.
“Don’t let £75 fine be enough to make you spit.”
Is it an exhortation to carry on spitting despite the penalties?
It could well be.
It certainly requires careful reading.
Given that messages posted around the town to discourage spitting, urination in the street and worse are sometimes produced in foreign languages (it is not politically correct, and probably deemed racist to suggest that any particular nationality could be culpable) could we suggest that when they are produced in English they can at least be taken on board with as little ambiguity as possible.
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Our former blog is archived at: http://bostoneyelincolnshire.blogspot.com