The points raised last week by our insider columnist The Sorcerer concerning the lack of openness by Boston Borough Council struck an instant chord with us.
We have long felt that whilst Worst Street preaches openness, transparency and stresses its willingness to communicate with the taxpayers, in reality it does nothing of the kind.
The full council meeting referred to was an excellent example.
Anyone looking at the agenda would see at a glance that there were no questions being asked either by councillors or members of the public – because these must be submitted in advance, and so there is ample time for them to be inserted into the agenda pages on the borough’s website, WorstWeb ahead of the meeting.
And we won’t accept any excuses – because some time ago, items such as this did appear on the agenda ahead of the meeting.
In particular, questions from elected members made interesting reading – coming as they did at a time the UKIP contingent was more interrogative of the leadership, and before the mass defections back to the Tories.
We suspect that this is why these questions no longer appear – as they warn of a possible discussion that could prove interesting to the public and also might lure local hacks along to a meeting which they would otherwise not attend.
Another point raised by our columnist was that of minuting meetings.
We know from our own sources that it not uncommon for the minutes that follow the meeting often many weeks later barely to scratch the surface of what has been said.
In this respect they fail in their duty to provide an honest and accurate account of what occurred – and let us not forget that these so-called minutes become the only historic account of what happened.
We would do well to remember that famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill – who was bang on the money when he said: “History is written by the victors” … in Boston’s case, whichever party is in power at the time.
Whilst we are sure that the recorders of our local political history must feel proud of what they do, the fact is that their efforts simply bring about a diminution of the role of the local authority and make it seem trite, petty and trivial.
Another point that was made was the growing tendency to issue reports for “noting” rather than “voting” which concentrates power in the hands of just seven of the thirty members of the council – something that could scarcely be considered democratic unless you have to be a member of the cabinet.
The outcome is that Boston is “represented” by its councillors in name only, and sadly none of the rank and file seem to have a problem with this.
Worse still is the infrequency with which full council meetings are called.
Whilst WorstWeb tells us “there is an annual council meeting each May and there are usually five or six other full council meetings held during the year” – i.e. six or seven meetings a year – there were only five in 2017.
There were none at all in March, June, July and August, and again in October, November and December.
One example of how bad this is was last September, when the agenda included the minutes of the meetings of the council for 27th February, 3rd April and 15th May 2017 – which means at an extreme point, voters had to wait more than six months to learn what happened at the February meeting.
Members were also asked to receive the confirmed minutes the Audit and Governance Committee held on 30th May and the unconfirmed minutes of the meeting held on 31st July!
The picture that emerges is quite the opposite of a council that is hard at work and keen to progress – and it is ironic to note that Worst Street less frequently than many of its parish councils.
Presumably, all this is intentionally designed to keep non-cabinet councillors as out of touch as possible – and, of course, to blindside the taxpayers into finding out as little as possible, too.
We’ve mentioned WorstWeb before – and at any given time, only around half the stories on its front page have anything to do with Boston Borough Council. The rest are cosy, irrelevant little yarns more like the sort of thing you would expect to find in a low grade local newspaper.
Whilst we’ve said that little goes on in the chamber, what little there is goes unreported to a large degree.
On many occasions, our local “newspapers” fail to attend meetings – which you might think would be a chance for Worst Street to fill the void with reports on its web pages of events … written with their own spin on it as well!
Once upon a time, the outcome of meetings was summarised, and also issued to the local “newspapers”
But now, Worst Street would far rather that you have no news of what has been going on because it prefers to keep you in the dark.
This week’s BTAC-ky meeting is a good example.
At its last session on 29th November 2017, members agreed to cancel the meeting scheduled for 3rd January and move the business for that meeting forward to the 31st.
The minutes specifically noted that the Christmas in Boston community group should be asked for a formal written report, including a financial report, for representatives to present to the Committee on 31st January 2018.
We know that this was done; because last week’s Boston Eye highlighted part of treasurer Darron Abbott's report which was highly critical of some members of the group.
The agenda for Wednesday’s BTAC-ky meeting has one significant omission – there is no agenda item to receive Christmas in Boston reports for discussion.
Once upon a time politicians looked out for a good day to bury bad news…
Now – in Boston at any rate – they just ignore it altogether.
Chief Executive Phil Drury has since e-mailed Mr Abbott stressing how important it is that the reports which are required by the group's agreement with the council “are the accounts which have been agreed by the Christmas in Boston Committee.”
“I would therefore be very grateful if you could make the necessary arrangements for all of the associated paperwork to be made available to the group such that it is able to fulfil its obligations,” he said.
What is interesting about this is that Mr Abbott’s critical report as treasurer – a role that constitutionally he apparently still holds – which expressed concerns about the behaviour of some members of the committee was filed on 15th January.
To suggest that the group now requires the accounts in order to “agree” a report might be seen to suggest that a second, sanitised version will be forthcoming.
Perish the thought!
The construction team charged with building the £100 million Boston Barrier was pictured making a start last week …
We understand that there is no truth to the rumour that the completion date has been put back by decades!
From time to time, the national newspapers feature scary stories about private companies employed by local authorities who are effectively given a licence to print money.
We were reminded of these as we read a recommendation to extend the 3GS service – for another year to 18th April 2019.
The service is described as “cost-free” to the customer – with funding provided from the tickets issued to offenders.
It therefore came as no surprise to learn that Worst Street issued only seven fixed penalty notices for environmental crime offences in 2016/17 – whilst 3GS handed out 514 between April and December 2017.
What does this tell us?
Either that Boston Borough Council failed dismally in its task, or that very few offences were committed.
Or that 3GS – if nothing else – is being over-enthusiastic where the reporting of offences are concerned.
Another problem with a “cost free” operation is that it effectively sets a figure for the amount of fines that must be issued to cover the expense of the operation and make a profit.
Worst Street says: “The 3GS service has significantly enhanced the council’s capability to enforce issues such as PSPO dog controls, fly tipping and to target other matters including nuisance vehicles and the consumption of alcohol.
“An extension to the service level agreement for a further term of 12 months will enable officers to enhance the already good performance of 3GS to further improve payment rates, enable an effectively nil cost prosecution service to those who fail to pay FPN’s and provide much wider opportunities for the council to gain enhanced enforcement capabilities.”
As far as we can see on our travels, no improvements have been made as far as dirty, befouled, and litter-strewn streets outside the town centre are concerned.
Nor do any seem likely for the time being – as the next war to be declared is on people who put the wrong rubbish in their wheelie bins.
Time now for a couple of blasts from the past – both of them involving former Worst Street chief executives.
The first of these is Richard Harbord described as “a former chief executive of Boston Borough Council” in an article appearing on the website Room 151 an online news, opinion and resource service for local authority Section 151 and other senior officers. His “short term” post began in 2009 and was ultimately extended until 2015 at a rate of £121,500 a year for a two week a month contract
He warns that the current protracted austerity facing local authorities has caused considerable stresses in the system, and that the need to meet member requirements and keep services going is “paramount.”
“Many authorities I know have assured council leaders that there will be no additional significant cuts this year, and they will therefore be tempted to take short cuts to make a lawful budget.
“There is no doubt that the areas of adequate provision and assured savings programmes are the front line in this and it is becoming increasingly hard.
“The future is not encouraging. As I have pointed out elsewhere, there is an alarming lack of certainty in the latter years of current financial strategies…”
As his last council job was at Worst Street, we wonder if his musings feature Boston in his thoughts.
The second blast from the past concerns Mark James, Boston’s Chief Executive between 1995 and 2002.
Mr James is best remembered for his enthusiastic promotion of the Princess Royal Sports Arena, and was famously quoted as saying that it would not cost the ratepayer a penny – an estimate that was adrift by around £8 million.
He so liked the idea that he took it with him to Wales, where it repeated the “success” of Boston, and a rugby stadium costing £25 million to build saw £18 million provided in differing forms by Carmarthenshire Council.
He is also well known for his legal hounding of a local blogger in a court action and the on-going fallout – something which has earned him Private Eye’s Shit of the Year award – and perhaps more media attention that he might wish.
Most recently, some actions in Boston before he became Worst Street Chief Executive have earned a mention – when he was Director of Administration and Legal Services.
You can read them on the following links …
Talking of chief executives, we note that Lincolnshire County Council’s top man for the past 12 years, Tony McArdle, will be stepping down after next month’s council meeting.
Meanwhile, West Lindsey District Council has “deleted” the post of chief executive – which has been vacant for some time – and appointed three “executive directors” to lead the council instead.
Could this be a window of opportunity for other district councils to follow?
This week’s Must get out More award goes to Worst Street’s Twitter feed for its exhortation to visit Boston Market – posted in the wee small hours of last Wednesday, and accompanied by a photo of a busy market on a sunny day.
The reality was rather different – with heavy rain showers, and dull overcast skies. More than one shopper reported that just a handful of stallholders had bothered to make the effort – one estimate was only about half a dozen.
It ought to have been any easy guess by whoever submitted the Tweet – but what the hell, never let the facts get in the way of a good story!
Finally, we note that outdoor cinema returns to Boston's Central Park in September, and punters are being asked what films they’d like to see from a list published on WorstWeb.
As films must be ‘U’ certificate due to licensing rules, we assume that that the movie “Free Willy” on the council list is not the one that we were thinking of!
You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
E– mails will be treated in confidence and published anonymously if requested.
Our former blog is archived at: http://bostoneyelincolnshire.blogspot.com
We are on Twitter – visit @eye_boston