Saturday, 28 August 2010

NCC Have Knackered This Year's East Midlands Vegan Festival

I've just found out that NCC has refused use of the Council House for the 2010 East Midlands Vegan Festival. They have said that it causes too much 'wear and tear' on the building. Hmmm.

Organisers have tried to look at other options including holding it in the Market Square but none of the dates requested "have found favour with the Council".

As a result there is unlikely to be an EMVF this year and in future years it looks likely that it will be held elsewhere in the region.

I can't help wondering if the problem is that it's not the 'right' type of event rather than the BS excuse that's been given. Animal rights activists? People with dreadlocks? That will never do.

Isn't that what you pay the hire fee for i.e. for cleaning and general maintenance of the venue etc? Is NCC refusing* use of the Council House for all other similar sized events? I think we should be told.

Update - perhaps we might be.

Although vegans are a relatively small constituency the organisers unashamedly aim the event at the wider public as well as preaching to the converted. It is mostly a trade based festival rather than political/campaigning and provides an opportunity for local companies to promote their vegan goods. It's an event with national significance for vegans and will be a significant loss for Nottingham.

* NCC's website gives some indication of the types of events it accepts or declines at the Council House here.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

And the Discretionary Housing Payments and Freedom of Information Saga Goes On...(Part 2)

A bit later than I indicated but here's the second part of my story on the battles with Freedom of Information and Discretionary Housing Payments.

I should say from the outset that this is as much a story of total ineptitude by the Information Commissioner's Office as anything else. 

You may remember I questioned Information Governance's claim that they hadn't had a decision made against them by the Information Commissioner in the last two years. I pointed out that this was partly because the Information Commissioner's office is, well, a bit shit. At the time, despite promising me a decision notice last October it still hadn't been delivered.

Finally, after quite a lot of badgering and impolite emails, it's here now.

Now the ICO upheld NCC's decision to refuse to provide all of the information I requested on cost grounds, despite the fact that NCC actually provided me with the info once the ICO had become involved. Weird huh? The decision deserves a closer look.

NCC's original decision stated the following -

“As Nottingham City Council only records successful applicants, an Officer would need to manually check the imaging system and paper records for each year to work out the total number of applicants for the scheme. There are 174 cases caught by the time period and each case would take approximately 45 minutes to check." (para 3)

Now, remember here that the bit of info they were refusing to provide was the TOTAL NUMBER of applications to the DHP scheme. Yet despite this they state that there are 174 cases to check. This number turned out to be bollocks but surely, if there are 174 cases to check, there are 174 applications? Apparently not quite. We'll get back to this.

Anyway, wheels turned, cogs made grinding noises and the ICO eventually became involved. Further information emerged -

"[NCC] also stated that there were not 174 cases as previously quoted, but in fact 3533 cases from August 2001 until 9 September 2009." (para 12)

Eh? But that's what I wanted to know! What's the problem here? NCC went on to explain the growth in the number of cases -

"The public authority said that it had provided the information which it held at the time of the request. The public authority had kept details of unsuccessful applications on an Excel spreadsheet for 07/08 and 08/09, there were 100 unsuccessful applications in 07/08 and there had been 74 unsuccessful applications during 08/09 at the time of the request." (para 13)

Hang on a minute. Didn't they originally say they only kept records of SUCCESSFUL cases? Yet now they are saying they have a spreadsheet recording only UNSUCCESSFUL cases? Does anybody out there run a training course detailing the distinguishing features of the arse and the elbow?

This passed the ICO caseworker by. Instead s/he asked NCC whether they could break the 3533 cases down into constituent years and NCC said that they could, using the magic of computers, and it would take under an hour. However, the information was qualified in the following manner -

"[NCC] stated that this amounted to an estimate because it was possible that the totals included documents that may have been misidentified as applications and it would not necessarily have identified where an applicant submitted more than one application. It maintained that the only way to locate and retrieve the information that had actually been requested, i.e. the total number of applications actually received (as opposed to an estimate) was to conduct a search of manual and electronic files to check how many applications each applicant had submitted and to eliminate any documents that the search query had picked up in error and that this would exceed the appropriate limit." (para 16)

Well I mean come on. Surely any management information system is only as good as the information input and that's implicit in any request. Does anybody think that human beings manually checking 3533 paper files will produce a 100% accurate answer?

And the idea that the possibility of multiple applications per 'case' sounds a bit desperate. Yes it's possible but how likely is it to happen within a given year? Surely, most people who are refused would challenge the decision via the review process. And why wouldn't this be picked up in a query for 'applications' anyway?

So essentially, what I'm saying here is that the information NCC provided was an acceptable answer to my request but it only happened once the ICO had become involved. Open and shut case of finding against NCC then? Read on.

After my chivvying them on a bit the ICO finally remembered in May this year that it had agreed to provide a decision notice. This was 14 months after I'd sent them my complaint. They were still convinced that in order to provide the answer that I needed it was necessary to check every single case file. However, they didn't go along with everything NCC claimed -

"[NCC] stated that the target time for the public authority staff to process each application is 40 minutes per case which in its opinion added further strength to the public authority’s application of section 12." (para 22)

So NCC claimed that it would take longer to check a file of an application than it would have done to process the application itself. Bear in mind, all they're looking for is the possibility of there being more than one application in there and DHP claims require fairly in-depth analysis of income and expenditure and qualitative judgment of a claimant's circumstances. It's a small mercy but the ICO wasn't having any of that -

"Having reviewed the representative sample of manual files the Commissioner found that it took an average of approximately 3 minutes per file to locate the information relevant to the request."
(para 23)

Quite a difference between 45 minutes and 3 isn't it?

The ICO then went on to conclude that, even with this lower estimate of the time taken to check the files, 3533 cases at 3 minutes each would still be greater than the limit above which charges could be made and, if you accept the premise that all the files needed checking individually you have to accept that's fair enough. Ergo, after all that, the ICO decided that NCC was correct to refuse my request on cost grounds. Look out for Information Governance claiming that as a full vindication at a committee meeting near you soon.

The ICO did however find that NCC failed to provide adequate advice and assistance although s/he wasn't very clear in explaining this. At a push I can see an argument for saying that NCC could have explained at the outset that I could have their 'estimate' figure instead of the absolutely accurate figure they were saying would be too much work but the ICO just says that NCC could have offered the information for a shorter time frame. Bizarre.

To be fair, none of this is the Information Governance staff's fault. They are not specialists in Discretionary Housing Payments and have to ask the Housing Benefits service for the information. When they are sold a bullshit like "oh we have to check every file, costs a fortune" they have no alternative but to accept that. The people to blame are the Housing Benefits staff who did the selling, at the least we are talking major cock-up in not having the imagination to first look into pulling info off the database and such a lack of imagination is quite believable, especially at the top. However, given the inconsistent rubbish that's been spouted at various stages by ways of explanation and given that the information finally gleaned painted a very poor picture of the Housing Benefits service's ability to administer the DHP scheme, the possibility of conspiracy cannot be entirely discounted.

In an interesting footnote to the decision, The ICO criticises NCC for taking 40 days to respond to my initial request for a review. This in a decision which took them 15 months to provide including 7 months of sitting on its arse doing nothing in response to my demand for a formal decision notice. I think NCC is entitled to accuse the ICO of rank hypocrisy on that one.

Monday, 23 August 2010

And the Discretionary Housing Payments and Freedom of Information Saga Goes On...(Part 1)

A story of two parts here. Firstly, you may wish to take a look back to the last installment in the tale for a catch up.

Back? Ok, well first we'll take a look at the table DHP spending which I've updated from the latest FoIA response I got on the subject -

First the good news. For the first time in the history of the DHP scheme NCC has actually spent some of its own money on DHP payments. The bad news of course is that part of the reason for this is the year on year reduction in government grant and subsequent overall spending limit caused by relentless underspend in the past (a feature of the DHP scheme is that if you don't spend your allocation your grant is reduced the next year). Another problem of course is that they've finally dipped in their own pockets just as those pockets have been significantly reduced in size and we have the unknown of a Tory government.

The second piece of good news is that in 2009/10 there was a major increase in applicants accompanied by, you guessed it, a big drop in the success rate. Still, that resulted in an extra £15k or so going into tenants' pockets so something has gone right. Obviously I'd like to flatter myself that I might have played a small part in causing that to happen. I bloody hope so, I've written enough about it.

Oh by the way, the FoIA response claimed that the various working groups promised were internal so weren't minuted. That's bollocks, I'm not believing that for a second.

Part 2 of this ongoing saga, which is more a tale of the ineptness of the Freedom of Information machinary than DHPs per se, will probably arrive some time tomorrow. But don't bank on it.

Addendum - Back in September 2006 the Task and Finish Panel on Debt Collection were given a report on DHPs. According to the minutes they asked for a further report on the very high refusal rates for DHPs.

The Panel's final report included the following recommendation -

"The panel recommends that the government grant for Discretionary Housing Payments is fully utilised for the benefit of citizens by adopting a more rigorous approach to its allocation and management, to include:

• undertaking benchmarking with other authorities to establish more consistent decision making;

• improving quality assurance processes for consistent and fair decision making;

• undertaking joint working with NCH and with advice providers in the city to maximise access to DHPs."

At the time of the September 2006 meeting (i.e. part way through the year) the panel was asking why 59% of applications were refused. By the end of that year the refusal rate had climbed to nearly 68%. It did drop for the next two years but increased again in 2010.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Bonfire of the Quangos

Recent news that the Audit Commission is to be axed is an interesting one for Nottingham.

Given the council's necessarily close relationship with the Commission you might have expected our political leaders to have felt the need for some comment on its planned demise. After all they're not normally shy on criticising the new government's policies, JoCo was quite vocal on elected mayors, the budget and the scrapping of EMDA. But not a peep about the Audit Commission.

Of course, NCC has always had a somewhat difficult relationship with the Audit Commission. There was the Public Interest Report into the mess at Nottingham City Homes, none too flattering corporate inspection reports followed by a slap on the wrist for dishonestly spinning the findings of those Commission assessments.

Even the bizarre love affair between the Commission and the Housing Benefits service seems to have cooled. Recently the Commission caught Housing Benefits out for having overclaimed their subsidy to the tune of £2m. Now, after happily accepting its judgment when awarding them 4 star ratings HB are now challenging the Commission's assessment of the level of overclaim, reckoning it to be out by a factor of nearly 5 (see 'Housing and Council Tax Benefit Subsidy Claim 2008/09' p23 of this document)-

"The housing benefit and council tax benefit subsidy claim 2008/09 was qualified by the Audit Commission. Their qualification letter extrapolated financial errors found in the claim to calculate that there was potential for the subsidy claim to be overstated by £2.1m. The DWP has since written to the City Council requiring a response to the qualification letter...Additional work has been undertaken to challenge the calculation of the potential impact of the errors that could reduce the adjustment of subsidy to £0.430m, subject to agreement by the DWP. In summary the City Council is challenging some of the statistical extrapolation calculations used to derive the final figure. "

So, perhaps NCC isn't really that upset about the loss of the Audit Commission after all. And their smiles no doubt widened when the alternative of allowing councils to appoint their own private sector auditors was announced.

You see, NCC is known for sending quite a lot of business to private sector consultants, spending nearly 9% of all staffing costs on them. Now, clearly some of this is spent on the Harold Tinworths and Bill Trattles types, one-man-band former local government bods who set up in business with what are essentially a series of temporary jobs. However, it also includes big firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers who NCC has a long and cosy relationship with. Well, as luck would have it, PwC can provide accountancy services as well!

Now lets imagine a scenario where PwC as auditors are charged with assessing the VFM of a decision to outsource a service or award a contract to PwC, you're not going to get an entirely independent viewpoint are you? What you probably will get is the answer you want and have paid to hear. That will be right up JoCo and the gang's street.

Another issue that bodes badly for us the taxpayer is that these big accountancy/outsourcing firms don't exactly have sparkling records of brilliance in the projects they have undertaken, a lack of talent they will probably bring to public sector auditing.

So incompetence and an in-built conflict of interest. Just what councils need.

In a related matter, have a read of this article by Johann Hari in the Indy on the pernicious effect of management consultants on the organisations they prey on.

(Post updated with links 21/8/10)

Please Register to Vote!

Please can I request and remind all readers, especially those of you actually living in Nottingham, to register to vote? Yes, I know it's a crap system and all but I truly believe that we should grasp what little means of influence we have, even though we should be given more.

The forms are coming out about now, I got mine last week and have just registered using the online facility. How TERRIBLY convenient.

The reason why I particularly urge Nottingham readers to register is that the Nottingham City Council elections are only 8 months or so away. It is therefore our chance to put the wind up some of the jokers who populate this blog and, of course, to support the honourable exceptions who do actually do a good job. Yes, there are a few one or two.

While we're on about elections, can I remind you about the 'Take Back Parliament' campaign? I know their focus is national politics but many of the arguments are relevant to local elections too.

Loading Permit News

I'm hearing that Andersons Florists, who were having a bit of an issue with the fact that NCC's Traffic Management service saw a manager's holiday as being more important than the small matter of dealing with their loading permit renewal for the road outside their shop, have found a temporary solution.

It's a radical one this but NCC have come up with the not at all obvious solution of providing them with a temporary permit. Previously they'd told them to just use a shared loading bay some 300yards away. I suggested this in my previous post and I have absolutely no expertise in Traffic Management at all.

Now then, that wasn't so hard was it?

Andersons are now waiting to hear whether they will be granted an audience with a Divisional Manager to discuss the wider situation but I don't think anyone's holding their breath.

Shocking News!

You'll never believe this but Harold Tinworth has been successful in his bid to carry on doing whatever it was he was doing for NCC.

I know! I was as surprised as anyone.

The news was sneaked out in a portfolio decision by Hassan Ahmed, so everything is clearly absolutely above board if he is involved. The decision is nominally one to award a contract for 'Delivery of the Leading Nottingham Transformation Programme' to OPM and that part of it went to open tender. But look closely at the end and you will see there are two elements, the bit for 'senior leadership' which went to OPM and a bit for 'Executive Development' which was awarded to 'Regional and Local Associates' which is Tinworth's stage name, if you will.

It's going to cost us £30k for 25 days work. Maths fans will have already worked that out to be £1200 per day. Another one for the 'nice work if you can get it' file.

Interestingly, there is another portfolio decision for the 'Delivery of the Leading Nottingham Transformation Programme', this time nominally going to a company called La Gente. This also included an element for sending some more cash to one of NCC's old pals Invigor8. I'm sure that this bundling up of decisions is purely about keeping things tidy and in no way is an attempt to hide back-scratching from the casual observer.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

You Get What You Pay For

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in the media recently about the cost of council websites, headlined by Birmingham's reported spend of £2.8m on a redesign which hasn't even gone live yet.

Still, no-one can accuse NCC of over investing in their website. As I've said before, it frequently falls down outside office hours and SOCITM recently found it woefully inadequate in complying with EU Services Directive obligations.

As if to confirm this the above mentioned costs data reports reveal that NCC has redesigned its website three times in the last decade and spent a heartwarmingly low £4530 on the last one. In completely unconnected news quite large parts of the 'council and democracy' related sections of the website have looked like this for the last two days -

Interestingly they spend over £400k pa on the 'Arrow'. Oh yeah and around £25k pa on Harold Tinworth.

Surely there's a middle ground somewhere between Nottingham and Birmingham where the website just works and...well...just works I suppose.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Planning LOLs

This is nice, a story with a happy ending for a change.

Last week, I was intermittently staring into space and following Twitter (an activity that unfortunately seems to make up about 80% of my waking hours) and saw that one of my Twitter contacts (called Tom) seemed to be having a bit of a giggle with the planning department at NCC.

Tom and his missus had decided to do the decent thing and get themselves a solar water heating system fitted to their house, which is an excellent thing to do and something that you'd think that NCC would fall over themselves to encourage. Normally you don't need planning permission for these things but Tom lives in a conservation area so it seems he was advised that he did have to. All went well and permission was granted last year.

However just recently he decided to use a different design of system, replacing two of these -

with just one of these -

Now you'd think that would be an improvement. Only one panel instead of two? Apparently not. Here's the first of Tom's several tweets on the decision he initially received -

Yes that's right. Planners at NCC were making a distinction between solar panels that were in character in a conservation area and solar panels that weren't. That's solar panels they're talking about (I think the area concerned is late Victorian/Edwardian but I'm not sure). Perhaps you're supposed to have that lead diamond pattern stuck on to make them look olde worlde.

This from a council that had just loudly trumpeted its new 'low carbon' waste strategy and which is quite happy to bulldoze the Victoria Leisure Centre, which is also in a conservation area by the way. Consistent much?

Here's a later tweet by Tom. I include it because it's such a perfect summing up of the issue at hand -

But, as I said, this story does have a happy ending and NCC does in fact redeem itself. On Saturday, Tom tweeted this -

I actually doubt that fear of NCCLols played any significant part but yes, the planners have backed down. The decision even says that his solar panel counts as 'permitted development' so doesn't even need planning permission after all. That's some climbdown.

Tom says he only mentioned it out loud on Twitter. While I don't think I quite wield the power to strike fear in the hearts of the men and womenfolk of NCC's planning department I do have a few NCC peeps following me. I did retweet a couple of Tom's posts and maybe someone from NCC saw them or Tom's originals and had a quiet word.

So who knows, maybe I did help but I'm more inclined to simply chalk it up to the power of Twitter this time. The main thing is that Tom and his family can get on with saving a bit of fossil fuel which we all benefit from. And perhaps others nearby who want to carry out similar works will have an easier time of it. I just hope he didn't have to spend too much on preparing what appear to have been unnecessary planning applications.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Harold Tinworth - Nearing the End of the Story (Although Probably Not the End of Harold Tinworth)

Surprisingly quick work from NCC's Info Governance bods for a change.

Following the District Auditor's mild telling off for NCC and an instruction to put the work previously done by Harold Tinworth out to tender, I decided to ask for a copy of it and here it is!

Points of interest include a specification of only 25 days work plus any extra for preparation. By my reckoning Tinworth was doing around 35 days a year from his invoices. Either the work is nearly done or they plan on re-tendering in less than a year's time. Quite right too. If I remember I may well check up on that at the time.

Clearly, this will be an entirely open competition and I'm sure that someone other than Mr Tinworth has every chance of securing the gig. And I'm sure Councillor Collins will do the right thing and confirm the successful applicant in a published portfolio holder decision.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Fire in the Hold!

Noticed a brief report in the Post yesterday about a fire in the basement of the Council House.

My first thought was that it was an insurance/clearance job. After all, apart from a couple of die hard councillors, NCC has largely abandoned the Council House for its shiny new home at Loxley House and it could be described as a prime location. However, its listing status was recently upgraded to Grade II* so it would be incredibly difficult to make any alterations to the building. The normal fate for such properties is to suddenly find themselves aflame and oh noes! they have to be demolished, leaving room for new development and the landowner bathing in filthy lucre, instead of burdened with a money pit.

But jesting aside, a clue in the report points to a more likely scenario. Apparently the fire started in a lift mechanism before spreading. I'm no expert but I presume (hope?) that lifts aren't normally prone to spontaneous combustion unless, perhaps, they haven't been maintained properly.

Now lift maintenance is currently a live issue with NCC following the accident in the lifts at Victoria Centre flats. NCC used to employ a lifts maintenance team but this was cut in the 2009 workforce reductions to make savings. I understand that this decision is quite high in the minds of the health and Safety Executive which is currently investigating the Viccy flats incident.

Looks like we might have been subjected to a cut too far.

Update - just had it confirmed that the fire did start in the car lift as suggested by Niles in the comments. NCC isn't responsible for that so they're in the clear over that one.

Interestingly have been told that NCC has hired consultants Dunbar and Boardman to look after their lifts since the Viccy flats incident. Chances are that won't be cheap and the decision to engage them should have been published on the NCC website (either as a delegated officer decision or portfolio holder decision) but I haven't seen any sign of it. But they're being very secretive about lift related stuff at the moment. I've got a freedom of info request in about all that so it'll be interesting to see how much info they give me or whether they hide behind exemptions. I know which one my money's on...

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Looking Foward to a Greener Strategy?

I've just found out that Nottingham City Council's Waste and Energy Strategy Manager is called, wait for it, Mr GREENER! How cool is that?

Although it does mean that NCC can now claim that everything they do with regard to waste and energy is all part of 'A Greener strategy' from now on, whatever it involves.

Lets hope he lives up to his name.