Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Do They Mean Me?

Being very sad, with nothing else to do in life*, I had a look at the latest full council minutes for a bit of knockabout fun. When you're poor you've got to take your laughs where you can get 'em, know what I mean.

In the manner of such things, one of the Tories asked JoCo if he would apologise for wasting money on a big Christmas tree at Loxley House then lying about it being paid for by outside sponsorship.

JoCo gave it both baubles. Sorry barrels -

"It is actually, frankly, the kind of question that I would only expect to have been asked by a Conservative Councillor that knows the cost of everything, but the value of nothing..."

Yeah, you tell 'em, go Jonny Boy, I like it when you give 'em what for

"...a sad blogger who has nothing better to do in life than sit in front of a computer screen criticising others who try and do something more useful with their time..."

Eh, what?

"...or indeed a newspaper that seems long ago to have forgotten what serious journalism is all about."

Blimey. I wonder which newspaper he means? And I bet whichever blogger he's talking about will be very upset at that.

JoCo is prone to these outbursts it seems, although if he wants to start accusing newspapers of forgetting what proper journalism is he'd better have a good set of examples ready for when somebody calls him out on that. Or maybe he'll blame it on inadequate briefing from an officer, or his secretary maybe.

It's also probably bad form to start ranting about bloggers being 'sad' and having 'nothing better to do in life' because that gives the impression that you read them and you're a bit worried what they write, whereas the correct approach is to feign untouchable indifference.

A more serious concern is that it demonstrates politicians' dislike of anyone who has the wrong level of political interest. They are very happy to pay lip service to encouraging the hoi polloi to vote in elections (safe, in the case of local authority members, that few will bother) but anything else is strictly frowned upon. Unless it's on behalf of the party of course. Heaven knows, you might find something out and tell other people and then where would we be?

Anyway, as JoCo seems to have got his knickers in a twist about local media, lets cheer him up with a reconstruction of the day he decisively dealt with the Post's piffling enquiries.

*Actually I do quite like photography, like writing it's good therapy. But then NCC just goes and nicks it. I dunno, some sad little employee, nothing better to do in life than scour the internet, nicking other people's stuff...

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Fire Station Fuck-Ups

I have to confess that I don't really take much notice of what Notts Fire Authority do, even though their committee minutes are all posted up on NCC's website. Perhaps I should as there may be worthwhile lols to be picked up.

However, I'm not sure checking minutes would have helped me find this stuff that the 'Post' is reporting on regarding NFA and NCC being hit for big out-of-court settlements of £2.7m. This followed a stalled legal action against a private development company, Gladman Commercial Properties, who had pulled out of an agreement to buy the old Dunkirk Fire Station site and surrounding land.

Briefly the allegations are as follows. NCC had land around the fire station it didn't need so it teamed up with NFA to sell the lot together for added value purposes. Gladman claimed that they were told the site could accommodate 600 student flats and, when they worked out it couldn't, pulled out. NCC and NFA went to m'learneds to try and get them back into line. It didn't go well it seems, hence the hefty out-of-court settlements.

Fact is, the whole business seemed pretty bejiggered from the start. The point of selling Dunkirk FS was that, combined with the sale of another station in Beeston, they could build a whole new big spangly station.

Simple enough you'd think but have a look at this report to NFA's Finance and Resources Committee in September 2007. One thing that alarms is the number of times the phrase 'it became clear that...' features at the start of paragraphs, almost as if nobody had actually tried to spot problems before they arose.

One problem that caused a significant deviation from the original budget was the realisation that the plot for the new station, assumed to be industrial land and thus worth about £300k, turned out to be residential land worth £2m. Whoops. That's an extra £1.7m please.

Moving on a few years to the actual court case, this was handled with the usual finesse and expertise that we have come to expect from NCC's legal department. First of all, here's a quick summary of the issues from the Property Litigation Association which is what I'd advise you to read if you're a vaguely normal person. If you want the full fat court decision it's here.

It seems that what NFA and NCC were claiming depended rather heavily on what was said in conversations between the selling agents and Adrian Jones, NCC's Director of Planning and Transport at the time. However, in a stroke of pure genius, they hadn't listed him as a witness, hadn't secured a witness statement from him and he wasn't there to do his stuff at the hearing. When asked why by the Judge the reason given was that he was no longer working for NCC. It's quite likely that, at around this point, Gladman's lawyer took the piss somewhat mercilessly because the big golden rule of court action is that you set out your case from the beginning.

Anyway, NCC requested an adjournment in order to get Mr Jones to appear. After some considerable opposition from Gladman the Judge agreed BUT, and here's the rub, he said that 'there will be heavy costs consequences' for NCC due to the delay and the extra work this would cause Gladman and their legal team.

And that's the point of this post really. Because the substantial issue was settled out of court we have no way of knowing who was actually right. It's not even clear whether Jones ever did appear on the stand or what he (would have) said if he did. But one thing we can be sure that the final settlement, and thus the cost to taxpayers, was inflated by NCC's legal team screwing up the case from the beginning.

One last thing. The Post reports that the following statement was issued by Gladman on conclusion of hostilities -

"GCP wish to make it absolutely clear that they accept that no member (councillor) of either Notts Fire Authority or Nottingham City Council played any part in the misrepresentations alleged by Gladman in the High Court claim."

This seems to have been designed to get any politicians caught up in this off the hook and has already been used as the excuse for the Chair of the Fire Authority, Darrell Pulk, not having to resign. Makes you wonder how much extra that statement cost just to save a few political asses.

PS. If you fancy further reading about another fuck-up by NCC's property and legal wings, not to mention the efforts made by the politicians to extricate themselves from a quagmire, you might like to have a look at the saga of the Radford Unity Complex.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Looks Familiar, What Do You Think?

Here's a pic I took a few years ago the first year that big wheel turned up in the Market Square.

Now here's a pic on the NCC website, in a page labelled as a gallery of Market Square pics

What do you reckon?

It's clearly been cropped and the remains of a green border disturbingly suggests they've used it elsewhere as well.

Not good is it? I may take action.

Addendum - Here's a FreezePage capture of the gallery page in case the original gets changed at some point.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Speak No Evil

Looking at another's FoI request to NCC today. It's a request about what NCC is planning to do about its woeful FoI performance.

One of the things requested was as follows -

"1. Any internal correspondence it has setting out why the Council has not been meeting its statutory obligations"

 to which the answer beggars belief. Here's the first bit -

"In accordance with section 1 of this act this information cannot be provided as it is not held by this authority."

 What the heckins? There has been no internal discussion about FoI failures? Even when they were being formally monitored for non-compliance by the Information Commissioner? Even though they've had 12 decisions (at least partially) against them by the Commissioner?

Or, indeed, even though they've somehow managed to produce an 'action plan' (pdf) which is encouraging. I can only presume that this appeared out of thin air, or perhaps was produced by a single person kept in a box, prevented from consulting with anybody else at NCC, in writing at least.

By the way, this action plan contains the following 'medium term' objective -

"To market NCC as best practice model and take on others workload for fee."

That gap was where I couldn't stop laughing.

Another suspicious bit is this -

"Further, we have received a similar request for ‘information and communications relating to FOI procedures’ and I can confirm that that information was exempted from release under Section 36 of the Act and it is likely that if we had held any information specifically relating to this question, we would have sought to apply the section 36
exemption to that material."

S.36 is the one where they can refuse to tell you stuff if it would inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views or prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

Now, why would they need to mention s.36 if they are saying that they don't hold the info?

I'm beginning to suspect that NCC is going to pull the s.36 line in any case where internal memos, minutes etc are requested, they certainly did on my 'exemptions bingo' case. It is subject to the public interest test but as I've frequently remarked, NCC equates the 'public interest' to 'not being embarrassing to JoCo and his favoured ones'.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

JoCo to Have a Word With Himself

No, really. Cllr Jon Collins is going to have a meeting. With himself.

I can only presume it's all to do with the new 'strong leader' form of executive governance we've got along with the new constitution for the council. This allows Collins, as the aforementioned 'strong leader' to decide key decisions by himself if he feels like it whereas before they would always be made by the Executive Board.

Because as you can imagine, Executive Board was totally a hotbed of unpredictability and rebellion before and you could never get anything done.

Let's hope he makes it on time...

Friday, 7 October 2011

Newstead Abbey Placed on 'Watch' By Heritage Group

Newstead Abbey features in the 2012 'Watch' list of threatened heritage sites compiled by the World Monuments Fund.

Despite its location in NottinghamSHIRE, Newstead Abbey is owned and run by the City Council after having been covenanted to it's forerunner the Corporation of Nottingham by the previous owner Sir Julian Cahn in 1931. Its stewardship was recently criticised following a major cut in opening hours due to budget cuts, which also resulted in the loss of a number of jobs.

WMF say -

"Newstead Abbey has suffered significant deterioration, and a strategy for its conservation and long-term maintenance is greatly needed. Restoration and renewed interpretation would benefit the local community and other visitors and could reinforce the historical connections to one of the world’s greatest poets."

Newstead has also been on the English Heritage 'Buildings at Risk' register since 1998 and there is a £1.35m restoration plan in place which appears to be making slow progress, especially considering how long concerns have been raised for.

The reduced opening hours will surely mean loss of interest in the Abbey by the public which will hardly increase the chances of success in the appeal for funds. I doubt it's what Sir Julian intended when he gave the abbey to the city either.

Hat tip - Nottstalgia forums

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

NCC Plays FoI Exemption Bingo

Back to my FoI request on the housing allocations scandal which I briefly discussed here.

You may remember that NCC initially claimed my request was vexatious, calling me obsessive and other unpleasant things. I challenged that and they came up with an entirely new set of reasons why I could only have a little bit of information. That was about as far as I got round to writing last time, citing laziness and a desire to get my next challenge in before blogging about it.

Well, the Information Commissioner kindly said I didn't need to send a completely new application in but obviously I needed to provide revised grounds to challenge the revised reasons why I can't be told anything. It took me about four days but these grounds are here and I have sent them winging their way to the ICO. Have a read of them if you like but be prepared for long-winded dreariness. It had to be like that for reasons I will now explain.

Basically, NCC appears to have attempted to cram in as many exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act as possible. Let me list them for you now;

Section 12 where the costs of gathering the information exceed a statutory limit

Section 30(1)(a) concerning investigations by public authorities

Section 31(1)(a), (b) and (h), all concerning law enforcement

Section 36(2)(b)(i) exempting information that could 'inhibit the free and frank provision of advice'. They had to get a 'qualified person' to decide that one you know

and finally, section 42, that exempts information that is covered by legal professional privilege, basically confidential lawyers' advice.

Remember, all that is AFTER they had originally relied on section 14, vexatious requests, which they then abandoned without any explanation after I had spent a significant amount of time preparing a challenge against it.

Now let's have a look at some of the stuff that they did tell me. Here's an interesting admission -

"For information, I can confirm that a meeting was requested with Councillor Collins however Nottinghamshire Police did not indicate the purpose of the meeting. Once it was established that the meeting related to housing allocations it was passed to Glen O’Connell to progress and Councillor Collins had no further involvement with
Nottinghamshire Police over the issue."

They don't give any date for this but it would be interesting to know if it was around the time that JoCo took over the Chair of Notts Police Authority.

Another suspicious looking snippet came from Chief Constable Julia Hodson in an email to Jane Todd -

"As a result I think that our communications people need to get together to mitigate the risks around the publication of the outcome."

NCCLols Translation Service; "We'd better get our story straight before the shit hits the fan".

Also, check out the significant redactions of that email. No explanation was given for that which is a breach of the duty to provide a proper refusal notice.

That's about it really. There are a couple more emails about meetings but nothing with any substance in them and one of them containing further unexplained redactions. In other words they told me nothing.

Still, the substantial issues are now before the ICO and NCC cannot be assured of their exemptions being supported. Whatever happens I suspect this case will go on to the Information Tribunal because I very much doubt that NCC would agree to release the info if the ICO supports any part of my case.