Stoke-on-Trent City Council Cabinet Member For Resources Survives Vote Of No Confidence

Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Cabinet member for Resources Cllr Kieran Clarke endured an uncomfortable time at a meeting of the Full Council today [Thursday].

A motion of no confidence was tabled towards the end of the meeting when councillors were moving the minutes of the various council committee meetings.

The Lord Mayor, in his role as Chair of the City Council, asked for a mover and seconder of the minutes of the Cabinet Meeting dated 23rd June 2010. Councillor Peter Kent-Baguley [Community Voice] criticised the Cabinet and in particular Kieran Clarke as Cabinet Member for Resources for not discussing the amount of debt owed to the city council. He moved a motion calling for a vote of no confidence in the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Member

A figure of £49.4million has been put on the total amount of monies owed over a 17 year period.

Supporting the motion, Cllr Mike Barnes [Community Voice] said:

I find it unbelievable that in a Cabinet Meeting with an agenda of some 15 items, the amount of debt owed to the City Council and the wider issue of council finance was not discussed.

The meeting lasted just 1hour 5minutes and despite the fact that we are told there are substantial cuts coming our Cabinet Member for Resources deems it not necessary to discuss the amount of money owed to us.

This is just the latest fiasco whilst this Cabinet Member has had responsibility for Resources. We have already had the failure of implementing the rise in car parking charges, the fiasco over the Britannia Stadium, the hospital tendering debacle.

Cllr Barnes had already asked Cllr Clarke to consider his position earlier in the meeting during his supplementary question asked in response to the Cabinet Member’s answer on the amount of debt written off and owed to the council.

Cllr Clarke said:

If I thought I had done anything wrong or misled the councillors, I would consider my position. But, as I haven’t, I won’t.

I also think that Cllr Barnes is overplaying the issue.

Members of the coalition leaped to the defence of Cllr Clarke.

Cllr Hazel Lyth [Conservative & Independent Alliance] said:

The public cabinet meetings are a small fraction of the discussion that take place on matters. In the private cabinet meetings there is some vigorous questioning and debate. Officers are thoroughly questioned and Cllr Clarke plays a full and active role in that questioning.

Cllr Tom Reynolds [Labour] added that all elected members should show respect to officers.

Cllr Mick Salih [Community Voice] responded by saying that it was about asking questions not disrespecting officers and the executive. He told the chamber that Cllr Kieran Clarke was “Ëœall over the place’ in his interview with Pits n Pots in reply to Cllr Barnes’s questions.

Cllr Pervez [Labour & Council Leader] said:

We are trying to move toward a culture of openness and transparency.

As a result of this things will come out that will cause shock, but you can’t have it both ways. We are not saying that we are proud of the level of debt, but you have to remember that some of this goes back nearly 20 years.

We have to engage with all the communities and work together. Councillors Barnes, Salih and PKB are in opposition, but we are running this authority and we have chosen to do it this way.

Cllr Conway [City Independent Group] agreed with Cllr Barnes. Elected Members have to ask questions he informed the chambers. He said that he has been misled by officers in the past, particularly over Dimensions. He also said that he had been misled in Overview & Scrutiny meetings by officers. He was also critical over the amount owed in housing arrears and said that the level was unacceptable.

The motion calling for a vote of confidence in the Cabinet member for Resources, Cllr Kieran Clarke was comprehensively defeated. Only the Community Voice members voted for.

Councillor’s Concern At Level Of Debt Outstanding To Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Community Voice Councillor Mike Barnes as expressed concerns over the amount of money owed to Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Councillor Barnes is outraged at the figure of £49.4million of debt that is outstanding to Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

In a question submitted to the full City Council meeting tomorrow [Thursday].

Councillor Barnes asked:

"Please could you detail the total amount of uncollected debt (debt not written off from previous years including the year 2009/10 owed to the council or which the council is responsible for collection (ie business rates), at the end of the last financial year 2009/10. Please could you break it down into headings – for example – rent arrears, counciltax, business rates, etc
 

The Council’s response is:

The following table shows, as at the 31 March 2010, the total value of the amount to be collected across the various categories of fund, the level of uncollected debt and the level of bad debt provision set a side to offset any debts that are subsequently deemed irrecoverable and are therefore recommended to be written off:

 

Details of total amount of uncollected debt as at 31/03/10
  Value of Debit Raised

£m

Outstanding debt as at 31/03/2010

£m

Bad Debt Provision

31/03/2010

£000′s

Net Debt as at

31/03/2010

£000′s

Council Tax arrears City Council’s element 76.0 14.1 8.9 5.2
Council Tax arrears Police’s element 0.0 2.2 1.4 0.8
Council Tax arrears Fire’s element 0.0 0.8 0.5 0.3
National Non Domestic Rate Arrears 81.0 9.8 6.6 3.1
Housing rent arrears 55.0 2.6 1.1 1.5
General Debtors 90.0 19.9 5.5 15.5
         
Grand Total 302.0 49.4   24.0 26.4

As the table shows, the total net debt (total debt less bad debt provision) across the 4 categories of debt was £26.4m at the end of the 2009/10 financial year. This is against total revenue collectable of £302m, and therefore represents less than 9% of the total revenue due.

 

It is important to stress that for some of the arrears, notably General Debtors, this will be based on a “snap-shot” in time i.e. the balance sheet date and the overall level of debt can vary considerably at any given time e.g. the total debt may include single large sums owed by 1 or 2 debtors that are recovered soon after the debt has been raised.

 

Also, the total level of arrears must be considered against the available bad debt provision, and the City Council has been prudent in setting aside reasonable and appropriate levels of bad debt provision to mitigate against non-recovery. We have of course over the last 2 years experienced the worst economic downturn in a generation, and whilst it is difficult to ascertain definitively the impact this may have had (and continues to have) on the level of arrears, it is almost certain that it will have had some impact. However, it is recognised that greater focus is needed on not only recovering arrears but preventing the arrears in the first place.

Councillor Barnes asked:

What is being done to secure recovery of this debt?

The Council responded:

There are various streams of work underway to recover and reduce the level of arrears across the various debt categories. Of particular note is the intervention work currently underway within the Revenues and Benefits Service, which is currently in the “re-design phase” and which is incorporating a focused piece of work on debt reduction and recovery.

Whilst this work will continue for some time, a significant amount of effort has already been invested in tackling debt over the last 18 months and some specific examples of the work that has been undertaken are as follows:

Council Tax

 

Prior to 2008 the focus of the Council Tax Service was on achieving the Council tax in-year collection target. At the end of each year, any uncollected debt was given a lower priority and over time this debt increased with little management action taken to recover it or write off un-collectable amounts (and this has been the case for other types of debt).

 

A dedicated team was established early in 2008 with a focus on tackling and reducing former year’s arrears, and this was successful in putting in place measures to recover almost £1m of debt.

 

The revenues team has also made a number of changes to its processes and procedures with the aim of simplifying the way in which customers can make payments and of strengthening the Councils debt recovery arrangements:

 

  • Payers now have a much greater choice of payment date i.e. any day of the month – previously they could only pay on certain days within the month and all customers now have the option of paying weekly

 

  • We have introduced a paperless Direct Debit system which means that the Direct Debit is set up with the customer over the phone or counter, rather than sending out a mandate and inputting information once returned

 

  • Money matter surgeries take place two afternoon’s per week with the Citizens Advice Bureau

 

  • Information is sent to customers at the summons stage, to encourage them to set up an instalment agreement to pay their arrears over an appropriate timeframe

 

  • The Council has implemented a “forced sales policy” on empty homes, with the sale proceeds being used to clear outstanding council tax liability.

 

  • Training has been provided to the Call Centre and front-line staff enabling them to offer more flexible payment terms to suit customer needs.

 

  • Training has also been provided to internal departments and external organisations to increase their knowledge on discounts and exemptions

 

  • Approximately 10 cases were taken through the committal process last year; the first ones for four years.

Housing Rents

 

The way in which the authority collects housing rents is currently under review as part of the Revenue and Benefit Service intervention.  This intervention will include a full review of processes and procedures associated with rent payment and recovery of arrears.

Before the intervention began a complete review of the rent arrears process had been undertaken and timescales for contacting tenants were reduced so that tenants are aware at the earliest opportunity that they need to make arrangements to pay their rent. 

Improved management information is now being extracted from the housing rents system and this is being used to investigate the reasons why tenants get into rent arrears.  There will always be a small percentage of tenants who will not pay their rent and it is essential that the appropriate recovery action is carried out as swiftly as possible.  Early identification, together with providing support and advice particularly around benefit issues needs to be provided at all stages for those who genuinely cannot afford to pay their rent.  Benefit Services are currently carrying out a benefit take-up exercise targeted at council tenants who have rent arrears and are not currently claiming housing benefit to assess their individual circumstances.

 

 

A comprehensive examination of former tenant debts is also underway to identify any cases which have little or no prospect of being recovered (for example where the tenant has deceased) these will be written off and reported in accordance with Financial Regulations.  A balanced judgement needs to be made on the costs of collection of these former tenant cases.  Options for taking action in the County Court will be investigated to evaluate whether the costs of taking such action would be cost effective.  It may require a review of the current policy and provision for bad and doubtful debts for former tenant arrears.

Councillor Barnes asked:

How much debt has been written off across all departments and accounts (eg HRA) in the last five years?"

 

The council responded:

 
  

 

Write offs
  2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09 2009/10 Total
             
Council Tax 248,416 304,738 88,012 56,331 3,814,772 4,512,269
NNDR 1,154,813 298,127 433,707 0 519,305 2,405,952
General debtors 519,965 656,124 173,797 110,077 91,909 1,551,872
HRA rent arrears 146,324 130,979 136,534 -8,158 218,039 623,718
HRA other 173,630 29,882 94,037 0 0 297,549
             
  2,243,148 1,419,850 926,087 158,250 4,644,025 9,391,360

As previously outlined, the amount of arrears written-off has been historically low.

In September 2009, the Council went live with its new Council Tax system, and as part of the “data cleansing” exercise to transfer information from the old system onto the new, £3.8m of Council Tax arrears were written off by the Director of Central Services (under his delegated powers but subsequently reported to Cabinet), along with £0.8m of other arrears.

A report on amounts in excess of the Directors Delegated powers is due to be presented shortly to Cabinet. This will recommend that a further £370,531 of arrears are written off and this process will now be conducted on at least an annual basis.

CounCillor Barnes was not satisfied with the City Council’s response. He said: 

The resonse to my question on debt to the council – an incredible £49.4 million! and an admission that over the last few years little has been done to address this matter other than to right it off! The Cabinet on the council recently received a report on finance which is in the minutes of the full council meeting – how much did the cabinet discuss the matter – no discussion took place at all. What credibility does a council have in making massive cuts in services to people who pay their council tax – whilst it can’t even be bothered to make sure it collects all it is due – £49m is almost equal to the amount of total council tax in Stoke-on-Trent for one year.

Cllr Kieran Clarke, Cabinet Member for Resources responded to Cllr Barnes’s concerns in an Audio Interview which can be heard below..

 

Residents Invited To Have Their Say On How To Save Approximately £30m

Residents are to be asked what they would like Stoke-on-Trent City Council to prioritise its spending on for the next financial year, on the back of stiff government cuts.

The authority, which has a budget of £209 million, needs to save approximately £30 million next year ““ a 14 per cent reduction.

A six-week “ËœLet’s Talk’ public consultation will begin on Monday, and residents’ responses will help with tough decisions on where government cuts need to be made.

The consultation, which will run between 12 July ““ 20 August, will include:

* Face-to-face surveys carried out in local centres, shopping centres, markets, libraries, museums and bus stations
* An on-line survey via stoke.gov.uk/letstalk
* Billboard advertising to inform people about the consultation
* A dedicated phone line ““ 01782 235104 ““ where people can give their views in person

The council is responsible for hundreds of services in the city, from bin collections to schools. Some of the services are statutory, which means the council has to carry them out by law ““ these include looking after children in care and vulnerable adults, to highway maintenance and planning regulations. The authority also provides many discretionary services which the council believes it is right to offer residents ““ these include libraries, swimming pools, museums and allotments.

The survey questions ask people to say what is important to them from a list that includes:

* Encouraging more jobs and businesses
* Reducing anti-social behaviour and fear of crime
* Looking after the environment and tackling climate change
* Improving health and well-being
* Repairing and maintaining roads and pavements
* Keeping streets clean
* Improving educational achievement
* Supporting and protecting vulnerable adults and children
* Increasing recycling
* Providing sport and leisure facilities
* Providing decent and affordable housing

The results of the consultation will be reported to the council’s cabinet and the overview and scrutiny committees that help to put the budget together.

Councillor Kieran Clarke, cabinet member for finance, performance and governance, said:

“We face very tough economic times, and the amount of money the government is asking us to save means we have to make very difficult decisions on where we prioritise our spending.

“Residents views are always important to us, but are even more so given the cuts that need to be made. Saving £30 million is a very hard task and will simply mean that we will not be able to deliver some of the services that we have been doing.

“The government’s emergency budget made it clear that we will not be allowed to raise council tax next year to help pay for services, so it is crucial to know what services are important to residents to help identify where the savings must be made.

“I urge as many residents as possible to respond to the consultation. By getting a good range of views from across the city, we will be able to take their views into account when setting the budget.”

Is The Willfield Centre Really Safe?

A story on the British National Party website confidently claims:

‘After 4 months of lobbying, badgering and protesting, the British National Party Group on Stoke on Trent City Council have been successful in getting the popular Willfield Fitness Centre in Bentilee removed from the council’s cut back list as indicated in the 2010-2011 budget’.

In the article, Stoke BNP Group Leader Mike Coleman says:

“Our intention is to improve what is on offer at this site, possibly bring in more people, hence money, to the centre by promoting the facility widely throughout the city. This is a vitally important community asset and must be maintained at all costs,”

The story also heralds the involvement of BNP Chairman Nick Griffin, who had written to Mark Fisher MP and received an invitation to look round Willfield the next time he was in the area:

“I shall be a regular visitor to Mark’s constituency over the next 10 weeks campaigning on behalf of our candidate Simon Darby who is a serious contender for the seat. I will be back in contact with him to arrange a visit to the centre and to get an update on its future.”

But the question is, is the Willfield Centre really saved and did the BNP play a serious role in getting the proposed closure of the Willfield Centre removed from this years budget cuts?

Cllr Kieran Clarke Cabinet Member for Resources said today:

“It is not strictly true to make out that the BNP group got Willfield taken out of the budget by themselves”.

“All group leaders have played an active part in the discussions relating to the Annual Budget. 30 or so of the councillors attended a briefing and had their say and it is fair to point out that there were a lot of concerns over the proposed closure of the Willfield Centre”.

“I am aware that BNP Chairman Nick Griffin sent an email to all the West Midlands MEPs asking for help to save the centre as it is in Bentilee which is a BNP stronghold, so I can understand his concerns”.

“The fact remains though, that the Willfield Centre may be pulled back into the melting plot”.

“Some parts of the centre are very underused so there will have to be discussions over the long trem viability of the Willfield Centre. It’s future will be part of the root and branch review, due to take place in March, which will decide the future of the Willfield Centre and other facilities”.

“To say that the Willfield Centre is saved is a tad premature”.

Listen to the Audio Interviews below.

The first is with Cllr Roger Ibbs who says that many Councillors had an input over the future of Willfield and any suggestion that the BNP were solely responsible for it’s reprieve is disingenuous.

The second Audio Interview is with Cllr Mike Coleman, Leader of Stoke BNP, who says that any future attempt to close Willfield will be met by fierce opposition.