Highways – The Long and Winding Road

Spot the difference.

About Wirral 001

In…

Highways etc 004

…and out! It’s a sign of the times!

You wouldn’t know it but today is one of the most significant days in Wirral Council history.

Ten years after the Highways Department was controversially outsourced to Colas (and subsequently BAM Nuttall) , the people that attend to streetlights , fill potholes and commission contracts for roadworks and related services once again, and even more controversially, become employees of Wirral Council. So it’s a case of out with the old and er, in with the old.

However there has been no fanfare for such a momentous event – just a discreet removal of the BAM Nuttall signs at the Highways depot and it’s business unusual.

The highly significant decision to return the Highways Department multi-million pound contract in-house was  made in November 2017 by council leader Cllr Phil ‘Power Boy Pip’ Davies using his ‘special delegated powers’ . Isn’t curious that in the intervening 11 months that Pip didn’t /couldn’t/wouldn’t order a re-tendering exercise and instead took the unprecedented step of returning a department to the control of Wirral Council. It must be gratifying to make a knotty problem go away with the wave of a magic wand mustn’t it? Especially when there has been a woeful lack of proper scrutiny or thorough probing on this highly dubious move by other Wirral councillors.

Shall we now expect more outsourced public services to be returned in- house? The failing care homes? Waste management? Will the control room staff get their jobs back? Will Wirral Council become less reliant on external consultants and recruit competent  managers with a commitment to public services? – Breath-holding is not advised.

Which all makes us wonder what made the long and winding road that led to the return of highways department to Wirral Council such an exceptional case?

Wirral Leaks readers might know the answer to that question and it has very little to do with value for money, the public interest or due diligence…

WIRRALGATETAPE

An Unsound Decision

Mural 2 029

Did the powers that be (and shouldn’t be) at Wirral Council think that the week would pass without Wirral Leaks commenting on one of the most shameful days in Wirral Council’s history? Yes – just think about that evaluation for a moment. The occasion we are referring to is the latest meeting of the Audit & Risk Management Committee held on July 23rd . It is a date that should go down in Wirral Council infamy. And let’s face it considering their recent rap sheet that’s quite a feat!

Once again we have to thank our old friend John Brace for recording this ignominious occasion (we’ll stick with our old friend rather than link to the council’s own webcast if you don’t mind). We could only watch the first reel as we have a particularly weak gag reflex. However we anticipate that His Lordship will have much more to say on the matter when he returns from his golden slumbers.

 

Watch in complete contempt as Mark Smith – Strategic Commissioner for Environment (£93,783 p.a.) squirms in his own obsequiousness during Agenda item 3 trying to explain (very belatedly) how the highways contract is coming back ‘in house’ and in full Uriah Heep mode thanking Cllr Jeff Green for his ‘pertinent ‘ questions (yeah -right!).

We advise that from here on in you press the mute button to watch this farrago. Not only so you don’t have to hear the honking voice of Tory hypocrite Green . Instead watch the body language as in yet another spectacular failure of proper scrutiny we see furtive glances, the uncomfortable shuffling, the skirting round the issues, and the pity in the eyes of the councillors as they look at Smith in the knowledge that’s he’s the ‘poor’ sap having to front this duplicitous bullshit. Note particularly the repeated placing of hands over the mouths of most of the committee members (and particularly the representatives of external auditors Grant Thornton – £200K + p a. and counting ) which acts as a telling, involuntary gag. Note the crossed arms of Shaer Halewood (Director of Finance and Investments £104,642 p.a.) and the look on her face as if to say  : “What have I let myself in for?” and the inane grin of Chief Internal Auditor Mark Niblock (we don’t know what salary he’s on but whatever it is – it is far,far too much.) 

Whilst there were some mealymouthed  criticisms of the current highways maintenance contract holders BAM Nuttall made by elected members ,the fact is that the 25 staff who currently (mis) manage the filling of potholes and the replacement of streetlights and therefore responsible for the pisspoor performance will be the same staff welcomed back into the Wirral Council fold…..and BAM Nuttall will still potentially be able to tender for the £multi-million services that this motley crew won’t be undertaking!

So it’s a lose-lose situation all round for Wirral Council taxpayers as a result of this complicity and collusion with corruption (other c words are available).

Thankfully Assistant Chief Executive David Armstrong (£116,268 p.a.) was on hand to arrogantly explain that some of  those returning to Wirral Council previously worked for Wirral Council then Colas then BAM Nuttall. You don’t say! – and no -one , absolutely no-one, raised the issue as to whether those returning included those who actively participated in a smear campaign against Cllr Jeff Green and have been holding some leading local politicians by the short and curlies because they have the means to bring down the Council leadership courtesy of a covert recording  or whether the report into their treatment from nearly a decade ago and completed in October 2015 played any part in negotiations or why it took ten months to cobble together an explanation as to why Wirral council’leader’  Cllr Phil ‘Power Boy Pip’ Davies suddenly decided under his ‘special powers’ to bring highway maintenance back in house. Not a peep!

There wasn’t  even an explanation from Philip McCourt (Director : Governance and Assurance – are you having a laugh?) who, might we suggest, could’ve intervened to explain something along the lines of : ” I don’t know what Surjit Tour was doing agreeing that we could just pay them off and try and justify it with some bogus report supposedly written by one of Frank Field’s mates. Care to help me out with that one Mr Armstrong ? No thought not – but then you were at that meeting  when Frank tried to ,ahem , ‘compromise’ former CEO Graham Burgess about his , ahem, compromising positions weren’t you so,yes, you’re best keeping your head down and pretending like the rest of us that it’s all legit,whilst I try and clear up your mess and explain that as soon as we handed over any ‘compensation’ money to people who had no legal claim for ‘compensation’ we were all implicated so the best we could do was negotiate to give them what they wanted a decade ago if they buried the recording…”

Turn the sound back on and you can almost hear an audible sigh of  ” We just might have gotten away with that one…” as Mark Smith scuttles off and it’s on to the next agenda item. Meanwhile there’s the distant sound of a streetwise quartet sitting in a Birkenhead karaoke bar raucously singing along to the chorus of ‘Just What I’ve Always Wanted’

‘To be in charge of highways maintenance …..just what I’ve always wanted…’

 

 

Highways : Against the Flow of Traffic

Flow of Traffic

We raised the issue (and our eyebrows) at the proposal to bring the highways contract back under Wirral Council control as part of our Wirral Leaks Weekly Dispatch #2

This particular story concerned a meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee (ARMC) where Cllr Jeff ‘Kindred’ Green wanted reassurance that the decision to bring the highways contract back in house wasn’t “written on the back of a fagpacket” . We also noted that :

Incidental dark comedic value is to be had from the ever oleaginous senior officer David Armstrong who promises a short report and ingratiating interm Monitoring officer Philip McCourt who says that the commissioning of highways contract is a ‘live project’ and that the report would be a ‘ partial measure’ – ain’t that the truth!

Needless to say council officers showed their usual contempt for opposition councillors by failing to produce a written report for yesterday’s ARMC follow up meeting. There were also no shows from McCourt and ARMC chair Cllr Adrian Jones . Consequently Deputy Chief Executive Armstrong was allowed by stand-in chair Cllr Angela Davies to hand the hot potato over to poor sap Mark Smith (Strategic Commissioner for Environment) to deliver a verbal report – all the better to hinder proper scrutiny when nothing is written down and there’s no report in the public domain for ‘ a particular website’ to pick (pot)holes. It was enough to give us an attack of the verbals.

As you can see from the John Brace footage of last night’s meeting Smith gives a tortuous explanation of ‘options appraisals’ and how the decision was reached. Although we have to say that as he’s on £90,532 p.a. our sympathy for his squirming is somewhat limited.

However the information that was eventually dragged out of Smith was most illuminating (and probably explains the lack of a written report) . It was revealed  that the current holders of the highways contract BAM Nuttall get £6 million p.a. from Wirral Council . Smith described it as an ‘unusual scenario’ that BAM Nuttall chose not to take advantage of a contract extension to which they were entitled. BAM Nuttall currently spend £5 million is spent on sub-contractors and £1 million on what Armstrong described as 28/29  ‘operatives’ . It is these ‘operatives’ who will be TUPE* transferred back to Wirral Council (if they wish) – and the sub-contracting from the private sector will continue.

* Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment ) Regulations.

We begrudgingly give him his due on this one (because he’s had a shadowy part in this shady story) but Cllr Green whipped out his calculator trying to deconstruct the £1 million cost of 28/29 operatives -which he calculated to be about £700,000 . Labour councillor Christina Muspratt attempted to explain the missing £300,000 as ‘on costs’ However it was eventually wheedled out of Smith that ‘operatives’ included both managers and back room staff (approximately half operational and half management) so it wasn’t just staff filling potholes and replacing streetlights.

Armstrong and Smith were particularly twitchy on the issue of TUPE transfers with the former interrupting through the chair to advise Cllr Muspratt  that there was a list of staff who were eligible and who can “TUPE if they wish”  to either BAM Nuttall or Wirral Council . Smith went on to say that ” it wouldn’t be appropriate to go into any further detail in this forum”

However might we suggest there remain pertinent questions that need to be asked :  a) are the managers subject to TUPE some of the same Direct Labour Organisation (DLO) managers from Wirral Council who failed to win the highways contract during a tendering exercise in 2008 and who’s contracts of employment  were TUPE transferred to Colas and then presumably BAM Nuttall in 2014 and who have been in dispute with Wirral Council for a decade ? b) did this ongoing dispute influence or play any part in the decision (under delegated powers) to return the highways contract to Wirral Council control and c) has this dispute been resolved – and if so – how? 

Whilst , like some of the councillors at ARMC  , we welcome the return of highways to Wirral Council control , we seem to be rather more enquiring as to the reasons why – especially when such a decision goes ‘against the flow of traffic’ when it comes to outsourcing council services.

Parklife

Park 010

As a diversion from our sarcasm and irreverence and as part of our public interest / public service remit we publish correspondence concerned  with  the ‘re-imagining’ of Wirral Council’s Leisure and Cultural Services. I think we all know what ‘re-imagining’ is Council-speak for don’t we folks?

As far as we’re concerned it is the manifestation of former Tory  PM David Cameron’s ‘Big Society ‘ (remember that?) . This so-called big idea was nothing more than the further rolling back of the state and the jeopardising of philanthropic bequests of open spaces and buildings for the benefit of all under the guise of ’empowerment’ and ‘community involvement’ and ‘localism’.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/09/the-end-of-park-life-as-we-know-it-the-battle-for-britains-green-spaces-rowan-moore

Wirral Council appear to be doing their pretend ‘consultation’ schtick again as the grandiloquently titled Strategic Commisionner – Environment , Mark Smith sends out details of surveys and workshops . It’s fair to say there’s a great of deal of concern about developments among Friend’s groups and volunteers .

This is an extract from an initial response from Wirral Parks Forum :

  • There has been inadequate consultation with key stakeholders by the London based consultants, Bates, Wells, Brathwaite (BWB) in the preparation of their report “Wirral BC – Re-imagining Leisure and Cultural Services.”
  • Numerous Friends Groups, volunteer organisations, Trade Unions, Parks Friends Forum and Friends of the Libraries have all expressed significant concerns over the contents and accuracy of this report not least because the key stakeholders, who know our Leisure and Cultural Assets best, have not been involved or consulted over the production of this report.
  • We believe it is expensive folly to have spent £284,000 of Taxpayers money on a report without recourse to such important stakeholders as their knowledge and experience is vital in bringing out key issues in developing future options for our Leisure and Cultural Assets.
  • By disenfranchising these key stakeholders at this stage of the process the Council risks missing out on significant benefits and therefore this process should be paused to allow a period of consultation and engagement, which is missing from the BWB report, prior to moving to options appraisal and development of the full business case.
Ultimately the committee voted to proceed to Phase II – i.e a Business Case with the proviso there would be a period for consultation.  This was to take place in a 5 week period.  The Business case was to be prepared for September 2017.
 
The Wirral Parks Forum Committee was in the process of organising our diaries with the intention of meeting with all Friends groups regarding the forthcoming consultation, when we received the following email regarding the consultation.  
 
I urge you to get as many Friends group members to apply for a place on a workshop and to encourage every member and their friends to complete the on line survey. Perhaps put the links up on your Facebook pages?   I have applied for a place and will have to wait 5 days to have it confirmed or rejected.   I will write to Mark Smith Strategic Commissioner – Environment, to express my concern regarding the process as it maybe that Friends Groups committees may not get a chance to get someone on a workshop. There are only 4 workshops of 2 hours each and they are clearly space limited.  I will ask if there can be deeper consultation with Friends of Parks groups over the summer period.  I feel this is an important issue, as Friends Groups provide many volunteer man hours and raise a lot of money to keep their local parks functioning and running events. 
 

Dear Resident,

As you are aware we are considering how leisure, libraries and cultural services could be delivered in the future in Wirral. These services play a vital role in the lives of not only residents but also those visiting our borough. They are crucial for the health, wellbeing and development of residents but also contribute to our local economy.

We want sustainable services that meet the needs of users and visitors, now and in the future and remain committed to the Pledges we made as part of the Wirral Plan, most notably:

“we will encourage more people to enjoy a wide range of leisure, cultural and sporting opportunities on offer across Wirral. We will listen to resident’s ideas and requests, and by 2020, we will have increased access to events and activities to all our residents, regardless of age and income”

To achieve this aim, we need to think about the way that we deliver services and consider innovations that will continue to provide the right outcomes for the community whilst responding to the budget pressures that the council faces

We do not want to ask people for input once a decision has been made. Instead, we have the opportunity to work on ideas together, to get a better understanding of what people want and need, and to feed this into the design and decision making process.

To do this, we are inviting key stakeholders to attend workshops that will focus on each service area. Workshops will run between 17th July and 26th July.  We would be delighted if you could join us. Spaces are limited so please apply for a space via our online booking system (link to booking) indicating which session you would like to attend. Spaces will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

The intention for each session is to have an introduction by either Andrew Elkington, Interim Director for Community Services, or Mark Smith, Strategic Commissioners for Environment, followed by facilitated round table discussions where we will consider:

  • your opinions about the existing services
  • your views on priorities for the evaluation of future options
  • your ideas and innovations
  • your concerns

 

In addition, we are asking the general public to join the conversation by participating in an online survey which you can access via this link. Staff will also be invited to contribute through the same survey and their own workshops. Please feel free to contribute to the survey if you’re unable to make it to a workshop session.

All of the information gathered across these different forums will be used to:

  • Inform how services could be delivered in the future – this will form part of a Full Business Case which will outline options and will go to Cabinet in October
  • Generate ideas for innovation in specific services – this will also influence the Business Case but will be of most value once a decision has been made and services are looking at the detail of delivery for their area
  • Help us to understand what’s important to people, what works well and not so well – again this will inform the Business Case but will create added insight and intelligence about what local people and groups value.

 

To be clear, we are not considering any fundamental changes to the services received across Libraries, Leisure and Culture Services. We are considering how these services could be delivered in the future and who is best placed to deliver them to ensure that they are sustainable; this could be by continuing to provide services directly by the council or through an alternative delivery model such as a council owned company or charitable trust 

I appreciate that many of you may have already contributed to a recent review of library services but we wanted to make sure that people were invited to participate across all service areas. We will do our best to avoid duplicating any of this with you during the workshop.

Kind regards

Mark Smith
Strategic Commissioner – Environment