My claims of excessive waste in Lancaster Council have brought about rapid responses from the general public who feel that these matters should be aired and not swept under the carpet, but also from the ruling Labour/Green coalition and from the Chief Executive Mark Cullinan (Guardian March 13), who would clearly prefer these matters to be hidden in the small print of the budget.
Coun Jon Barry points out the £55,000 which the installation of solar panels will bring us, but he fails to mention the £900,000 we spent on them, and we still do not have proper data on maintenance during their hoped-for 25-year life-span. He also fails to mention that for the first year and a half after installation we did not collect anything, because we ‘forgot’ to arrange to have the panels connected to the National Grid. Waste or comedy?
Coun Barry was also the cabinet member with responsibility for markets, who personally led the Save-Lancaster-Market project which was a total failure, adding a six-figure bill to the £15 million cost of getting out of the disastrous contract originally signed by the Labour Group. To this should be added the losses over the years, which were running at over £1/2 million a year when we finally called time on a project which the stall holders did not want, but which the council, dazzled by the smooth-talking London developers, signed up to.
I knew most of those stall holders personally, as I used to push a cart laden with fruit and vegetables to the stall holders. What they wanted after the fire was a simple one-level unit similar to the one they previously had, not an expensive two-storey unit with escalators; they said they would be happy to provide their own stalls and have them in the open air, if the council would simply clear away the rubble. They voted with their feet and we never again had a viable market. The total bill for legal fees, breach of contract and annual losses will work out at over £20 million. Does the public have a right to this information?
Mark Cullinan, the Chief Executive, also bridles at any criticism, whether valid or not. He quotes a figure of 75 per cent occupancy, which he is hoping to achieve in the future for Citylab. I will quote another 75 per cent, that is the number of years during which this building sat, since spectacular amounts of taxpayers’ money were spent in 2006 converting these offices, with lights and heating on, with more offices empty than occupied. Now that many of the city’s privately-owned offices have been given permission by the council to convert to student flats, this beautiful building is just starting to fill up, but Mark’s claim that “supply of office space is outstripping demand” does not fit in with the real world.
On top of the spare space in council-owned St Leonard’s House, an under-occupancy which costs us taxpayers £80,000 in losses every year, we have another financially disastrous project in the form of the former Storey Institute, which is only half full.
This is another beautiful building, which was restored with taxpayers’ money, but which has been badly managed. When Labour Cabinet member Abbott Bryning promoted this we were promised that we would put in £150,000 to get the business going and from then on it would bring in enough income to cover the day-to-day costs, though not the cost of conversion.
Move on a couple of years, and I got an anonymous phone call from a member of the public to say that the CEO, who had originally been given the task of finding a chair and board to run the building, had decided to give a further £90,000 to prevent the electricity being cut off.
This had been hidden in the small print in the budget, so the full council, who had approved the original subsidy, knew nothing about it. Even worse, the accounts of The Storey were in a state of chaos, and the money had been used for a different purpose; to me that smells of fraud. We eventually took it over again, moved The Visitor Centre out and back in within a couple of weeks.
Eh? Yes, it’s true. Most of the small businesses which had located there moved, and the building still has more empty space than occupied, and the taxpayer continues to foot the bill.
The leader of the council, Eileen Blamire, boasted in this budget that ours was the only council in Lancashire which had not closed or sold off any buildings. When I went in the Army, the Sergeant-Major once shouted out that I was the only one in step, and I think warning bells should ring when everyone does something different.
Did we need to increase council tax? As 2/3 of the councils in this country did not put up their council tax, I require some convincing. Jon Barry said it is a mere eight pence per week, but he failed to mention that this £4pa is cumulative, so we are paying £12 more than we would have paid if we had kept taxes down last year and this. We will be paying this ever-increasing bill as long as Eileen Blamire runs the council. I hate waste.
Coun Keith Sowden (Free Independent, Overton Ward, Lancaster CC)
Chairman, Overton Parish Council