Dacorum - A Rotten Borough Council

"Dacorum Borough Council is one of the richest councils in the country, but it seems to make a point of not listening".

Tony Mc.Walter, Labour M.P. for Hemel Hempstead from 1997 to 2005.

People often laugh when they hear the name "Dacorum" for the first time, as it sounds so similar to a virtue sadly lacking in these parts. There is not much decorum in Dacorum. The word is allegedly derived from the name of the locality in Anglo-Saxon times. Modern residents could think of a few other Anglo-Saxon words to describe its local authority.

As you may know, a council is run by a combination of councillors and officers. The councillors are volunteers who are elected by the local residents to serve for four years. They are paid expenses but, until recently, no salary. They are supposed to decide the policy of the council by democratic vote.

Council officers are paid employees. They are supposed to put the policy determined by the councillors into action. They also provide specialist advice to the councillors.

Unfortunately, most Dacorum Borough Councillors have little idea of what is really going on at the council, never mind in Dacorum Borough. Instead of using their own judgement, they vote the way that their party political leaders tell them to. This usually involves "Rubber-stamping" the recommendations made by the officers.

Therefore it is the officers who are really deciding the policy of the council, for whatever reasons they see fit. As the councillors fail to make them accountable to the electorate, they are free to maximise their pay and perks, minimise their workload and build their little empires. Staff numbers have risen steadily over recent years and continue to do so. Standards of service have not.

Officers have little incentive to see that taxpayers' money is well spent, or that staff or contractors do their jobs properly. Poor workmanship is rewarded by full pay.

The name of former Chief Executive Keith Hunt appeared on the membership lists of two Masonic Lodges. He took early retirement shortly after this was revealed and went to Australia for a while, but has since returned and when last heard of was still living in Alexandra Road in Hemel Hempstead, within walking distance of the Civic Centre.

Mr. Hunt was replaced by Paul Walker, former Chief Executive of Kettering Borough Council. Mr. Walker has denied being a Mason. However, as revealed elsewhere on this web site, he did condone dishonesty by council employees.

One of Mr. Walker's first acts was to make all five directors redundant, and create three new directorships in their place. The official reason was to save money. Mr. Walker may also have been aware that a group of local residents had discovered rather a lot about the directors' activities.

For example, former Director of Planning, Colin Barnard, and his wife, a Planning Officer in the neighbouring district of St. Albans, owned four houses and six cars, and had three children at expensive private schools. Their annual salaries totalled approximately 70,000. When challenged about apparently living beyond his means, Mr. Barnard said that he had received an inheritance when his father died.

The leader of Dacorum Borough Council from 1995 to 1999 was Labour Councillor Julia Coleman. She is employed as an official of Unison, the trade union which represents the majority of council staff. This gave her an illegal conflict of interest. Every time she chaired a meeting of Dacorum's Policy Committee, she committed an indictable offence (reference R. v Dytham).

Unfortunately, the Police appeared reluctant to act on this and other offences committed by Dacorum Borough Councillors and officers. I am sure this had nothing to do with the fact that Ms. Coleman co-habits with Hertfordshire County Councillor Ian Laidlaw-Dixon, who was deputy chairman of the Hertfordshire Police Authority at the time, and is also the local Labour Party election agent.

Ms. Coleman, better known for her political correctness as Ms. Coleperson, also chaired the Dacorum Crime Reduction Group.

One of Ms. Coleman's indiscretions was to refer to a local hotelier as "A bloody crook". This resulted in her being found guilty of slander in 2001 and fined 1000.

Four Labour Councillors, former Mayor Mick Young, Bill Killen, Paul Hinson and David Clark, voted with the opposition against the Labour group and caused its attempts to force the closure of Pond Close, an Elderly Persons' Dwelling in Tring, to be defeated. They were punished for this public-spirited act by being de-selected as Labour candidates for the 1999 elections. They resigned the Labour whip and sat as independents for the remainder of the council.

The son of the then Mayor of Dacorum, Labour Councillor Maureen Flint, tried to assault Councillor Hinson at a civic reception funded by local taxpayers. Fortunately, young Flint is not as hard as his name might suggest. Councillor Hinson was unhurt, while Flint junior made a complete fool of himself.

The Labour Party obtained promotion for Julia Coleman within Unison in return for her not standing for re-election in 1999.

Following the 1999 local elections, the number of Conservative councillors equalled the combined number of Labour and Liberal Democrats. All the independents were defeated. For a while, the Conservatives were able to exercise overall control through the mayor's casting vote. Councillor Lois Blythe, who is either a Blythe spirit or Lois of the Low, depending upon your political leaning, then defected from the Conservatives to Labour. Councillor Tony Mc.Laughlin resigned the Labour whip and sat as an independent. Sadly, he died in 2003 without making the reasons for his resignation public. The council was then under no overall control, though the Conservatives were still the largest political group, and Conservative Councillor Andrew Williams remained as council leader.

In 2000, the government decided that local authorities needed a new structure. Nero fiddles while Rome burns. We were given no choice but to accept a system in which major policy decisions would in future be taken by a small "Cabinet" of senior councillors instead of by the whole council. It is difficult to think of a more effective way of excluding the more independent-minded councillors from the decision-making progress while retaining the appearance of democracy. I suspect that this was the government's intention.

Dacorum Borough Council put three options to the public, which decided, albeit by a narrow majority, that it would prefer a publicly-elected mayor. However, the council then decided to have a council leader elected only by the councillors. So much for public consultation.

Obviously, it is much easier for political parties to control a council leader than a Ken Livingstone character, or a man in a monkey suit, as was elected to be mayor of Hartlepool. Worse still, reports from the Hartlepool direction suggest that the man in the monkey suit is proving to be both a competent and popular mayor. How party politicians hate being shown up.

Councillors used to be volunteers, paid expenses only, but under the new structure even "Backbench" councillors received a minimum of 4000 per year. Cabinet members were paid 12,000 - more than some local residents earn from full-time work. It is not clear when local taxpayers will begin to see a return on this investment.

Two by-elections were caused in November 2000 by the resignation of Councillors John Brooks and Stanley Sharpe, the two Liberal Democrats who represented Berkhamsted West ward, on health grounds. They were replaced by two Conservatives, Carol Green and Ian Reay. Thus the Conservatives had a small overall majority.

In 2001, the Labour Government's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, imposed a stealth tax on dividends credited to pension funds. Conservative controlled Dacorum Borough Council decided to pay more taxpayers' money into the staff pension fund to replace that which the Chancellor is now taking out. Private sector workers will just have to make do with a lower income in retirement whilst paying higher taxes to support the pensions of council staff.

Dacorum Borough Council voted in 2001 to set up a Public Private Partnership to take over the running of some local services. In January 2003 talks with proposed private sector partner Northgate collapsed, leaving the council with losses of around 700,000. This sum included 500,000 paid to consultants. Talks with a new prospective PPP partner, Hyder, came to nothing. The council has now decided to keep its services in-house, and has told us it will have to spend 7 million on new technology in order to do so.

In 2002 Conservative Councillor Mike Griffiths, a banker, was convicted of attempting to steal shares worth 186,000. He was forced to resign his seat in the Woodhall Farm area of Hemel Hempstead, which was won by Labour's Alan Olive. The number of Conservatives on the council was then equal to the combined total of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.

In May 2003, shortly before the local elections, Chief Executive Paul Walker announced his intention to leave Dacorum Borough Council and take up a job with Hartlepool Council. Councillor Olive wrote a letter to the local newspaper, "The Gazette", in which he said Mr. Walker would be well suited to working with the Monkey Mayor, as he had gained experience in working with monkeys at Dacorum. Whether Councillor Olive was referring to the ruling Conservative group or the council staff was not entirely clear.

Councillor Olive was among those Labour members who lost their seats as the Conservatives gained an overall majority of twelve. However, the Conservatives lost two seats in Berkhamsted Castle Ward to the Liberal Democrats. Councillors Kenneth Coleman - a gentleman - and Peter Ginger - a brave man, though one with whom I did not always agree - were ousted by Victor Earl and Betty Patterson, who previously "Served" on Berkhamsted Town Council. I have attended meetings at which Councillor Earl has fallen asleep and Councillor Mrs. Patterson has lied. Predictably, these two did little to represent the interests of the people of Berkhamsted Castle Ward.

Dacorum Borough Council advertised for a new Chief Executive at a salary of 100,000 per annum. It spent 3000 flying one candidate, Mario Abela, head of the Victoria State Education Department, over from Australia and putting him up in a hotel for five nights. He was not offered the job, which went to Daniel Zammit, previously Director of Environment and Regeneration in the London Borough of Redbridge. Mr. Zammit's duties in Redbridge included waste management, so putting him in charge of the rubbish at Dacorum Borough Council does have a certain logic to it. His salary makes rather less sense. He receives more in a month than many of his reluctant contributors earn in a year.

The decision to fly in Mr. Abela was made just before the council announced 2.2 million of cuts in public services, and had the support of councillors from all parties. Even "The Gazette", which in the past has not been notorious for its criticism of the council, was moved to print as a headline, "They don't give a XXXX". How true.

Dacorum Borough Council then spent 38,000 on a consultants' report to tell it whether or not to close its plant nursery at Two Waters near Hemel Hempstead. The consultants recommended closure. The council decided to keep it open, and suggested that it might be economic if it sold plants to other local authorities. The consultants did not seem to have considered this possibility. A councillor admitted, "It appears that the consultants were not given access to all the facts".

In 2004, Dacorum Borough Council distributed a dubious survey to residents, asking them which services they wished to see cut in order to limit an increase in Council Tax. The list of options for reduction included the likes of meals on wheels for the elderly and sports ground maintenance. It did not include ceasing to employ consultants, reducing the numbers of non-productive office staff, cutting councillors' expenses and improving staff productivity.

Council Tax was increased by a further 6%. The annual rate of inflation was less than 2%. It then emerged that councillors and officers were secretly discussing a 40 million scheme to redevelop the Civic Centre and surrounding area, to be known as the Civic Zone. "Civic Dome" might be more appropriate. The provision of more luxurious accommodation for the councillors and officers evidently has a higher priority than either providing local services or keeping taxes down. The scheme was officially described as "High risk". By November 2004 the projected cost had already increased to 75 million. This included the appointment of a project manager at a salary of 60,000 per year. Jan Hayes-Griffin, Director of Planning and Strategy, claimed that the costs will all be paid by a property developer who will build a large number of new houses and a supermarket on the site. The veracity of this remains to be proved, but the effect of the proposed new supermarket on local retailers is rather more predictable.

Members of the public were excluded from the meeting at which the council revealed that it had already spent 70,000 on Donaldsons', the consultants advising on the scheme, and agreed to pay the same firm a further 50,000. It was Donaldsons' who told us that a new Waitrose supermarket in Berkhamsted would attract additional retailers to the town, and that the former Waitrose premises in the High Street would, "Attract the attention of another quality retailer soon". The ground floor remained empty for eight years after the new supermarket opened, by which time Berkhamsted had suffered a net loss of 34 local shops.

Dacorum Borough Council's generosity to consultants contrasts with its attitude towards local children. The cabinet wanted to impose charges for the use adventure playgrounds which are currently free, but backed down under public pressure.

The popular paddling pool in Gadebridge Park, Hemel Hempstead, remained closed throughout the Summer of 2004 in order to save money. Councillor Julian Taunton, the holder of the council's Community and Leisure Portfolio, said that the annual saving would be 18,000. The owner of a private swimming pool told me that this figure was greatly exaggerated. When challenged, Councillor Taunton would only say vaguely that it had been obtained from "Other local authorities".

Meanwhile, Dacorum Borough Council established a 5,000 fund for staff jollies. 1,600 of taxpayers' money was spent taking officers from the Town Planning Department, who are notorious for their failure to listen to local people, on a luxury trip aboard the Orient Express. "The Gazette" condemned this as "Orient Excess".

Paul Spencer, Dacorum Borough Council's Director of Resources, admitted that council staff ring up a mobile telephone bill of 70,000 and take an average of 11.4 days off sick each year at a cost to the taxpayer of 1.5 million. Average "sickies" have increased from 9.4 days in 2003/4 and compare poorly with the private sector average of 7.2 days. Director of Human Resources Ron Down said, "People don't like change; people don't like to be checked up on in performance terms. Some employees' way of dealing with this is to go sick". You could say that it's a Ron Down council.

The council's response, predictably, was to spend 18,000 on a team of consultants to investigate the matter. If staff sickness is reduced by 20%, the consultants will be paid another 30,000. This prompted Labour Councillor Stephen Cox to write:

"The comedy capers that substitute for effective government at Conservative-run Dacorum Borough Council would be laughable, were the issues not so serious".

True, Councillor Cox, but the council was just as bad when Labour was the majority party. The officers were in charge of the asylum then, as they are now.

In October 2005, it was revealed that Dacorum Borough Council spent 1.6 million in the previous year on temporary agency workers to cover for staff sickness and vacancies.

I would like to suggest a cheaper and more effective solution to the problem of staff sickness: sack a few malingerers. The removal of four idle and disruptive students from the college where I studied resulted in a remarkable improvement in attendance and behaviour among those who remained. Sadly, Dacorum Borough Council stubbornly refuses to admit that it employs any malingerers. The state of local services suggests otherwise.

In February 2005, Dacorum Borough Council's cabinet imposed another money-spinning idea upon the local community - levying business rates on charities. "The Gazette" suggested that Conservative members of the council must have a death wish. I think it more likely that the senior officers who pull the cabinet members' strings would like the Conservatives to lose future local elections.

In the same month, Dacorum Borough Council spent 20,000 on a "Customer Satisfaction Survey" to find out what local people thought of the council. One woman, who asked not to be named, said she "Blew her top" when she realised that local taxpayers were paying for this. "If they just spent some time looking at their e-mails they would get an idea of what people think", she added.

Karen Tarbox, Dacorum Borough Council's Head of Customer Services, claimed: "We have a good rating for customer experience". A tar box stinks.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Dacorum Borough Council has been missing out on millions of pounds set aside by the quango English Partnerships for the refurbishment of new towns. The council failed to claim the money because it did not know it existed.

In March 2005, Dacorum Borough Council announced plans to raise council tax by a further 4.9%. It was also revealed that the Council had financial reserves totalling 66 million in various accounts around the world: among the largest reserves held by any council in Britain. Council Leader Andrew Williams said that the money produced an annual income of 2 million which helped to keep the council tax down. This is a 3% return on the capital. High Street building societies were then paying interest rates in excess of 5%.

Dacorum Borough Council's books were opened up to scrutiny in October 2005, and revealed several further items which may be of interest to council tax payers. For example, 169,047.09 was spent on "General stationery" in the previous year, and 49,643.68 on office equipment. "Internet connection" cost 20,691.64. Bank charges were 115,795.62. 60,890.28 was spent on "Books and publications". Employee mileage reimbursement was 113,447.44, while 35,493.04 was spent on hire cars.

The total cost of Dacorum Borough Council's mobile phones was 75,000, which included some individual bills for more than 2000. "Artistes" taking part in shows promoted by the Borough Council were paid a total of 147,000.

Even "Refreshments" cost 27,878.95. That sounds like an awful lot of tea and biscuits.

Two further annual Council Tax rises above the rate of inflation were imposed, then it was time for the May 2007 local elections. Dacorum Borough Council officers sent out 12,500 postal ballot papers. 11,076 contained mistakes. Electors were told to vote for only one candidate, when in fact most wards return two or three councillors. A Liberal Democrat candidate was given a Labour Party logo beside his name, though this could have been a rare example of honesty in local politics.

Officers had to send additional letters to all postal voters in an attempt to correct the errors, but refused to disclose how much this would cost taxpayers. Chief Executive Daniel Zammit issued a public apology, but did not offer to hand back any of his salary, nor to make deductions from the wages of incompetent staff.

The result was a landslide victory for the Conservatives, who won 44 of the council's 51 seats. The Liberal Democrats are now the official opposition with five seats. Labour won only two, having suffered particularly badly from the Government's insistence on downgrading the local hospital and diverting resources to the nearby Labour marginal seat of Watford.

Councillor Taunton retired at the election, and had the title of "Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Dacorum" conferred upon him. The council knows how to look after its own. A whole phalanx of dubious councillors was unseated, to be replaced by novices. Sadly, the majority of these are proving to be officers' puppets, just like their predecessors.

In late 2007, auditors found 85 errors in the accounts of Dacorum Borough Council, including a discrepancy of 13.5 million. Meanwhile, another above-inflation increase in Council Tax was imposed in March 2008. Another blunder by Dacorum Borough Council staff meant that residents of Tring were overcharged by 12 pence. Instead of reducing next year's bill by the same amount, the rules dictated that this year's bills would have to be re-issued at a cost to the taxpayer of 5000.

In April 2009, Dacorum Borough Council raised its share of the Council Tax by a further 4.9%. The Retail Price Index over the past twelve months had fallen by 1.2%. Meanwhile the salary of Chief Executive Daniel Zammit had risen to 145,000 per year. The council tried to hide this figure from the public until forced to reveal it by a request under the Freedom of Information Act. It constitutes an obscene reward for failure.

Details of Mr. Zammit's expenses were published in the Sunday Times. He hired a morning suit to wear to the Queen's garden party and saw fit to claim the 59 cost of this back from the Council Tax payer. He also bought a 42 inch flat-screen television for his office at a cost to the taxpayer of 800. He claimed this was bought for "Presentations and monitoring media coverage". If Mr. Zammit wishes to "Monitor media coverage", he might consider watching the evening news at home, like the rest of us do. I am reminded of my former English teacher's advice regarding homework: "When you are watching television, you are not working".

"I can't tell you how upset I am by all this", said Mr. Zammit. Upset that he got caught, perhaps. Surely not as upset as all the pensioners and low earners who are forced to fund his life of luxury.

In 2010, when many councils froze or reduced their council tax charges, Dacorum Borough Council increased its rate by 5% and also increased Daniel Zammit's salary by 5%. He is now paid over twice as much as his predecessor.

Council employees prosper, and senior council employees have ever-greater riches lavished upon them. Meanwhile, the people they are paid to serve are forced to pay increasing taxes in return for deteriorating services.

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