Hertfordshire County Council

A model of excellence?

In December 2002, government inspectors published a survey of the 150 largest local authorities in England and Wales. Councils were allegedly rated according to the quality of the local services they provided. Hertfordshire County Council was one of 22 local authorities described as "Excellent".

I would be surprised if the inspectors were able to make a genuinely objective assessment. A serving Hertfordshire County Councillor once admitted to me that, "The system is impenetrable". In other words, councillors cannot find out what is going on at the county council even if they want to. The staff run the show, and are not held accountable to anyone.

Instead of working towards the delivery of quality local services, it appears that most county councillors prefer to occupy themselves with party politics. Prior to 1993, Hertfordshire County Council was run by the Conservatives. After the 1993 elections, the combined number of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors was greater than that of the Tories, so a Lib-Lab coalition called the Administration Group was formed in order to keep the Conservatives out of office. The Liberal Democrat election manifesto gave no indication that the party would do this. In reality, the coalition meant that Liberal Democrat councillors voted according to the directions of the Labour whip in return for the Liberal Democrats being allowed to nominate the vice chairmen of all the council committees from among their own members. Judas Iscariot at least received thirty pieces of silver for his efforts. The Conservatives regained overall control in 1997.

Despite these party political machinations, members of the public found little change in council policy, except successive council tax rises above the rate of inflation. There have been some imaginative excuses for this. The worst was in 1999, where the county council distributed a survey inviting members of the public to "Vote" for a council tax rise of either 5%, 6.5% or 7.7%. The rate of inflation at the time was around 2%. The survey was accompanied by dire warnings of the services which would have to be cut if the public did not accept a 7.7% rise - library opening hours, public transport and services to the elderly and disabled. Naturally, there was no mention of reducing bureacracy, waste, senior management posts or payments to consultants. Councillors then congratulated themselves on limiting the increase in council tax to 6% and not the 7.7% "Which the public wanted".

We were told that council tax would have to rise by another 18.2% in 2003 because the government is "Only" going to increase the county council's grant from central funds (which now finance three quarters of local authority expenditure) by 3.5%. Yet the current annual rate of inflation is 2.6%. So why the need for another massive tax increase?

The average household in Berkhamsted was already paying over 1000 a year for local services which are not being delivered. A further 18.2% rise represents another 200 per household per year down the blocked drain.

Much of Hertfordshire County Council's revenue is spent on salaries for teachers, police officers and firemen according to nationally-imposed pay scales over which the council has no control. However, the county council is empowered to decide the pay and conditions of a large proportion of its staff. There are plenty of staff about; their pay, pensions and perks are generous; and their contribution to society in return for all this taxpayers' money is often less than obvious.

For example, there is the Local Education Authority, which exists by government dictat but is controlled by Hertfordshire County Council. It spends much of its staff time and budget on issuing pieces of paper telling professional teachers how to teach. It is unlikely that many L.E.A. staff have to deal with unwilling and disruptive children on a daily basis. A large proportion of former teachers cite an excess of bureaucracy as one of their reasons for leaving. Hertfordshire's Director of Education was for many years paid more than the Government's Secretary of State for Education. As the son of two former teachers, and having spent 13 years as a pupil at Hertfordshire state schools, it appears to me that the costs of the L.E.A. greatly outweigh any benefits.

Likewise the Hertfordshire Police Authority. Its members "Set policing priorities" - in other words tell professional Police Officers how to police - although it is unlikely that any have had to tackle a drunken, drug-addicted yob themselves.

Hertfordshire County Council is supposed to fund repairs to roads throughout the county. Or not. In the 1995/6 and 1996/7 financial years the council decided not to spend any money on minor roads at all. Meanwhile it spent 750,000 on consultants to the Central Hertfordshire Passenger Transport Scheme (CHPTS) - a guided busway between Hatfield and Watford via St. Albans - even though it was obvious from the start that the scheme was not wanted by the people it was intended to serve. 750,000 would have filled a lot of pot holes, even at local authority prices.

The incoming Conservative administration cancelled the CHPTS, but spending on road repairs remains pitifully low. Residents of West Road and Cobb Road in Berkhamsted, which are part of the ward I tried to represent, have both likened the state of the roads to those of a third world country. The surface of the road I live in, Park Street, suffered structural failure. The road surface broke up into lumps, which came loose. In the Summer of 2002, a fire engine had to be called after vandals set the wooden bridge at the end of the road alight. Part of the road surface collapsed under the weight of the fire engine, and a water pipe beneath sprung a leak. Park Street was finally resurfaced in 2008.

Hertfordshire County Council is still prepared to spend money on building new roads to generate more traffic, especially where these will serve big companies. It built a new road to an industrial estate in Croxley Green, severing the Watford to Croxley Green railway in the process. Passengers have long hoped that this disused line will become part of the Croxley Link Scheme, which is intended to connect Watford Junction Station to London Underground's Metropolitan Line. The county council could provide a grant towards this link, but places it a long way down its list of priorities below a succession of road building projects.

Hertfordshire County Council also subsidises local bus services. A read through the timetables shows that much of this money is spent, not on providing the occasional service to villages which would otherwise not have a bus at all, but on subsidising early morning and late night services on routes which operate profitably during the daytime - the time when bus passengers actually want to travel. During the 1970's and early 1980's, when many more people used the buses than do now, Berkhamsted had no evening service. Subsequently, a county hall bureaucrat decided that Berkhamsted should have evening buses, and that taxpayers ought to fund them. I have never seen more than three passengers on an evening bus through Berkhamsted, and the majority appear to run empty. There is nothing environmentally friendly about spending taxpayers' money on driving empty vehicles about.

Hertfordshire County Council frequently spends money on sending meaningless surveys to local organisations. Most are designed to elicit the response, "We agree with Hertfordshire County Council". The first question in one of these, sent to Berkhamsted Town Council, was, "On a scale of one to five, how important do you think it is that Hertfordshire County Council has a Bright Green transport policy"! Nowhere did it give respondents the chance to suggest that Hertfordshire County Council does not have a bright green transport policy.

Hertfordshire County Council is responsible for the maintenance of street lighting. There are street lamps in Berkhamsted which have not worked for months or even years, despite repeated complaints. Street lighting inspectors have reported that lamps are working again when the county council's contractor, D.W. Webster, has not even attempted to repair them. Members of the public who wish to report lighting faults are now expected to telephone a remote call centre where the operators have no local knowledge. A local woman complained that she had to wait for 18 minutes before her call could be dealt with.

Hertfordshire County Council's idea of providing a youth service in Berkhamsted was to build an expensive youth club, allow a minority of yobs to smash it up, and then spend a four figure sum on repairs. The widow of a former treasurer of Berkhamsted Youth Club tells me that her late husband resigned in protest at financial irregularities. The youth club is now closed. Taxpayers are still paying for a youth service, but no youth service is being delivered.

People who make suggestions or complaints to Hertfordshire County Council are usually ignored. Alternatively, they may be fobbed off with excuses which bear little relation to the truth. For example, when I complained about the bad state of the new pavement on the north side of Berkhamsted High Street, former Conservative Council Leader Robert Ellis insisted that the problems were due to "Material failure". He cited "Laboratory tests" as evidence for this, but ignored my request for further details of these. Having laid paving slabs myself, I have no doubt that the bad state of the pavement is due entirely to poor workmanship. I am sure it is just coincidence that the contractor responsible, Highground, is the former direct labour force of Hertfordshire County Council.

When I passed on a complaint from a pensioner couple about the over-heating of Berkhamsted Library, Hertfordshire County Council did not turn down the thermostat. Instead it paid a consultant to say that the level of heating was correct.

The government inspectors who rated Hertfordshire County Council as "Excellent" were probably briefed to show that there is not much wrong with local government. Their masters should have remembered the old adage that you cannot fool all the people all of the time.

An even more worrying possibility is that the majority of local councils in England and Wales may be worse than Hertfordshire.

The Chief Executive of Hertfordshire County Council, Caroline Tapster, was paid 202,253 in 2009. Local government is about money for the staff, not services for the public.

The Hertfordshire Masonic Yearbook records that Kingswood Lodge number 2278 meets in the Ashbourne Room, County Hall, Hertford.

Kingswood Lodge membership list.
Kingswood Lodge - an article from Hertfordshire on Sunday.
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