Introduction

My reasons for setting up this web site

"This would be a good day to bury bad news. Councillors' expenses?"
Jo Moore, Labour Party Spin Doctor (90,000 a year at the taxpayers' expense),
11th. September 2001.

I have lived in Berkhamsted, about thirty miles north west of London, since the year 1968. I used to consider myself very fortunate to reside here. The town had a large number of historic buildings, a wide range of local shops, an attractive river, a diversity of wildlife and several parks. The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty surrounds the town and is only a short walk away. Nights were quiet, apart from passing trains, and undisturbed sleep could almost be guaranteed.

Sadly, Berkhamsted is not such an attractive place any more. Historic buildings have been demolished and been replaced by new housing which is as unattractive as it is expensive. Green field sites have gone the same way, including Tunnel Fields, where rare orchids were bulldozed before they could be protected. A large number of the local retailers have gone out of business, and many everyday items can no longer be bought here. The river has dwindled, and dries up completely under drought conditions. Much of the wildlife has been eliminated by destruction of its habitat. The parks and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are under constant threat from the incompetence (and worse) of the local authorities. Drunks from an excessive number of licensed premises cause regular disturbance at night. Road traffic continues to increase. The roads are in such a poor condition that my neighbours compare them to those of a Third World country. Local taxes have risen to extortionate levels, yet the local services we pay for are not being delivered. A small number of wealthy commercial organisations such as the John Lewis Partnership, Laing Homes and Berkhamsted School seem increasingly able to dictate local policy for their own financial benefit.

As my home town declined, I started to take a greater interest in local issues, and attempted to communicate with the five layers of government which Berkhamsted suffers: the European Union, the British Government, Hertfordshire County Council, Dacorum Borough Council and Berkhamsted Town Council. I was ignored or fobbed off with excuses. Nothing I tried made any difference.

In 1995 Dacorum Borough Council decided to impose a new Waitrose store on the town against the wishes of three quarters of residents, I stood as an independent candidate at the local elections. Independents were elected to eleven of the thirteen seats on Berkhamsted Town Council and started with admirable ideas, based on regular consultation with the public, but soon lapsed into the more traditional local government practice of finding interesting things to do with other people's money. We were powerless to stop the supermarket being built. Meanwhile, my attempts to represent the people who elected me brought me into closer contact with Dacorum Borough and Hertfordshire County Councils. I was appalled by what I found.

Basically, all levels of government are ripping us off and blaming each other. Councils claim that high taxes and shoddy services are the fault of national government, which has imposed extra responsibilities on them without providing for the additional cost, and has short-changed them by altering the formula by which local authorities are funded. There is some truth in this. For example, the previous Labour government imposed a series of bureaucratic requirements on local councils under the heading, "Best Value". Instead of helping councils to provide the best value local services, they actually reduce value by increasing costs to the taxpayer. Extra staff have to be taken on and generously paid to implement all the bureaucracy. This could not possibly have anything to do with the tendency of Public Sector workers to vote Labour, could it?

However, it is not difficult to find examples of wasteful and extravagant spending by local authorities. There is never enough money for essential maintenance which the public actually wants, but, strangely, there always seems to be plenty of funding available for politicians' ego projects; staff salaries, index-linked final salary pensions and perks; councillors' and staff expenses; new office equipment for councillors and staff; additional staff in non-jobs; new premises and redecorating council buildings.

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 councillors seem to have little idea of what is really going on at the council, never mind in the locality they are supposed to represent. 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, and minimise their workload.

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.

Since I was elected, many local people have approached me for help. I have assisted a few in dealing with minor problems, but I have more often been unsuccessful. I have proved powerless wherever the problem was malingering by public employees, or a wealthy commercial organisation acting in its own financial interest and against the public good. Councillors are there to give the public the impression that their interests are being looked after. They are not actually supposed to do it.

Many older residents, in particular, still expect certain standards from people in public office. Many older residents get a rude shock. Several men have told me that they did not fight the Second World War and see good comrades die in order for their country to be ruined by those who now govern it.

Younger people, by contrast, rarely have any faith in politicians. Unfortunately, most are not well educated enough to realise how much tax they are paying, nor well enough motivated to do anything about it.

There are various theories regarding the reasons why some people seem to be more equal before councils than others. Some of the most persistent concern Masons, popularly known as Freemasons, or more formally "Members of the Antient Order of Freemasonry". This is a secret society of men dedicated to helping each other and, by definition, putting the interests of members before those of non-members: the general public. Masons are organised into groups called lodges which meet together regularly. Rival Masonic Lodges occasionally fall out, and when they do some very interesting information is sometimes leaked to "The Profane", as they call non-Masons.

Masonic documents occasionally reveal the names and lodge numbers of senior council officers, such as Keith Hunt, the former Chief Executive of Dacorum Borough Council; leading councillors; property developers and other businessmen. It is difficult to prove that these people are Masons, and even more difficult to demonstrate that Masons have influenced local government decisions for their own benefit. Nevertheless, the accusations keep coming from all manner or sources.

I have been a competitive runner for most of my life. In over thirty years of competition, I have never once had to accuse an opponent of cheating. Athletics is full of decent people working hard to do the best they can. Local government is not. It appears largely amoral. Dishonesty is just the easiest way to get what you want.

The standards prevailing in local government offend against my Christian faith, my upbringing and my principles. The characters I had to work with in the course of council business are in marked contrast to the many decent people I meet in other areas of my life.

E-mails I receive from all over Britain suggest that the problems I have encountered are nothing unusual. Complaints about local government are legion, and are usually dealt with in the same manner. The complaint is passed to a council employee, who explains it away by being economical with the truth. If the complaint is pursued, senior officers and councillors inevitably support the council's official li(n)e.

Complainants who still refuse to be deterred are then advised to contact the Local Government Ombudsman. In fact there are three ombudsmen and three deputy ombudsmen covering the entire country. They are hopelessly under-funded and inadequately equipped to deal with all the complaints about corrupt and incompetent councils all over Britain. They are under no obligation to investigate any of the complaints brought to them, so they investigate only a small proportion, rumoured to be about 6%, and dismiss the rest, either by claiming that the complainant has not suffered sufficient injustice or by finding in the council's favour without investigation.

Even when the ombudsman finds against a council, the council is under no obligation to do as he directs. Both local authorities and the Local Government Ombudsmen are effectively above the law.

The previous government claimed that it wanted to clean up local authorities, but it passed the Audit Commission Act 1998 which makes it more difficult for people to expose local authority corruption.

The Local Government Act 2000 introduced a system whereby important decisions are taken by a "Cabinet" of senior councillors instead of by the whole council. Lesser councillors have been reduced to the role of scrutinising cabinet decisions after these have been taken. It is a most effective method of excluding the more independent-minded members from the decision-making process. The same act quietly abolished the power of the courts to surcharge councillors found guilty of financial irregularities. Even where auditors find malpractice, they can now only send an "Advisory notice".

The Local Government Act 2000 also provided for councillors to be better paid. Even a "Backbench" councillor at Dacorum Borough Council now receives 4000 a year. Cabinet members are paid 12,000 - more than some local residents receive for full-time work. Taxpayers are given no indication of when they will see a return on this investment.

In 2001, the Government published a consultation document called "Quality Town and Parish Councils". The proposals contained therein are designed to improve the public's perception of local government but in reality will do nothing to improve standards. Instead of tackling the problems, the previous government preferred to cover up wrongdoing which would lose votes for the Labour Party.

A change of government has yet to solve the problem. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats must know that there are also rotten councils under their control.

I lost my seat on Berkhamsted Town Council at the 1999 elections. In 2000 I regained it at a by-election, standing this time as a Conservative. I hoped this would give me a little more influence when dealing with Conservative-controlled Dacorum Borough and Hertfordshire County councils, but it did not.

I did not stand again at the 2003 local elections. I felt I had no alternative but to publish, be damned and walk away.

I tried addressing the problems of local government from outside the system as an ordinary member of the public, and got nowhere. I tried from the inside as an independent councillor, and made little progress. I made further efforts as a Conservative councillor, but did not succeed in this, either. Now I am trying something different. This web site.

If sufficient public pressure can be generated then maybe the government and the political parties will be forced to clean up local government. I hope that, by bringing the facts to members of the public, this web site will help to generate such pressure.

Ian Johnston M.A.(Oxon.).
November 2010.

Return to contents list.


Copyright © 2010 - Ian Johnston
All Rights Reserved
E-mail ijjohnston@totalise.co.uk