Visiting Cambridge City Council to Look Behind the Accounts


Wednesday, August 25th, 2010. 4:19am


Staff at Cambridge City Council produced a file containing reports from their accounting system relating items I had expressed an interest in.

File containing reports from Cambridge City Council’s accounting system relating to items I had expressed an interest prior to my visit to inspect background material supporting the published accounts.

On Thursday the 22nd of July 2010 I visited Cambridge City Council’s accounts office to make use of the provision in the Audit Commission Act 1998 which allows electors to inspect documents backing up the council’s published accounts.

As I had done in 2009 I wrote to the council prior to my visit letting them know which areas I was interested in. I have written separate articles on two contracts which I asked to see:

Unlike last year when I was refused access to the SLM contract this year the council complied with what they are required to do under the act and provided me access to the contracts requested.

Access to the contracts was not the only improvement; this year the council were able to supply electronic copies (on CD) of the reports they had extracted from their accounting system for me. I was told this capability was a side-effect of an upgrade to the council’s accounting system which was not directly intended to enable increased openness.

The council officer assigned to assist me was accountant Charity Main; who as she was last year, was very welcoming and helpful. When I visited the council I first asked why I couldn’t be given a copy of everything I could ask for from the council’s accounting system – either on a CD or better published on the council’s website. I was told that in some ways that might actually be practical; in that the relevant system, the “Financial Management System”, does not include personal details of individual staff salaries so there was unlikely to be problem with personal information. However it was not possible to produce a report, of the kind I was given, on every cost centre, and every third party the council has transactions with, on the grounds that there are many thousands of cost centres and third parties. I was told that the reports I had been supplied with had been manually created and had taken many hours to produce.

I asked how, in light of that, the council was planning to be able to comply with the Government requirement to publish all spending over a certain figure (£500) from January 2011. When I was told this was something the current system could achieve I was surprised to hear this was considered a much simpler thing to do than release the kind of reports produced for me. I was told though that a team within the council is working on the system for publishing the spending data so that it is in a format which will be navigable by those seeking to use the data released.

As well as transactions with value of under £500 the proactive release will not cover monies paid into the council, or internal transfers, so there will still be a need for FOI requests or visits in-person during the open period to obtain the full details of the council’s finances. A listing of amounts spent, and descriptions, along will not be as useful as data which can be browsed, searched, and sorted eg. by cost centre, supplier etc. I was told that central government still has not given any guidance or instructions to local councils detailing exactly what they need to publish and how and that was not helping the council’s preparations. While setting some standards enabling comparisons between councils and ensuring information released by all councils will be meaningful appears clearly desirable it is apparently not something the Government has yet addressed.

At the moment there are some examples cited on the Department of Communities and Local Government website of councils already producing what we might expect from all councils by January 2011. Following the links on that page shows Bedford Council release a monthly file listing the “Directorate” (department of the council), supplier, transaction number and amount for each payment. This gives very little information about what a particular payment is for. Barnet offers a little more, with a date of the transaction, and transactions classified by type. In neither case though is there a even a “description” line for the transaction, and there is no grouping of transactions into cost centres. It looks as if the kind of information councils are planning to proactively release January is going to be a world away from the detail provided to me in the data released by Cambridge City Council in response to the areas of interest I had noted.

I think there’s a need to lobby government to try and get more information included in the proactive release. ie. I want dates / description fields / groupings into cost centres / browsable trees we can drill down etc. for all councils. I was encouraged by what I was told by Cambridge City Council and it appears they are already planning on going above and beyond the minimum and the poor quality of detail given by councils supposedly already releasing information on their spending, but think it is something councillors on the scrutiny committee should keep a close eye on.

Back to my visit to Cambridge City Council ….

Each report from the finance system which Cambridge City Council had produced for me was introduced by the accountant accountant Charity Main; the various strategies used to locate transactions in the areas in which I expressed an interest were described. For example I had asked about money spent with local newspapers, to obtain this there were searches both on transactions with the newspaper companies but also the agency through which the council buys advertising space.

In respect of external legal advice, the accounts department had been in touch with the legal department to identify which transactions related to Quayside – an area I had asked about – this level of detail wasn’t in the financial management system.

With respect to accounting for S.106 payments I was told there was a cost centre for each planning reference, and talked through how a search for re-payments (which I had requested details of) had been carried out. I have written a separate article on the £49,894.26 of “S.106” money which I saw had been returned to the developers who had built the Belvedere flats on Hills Road.

Selected Items of Spending

Advertising in the Cambridge News

  • £434.86 on advertising the open period for the council’s accounts in the Cambridge News.
  • £1,202.26 on publicising the councillors’ expenses in the Cambridge News.
  • £28,840.23 in total was spent directly with the Cambridge News on public notice adverts, primarily for planning related matters.
  • £41,806.59 in total was spent directly Cambridge News this includes Entertainments adverts (The City Council runs the Corn Exchange) and other adverts eg. relating to the council’s commercial property portfolio, their role running the Markets etc.
  • £128,802.12 in total spent via Agency “Tribal Resourcing” on advertising. This includes the agency fee for design and copyrighting which I’d estimate from looking at the prices to be somewhere between 10-20%. Adverts in this category are mainly job adverts but include consultation notices, advertising the council’s “forward plan” and some planning related adverts. There was one advert/campaign in the Law Society Gazette costing £2,971.62 and one in the London Gazette costing £106.39 (costs inc. agency fee). All other spending was with the Cambridge News and it was confirmed the council doesn’t advertise with any other local media.

My view is that almost all of this advertising could be done more effectively via the city council’s own website, or via other public sector websites. The above is only the public money channelled to the Cambridge News via the City Council, the County Council and central government departments will also be buying advertising space.

CCTV

  • Around £350,000 was spent on staffing relating to the city’s immense CCTV network. Staffing costs are currently the main expense in this cost centre.
  • £9,949.25 was spent on platforms for getting access to the CCTV cameras, mainly for battery changes.
  • £58,597.01 was spent on repairs and maintenance.
  • Additionally there was spending on new equipment, and £105,000.00 was placed in an account to save up for future renewal of the system
  • The amount the city council pays for its CCTV shortcode which lets people text the CCTV operators rose to £700 per month in 2009/10. Councillors at the North Area committee told the public present that this number was a memorable one but none of them could actually recall it. (It is 6228 and it’s mentioned on the council’s CCTV webpage). The system has been running since June 2006 Published statistics show an average of 55 texts per month were sent over the last three years. The cost to the public purse comes out at £12.73 per text.
  • The CCTV team spent £410.34 on clothing (fleeces, shirts and polo shirts); their £1,978.90 office stationery bill included a subscription to the Cambridge News – perhaps reading material for when playing Big Brother gets a bit dull, though they’re far from the only group of council officers to have a subscription to the paper.
  • £536.20 was spent by the CCTV team on bottled water during the year. While I understand, from seeing this spending discussed a scrutiny committee meetings, the operators work in a secure environment and don’t have access to a tap I can’t see why they are unable to fill their own water bottles from a tap before work and if necessary during breaks and take them in with them.
  • £859,658.83 in total was spent on CCTV by Cambridge City Council, though this includes the service provided to Magdelene College, East Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council which they pay for.

Democratic Services

  • £22,080.50 is spent on printing committee papers (which are available online!)
  • Councillors’ and officers’ refreshments at full council meetings typically cost about £450, at the annual meeting (where they invite guests) the food and drink cost £1,238.75
  • Cllr Nimmo-Smith, now deputy mayor, has regularly chastised those like me, and some of his Liberal Democrat colleagues who push for more openness, saying eventually we’ll be asking for details of how much tea and coffee councillors drink from the vending machine in the Guildhall (to which councillors get a key which makes the machine vend for free). The report I obtained shows that about £30 of drinks are consumed per month.
  • Room hire for an area committee generally costs between £130 and £280; though there is an entry for the Cambridge University Hicks Room at £392.62. The West Central Area Committee have been critical, in public, about Cambridge University and its College’s failing to show any sense of civic responsibility by refusing to hire rooms at reasonable rates and insisting room hire can only be made in association with orders for catering. As the University owns most of the usable space in the West/Central area in which such meetings can be held this is a problem.
  • Provision of microphones and speakers for council committees, including the area committees, cost between £281 and £340, a time which looks like a nice earner for the company supplying the service – “Audio and Visual Electrical Services”. Even in the main chamber of the guildhall where there is a fixed system they get regular maintenance fees.
  • There is no entry for officer overtime in relation to the area committees, so I am baffled by the high costs of running them – typically cited in debate as over £100K a year. Room and A/V equipment hire appears to total only about a tenth of that.

Green Spaces / Trees

  • £7.99 payment to a Louise Franklin for “reimbursement of a car wash complaint” under “Trees and Tree maintenance”. I guess that someone’s had the temerity to complain to the council about something like tree sap on their car and the council has paid them to have their car washed?
  • £68.00 to GASCO Cambridge apparently for reading the water metres on Parkers’ Piece and email the readings to a council officer.
  • £1,355.00 paid in November 2009 for preparation for the Ice Rink and £3,325.00 for work to the Ice Rink footprint and cricket pitch surround in paid in March 2010.
  • £5,073.81 spent on Bailff fees in relation to mooring. This could be the council contributing to the cost of the Conservator’s River Bailiff or it could relate to enforcement of the mooring fee. As some Bailiff fees are under “enforcement” along with court letters the latter appears possible.
  • £1,619.25 on a consultant’s report on mooring
  • £1,790.68 paid to consultant Robert Myers in relation to Jesus Green tree planting plans.
  • £2,500.00 / year GreenStat website subscription – intended to record feedback on users experience of using open space
  • £6,659.00 advertising the city’s green spaces – on maps and in the local press, and in Cambridge Matters.
  • £9559.95 under temporary staffing for Malcolm Oviatt-Ham. A Malcolm Oviatt-Ham has previously been linked to a Diana Oviatt-Hamm. The City Council’s principal tree officer is Diana Oviatt-Hamm, she was been absent from work due to a health problem during 2009-10 (this fact was made known at many public meetings). Why the council took on someone who appears to be her husband as a member of temporary staff during this time might warrant looking into.

For more detail see the raw data released to me by the council, in particular the Transactions under Trees and Tree Maintainance and Conservation and Design Cost Centre Transactions. (XLS files).

Policing

  • The city council received £82.00 from the police, after they charged them a hiring fee to rent part of Parkers Police during their open day. (They landed their helicopter on the grass). This kind of silly shuffling of taxpayer’s money between bits of the public sector is bizarre, it must be designed to keep the legions of administrators in each organisation busy.
  • A number of payments to the police for policing various events were made by the council
    • The Big Weekend £6,930.58
    • The Folk Festival £31,751.03
    • Midsummer Fair £9,150.26
    • Bonfire Night £694.75
  • The city council made a number of other payments to the police which look like payments to get the police to do a job they ought have been doing anyway. eg. £2,000.00 for “Additional patrols to tackle ASB in the city centre”. There are also tens of thousands of pounds for the streetlife officer and PCSOs; I have seen these queried before and it appears the Government gives ring-fenced money to the City Council which it has to pass on to the police for these things. Utterly bonkers.

Quayside

  • External legal fees for objecting to a “adverse possession application” – Reportedly Scudamores claiming “squatters rights” over Quayside – only cost the council about £4K in the 09/10 financial year. (There’s now been a negotiated agreement)

See Also

4 comments/updates on “Visiting Cambridge City Council to Look Behind the Accounts

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    I just thought I’d add a further note on these texts to the council’s CCTV control room which are costing us £12.79 each.

    I think this money could be saved if there was closer working between the police and the city council. Rather than text the CCTV operators I would rather be able to call the police and have them, if they think it is justified, ask the city council to point their cameras in the appropriate direction.

    With respect to the fifty five or so texts a month the council have been getting to 62288 – the police have, this year, been encouraging traders in the City Centre to report anti-social behaviour, street drinking, aggressive begging etc. via the CCTV text service. It emerged at a recent West Central Area Committee that these reports were not reaching the police statistics on anti-social behaviour. This may have been a cock-up or it may be a conspiracy aimed at keeping reported problems in the city centre at an artificially low level. Many traders expressed their frustration that the police had been telling them to report problems via a route which didn’t result in the police formally recording what they were saying.

    Cambridge police have previously pulled a similar trick; a couple of years ago when they started asking for reports of ASB to be made via Ecops email addresses. Following questioning at area committees in that case too it emerged that far from all the reports made via that route made the official statistics and the police consequently and reluctantly changed their advice.

    The official statistics matter; as councillors use them to inform their decisions about police priorities. Also where there are few formally recorded reports of a particular type of problem it is hard for police sergeants to internally justify directing their officers to spend time on a problem they don’t have the hard evidence is actually occurring.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    At the West Central area committee on the 26th of August I asked a public question about if statistics from the text messages went into the neighbourhood profile document or were otherwise available to councillors when they set the policing priorities.

    Inspector Kerridge responded to say the statistics from the texts were not included. He then, in an apparently contradictory statement assured councillors that all available information was included in the neighbourhood profile.

    The Inspector said that Cambridge Businesses Against Crime had “many months ago” advised its members not to make reports by text message any more.

    I informed councillors they were spending £12.79 of public money on each text, but none made any comment on that.

    The Inspector also made a comment in which he appeared to show his, and the police’s support, for my point of view that it would be better if people called the police, they could record incidents and call on the CCTV if required. He wasn’t very clear on this point though; and certainly didn’t give any assurances that the police would actually work more closely with the CCTV operators and pass on timely requests for coverage of particular areas – which is what would be required to allow the city council to close the text system with no loss of service.

  3. Kevin Symonds

    ‘My view is that almost all of this advertising could be done more effectively via the city council’s own website, or via other public sector websites’

    But this does assume that everyone has easy and regular access to the internet (which is not always the case, (even with it being freely available in public libraries) and regularly go to the councils pages.
    I agree the councils own website should be used as well but for some sections of the Cambridge population the Cambridge News (sadly) might be their primary source of local information.
    Maybe the rates charged is the issue. Why does it cost so much?

    The London Gazette payment would likely be due to it’s position as a journal of record and so would legally have to be done through that publication.

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