Touching a raw nerve

OH dear, I seemed to have touched a very raw nerve in asking the leader of the Labour Group, councillor Akers-Belcher (Christopher), about his group’s vision for the future of Hartlepool and their plans to achieve it.

Unfortunately someone has advised Coun Akers-Belcher that attack is the best form of defence.

In his case, however, a little forethought may have given him cause for caution.

Although I am perfectly happy to publicly discuss and compare my career in local government with his, I am very surprised he is willing so to do.

I don’t consider this to be the appropriate time for that debate to take place but, if necessary, we can return to this little sideshow at a later date.

I simply asked Coun Akers-Belcher about his group’s vision for Hartlepool in 10 years’ time.

What do they want Hartlepool to be like? What is their 10-year plan to get there and what targets will they set to show they are making the correct progress?

What major projects do they have in mind and how much will they cost?

In the current financial climate savings must be made.

How much does the Labour group intend to save per annum and which services do they envisage cutting?

What was his response? I am unaware of any.

No vision, no carefully-costed plans, no idea how to make savings, no idea how much they would save per annum, no idea which services they would cut. In short, no idea.

What has the Labour group been doing for the last 10 years, if not planning for the future?

Hopefully more than the “widely held view that some elected members are focused on the pursuit of self-interest” (independent Peer Review of the Council, September 2102).

Let us try again, Coun Akers-Belcher, with something more current about which surely you must have some idea.

Last February the Labour group blocked the council entering into a contract which would have saved the people of Hartlepool in excess of £10m.

The Mayor will currently be putting together his budget for next year, so how do you propose he should replace that saving?

As you are well aware the proposed contract had two parts to it: information and computing technology (ICT) and housing benefits administration.

Now the ICT element has been put out for tendering again, a delay which I feel has left those officers running the tendering exercise with both hands tied behind their backs.

The previous exercise was started almost three years before the current ICT contract was due to end.

This was to ensure the council got truly competitive bids from the private sector and there was plenty of time to sort out any obstacles.

Rather than saving the council money, any future contract is likely to be priced higher than at present and the council will have no option other than to pay.

Rather than making substantial savings, it is highly likely there will be additional costs.

So, Coun Akers-Belcher, how much do you suggest the Mayor should add to his budget, even if only as a contingency at this stage, for the additional costs of the new ICT contract which are likely to be incurred as a consequence of your group’s fool-hardy decision last February?

The position is potentially much worse for the housing benefit service, as it will be phased out from October 2013, and be subsumed within the new universal credit system.

Universal credit will be managed through the tax system and employers’ payroll systems, thus there will be no need for housing benefit administrative staff.

However, as I understand the position, in addition to the creation of 300 new jobs in Hartlepool, the winning bid for the contract the Labour group scuppered last February included a provision that the 50-60 housing benefit staff transferring to the private sector would be guaranteed jobs for the next five years.

Coun Akers-Belcher stated that the Government’s welfare reform programme is going to have huge implications for Hartlepool, which is of course, very true.

However, he went on to say that if the housing benefits system had gone to an outside company, we (the Labour group) would have no control over the implications.

What on earth does he mean?

When housing benefit ceases there is no work to be done. If there is no work, no staff are required.

Rather than merely spouting political gobbledegook, will Coun Akers-Belcher tell us the processes he has put in place to ensure that affected staff are retrained and re-skilled?

How many housing benefit staff does he estimate face redundancy next year and how many the following year?

How much should the Mayor include in the budget to cover any redundancy costs – £1m, £2m?

Coun Akers-Belcher will have a much better idea of the costs, both human and financial, than do I, as he used to work in that department.

Although it is fairly obvious that I don’t consider Coun Akers-Belcher to have any vision, ability or even credibility, I must grudgingly give him some credit for an innovation he must have put in place since I left the council.

In his response to my last letter, Coun Akers-Belcher stated “there is (sic) always six observers in their ‘open’ group meetings, and they work closely with the trade unions”.

Leaving aside the six observers and the trades unions, I can only applaud him for opening up Labour group meetings to the public, as this was never previously the case.

Now that he has introduced some transparency into the Labour group’s decision-making processes, he should advertise it more widely.

To set the ball rolling, the good people of Hartlepool should note that there is always a Labour group meeting immediately before every council meeting.

The next full council meeting takes place at 7pm on Thursday, October 25.

The Labour group meeting will commence at 6pm, probably in Committee Room B, and you might even get a sandwich for turning up.

Paul Walker,

Former chief executive of Hartlepool Borough Council.