Councillors ignore Finance Officer's plea

WCRA Special Alert Newsletter

March 2017

We don’t normally send out more than one newsletter a month but something has happened that we think you need to know.

Last evening, Tuesday 21st March 2017, Christchurch Council voted by majority to spend between £60,000 and £85,000 of our taxpayer’s money on a referendum in which they will re-ask a question that was asked and answered in the opinion survey undertaken in the autumn of last year by Opinion Research Services (ORS). Do you think Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole should amalgamate to form one urban coastal council and thereby save a great deal of money?

Ignoring the advice of a key Council Officer

In doing what they did they chose to ignore the following advice from the CBC Chief Financial Officer – the man who tries to guard our money. You can read his full report on our website and click on “latest changes 2017”. The added emphasis is ours:

I believe incurring expenditure of between £60,000 - £85,000 for a referendum in Christchurch regarding local government reorganisation is not an effective use of public money and would request that Council do not proceed with the recommendation to undertake such a referendum.

The proposal to incur the expenditure is considered to directly conflict with the fiduciary responsibility of this Council to safeguard the use of public money and to ensure value for money is achieved in the use of its public resources.

Public money should be spent on supporting and protecting services to the public and the proposed referendum does not do this.

What really matters

Most of us tax payers are more interested in how much Council Tax we pay and what services we get for our money than how the Council is structured. However, if we must choose, the ORS paper Reshaping Your Councils Consultation dated December 2016 demonstrated that the clear majority of Dorset’s councillors, councils, residents and business representatives overwhelming favour one coastal, urban Council and a second rural Council for the rest of Dorset.

A referendum will represent a vastly inferior methodology to that used in the statistically sound opinion survey undertaken by ORS and will be parochially limited to Christchurch rather than the whole of Dorset. The result is non-binding upon CBC, DCC, and Central Government

The likely date is shortly after the Dorset County Council elections, so turnout will probably be low and will not produce a result that is representative of most tax payers. 

Thus, we believe we will have a result that must be questioned for validity and which is non-binding on decision makers and therefore can be ignored.

Will the Minister take any notice?

Here’s what the Minister had to say when asked about the proposed referendum. Again, the added emphasis is ours:

Such polls do not have any legal standing, and the results would be considered as a representation alongside all other representations received.
Ministers will of course consider all representations they receive from across the whole of the area under consideration, giving them the weight they consider appropriate when considering all the representations in the round, in reaching a decision about the future structure of local government across the whole of Dorset.
It is likely that more weight would be given if the representation is supported by evidence rather than an expression of an opinion alone.  
Is this irrational behaviour?
This reply from the Minister appears to home in on the two major strategic weaknesses of the "no change" position
First, everything these Councillors do and say is parochial - they seem oblivious to the fact that Christchurch is but a small part of Dorset. It is never acknowledged that over 70% of council tax raised in Christchurch is controlled and spent by Dorchester. We are told what they don't like but never what action they propose to cope with the projected funding deficits that every Council is wrestling with.
Second, the “no change” group still has no economically viable alternative. We hear that they are "working on" CBC-EDDC (East Dorset District Council) remaining separate but using a common administration and buying in services currently provided by DCC but we see nothing in writing to support what, on the surface at least, appears to be economically absurd. The combined CBC-EDDC population is simply too small to provide enough tax income for survival.

When we also point out that removing the population of EDDC from the second, rural Council renders that second Council unviable in terms of population, we receive no coherent response.

We also know from our contacts that Bournemouth and Poole are already working on joint plans. Christchurch has been offered a seat at that table but has not been in attendance. When Christchurch finally sees the light, and joins in, it will be too late and Christchurch will have to fit in with the plans made in its absence.

The evidence suggests that this is wholly irrational behaviour by some of our Councillors that is motivated by personal, parochial interests and which is most certainly not in the best interest of taxpayers. In addition to ignoring the opinion survey they also choose to ignore the Price-Waterhouse-Cooper’s financial paper Case for change: Local government reorganisation in Dorset also dated December 2016.
The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014
We have discovered the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 as described by The National Audit Office. Again, the added emphasis is ours:

A local government elector can ask the external auditor to apply to the High Court for a declaration that an item of account is unlawful.

The elector must tell the external auditor which specific item in the accounts they object to and why they think the item is unlawful.
The elector must provide the external auditor with the evidence to support their objection. 

Disagreeing with income or spending does not make it unlawful. An unlawful item of account is, for example, money spent by a Council on something that they had the power to spend on, but the decision to spend the money was wholly unreasonable or irrational

The action taken last evening by CBC Councillors based upon a majority vote appears to us to be a contravention of this provision of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. We have today on behalf of local Council Tax payers written to CBC Chief Executive David McIntosh requesting a meeting to clarify the situation. We will let you know the outcome.
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West Christchurch Residents Association
7 Hurn Road
Christchurch, England BH23 2RJ
United Kingdom

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