Friday, 1 July 2011

Sectioned

Sometimes you should be careful what you ask for. I should know I've warned people about that myself before.

Yesterday I was finally given a copy of the Wokingham Borough Council report on Section 106 receipts. The problem? It is a blue paper report which means that I will be in breach of the councillors code of conduct if I reveal its contents. A cunning move there but I can't complain, I did ask for it!

I am deliberately writing this before I read the report so that I can't be accused of leaking confidential information. I will then have to decide what I am to do in the light of reading its contents.

What do we know that is in the public domain?

Reading Borough Council used Section 106 monies to pay for things that a reading of the law suggests should have come out of the revenue accounts and were not capital items. I've already reported that it included fixing leaking roofs and gas main repairs.

We know that the records kept in the Parks department were poor but at least shed some light on where some of the money was meant to be spent even if it wasn't. We know that the Education department kept no records worth speaking of.

My understanding from what I have discovered so far is that Section 106 monies were put into the capital accounts obstensively to accrue interest. So far so good. However what I believe actually happened to that money that should have been returned for earmarked capital projects wasn't and that  a significant proportion was leeched back into the ordinary general fund to pay for operational costs like the aforementioned repairs.

The scandal is that no one actually has a clue where some of the money was spent and Labour and officers have no interest in getting to the bottom of it, an attitude which leaves the Council open to legal action. There is clearly an attempt to sweep the whole thing under the carpet and the laissez faire attitude is just wrong.

Jo Lovelock has taken great pains to say that there was no "wrongdoing". Well, that depends purely on your point of view and your definition of wrongdoing. No one has alleged embezzlement or corruption for personal benefit so by that definition she is correct. However, if what she is trying to do is suggest the money was spent in accordance with legally binding agreements then she is wrong. Finacial competance is what it is really all about.

In fact what we have here is the tip of the iceberg. I know of one area where reserves were over budgeted so that they could be used later in the year by Labour to help shore up the inevitable budget variances and whole sections of the Streetcare budget were not actually under the control of the department but were instead cross charged from central finance leaving me little scope to do something about them. When I asked finance for access to the below the gold book figures I was told by officers they didn't exist - and I was the lead councillor!

If an audit of the capital programmes was conducted and the Council's debt was properly analysed, rather than the superficial and carefully controlled data that is given to councillors, a whole new set of questions would come crawling out of the woodwork. It's why I believe what is going on now amounts to a whitewash.

Jo Lovelock has promised to release the report... but edited. So much for transparency! What you won't see though is the second part of the report - the legal advice. I still haven't been given a copy of that myself. The council is classing it as legally privileged so that they don't have to release it under Freedom of Information.

Astonishingly, the reason given is that publishing it may expose the council to legal action from developers! Well, excuse me. If there was no "wrongdoing" as Jo Lovelock claims, how on earth could publishing it result in legal action unless it suggests that the council didn't act correctly.

As long as the report is only released in a redacted form and/or the second report is kept secret, I think council tax payers have a legitimate reason to wonder about what exactly is being covered up and by whom.

I am now going to read the report. If you don't hear from me...

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