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Comment: How is it responsible to cut streetlights but buy a fish tank?
10:41am Friday 8th February 2013 in News
The much-lauded locality grants scheme reached a milestone this week – £3million given away by Hertfordshire County Council since it was launched in July 2009.
And, to mark the occasion, Deputy Leader and Chorleywood Conservative councillor Chris Hayward was rolled out by County Hall’s spin machine to extol the scheme’s virtues.
“By allowing local councillors the discretion to allocate funds themselves, based on their local knowledge and experience, we have been able to give a diverse range of organisations the extra boost they need to carry on their good work or start up new projects, ” says Councillor Hayward.
However, worthy as this may be, it needs to be judged alongside the news that in recent times the county council has reduced library hours, turned off streetlights, paid 5,000 employees less than the living wage and failed to maintain our roads to a safe standard.
The £3million spent since July 2009 works out at around £857,000 a year – the lion’s share of the £1 million a year the county says it is saving from the night time streetlight switch-off.
So it begs the question: Has the county council got its priorities right or has the rush to apply the Government’s localism agenda blurred its judgement?
It has to be said our coverage of locality grants has rankled with many politicians for some time now.
They don’t like the fact we merely report that taxpayers’ money has been allocated by the county council without allowing them to bask in a misleading philanthropic, benevolent glow that comes from it.
We’ve been criticised at a meeting of the county council and been visited by a high-level delegation to discuss the issue. So, what are our objections?
The newspaper believes that in these cash-strapped times when people are losing jobs and services are being cut, it is important the county council is seen to be handling taxpayers’ money in the most responsible manner. We believe the current system does not ensure that happens.
When the scheme was first introduced we drew attention to several grants we believed were an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money; an award for after-school private tuition for two Bushey children being one of the most glaring examples.
There were others – £2,000 was awarded to pay a teacher’s wages at a Saturday morning French club that already charged parents £7.50 per session.
Then there was a grant of £600 for a fish tank in the waiting room at a doctors’ practice at which the said county councillor was a member of the Friends group.
A further £400 was used to finance an investigation into the possibility of lowering the speed limit and introducing a one-way system in a number of Watford roads.
The councillor financed the work through a locality grant because Hertfordshire Highways was not willing to fund it, presumably because it was not considered a priority over other highways schemes.
We’ve also seen substantial grants being given to an independent school and two to a highly oversubscribed voluntary aided school at which county councillors are governors.
A grant was made to pay for vaccinations for pupils planning a trip to Tanzania. In the newspaper’s opinion the county either pays for all pupils to be vaccinated prior to overseas trips or none of them.
We believe these examples lend weight to the suggestion the money is not always used appropriately and that it could be taxpayers’ money is ending up financing the pet schemes of individual county councillors.
We believe the county council has a responsibility to distribute taxpayers’ money in a fair and equitable fashion, with awards being made on the basis of real need, not ward boundaries.
We believe it is wrong to suggest need exists in equal measure across all divisions in the county, in which case some awards will be made on geographical grounds simply because the county councillor has a sum of money to spend each year.
In fact, we’ve reported two county council party leaders saying councillors struggle to allocate their money in view of the low number of applications.
It seems obvious that in one area there may be a bigger need for cash than in another. We have similar objections when it comes to dividing up some of the highways budget.
We believe an overview has to be taken in which the distribution of money reflects the greatest need across the county and with locality grants this does not happen.
We feel there is great scope to mislead the public on this matter.
The money being awarded is taxpayers’ money but the publicity is written in such a way that some readers could be forgiven for thinking the county councillors are putting their hands in their pockets and coming up with the cash themselves.
Some may think it is up to a county councillor whether he chooses to give a doctors’ practice £600 for a fish tank but others may take a different view if it is clearly seen to come from the county’s taxpayers in these difficult economic times.
We think it is important to cut through the spin and posturing and tell it how it is: The county taxpayer will pay £600 for a fish tank to be installed in a doctor’s surgery in Potters Bar.
In addition, it is thought the scheme has undemocratic overtones in that sitting councillors can gain an unfair advantage over other candidates at election time.
We believe it is unfair and misrepresentative for us to allow county councillors to bask in a benevolent, altruistic light when, in fact, they are simply agents for distributing taxpayers’ money to what are supposed to be worthy causes.
We believe it would be only natural for county councillors to seek to gain electoral capital by making reference to their largesse. I’m sure there are election leaflets out there now that do so.
Just one example, from Liberal Democrats last year was headlined “Volunteer group gets a helping hand from local councillor”, and began: “Young people aged 16 to19 will be given the opportunity to get involved in volunteering opportunities in their area, thanks to a grant from a local county councillor.”
There were many more like that.
In fact, it could be suggested the county council was in breach of the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.
The Code states: “Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute.
“It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.
“In general, local authorities should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters.”
In the light of that, it was interesting to note the county council removed all pen portraits of councillors in the lead-up to the local council elections yet left details of locality grants, which, it could be argued, hold a lot more sway when it comes to convincing the electorate to vote one way or the other.
We have always had strong misgivings about the application of this scheme: Some grants have been inappropriate and we believe constitute a misuse of public money in difficult financial times.
Grants should be issued on the basis of need not county council boundaries. Need does not exist in equal measure across Hertfordshire.
Locality grants have spawned a PR circus both in pumping out this information and in using it to project individual county councillors. We are inundated with releases at grant time and we cover just one corner of Hertfordshire.
It is undemocratic. Candidates make capital off the back of taxpayers’ money, not an advantage shared by those new to the ballot box. The system protects the establishment and the status quo.