LBWF and COVID-19 (1)

A few days ago, the Cabinet considered a paper which looked at the impact of COVID-19 on LBWF’s finances.

The headline figures that were presented are alarming. Assuming the crisis lasts 12 weeks, LBWF will have an ‘exposure’ (increased costs plus lost income) of between £34.857m. and £39.487m. while at the time of writing, promised central government emergency assistance amounts to only £7.540m.

The detail is in the following table:

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 15.41.59Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 15.42.15

Understandably, many of these figures are rough estimates. Moreover, further support from Westminster is likely to be forthcoming in the next few weeks. On the other hand, the emergency’s impact will undoubtedly run beyond 12 weeks, and realistically may last a couple of years. So in overall financial terms, LBWF is destined for a massive hit. To give some perspective, say for the sake of argument that the ‘exposure’ over the next 12 months totals £100m., that amounts to about 60 per cent of LBWF’s currently available reserves.

To make matters worse, COVID-19 will have other serious ramifications. For example, the Cabinet paper remarks about audit:

‘In the medium to long term, there will clearly be ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on delivering any internal audit plan, caused by the possible inability of services to accommodate internal audits. During the COVID-19 pandemic, and for a predicted extended period afterwards, we may be unable to initiate audits in many areas of the Council. This will be due to lower levels of staffing and the potential difficulty services will face in engaging with the internal audit process. This presents the risk that we may not be able to deliver the full audit plan, and that we may not have sufficient audit coverage to deliver a Head of Internal Audit annual opinion for 2020-21, which is a requirement of the Public Sector Internal Audit Standards’.

Given that, as a previous post reveals, LBWF is yet to sign off its 2018-19 accounts, due last July, there is little doubt that much greater administrative chaos threatens.

It will be interesting to see how LBWF responds to the harsher world it now has to live in, but the most likely scenario is retrenchment – higher council tax, cuts in services, and staff redundancies.

Whether or not the public will buy into this is of course as yet unknowable, but here are three suggestions which will help LBWF provide reassurance that it is – at the very least – approaching the post COVID-19 world with appropriate integrity:

Cut senior officer’s pay

In 2018-19, LBWF senior officers drew the following salaries:

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 15.10.39 Let’s focus on Mr. Esom’s salary,  £211,013.

By comparison, as of today, Prime Minister Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak earn, respectively, £158,754 and £150,558.

How can such a differential possibly be justified? Is running a fairly anonymous, mid-ranking outer London borough more difficult than running the country? Of course not. Does it involve shouldering more responsibility? That’s not even worth asking.

The bottom line is that senior officers’ pay as a whole is absurdly out of kilter and needs to be comprehensively recalibrated.

And if the self-serving ranks of local government commentators and ‘experts’ protest, citing custom and practice, comparisons with private industry, the short supply of talent, and all the other hoary cliches that are wheeled out on these occasions, politicians in Waltham Forest – as elsewhere – should be brave enough to simply face them down.

Stop spin

Over the past ten years or so, LBWF has become addicted to spin. It employs more spinners than other comparable authorities, and allows them increasing influence over decision-making. At the same time, LBWF’s record as regards the Freedom of Information Act is poor, with the Information Commissioner’s office upholding an ever growing list of complaints about LBWF, and reportedly contemplating enhanced regulatory action.

This must stop. LBWF is entitled to claim credit when it gets things right, but it must also openly acknowledge its mistakes, and be seen to learn from them. Furthermore, it should stop trying to head off valid inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act, and in general be far more transparent about matters of obvious public concern.

When handing out public money, stick to the rules

In theory, everyone in LBWF knows perfectly well how contracting with third parties should be organised, and particularly the measures that must be put in place as regards due diligence and the monitoring of performance.

However, over the years, case after case of non-compliance has emerged, with a procession of outside organisations – consultants, contractors, charities, faith groups, etc. – given large sums of public money despite either being palpably unsuitable in the first place or failing to fully deliver agreed targets, with East London Credit Union being the latest glaring example.

There is no room for this anymore, and in future the rules must be rigorously adhered to. In addition, third parties that fail to deliver should not be offered contracts again.

All of this sounds brutal, and to some extent is.

But in the next few years, voters are going to be a lot less forgiving about both government and local authority excess, and if those in the Town Hall wants to mitigate censure, an unwavering commitment to behaving ethically and lawfully is not a bad place to start.

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