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Wednesday, 20 August 2008

No milk today



Many thanks to this week’s Waltham Forest Guardian for reporting the fire on a milk float in an infant school playground in Woodford. In my mind it conjured up such delightful images and memories of third of a pint bottles of milk outside the class rooms at my primary school. The sound of the milkman rattling down the street delivering the daily pint or two to our house. Or on cold winter mornings the milk having partly frozen lifting the silver cap off for the blue tits to peck at the exposed cream.

I wondered why a milk float was in a junior school playground in August. I thought schools were closed for the summer holidays but I imagine in Woodford people are organised enough to have out of term classes to give their little darlings that extra push up the educational ladder.

In Walthamstow, we’re not so organised. Certainly not our Council if another report in the Guardian is to be believed. “A damning report by consultants Pricewaterhousecoopers (PWC) into the Better Neighbourhood Initiative (BNI) found papers relating to ‘many projects’ in a disorganised file labelled ‘Olympics’”. The Guardian goes on to report that “investigators were unable to locate signed contracts for half of projects and files were littered with inaccuracies and inconsistencies.” And “the “vast majority” of project files showed no evidence of appropriate tendering” with “the 55 contracts inspected, none contained any evidence of review or approval by the legal department”.

And what does the Council say? Again let me quote the Guardian. “A council spokesman said: "The borough’s Olympics strategy has, at its core, an aim to use the opportunities presented by the 2012 Games to secure work and training for local people”…."To this end, BNI money was allocated to setting up the Worknet programme: a partnership initiative designed to match unemployed and unskilled residents with training and employment opportunities”…."Owing to an underspend in the original BNI staffing budget, a further £12,500 was spent on the Olympic Hoops for Health Primary School project.”…."Although delivered to primary schools across the borough, priority was given to schools in or by BNI priority neighbourhoods."

Can you make sense of this? I can’t.

If I was of a mischievous bent I might suggest that the Council was creatively reinterpreting budget boundaries – to the benefit of its pet projects. However, reluctantly I have to conclude that our Council is incapable of competently managing funding. More damning is the suspicion that the Council’s cabinet is unconcerned about accountability. If they were there would be proper reporting and accountability arrangements in place to ensure that such disorganisation did not flourish. The recent allegations concerning five council officers for not reporting alleged fraud by EduAction, the company which used to run education in the borough, only reinforces this suspicion.

I recently went to a Community Council meeting. I found it frustratingly disorganised but what really dismayed me was a Council official’s response to residents’ complaints about the deterioration in road cleaning in recent months. This, we were told, was because of the change of contractor. Quite simply, because the previous contractor had lost the contract they didn’t bother. That was the explanation the Council official offered to the disgruntled residents.

I found that wholly unsatisfactory. It is the job of the Council and the appropriate officials to ensure that the tendering contract delivers a consistently high service level during the handover period from one contractor to another. Also it is their responsibility to make sure that the terms of the contract are adhered to, or else a substantial fine is imposed. Tendering for Council services is not new so why aren’t there processes in place to guarantee that residents aren’t subjected to this deterioration in service when a contractor is replaced.

The suspicion is the Council couldn’t run a fast food outlet in Hoe Street, let alone provide adequate services to its residents and tax payers.

A milk float delivers down our road. Every morning it drives the wrong way down our one way road to make the delivery. As it’s very early and it’s quiet and slow I don’t get upset. And in any case it sets off those childhood memories of winter mornings, the gas light outside our house, and the smell of the coal being emptied into the coal bunker.

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