Rotten Boroughs Awards 2019
From the Imelda Marcos Award for services to clothes shopping, to the coveted Pants on Fire gong, it’s been another bumper year for municipal mischief.
Did your local council scoop a glittering prize?
BRASS-NECKED COUNCILLOR OF THE YEAR
In February we reported on the case of “Disappearing Donald”, aka Cllr Donald Adey, who managed to claim £14,500 in allowances from Cambridgeshire county and Cambridge city councils, despite living some 400 miles away in Fife. Looks like a shoo-in for the award, we said.
Then in March up popped a serious rival: Tory Aberdeen city councillor Brett Hunt, who claimed his £16,742 annual allowance despite only making very occasional appearances in the council chamber on account of living thousands of miles away in Dubai. Adey eventually resigned in March and Hunt in July.
GRIMSBY REAPER AWARD
North-east Lincolnshire council came up with a nice little earner – fining grieving families £200 a go for funerals which over-ran their time slot at Grimbsy crematorium – in one case by a mere 14 seconds.
HOLE IN ONE
Dundee council’s head of construction, Mark Ross, enjoyed a golfing holiday in Spain courtesy of local firm Edmundson Electrical, shortly after Edmundson was awarded a £8.3m contract, not put out to tender, to install smoke alarms in council properties.
Labour Croydon council sold 24 pieces of building land at “mates rates” to its own housing company, Brick by Brick. Four sites were sold for £10,000 – way below market value – and six were sold for just £1 each. The idea is that BxB profits from building homes which are sold at market rates, and ploughs those profits back into building homes for “social” rent. While BxB has built numerous expensive “executive” style homes and flats, the number of homes for social rent completed totals just three one-bed flats.
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE AWARD
Shropshire county council spent £80,006 and 32p resurfacing a country lane leading to the home of senior Tory councillor Vince Hunt, even though it was not included on a list of roads needing repair kept by the local parish council.
DOGS’ BEST FRIEND
Tory Cambridgeshire county council handed the tenancy of a farm it owns to its own deputy leader, Roger Hickford, at a reduced rent, then lent him £183,000 so he could extend it. The councillor is not a farmer himself, but wants to use the property to set up a doggy spa.
PAYOFFS OF THE YEAR
As we await the outcome of a consultation launched by the government on how a proposed £95,000 cap on public sector payoffs might be implemented, the gravy train for failure remains in full flow. In the 2018-19 financial year, Lib Dem Kingston borough council splashed out a splendid £2.4m on payoffs. £316,000 went to former chief exec Charlie Adan, who got the boot days after the May 2018 election at which the Lib Dems took control from the Tories, because she didn’t get on with new council leader Liz Green. Interim chief exec Roy Thompson, who replaced Adan, was sent on his way with £160,000 after less than six months when Kingston appointed current chief exec Ian Thomas, who trousered £185,000 on his departure from Lewisham council. King of the gravy train, as ever, was sacked West Sussex chief exec Nathan Elvery, who left with a £250,000 Christmas present, plus a £35,000 legal bill for council taxpayers.
IMELDA MARCOS AWARD
The SNP Lord Provost of Glasgow, Eva Bolander, stepped down after it was revealed she had run up bills of £8,000 on clothes and beauty products in two years. Council taxpayers forked out for 23 pairs of shoes, six jackets, five coats, dresses, skirts and a £200 hat. Ms B also claimed more than £750 for having her hair done and £350 for new glasses.
COMMUNICATIONS TEAM OF THE YEAR
Openness and transparency were in short supply as council bigwigs and their “communications” teams fell over themselves to put “reputation management” and “consistency of council messaging” ahead of straight talking with press and public. In a crowded field the top honour goes to Harrogate borough council in Yorkshire. An anonymous Twitter account, @HarrogateThings, trolled and abused council critics. Minutes after the Eye asked Harrogate council’s “communications” department about it, the account disappeared. Whoever composed the sweary, aggressive tweets remains a mystery, but shame on £90,000-a-year comms supremo Rachel Bowles for letting it happen.
NICE WORK AWARD
To Leeds city council’s £182,085 chief executive, Tom Riordan, who trousered £28,424 for acting as returning officer for Leeds’s eight parliamentary seats on 12 December. That was on top of £147,921.66 fees he had already been paid in recent years for the general elections of 2015 and 2017, the Brexit referendum, police and crime commissioner elections and the European election.
ORDER OF THE BROWN NOSE
To Ron Cant, former Carmarthenshire county council press officer, who penned a magnificently arslikhan tribute to Mark James, who had retired as the county’s chief executive. James was crowned Rotten Boroughs “Shit of the Year” in 2016 for his attempt to have local blogger Jacqui Thompson rendered homeless as he pursued her for libel damages and costs totalling more than £200,000 in a case he brought in which he was unlawfully indemnified by the council. More recently he championed a controversial scheme to bring a £200m “Life Science and Wellbeing Village” to Llanelli – a matter currently attracting the keen interest of Inspector Dai Knacker. Whatevs.
Writing in the Carmarthenshire Times, Cant hailed James as a “visionary man of steel… Over 17 years [he has] forged a stainless steel template studded with diamonds for this great county’s future… every corner [of which] has been sparkled by [his] Midas touch… visionary… compelling… compassion… empathy… golden blueprint…”
RENDER UNTO CAESAR AWARD
The vicar of the St Edward the Confessor church in Romford complained that the take from collection plates at Sunday services had declined after Havering council imposed parking charges in neighbouring streets.
Bristol city council piously announced its intention to ban privately-owned diesel vehicles from the city centre, shortly before spending millions on a new fleet of, er, diesel vans.
INVESTORS OF THE YEAR
Kent county council pension fund’s request to withdraw some £250m from Neil Woodford’s Equity Income Fund (down from £310m invested in 2017) led first to the freezing and then winding-down of Woodford’s flagship fund and the trashing of Woodford’s reputation as a star fund manager. This is not the first time KCC has come a cropper while seeking good returns. During the Icelandic banking crisis of 2008 the council “lost” £50m and didn’t recover it until 2017.
PANTS ON FIRE AWARD
Tories on Cotswold district council feigned “snouts in the trough” outrage when one of the first acts of the new Lib Dem regime which took control in May was to raise councillors’ allowances from £4,000 to £5,000 a year. What the Tories neglected to say was that the increase had been recommended by an independent panel in 2008 and approved by the then-ruling Tories – who put it on the agenda of the first post-election meeting for approval!
The voters of Tunbridge Wells, who in May inflicted humiliation on a smug Tory regime which had determined to press on with a £100m+ new civic centre “vanity project” against locals’ wishes. Thirteen Tories lost their seats, including pig-headed council leader David Jukes, and the scheme was later abandoned.
HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT OF THE YEAR
Harrogate borough council came under fire for spending £600,000 to host the world road cycling championships in September, which caused traffic chaos in the town. The event’s “fan zone” on the Stray – 200 acres of grassland surrounding the town centre – diverted business away from the centre and left the Stray looking like “a first world war battlefield”, according to critics.