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posted 29 Sept 2011, 00:37 by Peter Webb

7 July 2011

The current Conservative controlled Surrey County Council was voted into office in May 2009 and is therefore halfway through their term of office. Surrey Tax Action Group (STAG) has taken a look at some aspects of the council’s operations during what has been a difficult spell. Here are some of STAG’s thoughts.

 On June 23, 2009 the then newly elected leader of the council Andrew Povey said: “It is my wish that this administration should have the greatest possible openness about it, in terms of decision making and all other things that go on.” He said, earlier in the same address; “we are listening to our residents.”

While opinion is always subjective STAG feels there is little evidence to suggest SCC has either become more open or that is listening to people.

  • The recent petition to SCC on the council’s website was signed by more than 26,000 people (thousands more signed other similar local petitions) opposing the introduction of street parking charges, as part of a fund raising exercise. The petition was thrown out at a council meeting in May of this year.
  • Following the audit of last year’s accounts the leader of the council issued a press release claiming the auditor confirmed that SCC was providing value for money. The auditor has denied saying this. Evidence suggests the auditor is correct: Surrey’s council taxpayers have suffered an 80% increase in council tax during the last ten years –more than double the rate of wage increases and nearly triple RPI over the same period.
  • STAG has been lobbying SCC for the council to publish an annual report that includes a real ‘Leader of the Council’ report of activities including financial information stripped of accounting jargon, in short understandable to the average council taxpayer. The result, silence.
  • SCC has claimed that £67 million has already been saved during the current recession. STAG queries this because no tangible evidence exists to support this – not one of the council’s numerous press releases mentions any savings other than as an aspiration.
  • On April 28, 2010 SCC announced a memorandum of understanding had been signed with China’s Zibo City (Zibo has similar understandings with Mandaue in the Philippines and Bratsk in the Russian Federation), since then silence: STAG questions the advisability of spending taxpayers’ money on what some might regard as a rather pointless exercise.
  • Surrey was named as the “UK’s pothole capital” following a survey undertaken by a major car manufacturer in 2010. Today Surrey’s roads look much the same as they did then, and during the last ten years. This suggests SCC is not listening very carefully.
  • SCC’s Code of Conduct says "you must not bully any person". This includes other Members, officers and members of the public. In March 2011 the leader of the council, Andrew Povey, described Residents’ Association councillors as potential “BNP members or Trotskyists.” STAG feels the leader could use his time more profitably on behalf of council taxpayers.
  • STAG recognises the difficult economic climate that exists at the moment and is therefore somewhat surprised that in the last financial year Surrey’s 80 councillors had drawn more than £1.4 million in allowances and expenses – in excess of £17,000 per year, per councillor: a considerable sum for an honorary part time job.

 Summary of STAG’s thoughts at the mid-term period.

Surrey County Council has shown some signs of seeking better performance but often this has been because of the need to react to situations, e.g. the Frater Report.

 Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the current administration is its lack of willingness to recognise opposing views no matter how clearly they are stated, a recent example is the administrations refusal to recognise the almost total opposition to on street parking charges.

 The on street parking charges proposal is clearly simply a clumsy revenue raising exercise: many will assume the need for additional revenue is more about SCC retaining and protecting its own structure than a desire to provide improved efficiency and services for taxpayers.

 Like many organisations Surrey County Council offers the county’s residents the prospect of ‘jam tomorrow’; given that the council has been Conservative controlled for almost 40 years (with one four year spell of no overall control) the jam is unlikely to arrive.