Councillor Paul Cotterill over at Though Cowards Flinch has written a series of very intersting articles, here, here and here, highlighting constitutional changes being mooted by the Tory run Local Government Association which would remove legal constraints from councills, so that they could side-step statutory obligations.
It is therefore worth looking at a current example of maladministration by a Tory Council, right here in Swindon. Andy Tate of the Swindon Advertiser reports concerns over the secretive way a half-million-pound deal has been struck between Swindon Borough Council and a new technology firm to provide wifi internet across the town.
South Swindon MP Anne Snelgrove told a parliamentary debate that the lack of transparency in the way an agreement was reached with local firm Digital City (UK) risked inviting “corruption” into town hall politics, and warned that if the deal were to fail then taxpayers would be left to pick up the tab.
The wifi initiative, announced last November, is due to provide a limited free internet link to all who sign up, alongside three paid packages aimed at business, home and roving users.
But Ms Snelgrove, a Labour MP, accused the council’s Conservative leadership of gambling public money in “untried companies” when it awarded the contract – and a £450,000 loan – to Digital City without going through a tendering process.
She pointed out that Digital City became active only last September, just weeks before the wifi initiative was announced, and described its track record as “negligible”.
She said: “Should Digital City have gone instead to a high street bank for a £450k loan on the evidence of the business plan and ropey marketing strategy, I imagine they would have been laughed off the premises.”
She added: “The cosiness of the relationships of those involved and the lack of external scrutiny… should alarm all who are interested in local government probity.”
Ms Snelgrove said the council, in exchange for a 40% equity stake in the company, appeared to be taking on “100% of the risk” of the venture, and warned that if it was unable to attract sufficient customers in what was a crowded market then “£450,000 of taxpayers’ money will be lost”.
The MP, who insisted that she supported universal internet access, said: “Whilst I do not believe for a moment there has been corruption on the part of [council] officers, the process they have put in place at the behest of Conservative leaders of the council lays open the possibility of future corruption.”
She added: “I sincerely hope that [the council] cabinet does the right thing and delays any further allocation of taxpayers’ money until a full cross-party investigation can be carried out into the actions of councillors and officers.”
What is particularly worrying is that the council run wifi scheme has been funded by a secrative municipal loan to a private company, without going through proper scrutiny. The private company is a new start up, with no proven record. The business model is unproven, and the municipal wifi scheme is in competition with existing commercial service providers. If the scheme succeeds, the private company will enjoy the profits. If the scheme fails then the Swindon Council tax-payer will bear the losses.
Ever felt you have been had?