Welcome to the 15th HELP Newsletter
This is the first HELP Newsletter since the elections in 2009. In that time we have been working as parish councillors to implement our policy, “To close down all Council activities as soon as legally and morally possible, so that its dissolution can then be sought”.
A lot has been going on over the last 2½ years, much of it quietly happening behind the scenes. In recent weeks however we have been extremely concerned by all the mis-leading information that has been appearing in the local press regarding the former staff. We have provided the reporters with our clear and factual responses, but there appears to have been an unwillingness to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
We think you deserve to know what has actually taken place. So, let's now take this opportunity to fill you in on both the truth behind the staffing issues, and also bring you up to date on all the other things we have been doing...
When HELP took over the parish council in June 2009 we were able to gain access to the council records. We found that the staff had been given significantly altered contracts nine weeks earlier, as a result of a decision made by a small committee of five councillors (including Philip Ross and Raymond Smale) in Nov 2008.
It seemed to us that, when the old council could see they weren't going to get voted back in, they decided to alter the staff contracts to make it uneconomic for us to make the staff redundant. They had decided that if the six (yes, six) staff were made redundant within 19 months of the election they would get massively generous redundancy terms. The severance pay alone was ten times that which would be given by any other parish council in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire (we checked), and the notice period had been increased to 12 months. The effect was that the former councillors had increased their staff's entitlement from £40,000 to over £200,000. We also found that in March 2009 the same committee had agreed that one member of staff could take flexible retirement without deduction of pension benefits. That decision alone resulted in the council picking up an extra bill of over £100,000 (which the council is paying over five years) as a contribution to her pension fund.
It looked to us like the old council wanted to thwart our policy of closing the council down, as well as ensuring that their last £½million tax-precept would not be available to be rebated back to Letchworth tax-payers.
Having discovered these altered staff contracts we naturally sought legal advice. The advice was that the size of the payments was so far beyond reason that the decision to alter them in this way could not have been legal.
The advice we were given (and that of ACAS) was to negotiate a compromise with the staff. This we did. We offered them a total of £120,000, which we felt was more than generous after only a couple of years employment, and the staff said they would sign the compromise agreement. They worked out the remainder of their three month notice, but on their penultimate day, without any warning, they all declared they wouldn't sign the compromise agreement and proceeded to initiate an Employment Tribunal case.
So we had to take further legal advice. The advice we were given was that we were likely to win the case, and accordingly we agreed to defend it. Notwithstanding the potential cost of the proceedings (which eventually turned out to be approximately £40,000), it would still have been a lot more expensive to keep the staff in post until 2011 and then make them redundant.
At the preliminary hearing, six months later in September 2010, the Judge determined the staff's written statements were full of irrelevancies, ordered everybody to do new ones, and said just two of the staff need present cases at the next hearing, for which the judgement would apply for all six. When the case came up for hearing in January 2011, a different Judge decided that the first Judge had got it wrong when he proposed taking two cases as “specimen cases” and that he wanted all the staff to attend. A new date was fixed for the hearing in May 2011 but this was cancelled due to no Judge being available on the day. Finally, the case was heard by a third judge in August 2011, and in October 2011, this judge eventually gave the surprising opinion that the old council had not acted irrationally in altering the contracts in this way and ordered that we pay them in full.
And so the former councillors have succeeded in their plan to use up most of the remaining council tax money. We did everything we reasonably could to prevent this, but in the end our hands were tied by their actions before they left office.
It now seems that the former councillors are so scared of the public knowing this that they are bombarding the press with a plethora of unfounded, non-factual and highly mis-leading statements and accusations. The papers seem only too happy to print their sensational headline-grabbing claims, while ignoring our factual and provable information (we have published everything, including all the real figures on the town council website at www.letchworth-tc.gov.uk).
We have in the last few weeks also resolved the situation in relation to the former Council's office at 66-68 Leys Avenue, Letchworth. This, again, was not as easy as we had hoped.
The old council had entered into a ten year lease, at an annual rent of £25,000 + service charges. A commitment of over £200,000 (8 years) beyond their time in office. Fortunately, the lease had in it a break clause provision which gave us the chance to surrender the lease with effect from April 2010. To do that, notice had to be given by October 2009. The staff instructed local solicitors to handle that, but unfortunately they made a mess of things and in late 2009, the landlord refused to accept that the break clause provision had been properly exercised, making us liable to pay the rent for another two years until the next break clause date. So, we instructed new solicitors who helped us to negotiate our release from the lease but at a premium. They then pursued a claim against the old solicitors for the recovery of that premium.
It took quite a lot of work to prove our case before the old solicitors' insurers agreed to settle with us. In the end, they agreed to pay virtually everything we claimed and about half of the legal fees we incurred. The net outcome is that we avoided potential liabilities of well over £50,000 for just £6,000 in legal costs. And in total by surrendering the lease 7 years before the end date we have saved the Letchworth taxpayers around £200,000 (including service charges).
The contents of the office
Before we closed the offices, the staff arranged for the contents to be moved to a rented store unit at Securestore in Works Road, and committed the council to pay upfront £5875 for two years of storage. Subsequently, we worked through the enormous pile of items to make an inventory - in the main it was tables, chairs, desks, cupboards, files, stationery and so on. There are some surprising items like a large format flat-screen TV, and a high-end digital projector. Most bizarre was the 1000 mayoral lapel badges (together with an invoice for £1,000).
We realised, though, that the cost of storage was more than the contents were worth, and we could see that it wasn't doing any good there. So, as you may have seen, we offered to loan it to local groups and organisations in Letchworth, so that they could get some use out of it and help their causes.
Pretty much everything has now gone to local groups in and around the town. The Town Centre Manager is storing a quantity of items (e.g. tables and chairs, the digital projector, and so on...) that any group wishing to borrow for a function can get from him.
The Mayoral Chain
The very first thing our first Chairman, George Ritchie, did, at our very first meeting after the election was to announce that the office of the Mayor would be abolished and that we would just have a Chairman. There was shock horror from our opponents, and letters in the papers telling everyone to write to George as the Mayor. And how many letters did he receive? Precisely none.
The Mayoral Chain has now been given to the First Garden City Museum on semi permanent loan, as an item of historical interest and a reminder of the profligacy of the former councillors.
The Letchworth Community Democracy Association
Never heard of it? We hadn't either until in late 2009 they announced their intention to challenge our plans to close down the council. Who were they? Well, they said that their members included organisations that had had grants from the council and who had used the offices. But the only names we were told were those of Philip Ross, and Raymond and Angela Smale. Sounds familiar?
A very detailed rebuttal of their arguments didn't stop them from launching judicial review proceedings against us in the High Court and then applying for an urgent injunction to stop us shutting the office and making the staff redundant. When the judge read our letter of rebuttal, he soon saw through the LCDA's case, and refused to grant the injunction. His damning judgment described the actions of Ross, the Smales and the rest of the LCDA as an attempt “to frustrate the lawful decisions of a democratically elected Council by judicial order” and said that their case was “simply wrong” and was “a weak or hopeless claim”. That was the end of the LCDA - never heard of again, but unfortunately, they left us with a bill of £9,331 that we couldn't recover from them.
We are just as committed now to seeking the full dissolution of the town council at the earliest opportunity as we were when we took office. It has been a long two years, and you can see that the road has not been easy. We have had to wait until now for the tribunal to complete and in all that time we've been unable to say anything about it.
We've seen clamour and outrage in the papers recently, but only from the likes of the former councillors, Mr Ross, Mr and Mrs Smale and Mr Hodgson. Against that it is worth noting that nearly the entirety of all the costs we have incurred since the election, has been as a result of the actions of these few people, before and after they left office.
The good news is that with the lease, the property and the staff issues all sorted, the parish council can now tick over at near zero cost. We should point out that we have not charged a single penny in council tax since being elected to office, and we don't intend to do so. So far that's a saving of £1,000,000 alone, when compared with what the old council charged in its last year in office .
We remain committed to shutting down the council as soon as possible. We sincerely hope you will continue to support HELP in achieving the task.
We publish a periodic e-mail newsletter.
If you would like to be added to the circulation list please enter your name and e-mail on this form and click the Submit button: