Thursday, December 07, 2006

Local authority spending - how does this add up?

There's a massive and very strange anomaly in public spending around here about which I'd like to blog, because I'd be very interested to read other people's opinions and comments about it.

Our home ed meetings take place in an old gymnasium attached to the LEA administration centre. The building was previously a Victorian grammar school (my stepdad's old school actually) - a beautiful building and part of our local heritage which I'm glad to see maintained. Oh I just googled it and it was actually founded in 1585, so it's even older than my stepdad ;-) I'll try to find a pic for you..

Here's a lovely old photo of the building:

Although even there you don't see the best of it. It has 1st floor enclosed bridges attaching the different wings, with ornate arches underneath and little minarets with bells here and there on the roof.

Anyway, I digress. I love the building but that's not the point of the blog post.

About 20 years ago it stopped being used as a school and was taken over as the LEA's main administration centre, although this presented the LEA with two problems: at the time the building was far too big to house the admin staff and there was a clause in the trust which stipulated that the building should be accessable for the free (unpaid for) use of children. But the LEA circumvented these by deciding to update the building and use a large proportion of the rooms for private letting (for meetings and conferences etc) and to preserve the old gym (without updating it) for the unpaid use of children's groups.

Four years ago I approached the LEA and asked for a free meeting room and was shown the old gymnasium which, although shabby, was and is ideal for our purposes. The LEA was happy because at that time, I gather, they were technically in breach of the trust's clause - there were no other children's groups using the centre, because of the gym's shabbiness I think. It's a huge, airy, cold hall. But the amount of space is fantastic for us. Currently the heaters barely work and the toilet is broken, but we keep our coats on and plug our own kettle in to huddle around cups of coffee while the children do their own thing and don't seem to mind the cold. The plaster is falling off the walls but we don't mind about that. We just love the free space.

The only problems we've ever had are complaints about noise from the LEA staff members who work at the centre. These people are paid VERY well (judging by the estimated cost of executive vehicles crammed into the car park) to spend their working life considering, discussing and planning for local children's education - and yet they don't want to hear or see any actual, real children. We've had to change our meeting times twice to accommodate this, but I draw the line at asking the children to be quiet.

But apart from the huge amounts they must be being paid, there are a few other things about the centre that don't quite add up. Local schools could still, I know, use more funding and yet the LEA centre is fitted out like a 5-star hotel. When we first visited I was slightly astounded by the thick, expensive wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere and the plush standard to which the building had been done out. There are pot plants in the reception area which probably cost more money to buy than my car did.

The whole place is fitted with oak panelling - most of which was there before, but some of which wasn't. The windows all replaced with luxury oak frames, double-glazed of course (except for the old gym, which still has the same cracked, draughty safety glass it's had for 50 years).

I raised my eyebrows at all this but didn't really think much about it until a few weeks ago, when the chesterfield sofas appeared. These are brand new, plush leather, are accompanied by thick oak coffee tables and they're everywhere. I don't even know how much such a sofa costs nowadays (£1000?) but I have to negotiate my way past three of them just to get to the reception desk.

Apparently all this spending on the centre was originally justified "because it has to be kept to a competitive standard to attract the private sector for the letting rooms" - but there now appears to be only one letting room available in the whole place for private hire and that's the "ICT suite":

- which, as far as I can make out, isn't exactly fully booked for much of the time. The admin section of the LEA has of course mushroomed in size since the centre was first converted and the centre now houses LEA executives by the hundred, strolling around in very expensive clothes, joking and laughing with each other and casually attending leisurely meetings in plush surroundings to discuss the fate of the region's children whom they never seem to actually meet in great numbers. We certainly never see other chldren at the centre. I think there are no rooms spare to accommodate the private sector which still serves to justify the massive costs of the building as far as I'm aware, unless the need for that justification has now passed.

It's worth mentioning that the centre also has a fabulous and well-staffed catering service for its staff. White-uniformed tea ladies scurry around constantly attending the executives' every whim, for all the world like the waiting staff in a top-class hotel. The old stables are the full-time haunt of the building's three caretakers who are permenantly on call to lift, fetch and carry any heavy files or furniture (which seems to be replaced annually for the lastest, plushest items - indeed the last lot of perfectly adequate tables and chairs went into a skip) and the huge, real Christmas tree which adorns the reception area annually and beats the one in the Town Hall on both size and quality.

Compare this with the office of the council's Chief Education Welfare Officer. An Old Labour man, I know from the tone of his voice when we chatted about it that he's as disgusted and bewildered as me about the plush admin centre. He certainly doesn't work there, choosing to keep his offices in the town centre less trendy, more basic building. He catches a cranky old lift up eight floors to get to his office - (often using the stairs when its broken or just for speed or exercise), which is certainly not plush by any standards. Much of his work involves meeting and working with real people: children, parents, teachers. He hand-picks his EWOs and closely monitors their activities. I don't see eye-to-eye with him on quite a few issues but he has my deep respect because I know that in his heart he really cares about the children in our area. An amazing, unusual man. I certainly don't want to tar our whole LEA with the same brush while there are people like him around.

And on Tuesday I was walking through town and happened to look with interest into the windows of another local government office: the Housing Benefits Department. It's difficult not to look into their window as they are housed in an old shop. Their office is actually slightly submerged, so from the pavement as you walk past you're looking down on their desks. It's blatantly obvious to anyone that there's no surplus funding for these people. Their working conditions are cramped, chaotic, uncomfortable and humiliatingly public.

I can't even find an online photo of the plush interior of our LEA centre (hmmmm... wonder why?) but the obviously under-funded Housing Benefits Dept is in a town centre shop window for the world to see.

So what's going on here? Aren't the departments all funded from the same pot of money? Why are some council employees kept like royalty in the lap of luxury and others subjected to some of the poorest standards an office-worker could face?

I don't want to 'bite the hand that feeds us' and am still very grateful and glad about the free room we're given.. BUT - the obvious imbalance in local authority spending smells very fishy to me. It reminds me of Soviet Russia, where party members got the best of everything and non-party members were kept in poverty.


Blogger Baz said...

Education is everything! Surely you knew that :-D

In the old days, when it was obvious that little Johnny was a practical chap and a bit slow with his numbers, went off to be an apprentice and then he became a builder or a plumber and little Sarah who was good with her numbers became his accountant and sorted out things for him that he couldn't understand and really didn't need to know. Oddly, that meant that there was a job for everyone, at a level they were comfortable with, and most people were happy.

Nowadays its battery schooling, and little Johnny is still poor at maths but can probably get into Queens College doing a degree in Spacial Farting, so he is discouraged from building the next Taj Mohal and instead is being funneled through the overcrowded education system and will come out of the processing queue on his 21st Birthday with 450,000,000 different ways to fart and be absolutely no bloody use to anyone but - bless him - he's qualified!

And all that processing requires an awful lot of pointless administrators working on databases that no one can maintain, no one pays attention to and will end up being sold off to companies in India who will spam the poor souls on them with adverts for penis extentions and stock market share warnings for the rest of their natural lives.

In the meantime the head of the Education Trust picks up his/her 5/6 figure salary safe in the knowledge that parents want their kids to do "better" these days and that the government is anally obsessed with qualifications and will happy shut down small hospital wings to make sure that Degrees in Spatial Farting are available.

People wonder why Britian has gone from being a leading manufacturing country, at the forefront of science and technology to one obsessed with service industries and this is why - becauise Little Johnny will end up filling 300,000 cubic litres of space in a warehouse call centre somewhere with his farts while he answers car insurance quotes.

Thats the way the money goes. Pop goes the weasel.

10:11 am, December 07, 2006  
Blogger Allie said...

In my experience there is always lots of inexplicable discrepancy between the departmental budgets of different parts of large public sector organisations. Always politics.

Furniture in skips is (probably) an insurance issue. I happen to know that large organisations can't even offer old equipment to their own staff, without lots of expensive and time consuming form filling. Apparently if you went home and died in a bizarre accident involving a desk (or whatever) the the organisation could be sued. Can't really believe this but it seems it is so...

2:13 pm, December 07, 2006  
Blogger Tech said...

Gill, next time you get wind of a change of furnishings afoot, let us know, we'll hire and van and we can all go skip diving ;-) We need a new something to sit on, and whilst leather is against my veggie principles, if it's free and saves it going in land fill... Call it a community Regeneration Effor or summat and we might get the cost of the van funded ROFL

2:52 pm, December 07, 2006  
Anonymous Ruth said...

Our L.A have taken over half the cities old buildings and decked them out a huge expense. Maybe the Chesterfields were a job lot cos the place I went to when I saw the PEO had them in the reception as well as huge Bromiliads and a carpet my feet sunk into.e.t.c Also the DSS office is dump. Also when they closed down the Victorian hospital here to build a crappy school that was on special measures within a year of opening, everything got skipped - everything!

3:00 pm, December 07, 2006  
Blogger Gill said...

I'd love to read the official rationale behind these decisions - that benefits dept offices should be shoddy and ed admin should be plush! If anyone has any links handy to such literary delights, send 'em my way please!

If it's happening in Hull too then it does sound like the result of national policy or central govt guidance or something.

Tech, yes I'll blog it far and wide next time the tell-tale skips turn up ;-)

9:02 pm, December 07, 2006  
Blogger Tech said...

I would imagine it's about not *upsetting* the clients. Housing depts and social security depts are going to get *poor* folk ciming in, who might (understandably) get annoyed if they see plush surrounds whilst they're struggling on benefits. Appearances are everything after all, if the dept looks like it's struggling then you're not going to question how much money is really in the pot.

Of course there is also the other theory - all people in receipt of benefits are scroungers and scum and they might sully the posh furnishings.

9:33 pm, December 07, 2006  
Blogger Allie said...

In my experience it's generally true that front line services are underfunded - short staffed, poor equipment, crap working environment. This is usually because large sums have to be spent on plush sofas for 'important people'. I have often wondered if it is a kind of labelling by association - you work too close to real people and you deserve to get treated like they do...

11:47 pm, December 07, 2006  
Blogger Gill said...

Ah yes, both those suggestions would make sense wouldn't they? Also, the bits the general public sees look basic and underfunded, which would probably encourage people to think the council wasn't over-spending their money.

The bits the general public normally doesn't see give the true picture. I might do some more googling later.

I'd still love to read any kind of official explanation of this, from anywhere!

8:27 am, December 08, 2006  

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