Canvey Island’s Parish Council – An Opportunity Lost

WHEN ISLANDERS elected their first Parish Councillors, back in 2007, it was hoped that the new body – like those in neighbouring Leigh-on-Sea and Rayleigh – would form close links with residents and the Borough Council to improve islanders’ lives and tackle Canvey’s poverty.

With a joyful heart, islanders signed-up to an extra Council Tax charge to finance the new organisation, and looked forward to the island’s deprivation being addressed.

Rank Ward
1 Canvey Island Central
2 Canvey Island North
3 Canvey Island Winter Gardens
4 Canvey Island East
5 Canvey Island West
6 Canvey Island South
7 St Mary’s
8 Victoria
9 Cedar Hall
10 St James
11 Appleton
12 St Peter’s
13 St George’s
14 Boyce

Nothing was more urgent. Canvey Island’s six wards take up the top six positions in the borough’s poverty and deprivation rankings (as shown in the inset table) but it soon became evident that the newly elected councillors had other things on their minds.

Their first act was to re-title the newly formed Parish Council as a Town Council – and their second was not to work with the Borough Council to improve island facilities: it was to work against the Borough Council’s attempts to improve the lives of islanders at every turn.

At no stage has this Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP) Town Council attempted to address islanders’ needs – and its local Grants Budget, for each year since its inception, has only provided some £5,000 support for charities engaged in meeting them. That is just 1.8% of its 2010/11 precept – and £4,000 less than councillors have awarded themselves in allowances and expenses this year.

The last three years have provided an opportunity for councillors to come to grips with the lack of facilities for the island’s youth in poverty stricken areas like the Avenues. Three years in which to engage the island’s youngsters and address anti-social behaviour. But, when the Borough Council saw fit to erect a £150,000 Adizone in Kismet Park, the CIIP immediately launched a petition for its removal.

The Town Council (TC) has had three years in which to assess the island’s facilities and identify areas that need addressing. But, in all that time, the TC was apparently oblivious of the safety concerns surrounding the Concord pool. It seems that no town councillor had ever bothered to visit and assess the facility. In contrast, Leigh-on-sea’s facilities are regularly appraised by their Town Council, and councillors are keen to work in partnership with Southend’s council to ensure they are always maintained to a high standard.

Canvey Island’s Town Council instigated no such arrangement with Castle Point Borough Council (CPBC) – just as it has never attempted to table a solution to the island’s desperate housing needs.

This year, the Town Council will have squandered over one-million pounds of residents’ money. One million pounds, which, with proper planning and financial management, could have seen vast improvements to the island’s social cohesion. Local charities could have been supported; the island’s Citizens’ Advice Bureau might not have been forced to seek additional accommodation on the mainland; residents might have had their own, subsidised, Dial-a-ride service; and islanders might not have had to rely upon the local police force to arrange suitable events for Canvey’s youth during the summer holidays.

The fact is that Canvey Island Town Council does not represent the residents it was elected to serve. Rather, the Town Council is seen as serving the political agenda of the CIIP. Few residents talk of the Town Council Offices – they speak of the CIIP Clubhouse.

Parish Councils were never envisaged as political bodies. Instead they are run, in the main, by local business, charity and church leaders whom have close links to the local community – and whom are fully aware of its needs. In particular, being free of political bias, parish councillors are able to work with higher tier public bodies to ensure their services are accurately targeted where they are needed – and, because they are parish based, they also have access to grant funding that is not available to borough or county councils. For example, grants from: Awards for All; O2 It’s Your Community Programme; Green Prints Flagships; and the Sport England Small Grants programme.

Notably, Canvey Island’s TC has never applied for such funding – even though the CIIP is apparently committed to island youth facilities and preserving the environment. Perhaps this is because such bodies require detailed plans, which the Town Council appears incapable of producing.

Since its inception, the Town Council has not begun a single project that could be described as new. Not a single penny of the one-million pounds, contributed by islanders and which will have been spent by the TC later this year, has been ploughed back into the community. Instead, those funds have been wasted on maintaining existing island community assets that, until the Town Council decided to take them over, were the responsibility of CPBC and funded through the Council Tax collected from all Castle Point residents.

It is only islanders who will now contribute towards those assets upkeep – and for no corresponding reduction in their Castle Point Council Tax bills. And, because islanders are far fewer than the total number of Castle Point residents, their individual share of such upkeep will be considerably higher.

In other words: the Town Council has done nothing – other than to substantially increase islander taxes in return for no community benefits.

CITC Standing Orders On Contracts

One million-pounds is an awful lot of taxpayers’ money. It is equivalent to £25 for every man, woman and child residing on the island – or several new community centres. But, to whom that money has been paid, at this moment, remains a mystery. Moreover, it appears that the Town Council has not entered into a formal agreement with many of its contractors.

That the vast majority of the Town Council’s budgets have been aimed at building works, site clearance, greenery and environmental furniture (each totalling many thousands of pounds) residents will find it difficult to understand why these amounts have not been subject to formal contractual arrangements. After all, such contracts are the first concern of any householder embarking on engaging similar services themselves.

Here is part of the email conversation I had with John Burridge, the new Town Council clerk, regarding a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

  • Me: Please supply a detailed, dated, list of all contracts awarded since the Town Council’s inception, along with each contract’s purpose and full details of the individual contractor.
  • Burridge: Please let me know a minimum price for contracts, as, clearly, it would be disproportionate to provide information on, say, stationery orders.
  • Me: I do not think the commissioner would agree with you there, John. It is, after all, just a detailed Bought Ledger report (and I would be surprised if your stationary were not bought in bulk to ensure maximum discounts). I am not requesting details of the Town Council’s Petty Cash expenditure. Once again, paper is fine – just let me know when you would like me to pick it up.
  • Burridge: Please find attached a list of the contracts that CITC has with suppliers. We do not have any formal contracts with any other bodies or authorities.

Burridge’s list consisted of the following contracts for 2009/10 (I still await previous years’ details):-

  • Guardtec Security, annual maintenance charge: £285.53
  • ING Leasing, photocopier lease: £1,315.96
  • Pinnacle Essex, grounds maintenance: £7,080.40
  • Talk-Talk, phone rental: £113.85

Residents have a clear right to know to whom their money is being given, so, following Burridge’s obfuscation, I submitted a further FOI focusing upon the TC’s Purchase Ledger.

  • A detailed list of the firms, organisations and individuals to whom the Town Council has paid taxpayers’ money since its formation – along with the total individual amounts concerned. Just to be clear: the details of each firm, organisation and individual recorded by the Town Council’s purchase ledger and, for each, the accumulative invoiced amounts, less any credit notes. (I am not asking for details of any Petty Cash expenditure that might require manual compilation – and I am not requesting individual Purchase Ledger balances).

I have yet to receive a reply.

Formal contracts are an important element of any public body’s administration because they ensure only those works or supplies that have been agreed by council are in fact carried out – at the agreed price and with the agreed contractor. Without them it is possible for contractors to bill for other ‘necessary’ works; evade their responsibilities; or simply inflate the previously agreed price. But contracts have a further purpose when it comes to protecting taxpayers’ money: each needs to be formally approved, and it is therefore possible for residents to trace the arrangement back to responsible councillors and the minutes taken at the respective meeting to discover who agreed with, and who opposed, the proposals.

For example: who was it that agreed to the Town Council spending £1,000 of taxpayers’ money on ‘Regalia’ this year?

If it is indeed the case that the TC has entered into no formal arrangements, other than with those declared by Burridge, councillors will be in serious breach of their own Standing Orders – which is a very serious matter.

In the meantime, while the Town Council considers my latest FOI request, residents can only speculate on the reasons it might have for not immediately dumping the requested purchase ledger information to paper or electronic spreadsheet for detailed public inspection…

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One Response

  1. [TP: Comment removed to ‘Letters’ section to improve its visibility.]

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