Thursday 20th June 2024,
North Yorks Enquirer

POTTO: “Where’s the Money?” (Pt 5)

July 29, 2023 Potto
POTTO: “Where’s the Money?” (Pt 5)
  • – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, investigating the wild tactics used by Potto Parish Council to circumvent due process, ignore Council procedures – and the law – whilst spending £5,580 of public money on repairs to this finger-sign (pictured above) that should have cost far less than £1,000. This article exposes several of Potto Parish Council’s nefarious tactics, which, incidentally, again substantiates why the damning 2022 Public Interest Report was so thoroughly well-founded.  (All Potto articles may be reviewed here). 
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It is a core and statutory duty of all local authorities, including Potto Parish Council, to safeguard public money properly – and be seen to do so. If a Council is properly controlled and led, its business contracts should be quite straightforward and clearly demonstrate that public money (taken by compulsory taxation from Potto’s Council Tax payers, via the Precept tax) is used prudently, honestly and effectively.
Before I explain my investigative findings about this dangerously positioned finger-sign (which explains why it is regularly broken by impact from passing vehicles), I should perhaps jog readers’ memories.
Potto Parish Council spent over £10K (i.e. 145% of its annual Precept income)with Coxon Bros Ltd (a now dormant company) on a bridleway repair in 2021 that should have cost no more than a couple of thousand pounds, at most. (See my published series of articles entitled “Where’s the Money”). In particular:
Potto’s taxpayers, who had hoped this bridleway repair buffoonery was a one-off catalogue of failures, and that some structured learning might have ensued because of the Recommendations in the Public Interest Report (linked here), will now be very disappointed. A clear, detailed and well-defined pattern of apparently reckless expenditure on some big-ticket items has emerged which, I would suggest, stretches the credulity of all right-thinking citizens.
Returning now to this finger-sign, I see that it is not included in the Council’s Asset Register. Most likely, this is because (as with all ‘street furniture’) it is the property of the Highways Agency (HA). Accordingly, Potto Parish Council has no lawful remit, responsibility or control over this sign.
A FOIA request https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/road_sign_costs_potto_council_we#incoming-2364282 revealed that Potto Council has ‘no documents’ about this sign from the Highways Agency. In fact, it could be hauled away for scrap at any time and replaced with a new sign, complying with current safety standards – and Potto Parish Council would have no say in the matter.
In August 2018, Potto Council paid a very small business, Cleveland Corrosion Control (a 50-minute, 30-mile one-way journey from Potto), £3,600.00 (inc. VAT) for ‘Refurbishment to Potto signpost’‘:
That is the only detail on the invoice; there is no itemised list of work supposedly done, such as:
  • pre-heating;
  • welding;
  • sand/bead blasting;
  • repainting, etc.
Not a word.
The following item of expenditure was found in the Council’s accounts for 2018/19:

We can probably assume that the Clerk/RFO’s customary inattention to detail explains the futuristic date.

Before moving on, I would add that a closer (i.e. magnified) examination of the 24th August 2018 Invoice reveals a number of grounds for concern:

This suggests to me that it was not the Potto Parish Clerk/RFO, Mrs Joanne STOREY, who authorised the work – her name does not terminate with the letter ‘N‘ (or ‘n‘).

This in turn, suggests that the work was authorised either by Councillor Mrs Elma GRIFFIN or – far more likely – for it was he who authorised the highly suspicious bridleway work (see “Where’s the Money?” [Pt. 2]), Councillor Iain McPHERSON.

However, I have been unable to locate either an Agenda Item or a minuted Resolution such as would confer delegated powers onto either of the above-named Councillors to authorise work on behalf of the Council. Perhaps Councillor McPHERSON takes on this role of procurator general voluntarily  – for reasons which only he could confirm?

Moving on to 2023, I also find, in the same FOIA response, that there is another Invoice from the same business, for ‘Repairs to Potto signpost’ – total due £1,980.00 (i.e. 26% of the Council’s annual Precept income):
I note this item in the Council’s accounts:
We can reasonably infer that the Clerk’s usual lack of diligence explains the error over the amount paid (£1,988.00, as opposed to £1,980.00 on the Invoice).
Shockingly, I am assured that these two Invoices refer to exactly the same finger-sign in Cooper Lane, Potto – the very one satirised in the photo above this article.
(Intriguingly, it seems that this sign is only about 70 yards or so from Council Chair Councillor Andrew WILDE’s front garden).
A recent quotation from Cleveland Corrosion Control (not a Limited company) for a “pre-heat and weld” repair on an identical sign, was for £250 plus VAT. Follow-up enquiries about repainting costs were, rather strangely, declined – which rang alarm bells for me.
Nevertheless, a quick Google search soon identified another specialist business; its quote to repaint the sign was £75, with an additional £30 if sand-blasting was necessary – totalling £105 plus VAT:
£105 plus £250 equals £355, plus VAT @ 20%, equals £421. Double this (for the two separate repairs) and the grand total amounts to £842 (inc, VAT).
Potto Parish Council paid £3,000 plus VAT@ 20%, and £1,650 plus VAT @ 20%, equals £4,650 plus VAT @ 20% (£930), equals a grand total of £5,580 including VAT – almost seven times greater than current quotes at today’s prices.
There is a very clear and consistent pattern behind each of these three items of expenditure (the bridleway and the two repairs to the finger-sign).
On all three occasions, Potto Parish Council failed to:
i) comply with residents’ wishes about the necessity or scope of this work (i.e. they are not in the Parish Plan);
ii) itemise the tasks, even vaguely, in the Council’s annual Budgets;
iii) verify the lawful nature of the proposed expenditure (one of the Clerk/RFO’s core duties);
iv) comply with the statutory constraints on the expenditure of public money on assets it does not own or control (i.e. s.137 LGA1972 – limiting such expenditure to under £2K per year, maximum);
v) comply with the legally binding competitive tendering process – a catastrophic failure, but wittingly and determinedly carried out on each occasion;
vi) comply with ‘good practice’ by eschewing local businesses in favour of far away lo-profile businesses, which appear to have been selected primarily because of their remoteness and their rudimentary financial controls;
vii) comply with ‘good practice’ oversight and quality control of the work supposedly done;
viii) conduct an adequate Risk Assessment (it seems that this finger-sign is damaged/broken every couple of years or so due to its unsatisfactory placement);
ix) conduct an adequate (or indeed any) Value-for-Money assessment (a core duty of the Clerk/RFO);
x) comply with the safeguarding requirements in the Council’s Financial Regulations – which were blatantly breached;
xi) comply with the safeguarding requirements in the Council’s Standing Orders – which were also blatantly breached;
xii) approve any of these financial payments properly or lawfully (for a multitude of reasons – ref: the July 2022 PIR).
Further:
xiii) the contracts were awarded to very small businesses, far remote from Potto (Coxon Bros ceased trading only a month after the Council paid settled their Invoice);
xv) s.137 financial limits were breached – and by huge margins;
xvi) the Council’s meeting Minutes and public records are inadequately structured (vague, materially incomplete and inappropriately brief),
xvii) the ‘agreed’ costs are vastly (over 600%) higher than the fair and reasonable easily obtainable commercial going-rate;
xviii) the Council willingly paid the Invoices in full and unusually promptly;
In short, just about every conceivable Rule, Regulation, Procedure, Policy and Code of Good Practice was breached.
For any Council to fall short on each of these requirements during the first finger-sign repair in 2018 is quite extraordinary. For it to repeat these very same failings in an identical manner on its next two significant contracts (the bridleway and the second finger-sign repair) is utterly inconceivable, unless it was a deliberate or intentional tactic.
If so, I can only wonder what benefit could possibly have been gained by the Councillors (and perhaps the Clerk) for them to act in this way – whatever it was, it must surely have been sufficiently compelling, beneficial and advantageous to outweigh the criticism and publicity that was sure to follow.
Incredibly, this latest wild expenditure (February 2023) was incurred after the Council claimed that the External Auditor’s PIR Recommendations had all been ‘actioned accordingly’.
The Council’s External Auditor, PKF LITTLEJOHN LLP, summed up this fiasco in understated audit-speak as ‘significant weaknesses of Governance and Accountability’ – readers may well consider endorsing my view that far stronger words would have been more appropriate.
Readers may also conclude that the series of events listed here align very closely to those in which corrupt practice exists. The Council is certainly not conducting its business to the exclusive benefit of Potto’s Council Tax payers (as Lord NOLAN’s Principles require). These three items total £15,760 – which means that each of the 120 or so Council Tax payers in Potto has paid over £130. It is small wonder that residents are getting more and more suspicious about their Parish Council.
This begs the question: Who does benefit? Cui bono?
And the key question remains: Why do the members and Clerk insist upon conducting the Council’s affairs in a manner that inevitably invites suspicion?
There must be a very good reason why Potto Council acts consistently in this manner, particularly when its members and Clerk/RFO must know that it is operating in a challenging environment characterised by close scrutiny from whistle-blowers, a growing number of Freedom of Information seekers, Code of Conduct complainants, the External Auditor – and, of course, the North Yorks Enquirer. (The Internal Auditor, Mr Roger BRISLEY, appears to be oblivious to any and all questionable conduct).
Readers may well consider (and some have already offered their conclusions) that this pattern of circumstances, repeated in 2018, 2021 and 2023, suggests some sort of corrupt practice.
I keep an open mind.
I look forward to Potto Parish Councillors providing me with a robust denial and a plausible explanation, which will be published in the Enquirer.

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