Wednesday 22nd May 2024,
North Yorks Enquirer

Potto: “Where’s the Money?” [Pt.4]

March 13, 2023 Potto
Potto: “Where’s the Money?” [Pt.4]
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As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the usual safeguards and controls were ALL markedly absent for Potto Parish Council’s single biggest-ever commercial contract, which was for a sum in excess of 140% of the Council’s entire Precept revenue for that year.
The meeting Minutes make almost no reference to any of these controls and the pertinent ‘Associated Documents’ were not published on the Council’s website (in itself an unlawful act). Trawling WhatDoTheyKnow.com, I soon discovered that a Freedom of Information request had been lodged for this very information:
A Timeline of the ensuing correspondence tells its own story:
30th January 2023 – the following FOIA Request was made to Potto Parish Council:
8th February 2023 – the Council provided copies of just three documents:
13th February 2023 – the Requestor, clearly amazed by the paucity of documentation, requested further clarification:
28th February 2023 – the Council confirmed, on the twentieth day of the twenty-day statutory period:
So, there we have it. That is all she wrote. Only three documents – 1 Quote; 1 Grant Form and 1 Invoice.
Let me set this into context by examining what information should have been available, if Potto Parish Council was conducting its affairs lawfully and openly and the Chair, Councillors and RFO/Clerk had acted properly and correctly to ensure public money was effectively safeguarded – a statutory duty, not at the discretion of the Council.
1. Expenditure exceeded the declared Revenue Budget
The Council’s Annual Accounts for 2021/22 state, see excerpt below:
The entire Budget for all items of expenditure in 2021/22 was only £7,100.
The Council’s Financial Regulations state, under the heading of Budgetary Control:
No information has been provided under the FOIA (meaning no information is held by Potto Parish Council) to explain why the RFO/Clerk permitted this fundamental breach of the Financial Regulations to occur. The RFO/Clerk’s failure to ensure that the Financial Regulations were observed is an act of gross negligence – she is tasked, and paid, to bear responsibity for the Council’s actions and has a statutory duty to ensure Regulatory compliance.
Bridleway Maintenance not a Budget Item
The Council’s Financial Regulations state, also under Budgetary Control:
Detailed scrutiny of the 2021/22 Budget under the topic of ‘Footpaths Maintenance’ (or anything similar) discloses that it is not listed at all.
Therefore, lawfully permissible expenditure was NIL. ZERO. Not one penny.
Having reviewed the meeting Minutes in search of some explanation, however flimsy, for how this blatant disregard of legal requirements, as specified in the Council’s own Financial Regulations (which is to say that ignorance of the law cannot credibly be invoked – nor would it exonerate the Council), I can confirm that no such explanation is recorded; I found nothing.
There is no recorded information whatsoever to explain why the RFO/Clerk permitted this flagrant breach of the Council’s Financial Regulations.
Normally, one could rely on the Internal Auditor to identify such cavalier disdain for legal requirements. However . . .
The Internal Auditor also ignored the Breaches
Potto Parish Council’s Internal Auditor, Mr Roger BRISLEY FCA, failed to identify these two major breaches of the Council’s Financial Regulations. His Internal Audit Report for 2021/22 gave the Council a clean bill of health, as I have shown elsewhere.
Nowhere in the Council’s Public Record can I locate any explanation as to how and/or why Mr BRISLEY failed to recognise or report the fact, visible to the layman, that Potto Parish Council had wildly and unlawfully exceeded its Budget constraints.
No Waiver justification recorded
The Council’s Financial Regulations state, under the heading Contracts, that:
There is no record of an application having been made to waive the Financial Regulations or to explain why the RFO/Clerk made no application, thus permitting this breach of the Financial Regulations to occur.
YLCA input
At this point, any Councillor with even a modicum of nous would have ensured some advice was requested/received from the Yorkshire Local Councils Association(YLCA), the Council’s paid advisors.
Not one single Councillor (or the RFO/Clerk) bothered to do so – this lack of integrity is a clear breach of the Nolan Principles of Public Life.
No Tendering/Selection Process
The Council’s Financial Regulations state, again under the sub-heading Contracts:

The evidence shows there is only one quote from one firm – a clear breach of the Financial Regulations relating to Contracts.

There is no information available about the ‘approved list’, or the ‘tendering process‘, or the minimum of “three firms”, or the ‘advertisement of the contract’ or the ‘selection process’ or why Coxon Bros (a dormant Company, based near Bedale) was selected in preference to Barnfather Construction Ltd (a currently-trading Company based in Potto).

There is no information to explain why the RFO/Clerk permitted, or perhaps willingly facilitated, each of these serious breaches of the Financial Regulations.

Breach of s.137 limits

Any Council’s ability to spend public money on items not owned or controlled by that Council is strictly limited by statute.

HM Government’s MHCLG has directed (under s.137(4)(a) of the Local Government Act 1972) that the expenditure limit for 2021/22 for Potto Parish Council must equate to no more than £8.41 per elector and, as I understand it, there are just over two hundred electors in the civic parish of Potto. The s.137 expenditure limit is, therefore, well under £2K.

According to its response under the Freedom of Information Act (confirmed by my examination of the public record), Potto Parish Council has no information pertinent to the matter of these s.137 limits, nor has any advice been sought from the YLCA.

There is no information to explain why the RFO/Clerk permitted, or perhaps willingly facilitated, this huge breach of s.137.

In conflict with residents’/electors’ wishes

Even if all the necessary safeguards and financial controls had been put in place (which they were not), the scope of this Bridleway work was carried out contrary to the wishes of 91% of respondents, whose specified preference it was to enjoy a surface on the Bridleway of between 2′ and 3′ in width. The Council ignored the responses to the independant Parish Plan Questionaire and, at inexplicable and hugely unnecessary expense, provided a surface more than adequate for a large motor vehicle.

This extra-wide surface is extraordinary indeed, as the July 2018 minutes record the Council’s efforts to prohibit motor vehicles on the Bridlepath:

Clearly, this policy was set aside to accommodate vehicular access, at least to the properties owned by the GRECO and MARCH families. Why?

It is clear that the Council was now actively spending public money in direct conflict with its own previous aims and the solicited preferences of the Potto public. Why?

The Council allegedly holds no information to explain why the clearly-stated wishes of Potto residents, who paid for all this work via compulsory taxation (i.e. the Precept), were ignored and over-ruled. But Councillors GRECO and MARCH and their respective families have benefitted from improved vehicular access to their properties, something oddly omitted from the Council’s records.

No control over the contracted work

The Council allegedly holds no document – no single word, in fact – recording how it maintained oversight, quality control, technical specification or scope for the work carried out by Coxon Bros.

Again, the Financial Regulations, under the sub-heading Contracts, sets out the requirements:

Again, there is no information available to explain why the RFO/Clerk permitted this breach of the Financial Regulations to occur.

Delegation to Councillor Macpherson

The Minutes (twice) record that Councillor MACPHERSON took control of this task, noting “Cllr Macpherson will query some points with contractor”.

The Council’s Standing Orders specifically prohibit this, stating:

The Minutes do confirm that Councillor MACPHERSON inspected land (the Bridleway) and then issued orders and instructions to Coxon Bros. There is no record of Councillor MACPHERSON having been authorised, by Resolution, to undertake these duties.

There is no correspondence whatsoever – or any other information – available to explain why the RFO/Clerk permitted this breach of the Standing Orders.

No ‘Value for Money’ (VFM) Assessment

No VFM Assessment is recorded in the Minutes. The Council’s Financial Regulations state under Orders for Work:

There is no information available to explain why all the Councillors and the RFO/Clerk permitted this breach of the Financial Regulations to occur.

‘RFO’, readers will recall, is the standard abbreviation for ‘Responsible Financial Officer‘. On-line legal dictionaries define ‘Responsibility’ thus:

Quality of Workmanship

Despite there being no information pertaining to any quality control or site survey to determine that the work, or indeed any work, had been completed to some semblance of a professional standard, the November 2021 minutes confirm an agreement to pay the Coxon Bros invoice in full – and it seems that the cheque was written and cashed immediately, whereafter the Company promptly ceased trading.

Warranty

There is no information pertaining to any Warranty or Guarantee of any sort.

SUMMARY

Potto Parish Council’s mysteriously appointed Responsible Financial Officer (RFO) and Clerk – Mrs Joanne STOREY, daughter of the Chair, Councillor Andrew WILDE – has stated, in a legally binding Freedom of Information response, that the Council has no information regarding ANY of the above highly significant financial irregularities.

If this is true, then Mrs STOREY must surely be in breach of her service contract and subject to immediate dismissal.

Furthermore, all members of Potto Parish Council have signally failed to recognise any one of these serious and material deficiencies. I accept that it may be reasonable for perhaps one or two of these deficiences not to be noticed by one or two Councillors, but for ALL Councillors and the RFO/Clerk to turn a blind eye to ALL these major financial deficiencies – and to do so absolutely consistently throughout ALL of 2021 – smacks to me of a deliberate, intentional, focused and co-ordinated plot to ignore statutory due process in order to enhance vehicular access vis the Bridleway. Why?

Such perfect unanimity of inaction amongst all participants, at all times, seems indicative of a total failure of democratic process. It suggests dysfunctionality at the most fundamental and extreme level. It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that the RFO/Clerk and the non-WILDE membership is under the thrall of an all-controlling Chair, almost as though every one of them is trapped in some sort of helpless and hapless trance.

The real explanation for how this can have arisen is the subject of on-going investigation which I intend to set forth in future articles.

Readers who struggle to disagree with my opinion that ALL of these people are spectacularly unfit for public office are invited to do as I do – provide their evidence. Perhaps more of my Potto readers would care to drop me a (safe and totally confidential) email with their thoughts about why this farce is allowed to continue, year after year, and why the Chair and Clerk have so far escaped being held to account by electors.

Lastly, and quite astonishingly, the foregoing chronicle of regulatory abuse has not been the only such example in 2021/22; Potto Parish Council spent over £4,400 on a speed sign in near identical circumstances.

These failures amount to what any competent, diligent and honest Auditor would describe as ‘significant weaknesses of Governance and Accountability’ – which readers may recall was exactly the basis of the 2022 Public Interest Report.

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