WTC Records – Missing Links
- – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, reporting on the whereabouts of the formal Mayoral Regalia of Whitby Rural District Council (WRDC) – established 1st April 1930, abolished in 1st April 1974 when Scarborough Borough Council was established. (Records of the Whitby Rural District Council are held at the North Yorkshire County Record Office). This mystery leads to a closer examination of the Public Record – in the hope of discovering where the money goes.
On 1st May 2023, I wrote to the then Mayor of Whitby, Councillor Linda WILD, enquiring about the Chains of Office of the Chair and Vice Chair of one of our predecessor Councils, which presently reside in a display cabinet in Scarborough Town Hall (pictured above):
Good afternoon, Madam Mayor.
Have you any info on what is going to happen to the Whitby Rural District Council Regalia, held by SBC since 1974?
Councillor WILD very kindly passed my enquiry to the Town Clerk, Mr Michael KING.
Three weeks elapsed and, hearing nothing further, I emailed the Town Clerk following up on my enquiry.
Mr KING responded, in an unsigned email, thus:
A working group comprising three councillors (Abbott, Coughlan and Riddolls) was formed in 2022 to pursue enquiries with Scarborough Borough Council. A verbal report was made to Council in November 2022. No further action has been noted.
It would have been helpful had Michael attached a copy of the Minutes of the WTC November meeting, or at least included a URL-link.
However, I was able to locate the Agenda for the Extraordinary Meeting held on 22nd November 2022, here: https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.whitbytowncouncil.gov.uk/uploads/221122-full-council-agenda-(extraordinary).pdf?v=1668157155. Unfortunately, no accompanying documentation (the ‘bundle’ – Minutes, etc) is presently available on that page.
So I turned to the next Meeting (10th January 2023), hoping to locate the Minutes of the Meeting held on 22nd November 2022 (https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.whitbytowncouncil.gov.uk/uploads/230110-full-council-agenda.pdf?v=1673002911). Squirrelled away within those ‘draft’ Minutes, I found – at Item 240/22:
Unfortunately, precisely what Councillor Mrs Heather COUGHLAN verbally reported to Full Council is not recorded.
Thus, the destiny of the WRDC Regalia (in my view, these historical objects belongs in Whitby Museum) remains unknown to the people of Whitby, for no better reason than the rather disturbing fact that the Minutes disclose nothing substantive regarding the Working Group’s visit to Scarborough Town Hall. This is unsatisfactory and unacceptable.
Granted that it would be impracticable for the meeting Minutes to contain a verbatim account of Councillor COUGHLAN’s no doubt detailed verbal report, and granted that there is no statutory requirement for Minutes to go to such lengths, there has been no end of Guidance specifying that ‘best practice’ is to provide a “narrative sufficient to convey to those not present at the meeting” an understanding of what the Council accomplished in respect of any given Agenda Item.
This leads us to another instance of inadequate minuting – one which impacts on every ratepayer in Whitby in terms of the WTC Precept.
Unlike higher-order Councils (District, Borough, County, Unitary, etc), Parish and Town Councils’ rates are not capped at 5%. These smaller authorities are free to raise their Precepts without limit. Many recognise that now is not the time to do so.
In response to the following request for information from a member of the Whitby Community Network:
Town Clerk Mr Michael KING responded:
The town council approved its budget (and precept) for 2023/24 at its meeting on 10 January 2023 (https://www.whitbytowncouncil.gov.uk/uploads/230110-full-council-agenda.pdf?v=1673002911). The minutes were considered and approved at the subsequent meeting (https://www.whitbytowncouncil.gov.uk/uploads/230307-full-council-agenda.pdf?v=1677771563). The rationale was to achieve a balanced budget. Alongside inflationary rises in expenditure, additional provision was made for the development of a Neighbourhood Plan and engagement with the unitary council.
Tracking this back, we discover that the Minutes of the Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee of 6th December 2022 state:
270/22 RECOMMENDATION OF DRAFT BUDGET
RECOMMENDED that the draft budget, as presented, is recommended to Full Council for approval.
Deferred to Minute number 309/23 (below)
Unfortunately, and inexplicably, Item 309/23 does not exist.
However, under Item 309/22 we find:
309/22 BUDGET SETTING 023-2024
MOVED by Councillor Jones, seconded by Councillor Harston
RESOLVED that the draft budget 2023-2024 as recommended for approval by Finance Policy and General Purposes Committee is approved.
11 in favour 3 against 1 abstention.
There is no “narrative sufficient to convey to those not present at the meeting” an understanding of what the Council has considered or debated regarding that 21.1% Precept rise. We know only that four had the good sense to demur.
So we are confronted only by an intended increase in the Precept of 21.1%.
Returning to the Town Clerk’s explanation for the 21.1% rise in the Precept, I recalled some reference to the Council obtaining grant funding towards the long-awaited Neighbourhood Plan.
So I popped off a quick email to the Town Clerk, as follows:
Just a quickie – hardly worthy of a full-blown FOIA request – a simple ‘YES – true’ or ‘NO – false’ will suffice.
I am told that the Council has obtained grant funding of circa £15K to help defray the costs of producing a Neighbourhood Plan.
Is such the case?
Mr KING’s (unsigned) indignant response was very prompt; it came in only 9 minutes later:
Regards[the URL-link leads to a grant application portal]
I thanked the Town Clerk, wishing him a good weekend.
Meanwhile, I had been trawling through the Council’s Minutes and came across reference (on p.95 of the Agenda bundle for the meeting of the Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee on 6th December 2022) to a Receipt of £10,000 labelled ‘Neighbourhood Plan’. (https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.whitbytowncouncil.gov.uk/uploads/221206-fpgp-agenda.pdf?v=1669909872) and an Expenditure of £15,000 similarly labelled.
This suggested to me that grant funding of £10K had been obtained, towards a total cost of £15K for the Neighbourhood Plan. I can find nothing to explain this – no “narrative sufficient to convey to those not present at the meeting” what these figures really represent, nor even whether or not all 19 Councillors ever really accorded them due consideration.
Yet, disturbingly, the Minutes for the 7th March 2023 meeting confirm that a contract for £16,400 was awarded to “Consultant A” for the Neighbourhood Plan (with a surcharge of £50 per hour for ‘additionals’).
To set these figures in context, I quote from my article “Democracy? Parish the Thought!” (pub. 08/05/23):
“However, according to the WTC Annual Accounts for 2021/22, when Staffing Costs of £202,207 are deducted from that year’s Precept income (£223,435), only £21,228 remains to provide £1.61 worth of services to each of the c.13,200 residents of Whitby, where ratepayers each forked out £45.53 to meet the Precept. This adverse ratio of overheads to income would be unsustainable in any area of the commercial world.”
That 2021/22 £45.53 (for a Band ‘D’ property) rose to £47.31 for 2022/23 .
For the financial year 2023/24, that £47.31 is about to rise by 21.1% to £57.29 – and we know not why!
Mr KING has asserted that this 21.1% rise is to compensate for inflation (presently 7.8%, according to the ONS); for “engagement with the unitary council” and; to finance the development of a Neighbourhood Plan.
Some would argue that WTC is ill-equipped for such a purpose and therefore consider there to be no choice but to commission a third-party consultancy firm. Others might add that Whitby Community Network – with its “Vision for Whitby” consultation – is making valuable strides towards developing a Neighbourhood Plan at no cost to the public purse.
With 7,950 dwellings in the Parish, that Precept hike of c.£10 per household raises an extra c.£80K – over five times the projected £15K cost of the Neighbourhood Plan – with or without the ‘missing’ grant funding.
As one WTC Councillor enquired of me:
“Is this extra tenner per household financing the Clerk’s pay-rise – to an exhorbitant £70K a year?”
I take this to be a reference to an entry in the ‘draft’ Budget signifying a 13.89% increase in staff salaries:
This strikes me as quite outrageous.
Certainly, it stands in sharp contrast to the recommendation of the Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC) – of which Mr KING is a Director (and for whom he is also delegate on the Board of Small Authorities’ Audit Appointments Ltd.) – as set out below:
And certainly, there are reasons enough to query the state of WTC’s finances and governance.
I am hoping that a detailed examination of the accounts and governance (scheduled for approval at the Full Council AGAR meeting next Tuesday 20th June 2023) will shed some light in those dark corners where the Minutes offer little in the way of a “narrative sufficient to convey to those not present at the meeting” a clear explanation of where our money is to be disbursed.
The Annual Governance & Accountability Return (AGAR), including the Annual Governance Statement (AGS), is scheduled to be signed off by Full Council at next Tuesday’s meeting of Full Council.
The approval process is set out in the Joint Panel on Accountability & Governance (JPAG) Practitioners’ Guide, thus:
1.43. The authority needs to approve the Annual Governance Statement by resolution of members of the authority meeting as a whole, in advance of the authority approving the accounting statements in Section 2 of the Annual Governance and Accountability Return. The Chair of the meeting and the Clerk need to sign and date the annual governance statement and a minute reference entered.
I hope that all members are ‘on the ball’.
WHITBY TOWN CLERK MICHAEL KING
Is that so?