‘Moor’ public money down the drain?

Are IDBs accountable?  Who is in charge of them & who are they ultimately answerable to? 

It was hoped that today’s blog post would be a nature notes one, but sadly there seems to be a greater urgency for continuing to scrutinise the business  of local Public Bodies, again!

The Forum ‘observes’ three Internal Drainage Boards whose area abuts our geographical area of interest, notably Thorne & Hatfield Moors SSSI.  Ideally we would also observe the others but it is a matter of capacity as well as time.  The Boards currently observed are Black Drain Drainage Board, Danvm Drainage Commissioners and Doncaster East Internal Drainage Board.

P1030700

Close examination shows debris and death

Tomorrow we hope to show good practice in terms of wildlife friendly maintenance of drains.

It is interesting that members of the public have only relatively recently been allowed to observe main Board meetings whilst their sub-committees operate a ‘closed door’ policy, with the Environment Committee or Water Level Management (previously Maintenance) or Finance Committee are no-go areas to public scrutiny.  One might be forgiven for wondering why, particularly after the findings of the Danvm Drainage Commissioners Governance Audit published in October 2014?  Recommendations were made and published, some are deemed complete, some underway and some outstanding.  There appears to be no review date, so how long is a piece of string?  There is it seems a Task & Finish Group looking at the Governance Audit Report, perhaps they will provide an update at the forthcoming Board Meeting on Friday 6 February?  The Board Papers published on the website, indicate the day, date and time but omit the venue.  The Clerk to DDC can be contacted on 01302 337798.  Previous DDC meetings have been held in Epsom House at Adwick, Shire Group of IDBs offices.

It also seems that it is not just the Forum’s Executive have serious concerns about open and transparent conduct of IDBs as Public Bodies.  Examine the Meeting Papers for the forthcoming Board Meeting of the Danvm Drainage Commissioners of Friday 6 February 2015, note particularly the contents of Section 10.2 Complaints/Queries Complaint 1. 

Note then the minutes of a Doncaster East IDB meeting at which a DMBC senior officer from their legal department gave a presentation about conduct in Public Office (Nolan Principles post Caldicot & Wentlooge Audit in the Public Interest).  Openness transparency and good governance minute 2014.4

Openness transparency and good governance

2014.4.The Chair invited Roger Harvey to speak regarding declaration of interest and wider governance issues. RH confirmed DMBC had identified fundamental issues in connection with IDBs that required addressing. He had taken the key role for Board Members from the Environment Agency “Only do that which the Board is empowered to do by law” noting if anything was outside the terms of reference it was ultra vires, that is beyond Board power.  He advised the Board had a duty to safeguard public money, to operate economically, efficiently and effectively.  Individual members can be liable if they act in  an unreasonable way.  RH referred to the Nolan Principles of Public Life noting Members should lead by example.  He suggested if decisions are to be made within the law they must: 1. Regard all relevant considerations, 2. Use correct processes and procedure or subject the Board to challenge by Judicial Review, 3. Act prudently, 4. Use specific powers within the law, 5. Be proportionate and balanced, legitimate, objective and use the least intrusive means of addressing the aim sought, 6. Provide the best use of public funds.  He noted that Declarations of Interest were felt to be a delicate balance for land owning members however the test of whether a Member’s interest is greater than the rest of the people served by the Board is useful to have in mind.  He advised everything the Board does should be open to public scrutiny and the public should be able to attend all meetings held by the Board.  He advised the Board did not have to follow the advice of its professionals but must have very good reason s why it has not followed the advice of Officers.       

RH advised capital expenditure requires an audit trail and any capital expenditure must be for the benefit of Board District not a landowner. He advised DMBC was looking at how effective governance of IDBs is and warned a DMBC Scrutiny Committee could question Board members on decisions made.

KK confirmed he would like the public to attend meetings and ask questions to show transparency. It was agreed questions could be asked at the start of the meeting provided the question had been brought to the attention of the Clerk a week before the meeting to ensure answers could be provided. JB suggested documenting rules of public engagement, KK suggested the Clerk would circulate appropriate wording to Members but specific questions must be asked by the Public, not general comments and questions could not be repeated.

Perhaps an observer could be forgiven for interpreting that minute as a gentle advice, but it seems that neither the Board members or ‘professional advisers’ have taken any notice of it?  The meeting was in June 2014 and no sign of a door even ajar in terms of public observation of the Finance or Environment Committee? Similarly one might think that any question might receive an answer if submitted to the Clerk a week prior to a Board meeting?  Incidentally, Board meetings are not openly advertised and it is often difficult to establish detail, but a bit of Yorkshire tenacity has been known to yield results.

The Forum Executive have been trying to establish a paper trail to evidence due dilegence for appropriate procedural authority to spend by DEIDB and the their management service provision.  To assist this we applied to attend as observers the Finance Committee meeting of 12 January 2015 and guess what?  That’s right, we were declined however the Clerk informed us that “The Minutes of the Finance Committee meeting will be available to view in Board meeting papers”.  Now, forgive any scepticism but as no date was mentioned watch this space …. however the Executive do not accept any liability for anyone who holds their breath!  Other obscure replies include the Administrative Officer referring to Finance Committee minutes being available in Board meeting papers.

Doncaster East Meeting Papers 27 June 2014

6.2.2 Minutes of the Finance Committee Meeting

The Board have already approved the minutes of the last Finance Committee meeting held on 24 January 2014. The draft minutes of the meeting held on the 6 June 2014 are attached.

Guess what?  That’s right, they were not appended.   Despite a courteous request to the Clerk to provide them by return, the regular practice of treating as an FoI request gains the management service provision 20 more working days.

There’s one thing for certain, the two Boards used here to illustrate examples of practice cannot be accused of application of consistency?  On the one hand there’s lip service to opening up meetings and then there’s excuses regularly presented over the period post amalgamation in 2012.  IDBs are made up of Local Authority appointees and elected members (generally large agricultural landowners or their agents).

The three Boards the Forum ‘observe’ are all supported by the Shire Group of IDBs management service provision which in turn is funded through the public purse.

Hopefully we will have an update for readers tomorrow ….

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