Social media, at least as far as politicians go, has this week been all about Cheshire East Council leader Michael Jones and his Twitter account, but a far larger local authority failing has been largely unremarked.
As we have reported — fairly factually up to now —Congleton Town Council has coughed up getting on for £20,000 of public money when it shouldn’t, and has now (apparently) lost it all. The town council paid out the public money for a digital display unit, which is now not going to materialise.
As several letter writers have noted, the council paid out a hefty deposit (most of the purchase price in fact) after, on the face of it, the flimsiest of checks into where the public money was going.
First of all we’d like to stress that no-one appears to have acted dishonestly. The council might have been rash, and more of that below, but the public money was paid out with honest intent and the company that received the money, Wirral-based firm Simnet, did, as far as we can tell, intend the supply the unit — though we suspect it may have been having cashflow problems and does not appear to have contacted the unit’s actual manufacturer.
We think it’s correct to say that Simnet has previously supplied equipment to Congleton and it does seem to have been a legitimate company with products to sell. The fault is not with Simnet but the council.
The net result is that £20,000 of public money has been lost, which, rounding it all off quite broadly, is about a quid a head for every council taxpayer in Congleton town. At some point, no doubt, this money will have to be recouped from you and me.
While no dishonesty was intended, as far as we can tell, the council seems to have acted in a manner that falls short of the standards expected of a body dealing with public money.
The council’s resident thorn in the side Graham Goodwin and other correspondents have pointed out that correct procedure was not followed: there appears to have been some kind of personal contact rather than official tendering, no other quotes were sought; no checks were carried out into Simnet’s trading position and rather a large sum of public money was paid as deposit.
If this was Cheshire East Council, we’d be calling for heads to roll; in the town council’s favour, its councillors are unpaid volunteers, though of course they have paid expert help from staff.
As it is, we’re not very convinced at all by the council’s response — to review its own regulations, the ones it failed to follow in the first place.
As we report this week, various councillors have commented on the loss, saying the council has been “hoodwinked” and accusing Simnet of fraud but the fact remains that none of this would have happened if the council had followed the rules and checked.
It all rather smacks of trying to look busy making changes when the correct response would be a simple mea culpa.
We mention Cheshire East Council and its paid councillors and the Simnet case has similarities to the mess over Congleton’s Park Pavilion tender, which was awarded on the nod, and without the full, and proper, process. In both cases, the required tendering process does not appear to have been carried out correctly.
The public, which pays for all this, deserves a better explanation than a rather opaque shuffling of the council regulations and the creation of more working groups, neither of which would have stopped the money being paid in the first place. It’s no use just scurrying about looking busy and hoping it all blows over.
Elections are coming and Congleton town councillors could do worse than read a letter we carry this week about Alsager; its writer comments: “This is another reason why tax payers should scrutinise expenditure made on their behalf.
“Money is hard to earn and should not be dispensed recklessly or without challenge.”