Time to draw a line under DDU shambles

So we’ve finally got the result of the investigation into why Congleton Town Council wasted £20,000 of taxpayers’ money on a fancy display board that never materialised.

And make no mistake: whatever else went wrong, the town council gets top marks for transparency.

Unlike Cheshire East Council, which hid the report into the Lyme Green fiasco — and continues to hide it — the town council handed a printout of the report to a Chronicle reporter and then emailed us a copy so we could reproduce more of it.

They might be slow at owning up to the mistakes but they were open when it came to releasing the report, unflattering as it is. Bravo.

And further in the council’s defence — town councillors are unpaid. They’re basically enthusiastic volunteers who give up their time for nothing for the good of the town. It’s admirable.

Sadly on this occasion, it all went a bit wrong. As the report showed, the town council failed to follow its own guidelines when ordering the digital display unit (DDU) from SimNet and, to be honest, drifted along in a bit of a dream.

We’ve had some waffly explanations over the affair but Southampton-based BDO has produced a succinct summary, which is that whether or not the DDU cost more or less than £25,000 — accounts vary — the council failed to get three quotes, as required by its financial guidelines.

It also failed to get an expert on board, despite not knowing much about DDUs, and ignored its own credit search on DDU supplier SimNet, giving it four times the amount of credit that on-line company credit checks recommended.

Again, in the council’s defence, things are changing in local government.

The Government is making cuts and expects Cheshire East Council to make cuts itself. Cheshire East in turn is hiving off services as fast as it can, including dumping — sorry, “devolving” — work onto town councils. Congleton Town Council today has a lot more work than Congleton Town Council of even a few years ago.

It’s perhaps a combination of this extra work and the volunteer status of councillors that allowed the DDU to drift along — drift being a good word, as the £20,0000 disappeared with the same effectiveness as the Mary Celeste.

There are lessons to be learned for all our local councils, who are getting more responsibility across the board.

You must have a good set of rules and regulations and you must adhere to them.

You have to make sure that everything is minuted, and that somebody reports back to the council on any more costly projects on a regular basis.  As town councils do more, it stands to reason they’re going to have to take on bigger projects.
It also seems to us that the DDU affair fires a warning at local councils where one party has dominant control.

We’ve said before that party politics should play no part in local government, and this episode may well prove this.

The DDU was simply not discussed enough, and one could argue that this was because one party was in power and knew that its decisions would go through on the nod anyway.

Vagueness abounded in the DDU story: the initial meeting with SimNet was not minuted; a resolution was passed to buy the unit at “£15,000+”, with no company name and no guidance for the town clerk; the price went up from “£15,000+” to £60,000 (including VAT and monthly costs) but was not referred back to the council; the specs were drawn up but no name appears on them, and this spec was not reviewed or adopted for some time, and a credit check was carried out but ignored.

Again: we only know all this because the council has released the document, so good for it.

Now a line should be drawn under this. It is annoying, both as a taxpayer and as a local business — for £20,000 up front we could have given the council a full page in the Chronicle once a month for two years if we stuck to rate card, probably four or five years if they’d negotiated nicely — but we have to move on.

Hopefully, no matter what their public utterances — that nothing illegal was done, even though nothing illegal was ever suggested — those involved feel a bit daft and a little ashamed.

We all make mistakes. The Chronicle has made some that still leave us embarrassed a decade on. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Hopefully Congleton Town Council will be allowed to move on, and all other local councils will be grateful for the lesson learned.

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