Shirley's ultimate letter to the Ombudsman : 25th August

Letter from S Burnham to Ombudsman : 25th August 2009

Ms P Coopey
Senior Investigator
Local Government Ombudsman
The Oaks No 2
Westwood Way
Westwood Business Park

25 August 2009

Dear Ms Coopey

Your Ref: 09 001 216 B4/tc

Thank you very much for your letter of 18th August and for the conscientious and courteous manner in which you have investigated and responded.  The purpose of this reply is to make the comments which you invited, supported by documentation, and I trust these are not excessive and will be the subject of your further consideration.

I attach the following new documentation:-

Coates/Brannan Correspondence
[Coates Presentation 27 April 2009 : sent in a separate email today]
MLA Desk Report re Coates Consultancy
Coates Complaint to DCMS
MLA Panel Report re: Coates complaint to DCMS
Correspondence between Burnham and Council : requests for meeting
Burnham letter to the MLA Board
Paul Lander Letter (MLA)
Burnham complaint to DCMS re MLA
Cllr Foley email to Burnham re: ERS Report
[FOI Request from Taxpayers' Alliance to Swindon Borough Council with Borough
Solicitor's acknowledgement: sent in a further separate email today]

I should be most grateful if you could kindly confirm that these attachments have all arrived safely.

I note that you have stated within your point 2 that, as my library in Swindon's Old Town "is to remain open, albeit with reduced staffing," you do not believe the evidence would support a conclusion that I "have been caused an injustice as a result of any maladministration" in the issues about which I have complained.  By means of this letter, I respectfully ask whether the Ombudsman can properly judge an outcome (yet to be realized) without inquiring how it came about.

Under your point 3 you explain that "Officers have been working on a library strategy for some time (it is referred to in the February budget report - Appendix II of your dossier)"  This quote contains an error, as Appendix II of my dossier should not be described as the February budget report.  It is an unpublished document called Value for Money Savings 2009/10 which only came into the public domain when I took it to a cabinet meeting on 11th March 2009.  I maintain that the actions of the Council with regard to 4 libraries, including my own, are based upon recommendations in that document; that cabinet's actions in not revealing, nor consulting upon, the document at any stage and cabinet's dismay when the document came to public notice suggest the need for a full and proper explanation [see (i) below].

Further to your point 6, I continue to assert that a more detailed response from the Council to my complaint would reduce my own and others' concerns about the way the Council has dealt with the proposals for our library service.  Although, as you say, this would not alter the way decisions were made in the past, the Ombudsman's intervention would encourage the council properly to review its actions and improve its future conduct with regard to the proposed retention of a library in Old Town and the structure of its library service.  It is my strongly held belief that, in the absence of any investigation, the Council may well not feel it incumbent upon them to conduct their affairs to a standard or with the openness that I and others are entitled to expect.

It is on this particular of my complaint that I respectfully request the Ombudsman to reconsider and I have set out below some further clarification.

(i)    Value for Money Report 2009/10 (in dossier Appendix II)

The decisions of cabinet and Council with regard to 4 libraries, including my own, still correspond to recommendations in the confidential document Value for Money Savings Report 2009/10 (VFM Report) in which 9 branch libraries were listed for cuts.

The Ombudsman will note that there were serious consequences to this report being mentioned by me in a statement to cabinet in March.  These are evident in the correspondence between Mr B Brannan, Director of Housing & Leisure SBC and Mr Tim Coates (attached).

I maintain that the actions taken by the Council -- once the VFM Report was described by them as "leaked" -- indicate that the report had been created in order to be the secret or confidential basis for closures or cuts to service in branch libraries in Swindon, including Old Town Library.  My introduction of it into the public domain was used as a one justification for terminating all contact with Mr Coates and, hence, all discussion of the budgetary issues raised in his consultancy report to the Council.  It seems not to be a coincidence that another report by the Museums Libraries & Archives Council (MLA) [see (iv) below] surfaced at the same time.

I maintain that I have suffered an injustice : in that this series of actions, which lacked all transparency, continue to result in decisions being made in an ad hoc fashion, to my and others' detriment.  In addition, because there has never been clarification as to whether the document was in the public domain or not  --  due to conflicting statements from councillors and officers  --  my own probity has been called into question by the Council with regard to references to the VFM Report being "leaked".   On 27 July 2009 I wrote a letter to all cabinet members (that is in the Ombudsman's possession), in which I took responsibility for the so-called "leak", explaining that the document was passed to me in good faith and that both I and Mr Coates had assumed it was already in the public domain.  I have not received the courtesy of a reply.

I consider that the actions of the Council with regard to this document indicate maladministration and that I continue to suffer the injustices, detailed above, arising from these actions.  I therefore believe it is important that the Council be asked by the Ombudsman to explain and clarify all its actions with regard to this report.

(ii)   Coates Report to Swindon Council (in dossier)

Swindon Council was, by 20th February, in receipt of a consultancy report by Mr Coates, written to a brief supplied to him by officers, which I and other residents maintain was and continues to be crucial to resolving the budgetary issues that would allow the Council to continue the service currently provided by Old Town Library unchanged or, indeed, improved.  The reason why highlighting excessive overhead charges is an important thing to do is that it raises issues of costs that need to be identified and probably reduced.   Council overhead costs cannot be dismissed as being irrelevant; the figures should be analysed, explained and appropriate action take.  Otherwise not only councillors, but I and other residents are continuing to be misled and suffer an injustice when the service we receive is reduced.

(iii)  Coates Presentation 27th April 2009 [sent separately today]

Residents of Old Town hired the venue for their own public meeting (221.40) on 27th April during the course of the Council's 'extended consultation' to which you have referred, at which Mr Coates made a presentation.  The meeting in Old Town's Arts Centre was attended by senior council officers and an MLA officer, whilst all ward councillors took a view not to attend.  After Mr Coates's presentation the public voted unanimously to request a meeting between officers and councillors, to consider Mr Coates's report.  All requests for meetings have been denied.

I attach my most recent correspondence with the Deputy Leader, requesting such a meeting.  I feel it is appropriate that the Ombudsman ask the Council to clarify why councillors have consistently refused to agree to a meeting which would demonstrate their willingness to engage at some level with residents/stakeholders about the future of their library, something which I and others might be entitled to expect, as we contribute to the funding of this statutory service.

(iv)   Confidential Collaboration between the MLA & Swindon Council (MLA Desk Report attached)

A confidential report on Mr Coates's submission  --  produced anonymously and without reference to its author -- was written by the MLA for the Council.  The issues around this action have never been explained by either the MLA or Swindon Council.  This led to all discussion of the report's recommendations being stifled, an outcome that I believe could have been desired by the Council.  It seems wholly appropriate that the Council be asked by the Ombudsman to explain and clarify this matter and its link to the matters mentioned in (i) above.

(v)   Coates Complaint to DCMS v. MLA and MLA's Panel Report (attached)

Some of the actions of the MLA in (iv) above were the subject of a complaint to DCMS against the MLA by Mr Coates. Mr Coates's complaint was upheld (see MLA's Panel Report).

(a)  Insofar as these actions by MLA in collaboration with the Council affected residents of Old Town, I submit for consideration my own letter to the MLA Board of 20th July (attached).

(b)  The response from Mr P Lander of the MLA (copy attached) prompted my complaint to DCMS against the MLA (also attached).  You will see that Mr Landers wrote to me of behalf of MLA's Chair refusing to circulate my letter to the Board.

It seems appropriate that the Council be asked by the Ombudsman to clarify its collaboration with the MLA which resulted in the suppression of all discussion of crucial budgetary issues.

(vi)   ERS Report

I have attached an email from Councillor Foley stating that cabinet had received the draft ERS Report by 8th July, in very good time for its meeting on 22nd.  As you say, in your Point 6, the report included a recommendation for future service consultations.   The decision made by cabinet on 22nd July ignored this recommendation and imposed its decisions upon residents of Old Town willy nilly.  To consult residents of Old Town after the event, as you seem to suggest might be acceptable, will carry with it an injustice to all those affected.

(vii)  FOI Request : Taxpayers' Alliance to Swindon Council [sent separately today]

Some light might be shone on the matters set out above, when the Council responds to a Freedom of Information Act request made by Taxpayers' Alliance to the Council on 20th July, although I understand from the Borough Solicitor's recent acknowledgement of the request (copied to me) that some material may be subject to exemptions.

I understand that you might still decide that all these actions by the Council are indicative of good administration, as the benchmark for judging standards may be a low one.  Nevertheless, I am very grateful to you for looking at these comments and for the Ombudsman's much appreciated role in scrutinising my complaint.

Kind regards.

Yours sincerely

Shirley Burnham