Miniature railway set to get bigger

SSME rail at work

There will be a new train line coming to Surrey – for enthusiasts, engineers and eager families looking for a day out.

The Surrey Society of Model Engineers has been given planning permission for a revised inner track complete with a new bridge across a man made pond.

The site, in green belt on Fetcham Springs, Mill Lane, just outside Leatherhead, has long been established as a model railway.

It was considered acceptable for development because it was being used for outdoor recreation and the pond would add to the biodiversity of the area.

Councillor Chris Hunt said: “I think this is an excellent proposal and the policy grounds for approving it are very clear.

“My hope will be that the pond is maintained.

“As you might know we’ve had some issues with the main pond in Ashtead in terms of some of the species were too aggressively growing and led to a loss of biodiversity in the end until it was cleaned out.

“Perhaps if there were to be an extra informative about the maintenance of the pond would be just as important?

“Planting is a condition already – but obviously the engineers might not be biodiversity experts and maybe they could approach the council for some hints on long-term care for the pond. – or Surrey Wildlife Trust?”

Leatherhead Miniature Railway is run as a non-profit, members’ club, and “unites those with interests in model and miniature engineering, particularly but not exclusively trains” planning documents presented to Mole Valley District Council’s Wednesday June 5 planning committee read.

The club has about 11 open days this year usually falling on Sundays and Bank Holidays, including a Santa weekend in December.

One of the open days is in association with the fire station open day. The fire station is adjacent to the site, and train rides take visitors to and from the fire station open day.

Tickets are sold for rides on the miniature trains at £2 per ride.

Failing children costs Council taxpayers half-million

Graph of rise in Surrey County Council fines

Fines paid out by Surrey County Council for repeatedly failing children and young people topped half a million pounds in the past year – more than doubling its previous worst level. The council paid £540,611.59 in the last year to families who raised complaints through the children and social care watchdog. 

It is an increase of £281,880,  or 109 per cent, on 2023’s figure – when the council said it was “working hard to improve services”. Part of the “notable increase” is due to a change in guidance from the Ombudsman, which encourages local authorities to provide financial remedies earlier, as well as on an ongoing basis for delays to education, health and care (EHC) plans.

The council said it has cut its backlog of delayed care plans and is approaching the national norm.

Opposition members said ombudsman complaints and fines were just the tip of the iceberg and the trauma caused to families has long-lasting effects.

Dr Julia Katherine, Surrey County Council’s interim director of education and lifelong learning said: “We are working hard to reduce spend on fines, which we know is higher than it should be.” She added: “However, we recognise that delays in issuing EHC plans have also contributed to missed provision and subsequent fines, and we apologise for any distress caused to the children and families affected. 

“As timeliness improves, provision will be put in place within normal service delivery rather than retrospectively through remedies and we naturally expect fines to fall in line with this. We have seen a 64 per cent increase in EHC needs assessment requests across Surrey since 2020, at a time of a national shortage of educational psychologists, and this has naturally had an impact.”

Dr Katherine said the council had prioritised how it was addressing timelines and had reduced the number of delayed EHC plan requests from 1,658 in October 2023 to about 100 by the end of May 2024 –  and is on track to eliminate the backlog altogether. 

She said: “This should ultimately result in improved timeliness of assessments, putting Surrey in line with national levels, from June 2024, and in turn an improved experience for families and a reduction in the need for financial remedies. We are resolute in our ambition to continue to improve services and outcomes for children and young people with additional needs and disabilities so that they are happy, healthy, safe and confident about their future.”

According to the council’s own figures, £107,102.50 was paid in “symbolic financial remedies” in recognition of the “distress and anxiety and time and trouble taken in pursuing” complaints,  an increase of £19,656.85 (11 per cent) when compared to the previous 12 months. 

The council paid £255,318 because of problems in its education services, including a single payout of £12,900 which included missed education and delay. There were also two one-off payments of £12,486 and £12,400 for loss of education provision and delay. Children’s social care shortcomings cost £74,441  with  £43,245 to one family to acknowledge financial support errors. The figures were released ahead of the June 5 meeting of its Audit and Governance committee. 

Councillor Catherine Powell, leader of the residents group at Surrey County Council, said  “I’m sad but it doesn’t surprise me. The half a million is devastating for the families,  it’s devastating that its money not being spent on services, but it’s all the other families that are not even able to take it to that point. To go through to the ombudsman, you kind of have to have money behind you and there are an awful lot of people who don’t and they just end up sitting in the system.”

She added: “Once you’ve traumatised a child you don’t untraumatise them, they learn to live with it and that’s where the long-term mental health issue can. “The parents of these children are under extreme strain. If we don’t support the parents in the right way, we are actually creating long term health issues for the parents as well because they are burnt out and unable to cope. I hear it’s a very isolating experience.

“If you have a child not in school regularly there are lots of things you can’t do,  you can’t work and you have to support the child in an intense day-to-day way. It’s very hard.”

Cllr Powell added (the council) has “put money into educational psychologists and the service believes it will get the backlog down but the reality is not just that,  but the support we provide along the way.”

Missed education provision meant the council had to reimburse parents £222,657 in symbolic financial payments to recognise each month missed. These are payments the council should be spending to meet assessed needs irrespective of a complaint being made. 

In the past year, Surrey County Council recorded a total of 1,661 complaints in its children, families and lifelong learning service – down from 1,771 the previous year. 

Only a “very small number of complaints” escalate to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, the council said, with the vast majority successfully resolved and responded to by the local authority.

Cllr Will Forster, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group said: “We have highlighted Surrey County Council’s awful record of protecting vulnerable young people before. All too often the Ombudsman has found the county council wanting. This is an awful way to spend taxpayers’ money, and on lawyers fees fighting these judgements. The cases that come to the ombudsman area only when parents have fought and pushed through the system to get to this point. There will be so many more failures that carers and young people aren’t able to complain about.”

A Surrey council resists green-belt housing

Bagshot planning (image SBC planning portal)

A contentious plan to build dozens of affordable homes in Surrey was rejected by councillors who prioritized protecting greenbelt land over addressing the area’s housing shortage.

Developers had wanted to build up to 135 homes, of which at least half would have been sold at affordable rates, at Grove End between the A30 and A322, in Bagshot.

The outline planning application was rejected by Surrey Heath Borough Council’s planning committee on Thursday May 23.

Early indications suggested there would have been at least 68 affordable homes, including 17 set aside as affordable first homes and 51 social affordable or intermediate rented properties. The developers said they would be willing to increase those numbers but the application itself had to be determined on those figures.

The committee was advised that permitting the plans would be a departure from its developing local plan and undermine the council’s aim of only developing on brownfield sites in the near future – these are abandoned or underused former industrial land.

Councillor Kevin Thompson (Liberal Democrat, Lightwater) said: “Often we talk about this need for affordable housing and we talk about numbers and we talk about statistics, but I think it’s important that we think about what that actually means.

“We have a situation where the people that teach our kids, who look after us in hospital, can’t afford to live in this borough and they have to commute in, because we don’t have the affordable housing we need. We need to look at this very carefully because [this proposal] does provide us with a significant amount of affordable housing.”

The land, between the A322 dual carriageway linking the M3 with Bracknell and Windlesham Golf Club had been considered for redevelopment as the council looked for sites as part of its local plan. It “discontinued” the idea however as the borough could demonstrate it had enough brownfield land to meet its housing targets.

Developers tried to argue the land, next to the A30, was not the idyllic rolling Surrey countryside that people think of as greenbelt because the main road had an “urbanising” affect on the site. Speaking on behalf of the application, the agent added: “The borough unfortunately has a major and sustained issue with failing to meet affordable housing needs as demonstrated.”

Cllr Shaun MacDonald, said: “We need to be extremely careful before we give up any green belt. I do accept the comments that this is not the most unique piece of green belt we have but it does form a barrier to the other areas adjacent and if we start allowing creep we will soon have all of the Green Belt gobbled up between Bagshot and north Windlesham. If this space was on the other side of the A322 I suspect we would be having a very different conservation about the feasibility and viability.”

Access was another issue raised during the meeting with one Bagshot resident, who had lived in the area for 56 years raising safety issues for any young families would could move there. He said: “This particular site to my mind has a very serious problem attached to it with regards to access.”

He said in recent years there there had been a need to build 1,752 affordable homes, and so far it’s delivering just 39 a year. This development, he argued, would provide two years of affordable housing on a single site.

He added that they needed to look at the quality of green belt in the borough as otherwise there would never been any development.

Image: Bagshot planning ( SBC planning portal)

Doubtful Henry VIII would have permitted

Hampton development.

The decades-long planning battle to build almost 100 homes and a hotel opposite Hampton Court Palace will soon be decided with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport set to rule on the matter once and for all.

The government department is calling for new information and evidence over proposals from Network Rail Infrastructure and Alexpo to build 97 homes and an 84-bed hotel, together with shops and new access space around Hampton Court station in East Molesey.

The former Jolly Boatman site lies next to the River Thames and overlooks the palace. Elmbridge Borough Council originally rejected the plans but their decision was later overturned on appeal.

The original application  received more than 1,800 objections and 131 letters of support  and was refused due to “excessive height and bulk” and “harm to numerous heritage assets”.

Hampton Court Rescue Campaign (HCRC) argued it would spoil views across the river of Hampton Court Palace.

It is now in the hands of the Secretary of State because the law states developments within half a mile of the historic home of King Henry must be approved by the senior minister.

A spokesperson for HCRC wrote: “For over 100 years, Hampton Court Palace has benefited from the unique protection of the Act, which has successfully restricted developments over 50 ft in height in the environs of the Palace.

“In the Council’s Development Brief for the site there is a requirement that any scheme must categorically be below 50 feet.”

Permission was granted after the planning inspector  ruled it would fit with the surroundings while the hotel, retail units and riverside restaurant would make life better for visitors. 

Furthermore, the inspector said the plans would support the rest of the town.

People using the station, the inspector added, would have improved access to the bridge.

They said: “Taken together, these features of the design would result in a place that would be accessible and easy to move around.”

On height, the inspector said: “The distinctive treatment of the upper level, together with the depth and width of the podium gardens, would break up the mass of the built form. 

“Whilst they would clearly be seen as part of a larger scheme, I do not think that they would be perceived as a single mass, either in views from the park or in longer views from the north bank of the River Thames.”

They added:”Some parties sought to criticise the design on the basis that it would not be sufficiently eye-catching or innovative.

“I agree that this is not a design that seeks to make an assertive architectural statement. However, in this case I do not regard that as a negative.

“I consider that the design would result in a calm, well-ordered scheme with sufficient presence to hold its own in the street scene.”

The consultation includes an open text box for people’s views and space to attach documents and is available via the department’s website or by searching Hampton Court consultation.

Image: Jolly Boatman development viewed from across River Thames. Credit Alexpo. Henry VIII clipart cactus cowboy

Not loving it in Cobham

MacDonalds meal.

A proposed new McDonald’s is “the last thing Surrey needs”; that’s according to residents living near the proposed site.

The fast-food giant has published plans to takeover the former Loch Fyne restaurant in Portsmouth Road, Cobham, but some people living nearby are not loving it – and want it turned into a community hub instead.

The vacant Locally Listed Building has fallen into a state of disrepair with McDonald’s saying a Cobham branch would “bring it back into active use as a restaurant to ensure its long-term viability.”

While the village of Cobham was recently named one of the most affluent communities in Surrey, residents have said that the Northfield Estate, where the restaurant is proposed, is one the lowest socio-economic area in the county.

Residents said they were “concerned” over the impact a fast food restaurant could have on people’s social, mental and emotional wellbeing – and have started a petition calling for a rethink.

“The area needs a community hub, promoting social, mental and emotional wellbeing for residents, McDonald’s is the direct contrast of that,” the petition read, adding ‘ the Northfield Estate is the lowest socio economic demographic in Cobham, and one of the lowest in Surrey.” The petition pointed to research which highlights a strong link between obesity and deprivation.

Burger giant has said it has received relatively balanced feedback with people welcoming new job opportunities

Other residents concerns include the site’s proximity to schools and the number of students who would be passing it on a daily basis. Many of the 391 signatories fear the restaurant, which would have space for 60 diners and car parking for 33 vehicles, would have on a significant impact on what was already a traffic hotspot.

The Portsmouth Road site is near the roundabout and Sainsbury’s petrol station, shortly before the road leads on to the A3. The petition says: “The Painshill roundabout is already extremely busy, with queues forming regularly to enter or leave Cobham; additionally it can be challenging to enter or leave the petrol station.”

One person wrote: “The last thing Surrey needs is another McDonald’s.” Another added: “I feel a McDonald’s would be detrimental to the village of Cobham.”

Plans for the site, which would be the group’s 15th branch in the county, are still in consultation stage ahead of being submitted to Elmbridge Borough Council for consideration.

McDonald’s has said it would “sensitively restore” the disused site and create “at least 120 new jobs”. The Cobham branch would also “address an identified demand”. A spokesperson for McDonald’s said: “We are encouraged that nearly 500 people have engaged with our consultation so far for a new McDonald’s in Cobham.

“To date, we have received relatively balanced feedback in response to the proposals, with local people welcoming the creation of new job opportunities, the diversified food choice in Cobham and the sensitive restoration of the vacant and under-utilised site.”

Image: harry_nl CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

Banded together to fight the band

Reigate tax bands

A decades-long council tax battle has been won netting residents of a retirement village up to £9,000 each after it was ruled all 113 people there had been in the wrong rate band. Their victory means the former Band E and D homes have now been reclassified and moved down one level to Band D and C – with the rebate backdating back to 1993.

Those who have live at the Oaklands Park retirement village in Redhill, built in 1989, will also be saving about £500 a year going forward at the former B and E homes. Marilyn Rodd, described as a “force of nature”, chairs the Oaklands Park Residents Association, and it was her refusal to give up that ultimately won the day. She said: “We’re just in disbelief really. It was a complete turnaround we didn’t expect it, we didn’t expect it to go back that far, its a huge result for income-limited pensioners, £500 a year in your council tax for couples. It’s disbelief and absolute joy  and everyone is thrilled. There is happiness at Oaklands  Park.”

The Redhill retirement village features 113 one or two-bed flats, bungalows, and houses. They were originally sold as top-of-the-range homes because, at the time, the concept of  a retirement village was unusual. Their prices soon came crashing down as people sold and moved on – before finding their natural market value at significantly less than originally priced.

Four years after they were built the Government introduced Council Tax – where people are charged  based on the value of their property. The Valuation Office Agency, responsible for setting council tax bands, looked at the prices the homes were originally sold, and their high bands have remained.

That ruling, which residents have been fighting against ever since, has meant the retirement community has been paying Band E and D rates for their small flats, bungalows and houses for years when they should not have been.

Mrs Rodd said: “We did it as a collective. It shows the power of banding together. It took a lot of research to understand how it works. It was doggedness and a lot of research and most of all it was getting everybody working together.”

From the start, they had the support of their MP and local council. Mrs Rodd said: “People move down from bigger houses  and are shocked to find out its still band E. Every time someone moves in they query it. But we haven’t taken no as an answer.” She added: “The big difference was – they would compare the houses individually within the estate and say ‘your house is in the same band as your neighbour’.
“We had to get them to look outside the estate.”

She added: “We are very grateful to the VOA and the council that they’ve decided to correct this long standing anomaly or injustice. It’s nobody’s fault as such it’s just the system.”

Councillor Jonathan Essex (Redhill East, Green) told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “This lady took up the challenge, pulled together a comparison of properties to show the homes were out of line. It was submitted and lost, but then it was challenged and she needed to get every single resident on board,  no mean feat. Then we finally heard back.

“This lady was a force of nature, it was her determination and persistence that made it all happen and it was a pleasure to support her. This gives people hope.”

A Reigate and Banstead Borough Council spokesperson said: “While the setting of Council Tax bands, and any associated appeals, are the remit of the Valuation Office Agency of HM Revenue & Customs, we are responsible for collecting Council Tax. We want people to pay the right amount and, where refunds are necessary, we aim to refund taxpayers as quickly as possible.”  

The VOA said it could not comment on individual cases but that it works “extremely hard to ensure that all domestic properties are banded correctly” for Council Tax purposes. They added: “If a taxpayer thinks their band is wrong, they are able to contact us to submit a formal or informal challenge.”

Spelthorne in financial trouble

Leader of Spelthorne Borough Council, Ashford East councillor Joanne Sexton, at the council building in Knowle Green, Staines. Credit: Emily Coady-Stemp

Inspectors have been sent to Spelthorne Borough Council as concern grows over its ability to deal with its extreme debt and borrowing. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC)  has been working with the borough since May 2022 and now the Secretary of State has weighed in over the “authority’s extremely high levels of debt and borrowing”. 

A letter to Spelthorne Borough Council’s chief executive, confirming the department’s decision to appoint Lesley Seary to carry out a formal inspection of the council over its capital risk was published on Wednesday, May 8.

It read: “As of March 31 2023, Spelthorne’s debt was £1.096 billion, which was 87.1 times the council’s core spending power and 52.4 times its total service expenditure.”

The average borough council has a debt to spending ratio of 5.65.

A July review of the borough’s finances also found the council needed “expert independent support” to assist with its “immediate and ongoing financial challenges” and required help to mitigate its risk as well as improve its governance and decision-making culture.

It comes just four months after another Surrey authority, Runnymede Borough Council was served a notice over its finances, and a year after Woking Borough Council declared itself bankrupt.

Concerns over the council’s finances date back to a 2017/18 report from accountants KPMG  – published in November 2022. It highlighted concerns over the council’s investments and set out the auditor’s view that Spelthorne Borough Council had  acted unlawfully in borrowing and then purchasing three properties.

The Secretary of State has given certain directions to Lesley Seary’s inspection. First, she will examine concerns over the council’s governance and scrutiny, with particular attention to its financial arrangements and decision making. She is also looking into the council’s ability to carry out its new housing strategy, as well as the impact its investment portfolio has had on service delivery.

The inspector, who will have right-of-access to all council  premises and documents, will then report her findings to the Secretary of State by August 30. The council has also been told it cannot destroy any documentation or records.

The letter was sent as part of a best value directive from DLUHC. As part of the process the council must publish its response, together with the letters on its website.

The statement from Spelthorne Borough Council read: “Over a year ago, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) asked the professional body for public sector finance, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), to review Spelthorne Borough Council’s investment portfolio and borrowing position. 

“The authority has now received a letter from the department advising that they have appointed an independent inspector to undertake a review of Spelthorne Borough Council to seek assurance that the Council complying with its Best Value Duty.

“The Secretary of State decided to commission this inspection to provide him with direct, independent assurance that the council has ‘arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, with regard to economy, efficiency and effectiveness.’ 

“The government letter outlines concerns around debt relative to size of the Council’s budget and governance whilst acknowledging that Spelthorne Borough Council has engaged constructively with the Department since 2022 and already taken action to mitigate risk.

“DLUHC has appointed Lesley Seary as Lead Inspector, who is independent of government, and has asked her to report her findings to the Secretary of State by 30 August 2024.”

Leader of Spelthorne Borough Council, Councillor Joanne Sexton welcomed the review and would work with the inspector and her team.

She said: “This administration has taken many decisive and positive steps since the May 2023 election including instigating a full external independent review of our commercial property portfolio. Additionally, we have reduced future borrowing requirements by nearly £200m and are pursuing alternative ways to deliver more affordable housing. We will continue to work with DLUHC in an open and transparent way and look forward to receiving the findings of the report.”

“The rental income received from our commercial property portfolio more than covers the financing costs and provides a significant contribution to support council services, additionally there is a reserve to cover possible income variation in future years.”

Spelthorne’s neediest lose out on housing

‘Crisis point’ in local government funding

Relative relief about Epsom and Ewell’s debt?

Leader of Spelthorne Borough Council, Ashford East councillor Joanne Sexton, at the council building in Knowle Green, Staines. Credit: Emily Coady-Stemp

Making a racket for new padel centre

An indoor padel centre

Leatherhead could soon host international competition after Surrey’s first indoor padel centre was approved. Padel is is a racket sport of Mexican origin, typically played in doubles, and is like a mix between Tennis and Squash.

The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) has said it is committed to investing in the growth of padel and wants to build more courts that can be used throughout the year. 

The new facilities, granted planning permission next to Leatherhead Leisure Centre by Mole Valley District Council, are considered critical to sustaining this growth, the LTA said, and would enable more adults and juniors to enjoy, compete and experience the game.

Six new courts will be will be split by cafe area and viewing platform under a large doom next to Leatherhead Leisure Centre. Councillors agreed the benefits sports and recreation would bring to the borough outweighed the harm the 11 metres-tall dome would have on the green belt.

The LTA has also said the courts would be used at both national and international levels. The  dome would be shielded to help it blend in to the surrounding area.

Councillor Roger Adams (Liberal Democrat, Bookham West) said: “I’m all for trees being used as screens and the more we can screen buildings the better and certainly this is a very large building, although it is green,  it will be nice just to take the the solid lines away by more planting.”

Cllr Raj Haque (Liberal Democrat, Fetcham)  said: “This proposal is one of the best ones in terms of sporting facilities that will be provided.”

Cllr Simon Budd added that he was pleased the dome was going to be green as the white one in Dorking was now discoloured by mould.

The courts include parking for 24 cars and will occupy land used as a boating lake as well as storage for waste containers.

To help spread the game, developers said they would run outreach programs with nearby schools “encourage involvement with the facility” as well as set up a club and hold regular padel lessons.

The land council owned and will be be leased  for use as a padel facility and the dome structure will be fully enclosed to prevent significant light spillage. 

Image – example of indoor padel centre

Little solace for Guildford from fraud report

House in Guildford

Weak governance and poor scrutiny at Guildford Borough Council created a ‘quick fix culture’ that allowed potentially millions of pounds to be defrauded from the public purse while vulnerable housing tenants suffered, a new report has found.

The council has apologised unreservedly and pledged to adopt every recommendation – of which there are more than 70 –  after a Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) review found its practices posed a serious risk to residents.

The report, released on Tuesday May 7, covered how the culture at the council created an environment where housing budgets were able to skyrocket and pushed the authority towards bankruptcy.

It covers a general overview of the stages that lead to an arrest, two council staff members being suspended, and five agency workers having their contracts terminated.

In February 2022, the council agreed to invest a total of £24.5m to bring its housing stock up to standard and a three-year contract with a value of £5.4m was agreed for testing and inspection. In less than three years that ballooned to £18.9m spent –  a £13.5m overspend.

There was an increase in complaints concerning repairs and enhancements from tenants, the review found. This happened while the Housing Surveyor Team was vacant and had no permanent surveyors. 

The report read: “This lack of in-house expertise and capacity meant that the council often didn’t inspect and check work and were reliant upon agency staff. There was also incompleteness of data which compounded matters.” It added: “After making initial enquiries, it came to light that there was concern regarding risk to the council and the following matters were raised:

That work may have been ordered when it wasn’t necessary. *That work may have been ordered, invoiced and paid for when it was not completed at all or *Not to a satisfactory standard. *That duplicate invoices may have been submitted and paid for the same work. *That works may have been ordered and undertaken that were not the responsibility of the council.

This triggered a criminal investigation in August 2023 resulting in the suspension of two employees and five agency workers having their contracts terminated.

Whistleblowers first raised the alarm in September 2022 but it was not until 2023 that serious action into how housing budgets of about £5.4m a year had ballooned to more than £17m.

The initial investigation was conducted by Reigate and Banstead Borough Council’s anti-fraud unit before being handed over to the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit of the Police.

The council then ordered a series of reviews, with the results published late on Tuesday, May 7 – although the allegations of potential fraud were outside the review’s scope.

Despite that shortcoming, the review did find there was serious failure to follow due process in the procurement and management of housing maintenance contacts.

The council has now published an in-depth improvement plan, with more than 70 recommendations, to address every finding from the two reports, and, it says, to ensure it provides services that residents and businesses can be proud of.

Leader of the Council, Councillor Julia McShane, said: ‘The people of Guildford deserve better from their council and for that we give a heartfelt apology and a commitment to put right the long-standing issues which we have uncovered. We have invited scrutiny and embrace accountability and will not rest until we have a resilient, well managed council of which we can all be proud.’

Deputy leader, Cllr Tom Hunt, said: ‘We apologise unreservedly to the residents and taxpayers of Guildford. The SOLACE reports identify serious issues around the council’s governance, operations, and controls. This is unacceptable. We are utterly determined to root out every problem and to put matters right. The people of Guildford deserve nothing less.’

Pedro Wrobel, chief executive of Guildford and Waverley Borough Councils, said: “‘I recognise everything that the SOLACE reports identify, and accept all the findings in full. This is not okay, and I came here to deal with it. Over the past two and half months, we have been developing a comprehensive Improvement Plan to address the issues at Guildford Borough Council. It addresses every recommendation from these reports and goes further.

“I am delighted with the appointment of the Independent Assurance Panel. It is critical that we make everything open and transparent. We are here to do the right thing, not the easy thing. I am determined to ensure the council is sustainable, delivers excellent value for money, and provides services that our residents and businesses can be proud of.

“We will not do this alone. I look forward to working with partners and our communities and businesses to make Guildford a brilliant place to live, work and do business.”

A police investigation and an employment investigation carried out by an external law firm are continuing, the council said.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has read through the  documents with this being the first of several stories to be written about the findings.

Further stories will look in greater detail at the steps the council is taking, the impact of the merger with Waverley Borough Council and the views of the community and residents.

Related reports:

Police probe abuse of public funds

Good money goes after bad

Surrey County Council staff strike poll

Staff at Surrey County Council are voting on whether to go on strike after receiving a revised pay offer which union bosses say is not good enough.

Union chiefs representing workers, including teachers and firefighters, have described the ballot as one of the most important in the branch’s history and that it was time to make a stand against low pay.

The ballot papers were sent out to staff on May 7 and run until June 4 – when staff will decide whether to accept the council’s revised offer or support the walk out.

Surrey County Council leader, Councillor Tim Oliver (Conservative) said it was important the authority “lived within its means” and that the offer was final. He said the council remained committed to getting the matter resolved so staff could receive pay increases as soon as possible. 

Surrey Pay comprises pay bands PS1/2 to PS14 and pay bands for senior managers PS15 to Chief Executive. The council’s original offer of between £1,124 to £1,682 for grades PS3-PS9, was overwhelmingly rejected. Unions had been asking for a £3,500 increase across the board.

In March, workers warned the local authority of a potential walkout after a “record number” of people backed strike action – unless there was a significantly improved pay offer. The council came back and is now offering a £1,800 increase to all staff on PS6 and below, unions have said. Those on between PS7 and PS10 are still on the old deals. Sick pay will return to six months full pay and six months half pay, double its current levels.

Lead negotiator Paul Couchman has said this shows the council can be moved. He said: “This is going to be one of the most important votes in our UNISON branch history. The council has already shown that we can move them. We believe we can get a better, fairer, offer if we get a result in this ballot. 

“Last year we were just 40 votes short of reaching the legal minimum of 50 per cent of members voting. This is the year we make a stand.”

Earlier this year a consultative online ballot was held with 53 per cent  of members responding, 87 per cent of whom voted to reject the offer and 91 per cent saying they would support strike action if there wasn’t a significantly improved offer.

The Strike Committee felt the council has not moved far enough and has moved to a full postal legal strike ballot. The two general trade unions representing employees said members were being left behind – both national pay awards as well as most other local councils. 

According to the unions about a thirds of Surrey staff are paid below a ‘minimum standard of income’, based on research provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The revised offer would see the lowest hourly rate of pay would be £12.04, higher than both the Real Living Wage and Statutory National Living Wage.

Unison is asking its members to reject the offer.

It comes as, last February, there was a “catastrophic” Surrey payroll glitch that left workers unable to pay mortgages or afford food for their children “We really do deserve better,” a statement from Unison read.

Tim Oliver, Leader of Surrey County Council: “We have made a revised improved final offer and remain committed to getting the matter resolved so that our staff can receive their pay increase as soon as possible. However it’s imperative that the offer is within our means.

“The council is not immune to the challenges of the current economic landscape, rising costs and inflation pressures, and we must ensure we remain in a position to deliver vital public services and protect our most vulnerable in our communities throughout.”

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