Misled, misinformed, lied to, or just plain incompetence? – take your pick

On the agenda at last night’s Place Scrutiny Committee was the Review of Shoebury Common Flood Defence Improvements.

This report recommended that we note the options review document – Shoebury Common Flood Defence Review, December 2014. This document was prepared for Southend-on-Sea Borough Council by Mott MacDonald.

I voted with the Conservative administration through 2013, and I explained my reasons at the time (see Shoebury Flood Defences – doing the affordable for an example). Basically, in times of constrained finances I had to vote for the cheapest option.

To be honest, the costs quoted did vary at the time, but on every occasion these showed that the Council’s preferred option as the cheapest. Given that we had to improve the sea defences in the east of borough (and so ‘no wall’ was not a viable option) I felt I had no alternative. My view was supported by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors, as well as the Conservatives.

To quote from my post (written on 17th October 2013): The Council preferred scheme is costed at £4.5 million; this compares to £9.3 million for the BERA scheme and £8 million for the FoSC option.

I was of the opinion that we had to have a review, there clearly was a lot of ill-feeling towards the council’s scheme by those living in Shoeburyness. However, I expected to speak (I called in the report) in defence of the previous administrations recommendations. I could not see how the facts could have changed.

I then began to read the Mott MacDonald report. The executive summary included this: While the proposed preferred scheme within the PAR would have provided a functional and robust flood defence with a reasonable economic return it is clearly unacceptable to local resident groups in its current form.

So far, so good. However, I then began to examine the summaries for each option. I confess to not being overly concerned to the details behind each scheme, when money is so tight one has to focus on what each one costs.

This table summarises the seven schemes’ costs.

Option Baseline costs Whole life costs
PAR 5.0 34.4
FoSC 6.4 35.5
MARMUS 3.6 29.3
BERA 3.4 18.1
Glass Walls 5.9
PAR Option 2 4.6 33.7
PAR Option 3 4.4 33.5

Costs are in £millions
PAR – Project Appraisal Report – Black & Veatch Project
FoSC- Friends of Shoebury Common
MARMUS – also sourced by FoSC
BERA – Burges Road Residents Association

The above table shows that the Council’s preferred option (PAR) is not the cheapest – far from it. It is the second-most expensive. This raises some very serious concerns, concerns that I aired last night.

The first is about which set of figures to believe. Whilst the schemes deliver different solutions, when a decision is being taken based on cost then these numbers have to be right. Cost was a significant feature of the discussions we had in 2013, and on every occasion we were assured that the Council’s preferred option delivered the best value for money.

I am either very stupid when it comes to basic arithmetic, or I have been misled, misinformed, or plain lied to. And not just me. This applies to all fifty-one councillors who sat in the chamber last year.

This is no trivial affair. We could have spent over £34million based on duff information; £34million of tax-payers money.

I could be wrong. There could be a very simple explanation. However, nothing I heard last night was in the slightest bit satisfactory.

We all know that the last, Conservative, administration liked to fritter money on useless vanity projects, and this looks another to add to an already long list.

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4 Responses to Misled, misinformed, lied to, or just plain incompetence? – take your pick

  1. Pingback: Council decision making | Outside the marginals

  2. Scary, but I suspect this sort of situation is not uncommon.

    When I started my accountancy studies one of the lecturers took us through a balance sheet and convinced us that every single figure was subjective – even the “cash at bank” figure!

    Local councillors are in an invidious position – they are charged with doing their best for the residents of their borough, but have to make very complex decisions that are essentially subjective. Yet options are boiled down to a single financial figure such as £34.4M. Note: not £34M or £35M but £34.4M – the precision is incredible! And totally misleading – the cost is probably somewhere between £30M and £40M!

    The consultants who prepare these reports no doubt do their best (for an equally doubtless very nice fee), but ask them to review their report in a year’s time – with a slightly different economic situation and possibly slightly different terms of reference (which might be no more than a marginally changed political situation following flooding) and they will come up with different figures.

    But these sorts of projects are much more than a “cost figure”. Leaving aside that each project has a different range of costs and a different rage of project risks (risk of cost over-run, risk of schedule over-run, risk of failure to deliver benefits), each project will deliver different sets of benefits and dis-benefits. (At its most simplistic making a flood-wall a metre higher may give greater flood security but at significantly greater cost (with associated risks of over-run etc.) and may create an eye-sore that effects tourism and residents’ quality of environment.)

    To reduce all these factors to a single cost figure and then – in tight financial times – to expect councillors to feel bound to “choose the cheapest” as the “best value” is surely unreasonable and a serious mistake. In particular it ignores the fact that residents don’t have a single considered view of the balance of benefits – and if they did it is probably different to the view given in the consultant’s terms of reference!

    Where I live this is an issue in respect of:
    provision of A&E services – where “consultants” have deemed that centralisation of A&E services for a large rural county is better than the local provision that many of us would prefer.
    – structure planning for new housing by our new “unitary” council, where market town residents do not want their green belt built on to provide dormitory housing for people who will commute out of the county to work, and village residents are split about the attractiveness of new housing which may give additional population to support the local shop, primary school and doctor’s surgery – at the cost of the loss of some fields on the outskirts and more traffic on local roads.

    How do we get a better understanding of these issues and work through them to an acceptable solution – particularly when it is partially funded by central government and we are in effect appropriating some of the nation’s money?

  3. Pingback: Were we lied to over the Shoebury sea defences? | A Mad Man With A Blog

  4. Pingback: Thirty-four million reasons for the destruction of my confidence | Julian's musings

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