Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Dysfunctional Broads Authority Continues Persecution of Whistleblowers

The dysfunctional and unaccountable Broads Authority plumbed new depths last week, as they took the extraordinary step of removing me from the Navigation Committee - for telling the truth about members being misled.

Disappointing as this might be from a personal perspective, however, the more important issue is the Broads Authority’s continued determination to cover up wrong-doing and incompetence, their contempt for free speech, and the censuring of whistle blowers.

For 16 months, the Broads Authority has expended what must be considerable sums of public money on investigating my blog posts - involving not one but two barristers. But, instead of looking into my “very serious” claims,  all they’ve investigated is whether I breached their internal code of conduct by making them.

It’s obvious that they know what I said was true; why else would they have spent so long avoiding the questions and finding time-consuming ways of shooting the messenger instead? If John Packman had really believed I was wrong, he would have revelled in proving it. Instead, he refused to meet me and argued semantics like whether a mooring is a mooring when a boat isn’t tied to it.

Having spent money on a barrister, you would expect the BA to take their advice. But the barrister’s recommendation was for an informal resolution, rather than disproportionate sanctions. There should be talks, and reconciliation. And that obviously didn’t fit with the Authority’s overall objective, so they refused to meet me and altered the complaints procedure to remove informal resolution as an option.

This meant taking the complaint to a full hearing, with a Panel made up of the same people who brought the complaint in the first place.  Can there be a more obvious breach of the rules of natural justice - which require there to be no appearance of bias, and for nobody to be a judge in their own case?

Continuing this theme of transparency, they refused to hold the hearing in public, refused to allow a recording to be made and refused to allow me to cross examine the officers who misled the members. And then took a week to issue a decision, which should have been made on the same day.

That decision ignored the advice of the independent investigator, and instead proposed a raft of sanctions personally requested by the Chief Executive, who should not even have been involved in the process.

I was given 7 days to retract my statements, apologise to all concerned, remove the blog articles and promise never to do it again. If I failed to comply, they would remove me from the Navigation Committee - in breach of the Broads Acts, the Localism Act and their own constitution.

I did not comply, because I will not be bullied into retracting the truth and supporting a cover up.  And so, last Friday, just two days after their deadline expired, the Chairman of the Authority asked members to vote to remove me.

My offence was a failure to show “leadership” - which according to the Broads Authority means promoting confidence in itself and its officers at all times. This is pretty much the opposite of the definition of leadership in the Nolan Principles of public life, which requires members to challenge poor behaviour.

In an unelected quango like the BA, considerable trust is placed in members by stakeholders - who rely on them to challenge and scrutinise the advice and recommendations of the officers, to protect the public interest. I have presented clear evidence of wrong doing - anyone reading the articles can tell that members were misled - but, unfortunately, the majority of members seem more interested in protecting the reputation of the Authority than they are in investigating poor behaviour. Because they are trained to believe that’s what they must do.

This Authority is utterly out of control. They would sooner remove a member than admit that they got something wrong, and in any event it is simply not in their gift to remove an appointed member of the navigation committee. But they did it anyway - because there is nobody to stop them.

This leaves toll payers with one less voice on the navigation committee for the next 6 months, until the next round of appointments. And it sends a clear message to stakeholders, local authorities and government that the BA can - and will - do anything it likes.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Empire Building?

In 2013, the anthropologist David Graeber wrote a thought provoking essay which explored why in allegedly efficient capitalist systems, many people find themselves in jobs they admit are useless. This has recently been expanded into a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory in which the author speculates that one reason for the existence of such jobs is empire building.

All this clever stuff got the bean rattling and made me wonder about a certain organisation that I've often thought could largely disappear and nobody would notice. So after rooting around on the web, I've gathered these figures to compare the BA with the nine real national parks of England:

2011 Census
No. of
Peak District
Lake District
North York Moors
Broads Authority
Yorkshire Dales
South Downs
New Forest

From these figures the BA stands out as the smallest by area with the second fewest inhabitants yet has the fourth highest number of staff. Clearly the unique navigation responsibilities of the BA need to be accounted for, so time to consult the BA organogram.

The Construction, Maintenance and Environment Department has 41 staff, among whom it is only possible to find analogous roles in the true parks for the six environment officers. Up in the warm, the four people involved in toll collection also have unique jobs. Though the nine quay assistants also sound rather special, surely they are comparable to NP staff in information centres? So, with the special navigation responsibility accounting for around 40 jobs, that still means the BA employs more people than Dartmoor which is three times the size with five times the population. Food for thought....

So has an empire been built around managing the Broads? Well, lets look critically at another statutory function of the BA, conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads. A good starting point is to recall that the Broads Authority, especially Mark II (the current incarnation) was born out of an environmental crisis narrative. After 30 years that story has lapsed as various measures, some of which have had nothing to do with the BA (such as the EU Water Framework Directive) have successfully ameliorated many (but not all) of the problems originally identified. With currently at least 12% of the BA's executive area—and presumably the highest value bits from a biodiversity perspective—managed by the likes of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Natural England, National Trust, Ted Ellis Trust and Butterfly Conservation, surely the BA's environmental role should be tailing off? There may well be some truth in James Wentworth Day's anti-National Park rhetoric of the 1950s that all such an organisation would contribute to the fauna of Broadland was a new race of rats—bureaucrats.

In terms of the final statutory function, promoting the enjoyment of the Broads by the public, if a massive withdrawal from footpath maintenance and an ebbing interest in public staithes are replaceable by managing old gravel pits and a former wasteland on the fringes of Norwich (aka Whitlingham and Cary's Meadow) and the planned new cafe & education centre at Acle, then I better start believing Donald Trump. Let us also not forget that BA planning officers have only half the national benchmark number of cases to deal with and of course, compared to all normal planning authorities, there are no housing targets or big development schemes to occupy them. Makes you muse (on good days) that maybe they aren't being aggressive and meddlesome, just making work for themselves.

Why does all this matter? Setting aside the not insignificant questions around the use of both tax and toll payers monies to fund the empire and whether they are getting enough bang for their bucks, there are more fundamental issues here about governance or to put it more prosaically, whose interests is the beast serving?

Instead of answering my own question, I would like to draw attention to the opportunity all of us should have soon to express our views on such matters in the recently announced government review of the nation's National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The terms of reference include among others, examining how to improve their individual and collective governance and how well they support communities.

PS: JP have you ever considered an anonymous staff survey?

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Protecting the interests of navigation?

For many years now we have run the guard ships for the Three Rivers Race at Acle Bridge, logging boats through as they transit the bridge, ensuring that the race rules are observed and providing a rescue boat and radio link back to Race Control in case of emergency. Someone always falls in! In previous years we spoke to Heather and her husband who ran the shop and owned the moorings and they kindly staked off a section of mooring so that we could moor in a convenient spot to monitor the paddling zone upstream of the bridge. This year there are new owners – the Broads Authority. I wrote to Dr Packman, the Chief Executive, and asked if we could make a similar arrangement this year. He passed it to one of his staff to reply and I got a response to the effect that as they were now BA 24hr moorings it would be impossible to reserve a section of mooring as they had to be equally available to all boats, and that, in any case, a stay of over 24hrs would infringe the bye-laws (the race has a 24hr time limit).
While I accept that the letter of the bye-laws does not allow flexibility, I am aware of many occasions when sections of BA 24hr moorings have been reserved for particular craft – pleasure wherries, mud wherries, craft at BA events, etc. and I would in no way want to lobby against any such flexibility. The BA acquired powers under the 2005 Broads Act to apply Special Directions, which, if they wanted to keep their noses clean under the bye-laws, they could use in this or other cases. It is a shame that the BA are not prepared to facilitate the running of one of the premier sailing events on the Broads which attracts competitors from wide afield and spectators in their hundreds.
While I am beefing, let me mention the recent decision by the Authority’s staff to reduce the amount of dredging in 2018/19. The Authority owns plant and equipment capable of dredging well in excess of 100,000m3 a year if used efficiently. Indeed in recent years they have invested heavily at toll payers’ expense in new excavators and mud wherries. For many recent years they have set themselves the comfortable target of 50,000m3 of dredging a year. This year they have decided to reduce that to 40,000m3. What is even more amazing is that, despite requirements under the BA Act of 2005 and the legal agreement with the RYA and BMF, they did not consult the Navigation Committee before making the decision.  The Broads navigation suffers from a serious amount of siltation. Around 25,000m3 a year arrives in the navigation and there is a backlog of around 1 million to 1.5 million m3 of silt that needs to be moved to meet the Authority’s specified requirements. How can a reduction in effort be justified? It can’t be a lack of money (can it?) - the tolls have risen by more than inflation for all of living memory!
The BA has a third statutory duty, over and above the two imposed on the National Parks that it so wants to belong to. That is to protect the interests of navigation. Currently, in that respect, it is failing in its duty.