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Frustrated Residents Left in the Dark Over the Information Battle of Normandy

Published on: 23 Sep, 2020
Updated on: 24 Sep, 2020

By Hugh Coakley and Martin Giles

Some Normandy residents say several mandatory documents have failed to appear on their parish council website, breaching the official code on transparency and openness.

One missing record is the crucial Annual Governance and Accountability Return (AGAR) for 2019/20, listing details of the council’s finances and governance.

Normandy Village Hall

Government rules required this to be published on their website by August 31, delayed by Covid from the usual annual publication date of July 1, with the final, audited accounts released on November 30.

Without access to the AGAR, residents are not able to “question the appointed auditor about the [council’s] accounting” or exercise their “right to make an objection” to the external auditor, rights stated in the council’s own recent website notification.

The notification was finally published on or about September 12, although the mandated 30 working-day public inspection was stated as starting on August 26, over two weeks earlier.

Another contentious document is the internal financial audit for 2019/20 by outside auditor Maxwell & Co of Farnham. A well-placed source believes this has highlighted “a lot of failures within the year” which need attention by the councillors. This report, too, should have been published with the annual return.

Cllr Alan Cheesman, chair of Normandy Parish Council, said: “We are a transparent parish council as is required by law.”

Council chair Alan Cheesman did not answer questions about the audit but told The Dragon: “All our councillors are unpaid volunteers and give up their spare time to work very hard for the good of the village. And I believe our community appreciates that.

“We do hope you will not persist in encouraging a few disgruntled, unnamed residents to undermine this goal with unsubstantiated information, and instead focus on all the positive things our team do for their community.”

The parish council told The Dragon by email that they comply fully with the statutory Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities. But a two-month investigation shows more than the two apparent breaches already cited.

Excerpt from the Transparency code listing documents for publication on the council’s website.

The full list includes:

    • Not publishing on their website the AGAR for 2019/20 by August 31 as required by the external auditor’s guidance;
    • Late website publication of the notification for the right for the public to view and object to the AGAR on or about September 12. The notification states the documents were available to the public from “Monday August 26, 2020”, 13 working days before the notification was actually published;
    • Not publishing the Internal Audit Report 2018/19 until September 9, 2020 (cls 20 to 22), although its release was supposed to be simultaneous with that of the AGAR. Before, The Dragon had failed to find the report on the website. The parish clerk, Leslie Clarke, an 86-year-old former Army officer, was asked five times for a link but Mr Clarke insisted it had been published;
    • Not publishing explanatory notes or rectifying plans for weaknesses found in the Internal Audits for 2017/18 and 2018/19 (cl 21). The auditor for both years had refused to agree the “Asset and investment registers were complete and accurate and properly maintained”;
    • Excerpt from the Transparency code saying that publications must be on the council’s website.

      Not publishing the details of public land and building assets (cls 24 to 27), the Register of Assets. Mr Clarke told The Dragon by email that the Register of Assets is formally reviewed annually by the full council, adding: “The document can of course be viewed in the clerk’s office by arrangement.”

    • Not publishing “the draft minutes from all formal meetings (i.e. full council or board, committee and sub-committee meetings) not later than one month after the meeting” (cls 28 to 30). Mr Clarke told The Dragon (see Borough Councillor Claims His Parish Council is ‘Totally Misinformed’ Over Planning): “It is the council’s policy not to place minutes of meetings on the website until they have been agreed and signed.” Seven meetings on the website are more than a month old, one from more than eight months ago, where minutes have not been published;
    • Not publishing the complete “end of year accounts” (cls 16 and 17) for 2018/19 in the form of the AGAR. The published form has missing pages, illegible figures and does not include a bank reconciliation as required; and
    • Not publishing “all items of expenditure above £100” (cls 13 to 15) for 2018/19

The website of Puttenham Parish Council, where Mr Clarke is also the clerk, states: “Please note, minutes are not available to view until they have been approved.

The Transparency code states such information should be freely available on the website to give “local people the tools and information they need to hold local public bodies to account”.

Cllr David Bilbe.

In July, Normandy borough councillor, David Bilbe (Conservative Independent) told The Dragon he had been “accused of harassment and for having a personal crusade” when he had requested minutes of a PC planning meeting.

Cllr Bilbe said a resident, now a Normandy parish councillor, made a complaint against him to the borough council, later dismissed. Whether the accusation and the complaint are connected is unclear. GBC has not yet responded to enquiries.

Mr Clarke has asked The Dragon about our sources, adding: “Our residents are able to pose queries like these directly to me at any time and it is unusual to go via the media in this way.”

Two told The Dragon they are apprehensive about challenging Mr Clarke because of previous experience and they believe others have similar worries.

Mr Clarke was in the news when he performed a 30-mile walk, 10 times round a three-mile circuit in Normandy, over the August Bank Holiday to raise funds for “Combat Stress”, the Armed Services’ Mental Health charity, and “Step by Step” a teenage homelessness charity.

The Dragon has provided the Surrey and Sussex Association of Local Councils (SSALC) with details of our enquiries.

Residents also have the right to make a complaint, with anonymity if requested, about the accounts or the process to the government-appointed auditor, PKF Littlejohn at sba@pkf-littlejohn.com. Contact details can be found in the Notice of Public rights on the Normandy website.

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test One Response to Frustrated Residents Left in the Dark Over the Information Battle of Normandy

  1. Normandy Parish Council Reply

    September 25, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    The article relating to Normandy Parish Council includes extracts from the chairman’s letter to the editor dated 10 September 2020. However, those extracts are taken out of context in the headline article [sic].

    To ensure that readers are fully aware of the council’s position the complete chairman’s letter has been placed on the Parish Council’s website for their information.

    The parish council therefore invites readers to read the complete chairman’s letter, so that the true facts are known and not taken out of context by just reading the headline article.

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