Damning report on Acorn Plus

WHAT HAS been described as a ‘bizarre budgeting approach’ and ‘unclear’ trail of responsibility led to massive overspends on Horsham District Council’s Acorn Plus waste collection project.

The council’s Acorn Plus Working Group has compiled a damning report which is now due to go before HDC’s scrutiny and overview committee on Monday March 5.

This comes after numerous complaints to the County Times from residents, including having to move bins to a set location for collection and damaged or destroyed bins, cars and property.

A full council meeting in September 2010 heard that in six months the council tax payers had spent £50,000 on replacement wheely bins, although the number damaged by the Acorn Plus scheme was said to be much lower.

Approved by the council in 2009, the scheme using side-loading lorries is one of the more costly in the area at £55 per household.

The first budget for Acorn Plus in 2009-10 was based on ‘model cost structure’ as there was ‘no similar operation in the UK at the time’, the report revealed.

The actual costs were £500,000 over budget.

“This model proved to be deficient in terms of actual costs incurred in manpower, training and operational costs - in particular fuel and tyres,” the report said.

A revised budget was made for 2010-11 and this was the base budget since that time.

That year there was an overspend of £790,000.

“Members expressed serious concern at the lack of credible financial justification for this bizarre budgeting approach,” the report said.

The estimated overspend for 2011-12 was £279,000, due to extra costs for repairs and maintenance, tyres and fuel, although actual operating costs since 2010-11 were reducing year on year.

The report shows an ‘error setting the budget’ for tyres and a ‘technical problem’ with the standard tyres fitted to refuse vehicles, leading to the specification being changed.

Fuel costs have increased by more than 19 per cent during the period.

The responsibility trail relating to the role of the cabinet member for operational services and the council’s management was ‘unclear’, the report says.

The Acorn Plus scheme was championed by then council leader Robert Nye (Con, Itchingfield, Slinfold and Warnham) who resigned suddenly last December, citing difficulties with his business as his reason for standing down.

At the time of the rollout of Acorn Plus, the cabinet member for operational services was Roger Arthur (Con, Chanctonbury), who last week was chosen by the Tory group on the council to be the new deputy leader of HDC.

The report said that working group members were told the cabinet member was not involved in the budget preparation process so they said he ‘could not be held directly responsible for the financial outcomes of the scheme’.

Councillors were also concerned about a lack of communication between the cabinet member and directors or managers and the ‘absence of a clear protocol which addresses these responsibilities for communication in relation to the council’s services and budgets’.

Members appreciated there was a readiness to accept the project due to future financial savings and reduction in residual waste but said the ‘business case together with the budget for 2010-11 were flawed because the budgeting was wildly unrealistic’.

“In light of this experience the APWG was minded to ensure the executive (cabinet) members take direct ownership of all future projects and programmes in their individual service areas,” the report said, pointing out members felt this was what government intended when launching the cabinet system.

It sets out a revised scheme of member role profiles and responsibilities so that cabinet members’ remits were clearly identified and they monitored ongoing budgets in their service areas.

Links between cabinet members and directors when delivering services and their budgets are also recognised in the changes.

The scheme is recommended to go before full council for approval.

The working group said the scheme proved to be ‘popular and efficient’ and residents had ‘responded enthusiastically’ to recycling.

The side-loading lorries can mechanically collect the full range of household, green and recyclable waste in a more economical and sustainable way and with a reduced carbon footprint.

A statement claiming residents were ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with the Acorn Plus refuse and recycling scheme was released by Horsham District Council as the County Times went to press yesterday - turn to page 14.