Due Diligence

Short story first published in the autumn edition of ACES ‘The Terrier’ magazine.

‘Due Diligence’ is the seventh short story in the ‘Selwyn’ series.  Please read ‘The Final Vote ‘ ,‘Lost Sheep’, ‘Weapon of Choice’ , ‘The Fee Generation Game‘ , ‘Faster than a man can run’ and ‘Pannus mihi Passionis’ the first six stories in the ‘Selwyn’ series before this.

The Selwyn series is written specifically for the Terrier.  Each story is a self-contained episode in the life of an early-retired Council Property Manager from 2003 to the present day and beyond as he continues to maintain occasional contact with his former colleagues from the fictional Herdwick District Council.  The characters often present controversial and outspoken opinions on local and central government policy and practice. Please accept that those stories, all names, characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and are views expressed by the author, not those of ACES. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. Also, occasional historical background details may have been changed to fit the chronology. Enjoyment of these stories will be enhanced if they are read in order from the beginning.  The first ones are available by clicking on these links – ‘The Final Vote’,  ‘Lost Sheep’ , ‘Weapon of Choice’ , ‘The Fee Generation Game’, ‘Faster than a man can run’ and ‘Pannus mihi Passsionis’.

***

Winter 2017/18 : Due Diligence

E-mail sent at 11:43 on 15 November 2017.

Re: Property Group Christmas Lunch

Hi Selwyn,

As you know I’ve been back at Herdwick District Council, but in my new part-time job as Client Property Manager, for the past 18 months since Jim retired. 

I know that you’re still interested in events within your old Property Group.  There are big changes planned for us from April 2018. I’ll fill you in on some of the details when I see you.   

Hopefully that will be at the Christmas Lunch on Friday 15 December 2017 at 12.00 in the Wandering Tup in Shepdale Town Centre. This is your formal invitation. A menu is attached. Please let me know if you can come and which three courses you want me to pre-order for you.   The cost is £20 payable on the day.  There are still quite a few old colleagues here that remember you. They are looking forward to seeing you. Jim has confirmed that he will attend.

Best wishes, Farah

***

The 15th of December came around quickly. The Christmas decorations lit up Sheepfold Lane, the main shopping street, on what was a very dark day. They were a credit to the Town Centre Manager’s efforts and gave the street a festive atmosphere despite the clouds that threatened further rain showers. The town centre was full of shoppers but Selwyn still managed to find a space in the yard at the back of the pub as most of the Tup’s customers had walked there from the Council offices opposite. Jim beckoned to him from the bar on the far side of the crowded room and gestured towards the pump marked ‘Rampant Ram’. Selwyn nodded and mouthed ‘a half’ to him as he weaved his way through the throng, greeting old friends and Council colleagues. Along the way Farah grabbed his sleeve.

‘Hello stranger.  You haven’t been to see me for quite a while.’

‘I don’t like to keep disturbing you now that you’re back at work.  You’re a busy woman. But, I am intrigued.  What are the big changes that you mentioned in your e-mail?’

‘You’ve probably heard that the Property and Design Groups are being outsourced.  Well things have moved on. The Council ran a two-stage tender. The first stage was to invite interest from outside firms and assess them on ability to do the job and on quality. The second stage was to invite those that made it onto the ‘quality’ shortlist to bid on price to see what each would charge for providing the combined Service. The second stage bids have been evaluated and the Council’s Cabinet will formally approve the winner at next week’s meeting.  We expect to sign contracts in January.’

‘What will happen to the current staff?’

‘They will all transfer to the winning contractor under European TUPE rules so their existing pay and conditions will be protected, at least initially.’

‘When will the new contract start?’

‘From next April.’

‘Will you be transferring as part of the deal?’

‘Not likely. When Jim retired the Council merged the Design and Property Services Groups. Then they split the two manager’s jobs into a Client role and a Contractor role ready for outsourcing the work. They put an Architect in charge of the contractor side to deliver the combined service and advertised for a Client Property Manager to monitor the contract. I applied and was appointed to that job.   When the outsourcing is complete the Council wants me to stay with them as that internal Client Manager running the contract from their side; checking that the contractor delivers what’s required under that contract.  That suits me better; I can still help Sadiq with our IT business for two days as my Council job is only 3 days per week and the kids are now in school and nursery respectively so I have more free time when I’m at home. It’s working well.

‘Who’s the winning contractor?’

‘I can’t tell you that just yet. It’s confidential, although I expect that you will soon know as the Council still leaks like a sieve. I shouldn’t be surprised if someone else whispers it to you before this meal ends today. Just as long as it can’t be attributed to me.’

***

Selwyn felt good. The meal had been excellent.  He’d stuck to orange juice after that first half of Rampant so as not to risk his driving licence and he needed to stay alert for the opportunity that would likely occur at some point during the proceedings.  He’d enjoyed catching up with Farah and his other ex-colleagues. Not surprisingly, the conversation had been dominated by talk of the outsourcing.  All through the meal he had counted the pints that Eric from the Finance Group had been drinking at their parallel gathering on another table. Now, as most people were saying goodbye and drifting back to work, Selwyn saw his chance.

Eric stepped back from the urinal with his hands occupied, misjudged the step down and staggered slightly before catching his balance.

‘I shouldn’t have had that last pint, Selwyn.’

‘You shouldn’t have had the other four either,’ thought Selwyn.

He hoped that Eric would not be adding up any columns of figures at work later that day or there could be a bit of a hole in the Council’s finances.  Not that there would be much work done by anyone in the Council offices that afternoon.

‘Still working then? How’s life in Finance? You must be getting near retirement age now, surely?’

‘Only another year near to go, thank god. Then you won’t see me for dust.’

‘I hear that you were on the evaluation panel for the Property and Design Service bids. It’s all anyone can talk about on our table today. I’m glad that I’m retired and well out of it. ’

‘It’s the beginning of the end.’

‘Sorry, what do you mean by that exactly?’

‘This is just between us, ok?’

He leaned across and whispered in Selwyn’s ear, ‘They are being recommended to award it to …’

‘And have they passed the due diligence scrutiny?’

‘Oh yes.  They are a big – well probably the biggest – firm of Building, Civil Engineering and Public Sector Service Contractors certainly in this country and they are pretty big internationally too. They have a huge amount of Central Government and Local Government contracts in place as well as big contracts abroad. They already run prison services and hospitals and academies in the UK.   The Government awarded them another couple more contracts in November which shows the confidence that Westminster has in them. But our Director of Finance covered his back. He thought that the checking was a bit above the skills of us mere mortals in the Finance Department so he paid a small fortune in fees to a big City accountancy firm to advise the Council.  But these Contractors are so big so how could anyone doubt that they’re financially sound?’

Selwyn thought that he detected a hint of sarcasm in that last remark but let it go.

‘But why is a huge firm like that interested in little Herdwick District Council?’

‘We asked that question. Lots of reasons. The official answers – they like to spread their interests across a lot of different sized contracts to minimise the risk for them and so protect their clients. The wide range of skills available across their numerous contracts means that they can move staff around where they are needed most and that benefits all their clients. Also, it helps their public image – they can claim that they are putting something back into the community if they assist small clients as well as large ones. They say that anything that adds to their size produces economies of scale which means that they can pretty much beat any other competitor on price so why shouldn’t small clients benefit from that as well as big clients.  They already have a regional presence so they won’t need a top management layer as we can fit within their model.   There you have them – lots of waffley reasons. And they claim that they can still make their margin whilst providing savings for the Council through some profit-share arrangement. It looks great in a bid statement.  The Councillors swallowed it. Farah spoke against it but they just ignored her. It was the same in your day, wasn’t it? The Councillors always ignore the internal opinion in favour of the outsiders, especially when they’ve paid a fortune for that advice. ‘

‘And the unofficial answer?’

‘They want a toe-hold in this part of the north west.  They’re not really interested in the Property and Design Service on its own – that’s just a start.  If they can show savings on costs for the Council and pump in staff from other offices to meet peak workloads to solve our recruitment crisis then the Councillors will think that they’re wonderful.  The Contractor thinks that will open the door to more contracts for other services. Then they can take over the running of the whole Council and then the word will spread out into other neighbouring Councils. In a few years’ time they expect to be running the whole County. ’

***

Selwyn and Jim had followed Farah across to her room in the Council offices behind the Town Hall for a coffee. They closed the door behind them.

‘I have my doubts about this whole thing but nobody within the Council wants to listen to me. It could all end in tears.  Luckily there’s a need for an internal Client Manager role, as I told you, so I’m fairly safe.  However I still feel a bit guilty about the others who will transfer across.  The risk to their pensions alone if they’re transferred into the Contractor’s scheme must be a big concern for them.’

‘I know how you feel Farah.  I’d be just as concerned for them if I was still working.  We can only hope for the best. Thank god that we’re out of it, eh Jim?’

‘Amen to that.’

***

It was another cold, wet January day and Selwyn was lingering over his breakfast trying to put off the time when he’d have to go outside to the car.

‘Come on, let’s get going.  I got some vouchers for Christmas and I want to spend them in the sales.   You can drop me off at the Sheepfold Shopping Centre and go for a wander round on your own to see what changes have happened to your old property empire.  Better still – you should ring Jim and ask him to join you.  He’s often at a loose end when he can’t play golf in the winter.  I know how much you enjoy chatting to him about the old days. I’ll never understand how you can get so much pleasure from looking at those old buildings. Speaking of old buildings, it’s almost the anniversary of the day when I met you walking up to Reservoir Cottage with your capacious briefcase.  We can celebrate that with lunch in the Tup when you’ve finished your tour of inspection.’

Selwyn smiled at his wife and reached for the remote to switch off the BBC news.

‘I just like to see what changes are going on.  I have so many memories tied up in those properties.’

As he pointed the remote a familiar sounding name caught his attention:

‘… the massive Construction and Public Service Contractor is on the brink of financial collapse. There are concerns for the fate of its employees and those reliant upon the pension fund which has a significant shortfall in its balances.  It is likely that the Receivers will be called in if urgent meetings with the Minister do not produce a solution later today.  Questions are already being asked by the Opposition about what will happen to their existing public service contracts and why the Government awarded further large contracts to them as late as last November if their finances were as precarious then as is being reported now …’

Selwyn pressed the off button and walked through into the hallway to collect his coat and car keys. Perhaps he’d stick his head around Farah’s office door, just for a couple of minutes whilst he was in Shepdale Town Centre, and get her take on the news.  He could congratulate her on her astute assessment of the risk.  It would be something to talk to Jim about.

‘Hopefully the Council still has time to pull back from the brink, he thought, ‘whilst Jim and I, on the other hand, still have all the time in the world to dissect it over a pint of Rampant Ram in the Wandering Tup.’

 

©David Lewis Pogson 2019

Further stories in the ‘Selwyn’ series will be ‘A Man of Property’ and ‘The Golden Fleece’, to appear on here following quarterly publication in the Terrier.