Short story published in ACES ‘The Terrier’ magazine in the Autumn 2018 edition.
‘The Fee-Generation Game’ is the fourth short story in the ‘Selwyn’ series. Please read ‘The Final Vote’ ,‘Lost Sheep’ and ‘Weapon of Choice’, the first three 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’ and ‘Weapon of Choice’
The Fee-Generation Game (January 2009)
The valley was silent apart from the crunch of fresh snow under her boots. January 2009 had started with heavy falls on the fells. As she rounded the bend in the track she saw Selwyn for the first time and burst out laughing. Selwyn held the 5-barred gate open for her. Two long-horned cattle that were grazing on the fresh bales of hay dumped at the side of the track ignored the noise and carried on chewing. The slopes of the Shepdale Horseshoe rose up around them on three sides. Its white blanket was broken only where the weak winter mid-morning sun, hanging just above the horizon to the south of them, created shadows behind the criss-cross of limestone walls that inscribed the fell sides.
‘Good morning. Why are you laughing at me?’
‘Well, you’re certainly dressed for these conditions – boots, thick socks, gloves, waterproof coat and woolly hat – but the leather briefcase – it’s just so out-of-place in this setting.’
‘I couldn’t find my rucksack when I set out this morning.’
‘Did you bring those bales of hay up in it?’
‘No, the farmer probably brought those up in his Land Rover.’
‘Can I ask, what are you doing up here … with a briefcase?’
‘You probably saw Reservoir Cottage when you were further up the valley? I’ve got a business appointment there. I couldn’t drive up the track in the snow so I parked my car at the farm and I’m walking the rest of the way.’
‘Yes, I saw some people up there earlier. It’s a nice day for a walk. Enjoy the rest of it.’
She passed through the gate, closed it behind her and then paused.
‘I know you, don’t I? Or at least I think that I recognise you. Hold on a minute please.’
She pulled a mobile phone out of her coat pocket and began prodding and swiping at it.
‘You’re Selwyn, widower, retired Chartered Surveyor.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘I came up for a farm-themed family wedding on Saturday, stopped in one of the guest houses and decided to extend my stay for a few days after all the others had gone. Bernard, the farmer, threw in a free trial of his ‘Lost Sheep Dating Agency’ website and I remember your photo.’
Selwyn began to colour up but there was no way that he could deny it.
‘I know Bernard. I bought some land off him for a Council Flood Relief Scheme many years ago, before he diversified into the romance business. We became good friends and stayed in touch. He kind of … forced me … to register on the website … in a way… sort of.’
‘Tell you what, now that I know that you’ve been vetted by Bernard, so you’re unlikely to be mad, bad or downright dangerous, do please call in for a coffee when you return to collect your car … if you want to, that is.’
Selwyn had taken Jim’s phone call with mixed feelings. They’d met up in the Wandering Tup for a regular pint after Selwyn’s retirement and Jim had kept him up-to-date with the changes at Herdwick District Council over the last few years since then. Usually he was glad to hear from Jim but this time Jim wanted a favour that was unwelcome.
‘Jim, I detest Asset Valuations. They are absolutely mind-numbing and pointless, especially in a small district council. I only used to do them because, as a good manager, it freed up the other Valuers to get on with the important work without the distraction. I guess that Farah continued in the same vein when she replaced me. I’m not sure that I’d want to come back to do any work, not even rent reviews or land sales but at least they serve a useful purpose in generating rent or capital for the Council. Asset Valuations are just a waste of time.’
‘Well, you know that Farah has gone on maternity leave and confirmed that she won’t be coming back. There’s this freeze on recruitment arising from the austerity cuts so the Chief Exec has asked me to stand in for her as temporary Property Manager. What do I know about property? I’m the Senior Committee Clerk. You know what it is, that stupid theory that any manager can manage any group of staff regardless of the professional discipline. Madness I know but I’m stuck with it for now. What are Asset Valuations exactly?’
‘They are part of the Government’s attempt to make Council’s run their services like a commercial business. You know how if you have a large company you have to put the value of all your property assets in the balance sheet. Well, they think that Local Government should do the same. There’s a point to it for a private company – the owners need to know what the company is worth and the value of the property assets forms part of that. But, I ask you, when did you ever hear of a Council floating itself on the stock exchange, or fighting a hostile take-over or selling itself off as a profitable business? I mean, I can understand the Council needing to know what its investment properties are worth just in case it wants to borrow against them or sell something off from time-to time, although it could value those on an individual basis as and when that happens, but the value of Town Halls, Public Conveniences, Sports Fields, Cemeteries etc – it’s just a waste of time. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were all valued to Market Value, which even the public understands. But we have pointless bases for valuation such as ‘Market Value in Existing Use’ and ‘Depreciated Replacement Cost’. Do you actually know what they are? Even Valuers struggle with them because they’re so artificial. Now I’m told that they’re talking about something called ‘Fair Value’ whatever that is. And don’t get me started on this new ‘Componentization’ thing. Even if I could be bothered to explain it to you, you wouldn’t want to understand it.’
‘I take it that you’re not a fan then?’
‘No I’m not. We had enough real work to do without them. All that happens after we’ve valued everything each year is that the Director of Finance puts a few lines in the annual accounts and then the valuation reports sit on a shelf … untouched … forever.’
‘So why doesn’t somebody do something to prevent the waste.’
‘Nobody can. It’s a chain without a weak link. The Director of Finance wants them in the Accounts just so that he can avoid a black mark from the District Auditor. The District Auditor wants them so that he can report to the Civil Servants that the job is being done to CIPFA rules. The Civil Servants want them so they can tell the Government that there are rules in place. The Government wants them so that it can tell the Voters that they have imposed commercial and financial accountancy disciplines into public services to keep costs down and the Voters have no idea that this work actually increases those costs for no real purpose. The only people who can see the truth are Valuers because we know just what complete and utter nonsense it all is. However, the majority of Valuers are in private firms and they just love that work for the fat fees that it generates so they’re not going to rock the boat. So the only people who can speak out are Local Authority Valuers and no-one listens to them.
And there’s no consistency. Herdwick Council insists on valuing every asset over £10,000. Metros and other big Councils don’t bother starting with anything less than £100,000. Why can’t they all have the same limits or exclusions? They can’t even agree on a small, insignificant detail like if the Valuation Date is 31st March or 1st of April in any year – not that that matters either. It’s just a complete waste of my time and your money to do them, especially in a small District Council with limited staff and resources. I had this view when I left and I doubt that anything has changed since then.’
‘Unfortunately I’m stuck on the first link of that chain. The Accountants rule the roost. So I was hoping that you might do me a favour. I know what you mean about it being a fee generation game. I sounded out a private firm of Valuers before I bothered you. They wanted £150 per hour for a one-off valuation of a property or something in the region of £70 per hour if I gave them a sizeable number of valuations in a package and then they’d likely give the work to their office cat. I can pay you because I can spend what’s already in this year’s Property Group budget from the likely saving on Farah’s salary for a one-off ‘task and finish’ contract. But depending upon what hours we might agree upon that’s likely to be more in the region of the local government all-in staff rate for a professional of £30 per hour plus expenses. How do you feel about it really … old mate?’
There was a long pause.
‘God help me!’ Selwyn breathed out loudly. ‘I’ll need one of the others to bring me up-to-date with any Asset Valuation rule changes since I retired. Also I’ll need adding to the Council’s Professional Indemnity Insurance policy. However, I’m not paying out hundreds of pounds just to re-join the RICS for a few months so you will have to ask one of the other qualified surveyors if he or she will certify my completed valuations. I know that strictly this shouldn’t happen but you’re in a hole and those are my conditions. What’s the deadline – the end of February as usual?’
Selwyn removed his boots and knocked them against the doorpost to remove the snow before leaving them in the porch. He hung up his coat and headed for one of the armchairs that she was pointing to near the fireplace. He noticed that she had applied a bit of make-up since their earlier meeting on the fell side. A faint hint of perfume hung in the air. He stretched out his legs and felt the warmth from the log fire penetrating his thick socks. There was the sound of a kettle boiling through the open kitchen door. Two mugs, spoons, milk, sugar, and a plate of biscuits were already resting on a small table between the armchairs. ‘She has been busy. She must have been confident that I would come,’ thought Selwyn. ‘Wasn’t that the way with women … they always knew what a man would do even before the man did.’
‘Without being too nosy, can I ask what sort of business you had up at Reservoir Cottage? I thought that you were retired’
‘I am, but I’m making a temporary come-back. A sort of favour for a mate at the Council. He has staffing problems and asked me to help out. Every year the Council needs an experienced Valuer to value its property assets. So I’m going around inspecting, reporting on and valuing those that require updating this year. Reservoir Cottage is part of the Council’s Outdoor Adventure Service. The cottage used to be occupied by people employed to maintain the reservoir and the upper reaches of the River Shep. When it fell out of use, a long time ago in the past, the Council bought it. Now clubs and schools and sports groups and the like can book it as a base for hiking, orienteering, abseiling, mountain biking etc. You may have noticed the new shower block and store extension added since last year. I have to re-value Reservoir Cottage to account for those improvements.’
‘But – I’m really curious now – what was in the briefcase?’
‘Well … invited in, chair by the fire, coffee and biscuits. If she laughs at my feeble jokes then things couldn’t look more promising,’ thought Selwyn. ‘Maybe I’ll have to tell Jim that there really is some point to Asset Valuations after all.’
‘Equipment that I need for any survey – floor plans of the improvements, notepad, pens, tape measure, small binoculars, torch … sandwich box, thermos flask, dry clothes … extending aluminium ladder to access the roof-space … microwave oven, hairdryer, blender, board game.’
‘Cuddly toy. Don’t forget the cuddly toy.’
‘Exactly. That’s why I couldn’t get the three bales of hay into it to save Bernard driving them up in his Land Rover.’
©David Lewis Pogson 2018
Further stories in the ‘Selwyn’ series will appear following publication in the Terrier.