District Councillors’ reports to Deeping St James Parish Council – July 2020

At each monthly meeting of Deeping St James Parish Council, the 3 District Councillors and 1 District Councillor who represent the village are invited to deliver a written or verbal report.

This month, I have asked for copies of the written reports and I publish those which I receive below.

Disclaimer: The reports below are not written by me, I am merely publishing them for the benefit of those who wish to know what’s happening at SKDC and in the Deepings. I cannot take responsibility for any errors within or offence which may be caused. However, if any factual inaccuracies or other errors are brought to my attention I will do my best to correct them.

Councillor Phil Dilks (Ind)
Report to Deeping St James Parish Council – July 2020

Chaotic Council:

Thursday, 16 July – One of the most shambolic and farcical meetings ever of South Kesteven District Council when sadly:

  • The Council’s Constitution was politicised by the ruling group imposing a party political whip on its members to steamroller through 40 pages of amendments to the Constitution.
  • The Council failed to even adopt minutes of the previous meeting because no-one could advise which of two versions published with the Agenda were recommended for approval.
  • A resigning chairman of a scrutiny committee was controversially replaced by a vote in which only one candidate was allowed – the nominee of the Leader of the ruling group (despite the Constitution stating at paragraph 6.5.5 that in these circumstances an election should be held).

Another staffing review:

Another ‘Corporate Structural Review’ is now underway following the previous Corporate Structural Review launched while Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) was Council Leader in 2017 which led to replacement of [almost] the entire Senior Management team:  Hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money has been paid out in redundancies and ‘golden goodbyes’, with some long standing senior staff told they’d be leaving by the end of the week and given a lump-sum in exchange for their signature on a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

I regret that the Council is in a position where another staffing review is apparently necessary. The level of this latest review of the senior staffing structure has not yet been made public, but I hope it does not lead to yet another lengthy period of massive uncertainty and stress for our current officers.

Cost of Covid-19

The pandemic is estimated to cost SKDC some £3 million – it is hope there will be further financial assistance to local authorities to reduce the final cost.

A revised Budget for the current year is due to be considered and adopted at the next meeting of the Council in September.

Grants to Local Businesses

SKDC has distributed almost £30 million of Government grants to assist local businesses survive the pandemic. Following a request by a local resident, I’ve been trying to establish how many Deepings business have been assisted but I’m told those figures are not yet known.

Planning update:

We are still trying to ‘catch up’ with the backlog of planning applications. I have attended four site visit days since the last parish council meeting – this week’s typically involved most of the day and  round trip of almost 90 miles looking at application sites in Grantham, Belton House Garden Centre, Toll Bar Filling Station (on the A1 north of Grantham), Horbling, Bourne and Carlby with the meeting to determine those application to be held virtually next Wednesday.

This month I also attended two Planning Committee meetings held virtually – each lasting the best part of a day, probably due to their virtual nature.

No Deepings applications determined, but I was pleased to be able to support the application for construction of a public art gallery at Grimsthorpe Castle to house a now private collection of national significance which will hopefully boost tourism and the local economy.

No dates announced yet for any of the controversial applications from DSJ.

Other Overview and Scrutiny meetings:
This month I have attended meetings of the Environment OSC and the Finance, Economic and Corporate Services OSC

This month I have attended meetings of the Environment OSC and the Finance, Economic and Corporate.

Cllr Phil Dilks,
District and Parish Councillor
30 July 2020

SKDC Finance Ctte pre Covid

Update on the Deepings Leisure Centre – An Independent Update (July 2020)

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been contacted by various would-be users of the leisure centre asking “What’s happening with the Leisure Centre”. Consequently, I’ve written this blog-post to bring you up-to-date with progress (or lack of it) with the proposed new Deeping leisure centres.

This blog concerns the legendary ‘New Deepings Leisure Centre’. I am planning to write another blog within the next few days about the lack of progress in re-opening the existing Deepings Leisure Centre (and pool) now that the Covid Lockdown has been eased and the government has given permission for Leisure Centre and swimming pools to be opened.

Just before publishing this blog, I received an e-mail in relation to questions I had asked at a Finance Committee meeting. This contained the ‘official position on Leisure centres‘ as provided by the Cabinet Member and I have published it, in full. I think you will find my interpretation (below) is more comprehensible, credible and correct. I apologise if it appears somewhat acidic which is due to my continued frustration at not being given clear answers nor access to information.

Regular readers will be aware that new Leisure Centres for the Deepings and Stamford were announced by SKDC Leader, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) back in October 2017. Since then, Cllr Lee has resigned, the Stamford idea has been abandoned but the Deepings Leisure Centre is still a ‘work in progress’.

The Conservatives have repeatedly promised that ward Councillors will be kept up-to-date with progress. The last update meeting with ward Councillors regarding the new Deepings Leisure Centre was on 30th January before the responsibility for Leisure Centres formally passed to Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) who is now Deputy Leader of SKDC as well as County Councillor for ‘Deepings East’ (even though he lives in Thurlby).

On 21st May, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Independent Councillors
We are expecting the plans along with costings for the new centre to be ready shortly. Once we have these and have looked into the financial solutions, I will get together with our Deepings group. The present situation hasn’t helped in expediting the proposals, but I am pleased to say that good progress is being made”.

On 23rd May, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Councillors I look forward to sharing the options with you very soon”.

On 26rd May, when pressed for a specific timescale, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Independent Councillors Consultation should be in June – I certainly hope so” and “June – end of probably”.

On 27th May, I challenged Cllr Dobson about working groups and consultants’ reports the Council had commissioned (one of which cost over £250,000) and he reiterated as follows:
“Although I thought it would be useful to have an overarching group at the beginning, it would only delay and possibly confuse the situation. The new report will show proposals to upgrade the three centres at Grantham, Bourne and Stamford and a completely new facility for the Deepings. 

“As soon as the report is ready, we will have a meeting so that we can all contribute to its success by putting the plans in motion: planning and finance will need to go hand-in-hand so that we can expedite the realisation of the new centre. You will be informed at every step of the process – I promise. 

“Next step: Show and discuss the plans with relevant members for each of the centres, including facilities and finance.
Date: Before the end of June 2020.
Method: MS Teams through invitation”.

So, having promised three times to hold a meeting with Ward Members before the end of June, what do you think he delivered to us before the end of June? … Correct – Nothing at all: no plans; no strategy; no meeting.

Undeterred, local Independent Councillors Phil Dilks, Virginia Moran and I have persevered with questions about the plans for the new leisure centre at every opportunity. These have included formal public meetings including Cabinet as well as written requests for information and informal conversations with officers. When I was first elected as a Councillor I didn’t expect to take on the role of an investigative journalist but that’s seems to be an essential part of the role.

At a SKDC Cabinet meeting on 16th June, I asked about the Leisure Centres and Cllr Dobson, Deputy Leader, responded that before the September meeting of the Cabinet a meeting would be arranged with the Chairman of the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services OSC to confirm a date for a joint meeting to discuss the leisure programme and the options available to the Council”.

He also added that “consultation had been carried out with an architect who had undertaken design for Sport England projects”.

The Cabinet minutes also record that “The Leader of the Council stated that the leisure programme would be the largest expenditure that the Council had confirmed that engagement would take place with local Ward Members (sic). There would be opportunity for Members to debate the issue at the joint OSC meeting, Cabinet and Council, which would make the final decision”.

Further questions were asked at the following Cabinet meeting of 7th July for which the minutes are not yet available. At that meeting, a workplan was presented which stated that Cabinet meeting of 8th September would “consider the Procurement Strategy and Investment Proposals for the Leisure facilities within the District Leisure Centres” and “agree the approach to delivering the programme to enhance leisure opportunities for everyone”. I challenged the Deputy Leader over whether this time-scale was realistic and he admitted that it was extremely unlikely that the necessary consultation would be completed by that date; nevertheless the workplan was approved.

Questions about the existing Leisure Centre were asked during the extremely chaotic Full Council meeting of 16th July but unfortunately the agenda item concerning Leisure Centres was held in closed session so I am forbidden to report the questions and answers at that meeting.

Full Council usually allows for 45 minutes of open questions to the Cabinet but due to the incompetence of the Chair, and the party politicking of the Conservatives, there was no time for councillors to ask questions or debate motions but that’s another story.

Meanwhile, after a lengthy exchange of e-mails, I had managed to obtain a redacted copy of the aforementioned expensive consultancy report produced by MACE. I can confirm that I agree with Cllr Dobson’s opinion that it is inadequate. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to share any of the detail as the report is still regarded as ‘confidential’.

I have also asked for the second consultancy report, produced by the ‘Sport England’ consultant. At time of writing I have been refused access to the report because it is still in ‘draft’ form. I have protested stating that if the Deputy Leader is able to cite reports at Cabinet meetings then, as an elected Councillor, I have a legal right to see them.

The Council’s Monitoring Officer has responded with the view that I am not entitled to view the Sport England report until the Conservatives are willing to publish it. The Independent Group Leader and I have immediately responded by quoting section 100(f) of the Local Government Act 1972 which clearly states:
“Any document which is in the possession or under the control of a principal council and contains material relating to any business to be transacted at a meeting of the council or a committee or sub-committee of the council shall be open to inspection by any member of the council.”

Is now a good time to remind you of the Conservative Council Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke’s comments during his inaugural speech that he wanted “a more open, transparent and collaborative style of council that welcomes constructive challenge and respects differences”?

Despite the procrastination and prevarication by Cabinet Members at SKDC, I am pleased to say council officers are speaking to some interested parties behind the scenes. This includes some of the current leisure centre users and also Deeping St James parish council.

Actually, the district council has no choice but to speak to the parish council because the latter owns a significant part of the land which comprises the school playing field and the intended site for the new leisure centre. Before the leisure centre project can proceed to formal stages of planning procurement, it is required that all the landowners ie. the parish and the county councils will need to have signed an ‘in principle’ agreement to co-operate.

Informal negotiations led to a more formal meeting last Thursday to which all 15 parish councillors were invited. I requested permission to observe that meeting but was refused access, therefore I cannot report what was said. What I can say with confidence is that Cllr Dobson, for all his promises of collaboration, has shared more information with the parish council than he has with his district council colleagues.

One of my district council colleagues has speculated that the leisure centre project is being timed to align with the county council election process, i.e. we should expect another big announcement towards the end of February so that the Conservatives have something to put on their leaflets. Having spoken to officers, I am not so cynical. I believe there is a genuine will to make progress but the secrecy and naivety of the Conservative cabinet members is more of a hindrance than a help. Certainly, nothing they have said or done since January has been of any tangible use.

Update on Leisure Centres – The official line!

On June 30th, I attended the SKDC Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Comimttee (aka FEDetc), I asked the Deputy Leader for an update on the Working Groups on Leisure Centres established, in a confused manner, at two of the Council’s Committees. I was promised a written update and, 40 minutes before today’s FEDetc meeting I was sent the following which does not appear in the public agenda pack:

Written update from the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Growth and Leisure (Cllr Barry Dobson)

Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Committee – 28th July 2020

This written update is in response to the following minute and action from 30th June 2020:

Minute:

A member [Cllr Ashley Baxter] questioned the membership of leisure centre working groups and asked for an update on the working groups or if they had been abandoned since the last meeting. He went on to ask if the list of recreation grounds assets requested at the February meeting could be circulated to other Councillors, as well as to Committee members.

Action:

A written response on the status of the leisure centre working groups to be provided

Response from Councillor Barry Dobson:

The proposed Member Working Group for Leisure was considered at FEDCO on the 4th February 2020. The minutes noted that:

As the Deputy Leader of the Council, I introduced an item relating to the review of the leisure provision across the district. I informed the Committee that visits to all of the leisure centres would be carried out and that the input of local Councillors would be welcomed when considering the options for the specific leisure sites.

A Member Working Group for Leisure was being formed to help shape and develop the overall leisure review process, to allow a small group of Members to track progress and feed back to the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committees as needed. Although the Terms of Reference stated that two Members of the Committee would be required, there were four members of the Committee who volunteered, and I agreed to amend the requirement to allow all four Members to join the Working Group. The Committee also suggested that it would be beneficial for a representative from the Finance Department be invited to join the group.

Whilst no timescale was given for its implementation, it was proposed that the group should remain in place until the new management option has been implemented in April 2022.

A further update was provided to Cabinet on the 16th June. The minutes note that:

A question was asked [by Cllr Baxter] about the leisure transformation programme and the Working Groups that had been nominated by the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) and the Culture and Visitor Economy OSC. These working groups had not met but I had spoken to Parish Councils on the subject.  Investment Plans for the Leisure Centres was on the Forward Plan to report at the September Cabinet and the non-Cabinet Member [Cllr Baxter] wanted to know the scrutiny path for the issue and whether consultation would take place with Ward Members.  The non-Cabinet Member [Cllr Baxter] also asked whether a joint OSC meeting would take place between the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services OSC and the Culture and Visitor Economy OSC.  

I referred to my meeting at the end of January 2020 with Members for the Deepings area and the meeting I had also attended with Deeping St James Parish Council.  Before the September meeting of the Cabinet a meeting would be arranged with the Chairman of the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services OSC to confirm a date for a joint meeting to discuss the leisure programme and the options available to the Council. The leisure programme would require significant investment and feedback from the joint OSC meeting would allow for the refinement of the report and future engagement and consultation with Members. 

I further reported that I had visited all the leisure centres with Members from all groups [which is simply not true!] and the proposal was to upgrade, facilities in Bourne, Grantham and Stamford and build a new centre in the Deepings.  Consultation had been carried out with an architect who had undertaken design for Sport England projects and I hoped to progress the issue as soon as possible.  

The Leader of the Council stated that the leisure programme would be the largest expenditure that the Council would have and confirmed that engagement would take place with local Ward Members.  There would be opportunity for Members to debate the issue at the joint OSC meeting, Cabinet and Council, which would make the final decision. 

In February it was originally intended to set-up a Member Working Group for Leisure and that this working group would be responsible for providing advice and direction for the leisure improvement programme, together with monitoring progress and providing advocacy for the project. Since that time, Cabinet have established a Leisure Board to include the key Members of the Cabinet whose areas of responsibility are connected to the leisure improvement programme.  

The Members of the Board and their respective portfolios are:

Cllr Kelham Cooke [Con] – Leader, and Cabinet Member for Property

Cllr Barry Dobson [Con]- Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Growth and Leisure

Cllr Adam Stokes [Con]- Cabinet Member for Finance

Cllr Rosemary Trollope-Bellew [Con] – Cabinet Member for Culture and Visitor Economy

In addition to this the Project Board, an officer working group, led by the Chief Executive, has been established to advise the board on relevant matters.

Significant steps have been made in respect of leisure since the last update to FEdCo:

  • The feasibility work undertaken by MACE has been concluded and the Council received the draft report on the 17th February this year, the finalised report being received on the 17th March.  Following receipt of the draft report it was apparent that additional feasibility work was required, and [an] Architect was commissioned on the 13th March to identify alternative schemes and provide the associated capital costs in relation to these.  This work is ongoing.
  • As a result of Covid-19 the Government closed all leisure facilities on the 21st March 2020.  Since that time the Council have been assessing the impact of Covid-19 and a claim for financial support received from our leisure provider, 1Life.
  • The Council were successful in securing grant funding from Sport England to provide expert consultancy support and as a result Sport and Leisure Consultancy Ltd (SLC) were appointed on the 1st May 2020. 
  • The first phase of SLC’s work was to assess the claim received by 1Life and provide advice in this regard.  This work has been concluded and a financial support package for the period March 2020 to June 2020 was agreed at a meeting of the Cabinet on the 7th July and a subsequent meeting of Council on the 16th July. 
  • Since December 2019 the Council has been engaging with Lincolnshire County Council and Deeping St James Parish Council to secure a long lease of the Linchfield Road site in Deeping St James.  This site has previously been announced as the preferred site for a new leisure centre development.  Final [Final?] amendments to the draft heads of terms were circulated in July and discussions are ongoing.

The next key milestones are as follows:

  • Report to Cabinet on further impact of Covid-19    –    18 August 2020
  • Report to Cabinet on proposed land deal     –   8 September 2020

Work is ongoing to identify appropriate schemes of improvements across the leisure facilities.  When there are some clear options available the previously proposed Member Working Group will meet to assess these, and a joint OSC will be convened to ensure that the improvement plans have the appropriate level of scrutiny.  In addition to this, consultation will take place with Ward Members (supplementing the Initial meetings and site visits which took place with Ward Members in January and February of this year) so that an informed report can be presented to Cabinet later this year.

Thank you,

Barry

Whistleblowing on the increase in South Kesteven

Since 2010, the Conservative Government has systematically reduced the amount of Revenue Support Grant Funding to local authorities. In South Kesteven this means the District Council is fast reaching the point where it will receive no funding from central government under normal circumstances (The Covid19 pandemic is not normal).

Consequently, most council services are funded by income raised directly by the council in the form of Council Tax, business rates and sold services. Fraud has always reduced the income of local councils but the impact of council tax and other frauds now has a greater relative impact. The financial cost to the council of fraud could be somewhere in the region of £1million.

There is a difference between deliberate fraud and a genuine mistake. You only have to look at some of the forms relating to tax credits and other benefits to realise they are often complicated and sometimes require a forensic level of detail about earnings which many people do not have to hand. Within an annual report on ‘Counter Fraud’ being presented to the SKDC Governance and Audit Ctte this week is a table which suggests that £561,765 was overpaid in Housing Benefit last year. Well over half of this amount was recovered from the claimants and it would be wrong to assume that all the mistakes were made by the claimants (rather than the council) let alone that any large proportion of the overpayments were the result of deliberate fraud.

Lincolnshire has a counter fraud partnership and the County Council manages a Confidential Reporting Line for whistleblowers as a central point of contact for people wishing to report suspected fraud.

An analysis of district related referrals made to the Whistleblowers’ line during 2019-20 identified that 125 referrals were received ( compared to 102 in 2018/19). The maintype of referrals relate to council tax and housing tenancy fraud.

Of the 125 referrals received by Assurance Lincolnshire, 41 related to South Kesteven. As can be seen from the graph above, the annual number of reports relating to SKDC has climbed steadily in recent years. Increased reports to the Whistleblowers’ line is thought to be more likely an indicator that fraud awareness is reaching a wider audience rather than purely an increase in the amount of frauds being committed.

All 41 whistleblowing allegations have been investigated and action taken where appropriate (although most involved no further action or referral to the DWP).

If you wish to report an alleged fraud, or would like more information about whistleblowing, you can contact the confidential freephone whistleblowing number on 0800 0853716
or email: whistleblowing@lincolnshire.gov.uk

Meanwhile here’s a clip of some good old fashion whistleblowing of a different kind…

Did you remember to turn the gas off? – South Kesteven spends £35,000 to decommission former Cummins site.

The Conservative’s flagship development project – St Martin’s Park in Stamford (aka the old Cummins engineering works) – is costing council taxpayers around £20,000/month in maintenance costs including rates, electricity, water etc.

Yesterday, SKDC announced that an additional one-off sum of £35,000 is to be spent on essential health and safety works and to decommission the gas supply. Given that the factory was purchased over 18 months ago, at a cost of £7.5million, one might have assumed that all essential health and safety works would have been implemented much earlier but this additional expenditure is now deemed justified because of “the number of times the property has been broken into by unauthorised persons. Additional security measures have been put in place (presumably incurring additional cost) in the interim to minimise the risk to life but it is now important to switch the gas system off and release all gas from the pipework.

The grand scheme for the St Martin’s Park development changes from one month to the next. Originally it was purchased “in order to preserve its use as an employment site in the town, rather than risk it being taken by private developers solely for housebuilding”.

The site are being promoted for a mixed-use development including commercial, residential and retirement homes along with associated public open space, car parking, retail and infrastructure. These uses are subject to planning consent. The objective is to create space for a minimum of 500 jobs on a mixed-use development site while protecting the setting of Burghley House and its grounds.

Originally the preferred delivery mechanism was going to be a new company called DeliverSK. This entity was supposed to allow the Council to take a much more flexible, commercial approach, while ensuring the council can scrutinise and approve any decisions involving council-owned land or projects requiring further council investment. It has clearly failed on both counts since after 18 months the DeliverSK company hasn’t even been registered at Companies House.

The most recent report to Councillors explains that despite the Council already having spent £77,000 on legal costs, the establishment of DeliverSK has collapsed due to confustion over the legal status of the Guernsey-based partner company who was supposed to be our partners. IAG were supposed “to assist with development and regeneration projects in the area seeing them through from the concept stage right through to completion”, Instead it turns out that they didn’t even tell us their real name!

Report to Market Deeping Town Council – June 2020

Report to MDTC Full Council 10th June, 2020
from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.

Leisure Centre / All Weather Pitch

Despite various SKDC committee meetings in February deciding to set up Members Working Group(s) to keep abreast of progress towards the Leisure Transformation strategy, no meetings have taken place. Cabinet Member, Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) reported in April (to DSJ PC) the plan for the new Leisure Centre in the Deepings is progressing well and that two options are currently being drawn up and priced. Unfortunately, the plans haven’t progressed far enough for any detailed plans, proposals or costs to be shared with anyone outside the Conservative cabinet.

What I have discovered is that leisure consultants Mace have been paid £284,000 for a report which has yet to be published. Evidently it did not deliver the detailed business plans which were promised because the Council has now engaged a new, thankfully much cheaper consultant, to make sense of the findings of the first consultant.

Next week’s Cabinet meeting includes draft workplan with an aspiration to consider Leisure Centre investment at the September Cabinet meeting. It is one of no fewer than twelve proposed agenda items for that particular Cabinet meeting so don’t hold your breath!

14/05/2020  Full Council

The first meeting of the Full Council was little more than a PR stunt and a rubber-stamping exercise. Motions from Councillors were not allowed and neither were open questions from Councillors and members of the public. Large chunks of the meeting were taken up with voting because every decision, even including approval of the previous minutes, required a roll-call of all 55 councillors in attendance.

During one of the votes, despite a quite labourious explanation by the Chief Executive, the Chair of the Council inadvertently voted against her own party and consequently the voting had to start all over again.

26/05/2020  Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee

The Finance meeting spent most of its time speculating the likely impact of Covid19 on the Council’s finances. Unsurprisingly the general consensus was a pessimistic outlook. Income from arts centres; car parks, businesses rates and other areas have reduced virtually to zero while waste collection costs have risen. There are some unknowns including: the extent to which the Government will bail out Local Authorities; and whether or not the leisure provider, 1Life, will succeed with a legal claim it has submitted to the council for financial losses (the council is obviously disputing the claim).

04/06/2020  Governance and Audit Committee

The Governance and Audit Committee almost took place on 24th May but just after it started I pointed out that no access details had been provided to members of the public and officers confirmed that the meeting could not proceed if it was inaccessible.

The reconvened meeting discussed external audit reports which were critical of the Council’s medium term financial strategy and lack of a meaningful corporate strategy. The meeting discussed internal audit reports which were highly critical of the council’s failure to consistently follow its own procurement rules as well as various shortcomings of the council’s homelessness function. Thankfully some of the issues have been addressed between the Internal Audit visit and their presentation to the G&A Committee.

04/06/2020  Planning

This morning’s Planning Committee meeting was supposed to discuss plans for a waterski and touring caravan facility in Tallington. Unfortunately, at the very last moment, it was decided to defer the item until after a site visit could take place.

Other News

Many, many thanks are due to all the volunteers and organisations who are supporting local residents and businesses through Covid lockdown. The Deepings Round Table deserve a special mention and I am happy to be one of three Deepings Councillors who have allocated a total a thousand pounds from SKDC Community Funds towards their ongoing costs.

Finally, it is sadness that I report the passing of my friend, and former Town Councillor Roy Bell. Roy was Deputy Mayor in 2010-11 and did loads of work with the Council’s Summer Playscheme. He passed on yesterday after a long struggle with cancer. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Cllr Ashley Baxter
Market and West Deeping Ward



South Kesteven accept any proposal you like, as long as it’s blue!

Local Action not Party Politics; the slogan on a 2019 Party Political leaflet from the Conservatives.

The agenda for the South Kesteven Cabinet meeting of 16th June has not yet been published. I don’t have a crystal ball but I am going to make a prediction: the Conservative cabinet will present proposals for a review and report of the impact of the Coronavirus on SKDC’s operations aimed at identifying lessons to be learned which can improve the council’s ‘normal’ day-to-day activity as well as for any future crisis emergency.

If the Cabinet does propose such an investigation then I, for one, will fully support the idea. In fact, I already have! I proposed pretty much the same idea as a motion to the last Full Council (See below). My proposal was made 30th April, well ahead of the normal deadline and was acknowledged by the democratic services team. I mentioned it in a phone call to the Council Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con), who hadn’t seen it so I sent him a copy. The following day he informed me that he was “happy to support the majority” of the content of my motion but he had spoken to the Chief Executive who had decided, under her delegated powers, that the first virtual meeting of Full Council would have no motions nor any open questions from Councillors of the public; in other words, just a rubber-stamping exercise for publicity purposes. I was formally informed of this decision later the same day just minutes before the publication of the agenda. The Chief Executive did not have the courtesy to phone or e-mail me to explain the reason for her decision, let alone discuss the content and aspirations of the proposals.

So, rather than try to establish a cross-party consensus for a pragmatic and straightforward action, the council’s high command decided to delay the decision for a month so that it can be trumpeted as an innovative, original and (most importantly) Conservative idea.

Obviously, I am disappointed with the way the issue has been dealt with, especially regarding the continued lack of communication and colloboration with Independent and other opposition councillors, but I am not at all surprised. The SKDC Conservative’s Modus Operandi is to oppose almost any idea from Independent councillors and then present it as their own idea a few months later. If you think I am exaggerating, here are some examples:

Cllr Peter Moseley (Con) holding aloft the Charter which he had just voted not to sign.

There was a Tory U-Turn on Members’ Ward Budgets when most of the people who voted against the Independent proposal in March 2014 voted in favour of it in April 2018.

When I proposed the Council adopt the Woodland Trust’s Charter for Trees in June 2019, the Conservatives voted firmly against the idea. Happily, within a few days the relevant Cabinet Member was posing for press photos holding a copy of the Charter in his hands. It was adopted a few weeks later.

A proposal to ensure major planning applications are decided by Councillors and not just officers was turned down in November 2018 when presented by Cllr Phil Dilks (then Lab, now Ind) but was adopted by the council in March 2019.

Never mind though; the important thing is to get the Council to accept good ideas. I suppose it doesn’t matter if it takes a bit longer and the people with the original ideas don’t get the credit.

Here, for future reference, is the text of my motion which I hope and expect will have been implemented before it is presented to the Full Council meeting in July.

Motion to Full Council – 14th May 2020

Creating a new ‘normal’.

Background

The recent and ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has presented historic challenges to government at all levels and across the world. At South Kesteven District Council, the episode has required the implementation of emergency procedures and the establishment of new and innovative ways of working. The work of our staff, senior management and fellow councillors through this time has been invaluable and we owe a debt of gratitude.

The effect of Coronavirus on our economy and society has been huge and, in many cases, heartbreaking. However, some of the new ways of working have had positive impacts which could potentially provide long-term benefits.

Recommendations

The council resolves that:

  1. Cabinet commissions a report into how the Coronavirus episode has impacted our operations, focusing specifically on opportunities to make long term environmental and financial savings (The report should be produced and published before the end of the December 2020).
  2. Environment Committee and Cabinet to prioritise within their workplans:
    a) consideration of how to use remote working opportunities for staff and members to the mutual benefit of the council and individuals.
    b) further consideration of opportunities to improve grounds maintenance practices to improve ecology and reduce costs
    c) in partnership with the waste disposal authority, consideration of how waste collection and disposal systems could be enhanced to improve efficiency and recycling rates.

Proposed by
Cllr Ashley Baxter
Market & West Deeping
30th April 2020

Scrutiny failure

South Kesteven District has been criticised for a prolonged delay in returning to its normal cycle of meetings. During the first seven weeks of lockdown, the Council held only one formal meeting which lasted less than ten minutes. Since then it has held it resumed some statutory meetings virtually but there are not even any confirmed dates for most of the Council’s committees.

Cllr Ashley Baxter (Ind) who represents the Market and West Deeping ward explains: “Everyone understands that we are living through ‘unprecedented times’ but this is no excuse for shutting down democracy. For the first few weeks of the lockdown it was understandable that the Council and its Officers would be focussed on implementing emergency plans and maintaining essential services. Unfortunately, even though the Council has found a new rhythm of ‘normal operations’, there is still no timetable for the public meetings which are necessary to hold the Conservatives to account”.

Cllr Baxter continues “Some of these meetings are farcical at the best of times, I recently attended a sequence of over a dozen meetings where we literally discussed whether or not to change lightbulbs! However, the Committees are the only opportunity where Councillors can publicly ask questions and offer constructive criticism of the work of the council. The fact that most of the Committee Chairs (all Conservatives) haven’t even published a date for their next meeting demonstrates how little they care about the ‘special responsibilities’ for which they are handsomely paid.”

The Leader of the Council, Kelham Cooke (Con) had previously promised the Independent group of Councillors a draft programme of meetings. This was sent to Councillors the day before the Full Council meeting which took place virtually on 14th May. It later became clear that the draft schedule, which indicated two meetings in the first week of June, had not been agreed with the relevant Committee Chairs and consequently was not published or adhered to.

At a time when the Council’s standards and procedures are under particular stress, one might imagine the Constitution Committee would be particularly busy but the Chair, Cllr Linda Wootten (Con) has not called a meeting since before Christmas and there is no published date for its next meeting. Similarly, Cllr Wootten’s husband, Cllr Ray Wootten (Con), Chairs the Rural and Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee which has not met since 20th February and has not published a date for its next meeting.

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Cllr Linda Wootten (Con), Chair of the SKDC Constitution Committee, with the biggest Con of them all!

So much money down the drain! – Update on SK Leisure facilities – May 2020

My last update regarding the new Deepings leisure centre was published on March 12th. Obviously, the world has changed since then, due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that, despite the lockdown, there appears to be some evidence of progress with the plans.

The Deputy Leader of the Council has promised that some detailed proposals will be shared with the Deepings ward councillors before the end of June. It appears that plans for a new leisure centre at Stamford have been abandoned and investigations into whether Grantham’s facilities should be relocated from the Meres to the town centre have concluded that this would not be feasible (The latter decision shouldn’t have taken more than ten seconds of informed research). Instead, the facilities at Bourne, Grantham and Stamford will receive facelifts and refurbishment of varying extent while the Deepings Leisure Centre remains firmly on the table as a new-build project.

Meanwhile, Independent Councillors who represent Deepings wards continue to ask questions about the lack of progress made so far. Cllr Ashley Baxter (Ind, Market and West Deeping and author of this blog) has discovered the Council has squandered £284,000 on paying consultancy firm ‘Mace’ to evaluate options for leisure centres across the District. A heavy tome has been produced by Mace but it is apparently of little use. I have recently asked for a copy of the report to see what ‘magic beans’ it prescribes but I fear I might have to wait a while and, if I ever do see it, the content will be commercially confidential.

The commisioning of the consultants’ report was approved by the SKDC Full Council of 2019. During the meeting, the then newly-elected Cllr Virginia Moran prophesied that it would be a waste of money declaring ““We shouldn’t need to spend more than 6p to determine the business case for a leisure centre for the Deepings.”.

The expenditure was proposed by Cllr Helen Goral (Con) who has since resigned from the Cabinet during the leadership of Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) who has since resigned as Council Leader. The Chief Executive at the time was Aidan Rave but he has now left the Council altogether.

Before authorising the expenditure, the Council was told that Mace would be used as the preferred supplier because the Council already had a working relationship with them and consequently there was no need to shop around. It was also stated that the £250,000 additional funding allocation would “allow for the detailed business cases to be developed for Stamford, Market Deeping and Bourne”. Now here we are, a year later, £284,000 poorer and it seems that no detailed business cases emerged from the consultant. I am not altogether surprised as it was rumoured at the time that the supposed leisure centre experts didn’t appear to know that modern swimming pools can have movable floors.

Broken promises

It was the aforementioned Cllr Lee who, in 2017, made the bold promises of:

  • a new leisure centre in the Deepings
  • a new leisure centre in Stamford
  • 10,000 ft2 of new office accommodation in the Deepings;
  • a 300-seat ‘digital hub’ in Stamford,
  • a serviced office facility for micro-businesses in Bourne.

Three years later and none of this has been delivered, furthermore it seems the Deepings Leisure Centre is the only item on the shopping list which currently shows any sign of intent or progress. I hope that my next ‘leisure centre update’ post will have some far more positive news.

Concerns over income

At the Finance Committee earlier this week it was revealed that the incumbent manager of the SKDC Leisure Centres, 1Life, has submitted a legal claim to the Council for financial losses resulting from the Covid crisis. The claim is being reviewed and challenged so it is not possible to specify the financial impact at this time.

Confusion over decision-making

As a Ward Councillor, it has always been quite difficult to keep up-to-date with what’s happening regarding the Leisure Transformation programme, and especially to find information which can be shared ‘on the record’. The Council Officers have been very good at answering questions as honestly as they can and as transparently as they are allowed. The recently appointed Head of Leisure has been very clear with me about the challenges she faces in terms of the existing leisure centres and the new-build and refurbishment projects and I am very grateful for her candour.

However, the ‘proper democratic process’ has been far more difficult to navigate. Independent Councillors for the Deepings, namely Cllr Virginia Moran, Cllr Phil Dilks and myself, have asked publicly for updates regarding the Deepings facilities at every appropriate opportunity. For three years now we have received patronising ‘all in good time’ and ‘wait and see’ responses. We have been subjected to phoney consultations and genuine consultations and have tried throughout to keep local sports clubs informed.

The most recent formal decision of the Council was to create a ‘Members Working Group’ or possibly a number of ‘Members Working Groups’, either concerning the Leisure Transformation plans across the District or relevant to each town, depending on which meeting minutes you read and whether or not you were in the room when the Group(s) were formed.

Regardless of the remit and the membership, no meeting of any formally established Members Working Groups have been convened. However, it is hoped that the Deepings will be the first to have a serious conversation about the available options for a new Leisure Centre and that conversation will start next month, hopefully!

If you have comments, suggestions or concerns about the impact of the new Leisure Centre you can respond to this post, contact me or, if you prefer, e-mail SKDC officers directly using enhancingleisure@southkesteven.gov.uk

Meanwhile, why not ‘like’ or ‘share’ this post?

Governance and Audit turned out to be a very short meeting!

I might have complained before about how some Council meetings have a reputation for being boring and that ‘Governance and Audit Committee is one of them’.

I was actually quite looking forward to this afternoon’s meeting because of the revelations of the council’s Auditors concerning ‘Financial Sustainability’, ‘Procurement and Contracts’, ‘Homelessness’ and ‘Void Management’ which I have outlined below.

Unfortunately, when I tried to join the virtual meeting, I could not find the joining details on the public website, Thankfully, with the help of council staff members, I was able to find the skype address in my ‘in-box’ and arrived at the meeting just in time.

The meeting began with housekeeping and a roll-call of the committee members, the other councillors, the council officers and the various auditors who were presenting reports. We then moved onto the minutes of the previous meeting but I interrupted proceedings to ask the Chair, Cllr Ian Stokes (Con), for clarification of whether members of the public were actually able to view the meeting. I pointed out that if the public were not able to view the proceedings then we could be acting ‘illegally’. With hindsight, I think a better word would have been ‘improperly’.

The Committee Clerks suggested the meeting be adjourned briefly while they checked the situation. When they returned, 10 minutes later, they confirmed that there were no instructions on the website by which the public could find out how to join the meeting and, therefore, the meeting did not satisfy the regulatory requirements of a public meeting. The meeting was then adjourned until another date (yet to be confirmed) could be arranged with proper access to the public.

Governance and Audit Committee meetings are not famous for their packed public galleries, in fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a member of the public in attendance. However, we have no way of telling how many people wanted to attend the meeting now that is supposed to be accessible by remote access and, this far into lockdown, we should have systems in place to ensure our meetings and decisions are properly visible, transparent and run in accordance with all appropriate rules and regulations.

If the meeting had gone ahead, we would have discussed a range of issues presented by our Internal Auditor including:

Procurement and Contracts

Regular readers will know that I have had questions in the past concerning the Council’s gung-ho attitude to public procurement legislation. The Internal Audit report doesn’t do much to reassure me as the following quotes illustrate:

“Conclusion: Partial Assurance; Impact on Annual Opinion: Negative
As a result of testing undertaken, 11 ‘medium’ and one ‘low’ priority findings were identified.
Management actions were agreed in respect of all the findings.
The medium priority findings relate to:
• Through review of the Service Plan in place between the Council and Welland Procurement, instances were noted where contracts had not been procured by the agreed target completion dates.
• From discussions with the Procurement Lead it was confirmed that the current Contracts Register is not fully complete and there are still gaps in regards to certain departments.
• A sample of 20 contracts from the Council’s current Contract Register were selected and tested.
Four instances were noted where no documentation was provided in relation to the documented contracts (all in excess of £50,000) and therefore the following could not be confirmed:
o That a procurement process had been followed in line with the Council’s Contract and
Procurement Procedure Rules for each of the contracts;
o That the contracts had been advertised on the ProContract e-tendering system;
o That a scoring matrix was utilised as part of an evaluation process;
o That successful or unsuccessful letters were sent out to all applicants;
o That due-diligence checks such as credit worthiness were carried out by the Council on the successful contractors;
o That a contract was in place that was signed by both the Council and the contracted party;
o That the Council had included clauses within the contracts governing the circumstances
whereby early termination or exit of the contract is permitted;
o That appropriate monitoring had been undertaken of the Contracts by the dedicated Contract Managers; and
o That the Council completed initial and on-going risk assessments for the contracts in relation to Health and Safety.”

Homelessness

Again, I have previously expressed concern that the number of households in South Kesteven has trebled in recent years suggesting we have an increasing problem with homelessness. The Internal Auditor suggests some potential reasons why the problems continue.

“Conclusion: Partial Assurance; Impact on Annual Opinion: Negative
As a result of testing undertaken, seven ‘medium’ and seven ‘low’ priority findings were identified. Management actions were agreed in respect of all the findings.
The medium priority findings relate to:
• A training log spreadsheet is in place for staff members within the Homelessness Prevention Team. It was however noted that certain staff members did not have any delivered training documented. Additionally, instances were noted where dates were not recorded for when the relevant training was completed and there is also no information currently documented for refresher training if applicable.
• From testing a sample of 20 homelessness applications from the current financial year, instances were identified whereby the initial assessment had not been carried out or the initial contact was not made promptly with the applicant and instances where decision letters were not sent to the applicant promptly.
• Testing identified one instance where the Prevention or Relief Duty was note ended within 56 days and an extension had not been applied. It was also noted that a supporting decision letter was not produced and sent to the applicant once duty had ended.
• The Council has a Temporary Accommodation Procedure in place although it was noted that the Procedure had not been updated since 2015. It was also noted that the Procedure does not cover the booking of emergency accommodation. Additionally, the Procedure does not specify a need to consider value for money, or a list of approved hotels and bed and breakfasts which the Council has negotiated favourable rates with.
• From testing a sample of 20 homelessness applications which had resulted in the allocation of temporary or emergency accommodation during the current financial year instances were noted whereby a Temporary Accommodation Request Form had either not been completed or authorised, no evidence of any action being taken to recover monies owed to the Council by tenants with outstanding utility charges or where emergency accommodation costs had been covered by the Council.
• From a review of the Temporary Accommodation Rent Procedure it was noted that it does not provide adequate detail to allow rent officers to recoup rent and utility charges. Additionally, the Procedure does not specify the point at which a Notice to Vacate should be served and does not provide any guidance on the recovery procedure for outstanding utility charges.
• At the time of audit, it was noted that there is currently no monitoring undertaken by the Homelessness Prevention Team to identify repeat users of temporary or emergency accommodation.

Voids Management

The Internal Audit of the way SKDC manages empty properties (aka ‘Voids’) was slightly less disparaging although it was noted:

“At the time of audit, the Council did not have a Voids Policy in place. Through discussion with the Head of Improvements and Repairs it was confirmed that a Voids Policy is due to be drafted”.

I am now trying to find out whether the voids policy has been drafted and/or adopted. This is partly in preparation for the meeting when it comes back from its adjournment and partly to try to make sense of why at least one council property in Market Deeping has been empty for more than six months. I am sure there must be a simple and reasonable explanation.

Financial Sustainability

The External Audit Plan was also due to be presented to this afternoon’s meeting. The audit report (which costs over £40,000) has rightly drawn attention to the potentially massive impact of Covid19. However it also identified following significant VFM risks (Value for Money):

“For 2020/21 the Council is proposing a balanced budget with no use of General Fund reserves.
The Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) to 2022/23 shows funding gaps of £1,009k in 2021/22 and £1,302k in 2022/23 and officers are working on addressing these gaps in early 2020/21. The Council have recently appointed a new Chief Executive and their first priority is to update the Corporate Plan.
An updated MTFS will be developed to supported this updated corporate plan.
We will review the work the Council is undertaking to address the gaps identified in the MTFS. We will also review the updated Corporate Plan and its effect on the MTFS.”

When Karen Bradford arrived as Chief Exec of SKDC earlier this year, she mentioned the need for a refresh or rewrite of the Corporate Plan. I agreed and drew her attention to the previous colourful plan we had approved which was full of pictures of exotic animals but rather light on practical planning.

The review of the Medium Term Financial Strategy will, it is hoped, be completed before too long and the Cabinet Member for Finance, Cllr Adam Stokes (Con), will have to present it to the relevant committees for scrutiny and approval.

I am sure the Chair of the Governance and Audit Committee will have no misgivings about asking challenging and difficult questions of the Cabinet Member for Finance; He is, after all, his father!