Gravitas Housing Ltd is a company established and wholly owned by South Kesteven District Council.
What is a LACC?
In order to become more agile, flexible and able to generate revenue, many Council’s have chosen to establish Local Authority Controlled Companies (LACCs or sometimes pronounced ‘Lac-Co’).
Some LACCs have been very successful, for example Norfolk Property Services (NPS) which now has a group structure and trades as Norse Commercial Services delivering services to the public in many local authority areas (geographic areas and service areas).
Other Local Authority commercial ventures have been a nightmare, e.g. Solutions SK which was described as a ‘Four-Star shambles‘ when it lost £4.7million pounds in a year. When I say ‘lost’ I mean they couldn’t find it. The highly paid Directors employed for their commercial acumen couldn’t explain where it had gone. There was no question of fraud, only incompetence on a grand scale. I happy to report that the ‘SK’ in ‘Solutions SK’ refers to Stockport not South Kesteven. Presumably they couldn’t even spell Stockport Council when they set up the LACC.
Gravitas slowly takes off
Back in 2015, South Kesteven Councillors decided that the LACC vehicle was a band-wagon worth jumping on to and so a Shareholders Committee was formed. This is an advisory group to keep the company directors on track. Due to the need for political balance, the membership consists of four Tories and one Independent (which is me).
The first meeting was scheduled 4th July 2016 but this was cancelled. Another date was set for 6th September 2016 but this was also cancelled. The Shareholder Committee finally met for the first time on 3rd October 2016 and discussed the broad concepts and opportunity for LACC. The general mood of the meeting was that a limited company, freed from the shackles of local government bureaucracy, could take on the world generating happiness and financial income along the way. The meeting also discussed possible names for the company and the need for a business plan.
The second meeting took place on 9th January 2017 and once again discussed business plan(s). The minutes note:
It was clarified that the varying references within the report to ‘the business plan’, ‘the housing business plan’, ‘the draft business plan’, etc. all related to the same business plan: that which was attached to the report as an appendix to the report.
The business plan report also suggested possible names for the company. A rather predictable shortlist had been assembled and the front-runners were Gravitas (to tie in with the Newtonian Connections with South Kesteven – possible strapline ‘What goes up, must come down!’ ?) and TASK (an abbreviation of Trading Arm of South Kesteven).
There was no mention of ‘South Kesteven Asset Management’ nor ‘South Kesteven United Management’ for obvious reasons.
The committee alighted on the name of ‘Gravitas Housing’ was finally incorporated and registered at Companies House on 30th January 2017. This was not the beginning of the end, but it might have been the end of the beginning.
At the next meeting on 3rd April, the Shareholder Committee had something to discuss other than business plans. The meeting started at 2.00pm. 11 minutes later it went into closed session (so members of the press and public were asked to leave the chamber, or at least they would have been asked if any had turned up in the first place which they hadn’t). After 25 minutes of discussion, the hypothetical press and public were invited back in to see the meeting close at 2.36pm.
A new vision
A few days after this meeting, there was a coup d’etat in the Tory group (see my monthly report from April 2017). A new administration promised new vigour, vision and energy so without delay a shareholders’ meeting was organised for the following October. All four of the ‘old Tories’ were replaced by different Tories which meant I was the only elected Councillor who had attended any of the previous meetings and the only one who had heard the previous public and private discussions. It was year zero and I had a terrible feeling of deja vu.
The Shareholders’ Committee in October spent most of its time in private discussing plans to purchase land in Wherry’s Lane, Bourne and to build houses on it. Everyone agreed this was a good idea and we should get on with it forthwith.
The Committee was scheduled to meet again on 16th January 2018 but rather than hold a public meeting with all the inconvenience of agendas, public scrutiny, minutes etc, the Chairman, Cllr Barry Dobson, decided it would be much more appropriate to meet in secret to discuss the strategy for developing the business. I strongly disagreed with the Chairman on this issue and told him frankly explaining that being positive and being transparent do not need to be mutually exclusive. Anyway the secret meeting went ahead and discussed lots of possibilities and made lots of recommendations about the company strategy but obviously couldn’t make any decisions.
The next formal meeting of the Shareholder Committee took place on 17th April, 2018. The entire agenda was recommended for discussion in private except for the minutes, so during public discussion of the minutes I asked about a few matters which were not mentioned anywhere else on the agenda. My first was what happened to the notes of the private meeting on 16th January. If I hadn’t mentioned this, there would be no public record that the meeting had ever taken place. My second was to ask what had happened to all the other potential Gravitas Housing projects which had failed to make it onto the agenda. These could have included the possible construction of Council houses as suggested at an SKDC Cabinet meeting in January. Finally, under ‘matters arising from the minutes’, we discussed the lack of any analysis of budgets, projected and actual spending. In response to all the questions, Officers gave the answer ‘all will be revealed in due course’. The meeting then went onto discuss the planning process for the Company’s only ‘live’ project which concerns Housing Development at Wherry’s Lane, Bourne.
The next meeting is scheduled to take place next week. You will not be surprised to hear that there are very few items on the agenda, and most of the meeting will take place, once again, behind closed doors.
So, in short, since meetings first started in 2016, absolutely nothing useful has been acheived by Gravitas Housing Ltd. Perhaps this year will see a bit more progress as presumably the Tories would like to acheive something tangible before the elections next May.
However, there has been a recent development concerning Gravitas Housing Ltd which is worthy of a blog post of its own. I hope to publish it later this week or early next.