Yesterday, at the first ever meeting of the SKDC ‘Companies Committee’, senior Councillors expressed their concerns regarding the appropriateness of InvestSK Ltd. It was revealed that discussions have taken place between members of the Tory group over whether to continue with the InvestSK project or to bring services back ‘in-house’.
Newly appointed Director of InvestSK, Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) who is Deputy Leader of the Council, stated “I think it is very important that it stays actually as an external company. I know that we talked about bringing it back in-house and everything… We have had a long conversation this morning about it. I have only been a director for about a week officially, and I think that it’s got a great future providing we manage it well”.
The meeting was the first opportunity for formal scrutiny of the InvestSK project since a Growth Ctte in May 2018 which discussed a ‘call-in’ request that I co-ordinated before the company was incorporated. The new Companies Ctte was supposed to be ready after the election earlier this year but was delayed due to the election and constitutional obligations. The Committee has responsibility for overseeing the work of all Council’s companies (of which there are now six) but the first meeting focussed on the ‘busiest’ of those companies, namely InvestSK.
Lack of Transparency
My main complaint about the whole InvestSK project is that of transparency. Although the company has been set up for over a year, funded almost entirely from well over £1million of tax-payers money via SKDC, it has been very difficult to obtain any detail of how the money has been spent. It emerged yesterday that £680,000, more than half, of the organisation income is spent on the salaries of core staff. There are no details of how many staff this includes nor how much they are paid.
I have personally made some one-off enquiries about the expenditure of InvestSK. These have been answered. The first concerned details of the hundreds of thousands of pounds allocated by InvestSK as grants to heritage schemes, community projects and businesses. Another concerned the award of £15,000 of press and PR consultancy work to a company based in Lincoln.
However, while SKDC is required to publish a list of transactions over £500 incurred by the Council, once the money has been transferred to InvestSK the spending becomes more opaque and therefore less accountable.
Lack of a useful Business Plan
Another example of the lack of transparency of InvestSK is the late publication of the Business Plan. The first time it was available to members of the Companies committee was when the agenda pack for the meeting was published last week as a restricted (confidential) item but after the intervention of the Chair, Cllr Graham Jeal (Con) and others it is now in the public domain. The 44-page business plan was originally written ten months ago in February but only the Company Directors have been able to read it before now. Incidentally, the three Company Directors are the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council (both Conservatives) and the Chief Executive.
The published plan contains a reference to “budgets for the next 3 years” contained at ‘Appendix 2’. I commented that although I could find ‘Appendix 7’ and annexes ‘i’ to ‘ix’, I could not find ‘Appendix 2’. It emerged that it had been omitted from the documents but would be circulated to members in due course. Curiously no-one asked what happened to ‘Appendix 1’.
Lack of Clarity
A number of councillors, including me, expressed frustration at not knowing where SKDC ends and InvestSK begins. For example, the provision of Arts Centres and Markets are both SKDC services yet in both cases the management structure involves staff from both SKDC and InvestSK. In an attempt to clarify the situation, the CEO of InvestSK explained that some of the staff of InvestSK are seconded from SKDC payroll. Consequently, as Cllr Ian Stokes (Con) pointed out, the Council is lending staff to InvestSK in order to buy back their services as consultants. This situation has led to confusion.
Lack of Ambition
During discussion of the business plan, a variety of comments were made. I asked why it was so long. I have previous experience of reports which have been deliberately written in a long and turgid fashion in order to discourage people from reading and understanding the content (let alone the missing appendices).
Refreshing the Chair, Cllr Jeal, did not conceal his disappointment with the Business Plan. He stated that he was expecting more about from the business plan in terms of big goals and also evidence that the team had learned from their time at Opportunity Peterborough and elsewhere and how these experiences could be used to “turbo-charge this business”.
Lack of Detail
Addressing his comments to Steve Bowyer, Chief Executive of InvestSK, Cllr Jeal continued “The other thing that I found myself writing all over the business plan is that I would like more SMART deliverables (strategic, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based) and there’s a lot of fluffy and flowery targets. I don’t want to criticise officers at all but it’s something that I think is a big difference between the private sector and the public sector. The public sector don’t like writing things down that in a year’s time we can look at and say ‘Did they do that, yes or no?’. Now if it’s a ‘no’, that’s fine, we can learn from it, but I’m looking for a document that lives for a year that I can pick up in a year’s time and say ‘brilliant, brilliant, what can we learn from not achieving that?’. Now some of those may be in here but I’m not getting enough of those smart deliverables and I think a lot of these could be much smarter. I also picked up the point that some of our ‘targets’ are written in the past tense…”
“Moving on, there’s a lot of stuff about Corporate Strategy in here but I don’t see anything about a PR strategy. I actually think that there needs to be… There needs to be a proper communication strategy with Members and, through Members, to the electorate who are actually paying for this”.
“I think it definitely needs a big goal that evolves and it needs ambition. And it needs ambition based on your experiences from Opportunity Peterborough. It is no coincidence that you come from a body like this. I was expecting to see much more of ‘this works this didn’t work, we’re going to do this…’.
The lecture continued through comments on the lack of detail regarding succession planning, competitor analysis as well as the company’s fundamental vision and aims.
What happens next?
The Council Leader and InvestSK Director Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) responded on behalf of the InvestSK Board. “Actually, a lot of the comments you and others have raised are really valid actually. I appreciate where Councillor Baxter is referring to with regard to this business. I suppose, for me, I’m looking forward. We now have this committee, and I think I have already said to the committee that I want us to re-prioritise what InvestSK actually does for the Council. I think if we are looking at budgets, I don’t think it is for us as a council. We set the budget and we decide what money can go to InvestSK and that can only be done when we’ve actually worked out really what we want InvestSK to deliver on behalf of the Council. So ultimately, it is us that commission InvestSK to do the work. The Directors, myself and Barry, are ultimately looking at what it does. We will come back with a proposal and a revised business plan will be submitted back to this committee where it can be scrutinised and discussed by elected members. And ultimately, the budgets are decided by us in our budget meeting”.
The next meeting of the companies committee is scheduled for January 7th.