While the rest of the country is talking about Covid, #BLM and Brexit, our special corner of Lincolnshire has been gripped by the thought of unveiling a new statue to Margaret Thatcher in her home town of Grantham. Loyal readers will remember the comments I made at the time of the Planning Application by GCHA back in 2018 but recently the decision by the entirely Conservative SKDC Cabinet to commit £100,000 towards an ‘unveiling event’ has stirred the world’s media once again. I have personally spoken to the national and international press as well as some of our friendly local media including BBC Radio Lincolnshire and Nub News.
First there was a Cabinet meeting back on 1st December which included a seemingly innocuous agenda item entitled “Public Realm Improvements”. The agenda pack was published with a note stating that the relevant papers would follow later.
It was only after the meeting that we discovered that a 9ft bronze statue of the Iron Lady represents an improvement to Grantham town centre and that the statue should unveiled at a ceremony costing £100,000. The decision had been taken without any scrutiny and consequently I used the ‘call-in’ procedure to ensure that other councillors would have a chance to the contribute to the debate.
I sent the call-in request to the SK Chief Executive with the following accompanying comments:
- The Cabinet has taken the decision, in principle and practice, that the Council will support and underwrite the installation of a statue of well-known member of the Conservative Party. This decision has been taken entirely by local members of the Conservative party without even a proper opportunity for discussion, let alone a vote, from Members of other political parties or Independents.
- The original Cabinet agenda made no mention of the statue, nor the authorisation of any expenditure. The paperwork relating to the specifics of the item was not published in accordance with the proper timescale and was incorrectly dated. Consequently, many Members of the Council (and Members of the public) working from the original agenda were unaware of the timing or nature of the discussion.
- The statue has previously been discussed at a meeting of the Planning Committee (aka Development Management). This meeting made a decision concerning an application from a third party (GCHA) and the decision was made concerning only material planning considerations. A decision based on the socio-cultural aspects of the statue would have been incorrect and unlawful at that time. I do not believe that, since then, the has the issue been presented to a Scrutiny Committee.
- At the time of the Planning Committee, I do not recall any mention of the Council becoming responsible for the maintenance of the statue nor for any associated promotional events. The potential risk to the council appears to be significant and it is reasonable for councillors, other than Cabinet Members, to have an opportunity to scrutinise the assumptions and risk to council finances.
- In any case, the Planning Committee meeting was almost two years ago. The Officer’s report, at the time, underlined the potential Crime and Disorder issues associated with the statue and this was before the vociferous public debate around statues in general and the vandalism and destruction of many statues of public figures including Colston in Bristol.
- There is no mention in the (late) documentation of any consultation with Grantham residents, businesses, councillors or other stakeholders other than GCHA and the Lincolnshire Event Safety Partnership’s Safety Advisory Group (SAG). The report does not mention whether or not the SAG was for, or against, the statue and associated promotional events. There is no clear outline business plan explaining how third party funding will be acquired, let alone why the council has somehow taken on responsibility for the fund-raising.
The Culture and Visitor Economy Overview and Scrutiny Committee (aka Tourism Ctte) discussed the Call-In on 5th January. It was Chaired by Cllr Judy Stevens (Con) who allowed a series of Councillors to present their concerns and questions regarding the statue, the event and the expenditure before asking the Council Leader, Kelham Cooke (Con) and the relevant officers to choose which questions they wished to answer and allowed them to ignore the ones they didn’t like.
The outcome was that a request was made to Cabinet to rethink the unveiling event, to be more specific about how the money would be spent and, more importantly, where it would come from.
A month later and the item was presented at Cabinet once again, this time with some more detail. A long list of ‘necessary’ and ‘optional’ items were presented to justify the expenditure of up to £100,000. The list appears to have been cooked up by an External Events Management Organisation who will be leading the project even though they haven’t formally been appointed to do so.
You might ask how can an external company can be given a budget of over £50,000 of public money without going through any formal procurement process? So did I but no answers were forthcoming. In fact, this is what happened at Tuesday’s meeting:
The discussion about the Thatcher event began with a parade of Cabinet Members (all Conservatives) saying what a great idea it is. This included Council Leader, Kelham Cooke who works as a constituency officer for Gareth Davies MP for Grantham and Stamford. He said:
“This presents a unique opportunity to celebrate our heritage & harness national & international interest to promote South Kesteven as a visitor destination & attract investment, all of which support plans to boost the local economy and regenerate the local area.”
Cllr Cooke also stated:
a) that he had spoken to the National Chair of the Conservative Party about the event;
b) he would continue to report progress on planning and fundraising for the event to the Culture and Visitor Economy Committee;
c) that the event will not take place until ‘post-Covid’.
Three non-Cabinet Members then asked questions, namely Cllr Amanda Wheeler (Lib-Dem), Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind) and Yours Truly (Ind).
My comments were along the following lines which you are welcome to quote:
“Nothing says more about the Council’s attitude to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher than three recent decisions of this Conservative-majority council:
Firstly, we have taken the management of ground maintenance operations and our Leisure Centres back to ‘in-house’ companies run by the Council (which would have been virtually impossible for a Tory Council during Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister;
Secondly, we have a plan, albeit a very slow moving plan, to build hundreds of much needed new council houses (which would have been illegal under Thatcher);
Thirdly, the fluttering of an LGBT rainbow flag on the council’s flagpole (which would have been illegal under Thatcher’s Section 28).
All three of the decisions are directly contrary to specific polices and attitudes held by Margaret Thatcher.
The [Cabinet] report shows that £50,000 will be spent via an ‘external management events management organisation’. Will this organisation be appointed via an open and transparent procurement process or will the council be using the recent Conservative tradition of awarding contracts to friends and family?”
Cllr Cooke chose to take the last comment personally and invited me to retract the statement. He would not allow me to add any context to my comment and shortly afterwards muted my microphone.
[After this public chastisement I wondered if I had said too much but on reflection I can recall plenty of recent occasions when Conservatives at a national level have rewarded their friends and family, eg. Housing Minister Robert Jenrick MP, Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP and various Conservatives involved in the procurement of PPE equipment. On a local level, Cllr Cooke has the privilege of choosing his Cabinet (more than £10,000pa each in allowances) and handing out Chairmanships of the Council’s Committees (more than £5,000pa each in allowances). While three of these posts of Special Responsibility are held by members of one family, Cllr Cooke steadfastly refuses to consider appointing anyone who is not a Conservative to these positions. Meanwhile, in the not-too-distant past I have pointed out the curious pattern of appointing people to senior posts and consultancy roles in the council without competitive interview.]
Cllr Cooke then suggested moving to the vote. Cllr Phil Dilks interrupted to request that the questions from the non-Cabinet Members should be addressed but Cllr Cooke said that the meeting was not a ‘Question and Answer’ session and moved to the vote which was, of course, unanimous.
Disappointed with the lack of answers to legitimate questions about spending and procurement, I have submitted an FoI request on the matter: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/thatcher_unveiling_external_even.
As the Councillor who led the ‘call-in’ request, I offered the media the following ‘on the record’ comment:
“It is not the statue of Margaret Thatcher that irks me, nor the concept of an unveiling event, rather it is the nonchalant, arrogant and disorganised manner in which the Conservatives seem willing to commit residents’ money to underwrite the event!”.