Report to MDTC Full Council 11th November 2020 from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.
Good evening, Councillors.
Sadly, once again we are in ‘lockdown’ and so the Town Council meeting will once again take place via Zoom.
A very busy month at South Kesteven District Council. I will try to bring you the edited highlights beginning with some planning matters.
I am delighted to report that the SKDC Planning Committee refused the application from Lincolnshire County Council (LCC) to build 260 on the old showground at Millfield Road. This is the latest episode in LCC’s quest to squander Market Deeping’s last remaining accessible open space for the sake of a short-term cash advantage.
I attended the Committee and spoke against the application, as did MDTC Cllr David Shelton, Pam Steel who is Chair of the Friends of Mill Field and Chandra Mistry who is among the many people who have campaigned very hard for several years to defend the site from development.
This particular battle of Mill Field has been won but I suspect the intransigence of the Conservative County Council will mean that the war is not yet over. The next stage will be the County Council’s challenge to the draft Neighbourhood Plan which is likely to be heard by the Inspector next month.
War Memorial Decision
At the same Planning Committee meeting, Cllr Virginia Moran and I also spoke against an application to erect a 6ft war memorial outside Callow’s cigar shop. While we all consider it very important to honour those who fought and those who died in service of our country, the Committee agreed that this particular application would not be in keeping with our ancient market place and there was insufficient evidence of community support for the memorial.
The Deepings already has at least four war memorial including those in the two parish churches which were chosen soon after the First World War by those who bore the raw grief of loss of their friends and family. I am not convinced that a further memorial will assist in our acts of remembrance.
However, on this Armistice Day, I should mention that I accepted the Mayor’s invitation to attend the formal opening of the Deepings Garden of Remembrance which, as usual, was an appropriately decorous event.
Proposed Extension to Rectory Cottage
Planners recently considered an application to remove 3 mature holly trees at Rectory Cottage, Market Deeping. The applicants claimed the trees were damaging a garden wall. Working alongside the Town Council I tried my best to save these trees from the chainsaw but the SKDC Tree Consultant did not agree that the trees added to the visual amenity of our town, despite being in a Conservation Area and just yards from the cemetery and the award-winning Rectory Paddock.
Now, just six week’s later, the householders have submitted an application to demolish the garden wall they used to care so much about and expand the boundary of their property up to the public footpath. I have requested this application be dealt with by the elected Councillors serving on the Planning Committee rather than delegated to Council Officers.
BP Filling Station Appeal
I regret to report that despite representations from Market Deeping Town Council, Langtoft Parish Council, local residents and myself, the Planning Inspector has decided to overturn the decision of elected Councillors and permit the application for a filling station, retail premises and café to the North of the Langtoft roundabout. During the appeal process, the applicants altered the application to imply that it will be able to refuel electric vehicles even though, during the original planning process, this was supposed to be impractical.
This is a greenfield site which has not been allocated within the Local Plan and, as far as I’m concerned, will be a Trojan Horse for development of all the land North of the by-pass up to Langtoft. In the words of Joni Mitchell: “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”.
I was as surprised and appalled as everyone else to see the neon green bike rack in the centre of Market Deeping. As a regular cyclist I have never found any difficult in parking my bike securely in the town centre. It is typical of the remote and out-of-touch County Council to impose and dispose this facility in the heart of our Conservation Area without any proper thought or consultation. It is astonishing that they didn’t even consult the County Councillor for area and that she seems powerless to have it removed.
For ease of reading, my November report to Market Deeping Town Council is split into three. Here are links to the other parts:
In a recent post published prior to SKDC Companies Committee, I mentioned that progress towards DeliverSK had been slow and uncertain. I also mentioned that it has already cost the Council £90,000 for a company that hasn’t even been incorporated.
The DeliverSK wheeze was one of a number of initiatives which involved recycling ideas from Peterborough City Council and I have mentioned several of them previously on this blog. It was noted at Full Council last week, by one of my Independent colleagues, that the ‘Peterborough Project’ now appears to be over and the council has changed direction.
The £90,000 was split three ways. £50,000 for the expertise of Pinsent Masons who, we are told, are very good at the legal aspects of setting up arms-length enterprises for the council. Indeed, they were very clued up when I asked (on 29 August 2018) how it was possible for the council to enter a multi-million partnership with a third party finance company without an formal procurement process. The Company would not be procuring works or services; they would be seeking and selecting an investment partner so no need for all that pesky red-tape.
The next £6,000 went to KPMG. Don’t ask me what for because I don’t know.
The remaining £34,339 went to Peterborough City Council. I didn’t really understand what this was for until this morning when I had a reply to a request for further information. Apparently, a decision was taken to take one of Peterborough’s senior staff members on secondment. He worked for South Kesteven for 50 days (excluding weekends) between January and March 2019 at a cost of £686 per day. Shortly after he returned from his secondment, Peterborough City Council made him redundant with a massive ‘golden goodbye’.
And what do we, at South Kesteven, have to show for it?
That’s a rhetorical question, as I am sure you can guess the answer, but the forthcoming minutes of the closed session of Companies Committee will hopefully shed some light on it.
My Sunday afternoon has been spent reading the agenda and reports relating to next Tuesday’s Companies Committee. On the off-chance that some SK residents are interested in how millions of pounds is being squandered or invested, I have put together this short summary about the council’s growing portfolio of Local Authority Owned Company (LACC).
Gravitas Housing Ltd
The first ‘Shareholders’ meeting’ about setting up SKDC’s first LACC took place in October 2016 and in January 2017 we decided on a name and a purpose for the company. The name would be ‘Gravitas’ and Members agreed it should focus on new build developments.
Since then, the company has completed only one project comprising 25 dwellings at Wherry’s Lane in Bourne. Only 5 of these dwellings have so far been sold and therefore the company has not yet returned its investment; nor has it ‘disrupted the housing market’ as was hoped; nor does it have any other projects currently in the pipeline.
The Shareholders Committee has been replaced by the Companies Committee and the Chair of the latter has described the progress of Gravitas as “moving at a glacial pace”.
Until July 2020, Gravitas had three Directors, all of whom were Council employees. Long-suffering member of the council’s Finance team, Mr Richard Wyles, has served since 2017 and he was originally on the ‘Board of Directors’ with Steve Ingram and Tracey Blackwell. In the summer of 2018, Steve and Tracey left the council, with significant financial settlements (aka pay-offs) and consequently resigned as Directors of Gravitas Housing Ltd. They were replaced by the recently appointed Assistant Director for Growth, Jane McDaid and the recently appointed Assistant Director for Housing, Harry Rai.
Skip forward to July 2020, two years almost to the day since they were appointed, and Jane and Harry resigned as Gravitas Directors because they too had been encouraged to leave the council, probably with significant financial settlements (aka pay-offs). This has left Richard Wyles as the sole current Gravitas Director.
On Tuesday, the Companies Committee will be asked to appoint three new Directors to the Gravitas Board: Council Leader, Coun Kelham Cooke (Con); Deputy Leader. Cllr Barry Dobson BA Hons (Con); and Strategic Director for Growth, Mr Paul Thomas. According to the Committee report: “These proposed appointments will bring the political and professional strategic support to enable Gravitas to successfully deliver the Wherrys Lane development and bring forward a pipeline of strategic housing development proposals for Committee consideration”. Only time will tell.
The failure of Gravitas to deliver housing at pace has been noted and so rumours have started about an intention to set up a new Company to focus on the delivery of affordable homes in the District. This would be Homes SK.
Unfortunately, the proposed brief and purpose of Homes SK has not been published anywhere in the public domain. Companies Committee were due to hear about it this week but on Sunday evening we were sent an e-mail stating: “It has been agreed with the Chairman of the Committee that the HomesSK item (Item 9a) on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Companies Committee will now be considered at the following meeting”. So, I guess we’ll have to wait a bit longer.
This is another Council company which doesn’t exist yet. It was an idea that the Council’s previous leader had brought with him from Peterborough and was based on the idea of the council forming a company (an LLP) with a wealthy investment company in order to bankroll a series of joint ventures.
It was reported with much fanfare in December 2018 that, after a competitive process and ‘informal cabinet’, the private sector partner had been chosen and was to be IAG Holdings which was an investment company based in Guernsey and, entirely coincidentally, the same partner engaged by Peterborough City Council on a similar wheeze.
There followed a period of virtual silence on the matter until 30 June 2020 when a holding report sent to Companies Committee explained some of the problems concerning IAG Holdings. Apparently, discussions had progressed with IAG during the course of 2019, during which it transpired that the company that would be entering into the partnership was not IAG but was in-fact a subsidiary of IAG; namely IAGH3. The Companies Committee of 30 June was informed that the change in proposed partner would require a new Non-Key Decision and necessitated due diligence on the new entity. The Committee was promised “a report at its next meeting setting out options and recommendations as to establishing DeliverSK”.
The report has indeed been circulated prior to the meeting but sadly, the entire report and its appendix has been been classed as ‘restricted’ and therefore printed on ‘pink papers’ which means that I am not allowed to tell you what is proposed relating to DeliverSK.
What I can tell you is that the Council had already incurred £90k costs in trying to establish the appropriate governance and operating structure for DeliverSK. This is broken down as: £34k to Peterborough City Council; £6k to KPMG and £50k to Pinsents.
In my opinion, the main reason why the DeliverSK report has been restricted is to prevent embarrassment of the former and existing Conservative Cabinet members responsible for the incredibly slow and uncertain progress of DeliverSK over the last two years.
The decision to bring grounds maintenance services in-house was taken at the end of the council’s contract with Glendale Services. There were a number of problems with the contract with Glendale including 1) it was quite inflexible and required a contract variation notice everytime the company was asked to adjust it’s mowing regime. This limited any creative ideas like rewilding or extra cuts; 2) although branded ‘Glendale Local’, the company was actually based in Cheshire and, at one stage, were sending resources from Doncaster to cut the grass in Deeping St James. For these reasons, and on a point of principle, I supported bringing Grounds Maintenance in-house.
Forming another LACC, rather than simply putting grounds maintenance staff on the council payroll, has its pro’s and con’s. One ‘pro’ is flexibility with regard to staff – it was mentioned at the time that EnvironmentSK was being incorporated that it was very difficult for the council to engage on incentive packages such as performance-related pay. However, there is also a big ‘con’ in that a LACC is much more difficult to hold accountable.
For example, at a recent SKDC Cabinet meeting, it was noted that SKDC refuse collectors were the poorest paid in Lincolnshire and consequently it was agreed that they should be given a pay-rise. I asked a question about whether grounds maintenance staff were being paid fairly by EnvironmentSK. The Cabinet Member for Environment, Cllr Peter Moseley (Con), responded “The salaries paid by ESK are a matter for ESK Ltd and not for this Council and they are paid in line with what the market allows”. Yes, even though EnvironmentSK Ltd is owned entirely by SKDC and, by law, at least 80% of it’s activity is delivering services to SKDC, the Conservative Cabinet Member believes that the terms and conditions of the staff are not a matter of concern to the council.
At the last Companies Committee, the Directors of ESK submitted a half-hearted and heavily redacted Business Plan. The Chair of the Committee rightly chastised them for not taking the committee seriously. One member of the Committee also criticised the ‘pie-in-the-sky’ nature of the content of the business plan. In his words: “You could drive a 40 footer through the holes in its logic and the numbers were fanciful”.
In its first published accounts, EnvironmentSK Ltd reported a loss of £133,702. A revised and more detailed business plan will be presented to Companies Committee this week. Once again, it will not be released in the public domain but, without breaking confidence, I can tell you that ‘pie-in-the-sky’ figures are still there.
Tuesday’s Companies Committee will also discuss an ‘Update on InvestSK’. Regular readers will know that, from the outset, I have had concerns about the lack of accountability and transparency of InvestSK. The last (and only) time it was seriously considered at Companies Committee, the Chair said the business plan was full of fluffy and flowery targets.
In recent weeks the Chief Executive of InvestSK has left the organisation, probably with a significant financial settlements (aka pay-off). Steve Bowyer was yet another member of staff who followed Cllr Lee up the A1 from Peterborough to Grantham.
After a lot of e-mails ‘to and fro’, I now have confirmation from the council’s Monitoring Officer that InvestSK should be subject to the same transparency rules as the Council so I can freely report that InvestSK has given £50,000 to a dance school in Grantham and £150,000 to a consultancy for a single project. Obviously, this doesn’t match the £280,000 recently given to Mace consultancy by SKDC but it’s still a lot of money.
The Directors of InvestSK are the Leader, the Deputy Leader and the Chief Executive of the Council. For a brief period, Paul Thomas was also a Director until I pointed out, on 13th August, that he was the person who was supposed to be managing the ‘contract’ between SKDC and InvestSK and he couldn’t act as ‘both poacher and gamekeeper’. On 14th August, Cllr Cooke e-mailed me to insist that there was no conflict of roles but, on 18th August, Mr Thomas resigned as a Director of InvestSK – Read into that what you will!
As far as I can ascertain, SKDC has set no targets for InvestSK and the whole relationship exists on the basis of ‘make it us as we go along’. This flexibility is handy at times of emergency, e.g. a global pandemic, but generally it’s not a healthy way to do business. The InvestSK LACC is supposed to be managed as rigorously as any contract with an external company but I hope we don’t just hand millions of pounds to our external partners in the same cheery way we do to InvestSK.
This is the latest proposed addition to the SK family of companies which has been discussed at Cabinet, at Culture Overview and Scrutiny Committee and will be discussed again on Tuesday at Companies Committee.
I am not supposed to tell you anything else about it because all the committee papers are restricted. However, somehow these rules of secrecy do not apply to the SKDC press office who have been permitted to tell all the local media about Leisure SK! As Deepings Nub News reported:
South Kesteven District Council is bringing the management and operation of its four leisure centres back in-house. The council says this will give it greater flexibility on how the leisure facilities are managed and potentially accelerate SKDC’s leisure improvements programme.
If you’ve made it this far through the blog, I admire your tenacity. Please consider liking the post and sharing the post if you know anyone else with an interest in local authority accountability.
In my opinion, the main reason why so much of the information relating to the council’s wholly owned companies has been restricted is to prevent embarrassment of the former and existing Conservative Cabinet members responsible for the incredibly slow and uncertain progress over the last two years. The current culture of secrecy and constant restriction of Council reports undermines public confidence in the council. It is time for Cllr Kelham Cooke to deliver on his promise of “a more open, transparent and collaborative style of council that welcomes constructive challenge”.
>> In Oct 2017, SKDC Leader Cllr Leader Matthew Lee (Con) committed the Council to building a new Leisure Cente in the Deepings.
>> In Sept 2019, in response to a question I asked at Full Council, it was revealed that the preferred site for the new Leisure Centre would be the school playing fields North of Spalding Road in Deeping St James.
>> Since then, Deepings’ Independent Councillors, including me, have asked for Leisure Centre progress updates at every opportunity. Until January 2020 we received fairly regular progress reports. In February the new Cabinet Member for Leisure promised us monthly regular reports and since then we have received none.
>> Undeterred, I have continued to request documents and details relating to plans for the new leisure centre. These have all been delayed or denied even though the council rules, and the law of the land, suggest that I should be given them. I have managed to find some information via scrutiny of Council spending records and informal communication with Council Officers who I am sure are frustrated by the Conservative’s secretive attitude.
Inaccurate information from the Deputy Leader
On the evening of 30 July 2020, minutes before Deeping St James Parish Council (DSJ PC) meeting were due to discuss the plans, I received a phone call from SKDC Deputy Leader, Cllr Barry Dobson BA Hons (Con), who wished to have an informal chat about progress towards the Leisure Centre. He suggested, yet again, that it would be useful to have a meeting with me about the leisure centre to compare plans etc. He implied that he wished only to speak to me about the plans and not my Independent colleagues in the Deepings. The very next day I sent him a follow-up e-mail to say that I would be happy to meet him “anywhere and with anyone to discuss the plans if it means I actually get to see them and/or contribute positively to the dialogue”.
Surprise, surprise, there was no follow up e-mail or phone call from Cllr Dobson BA Hons which underlines my suspicion that he only phoned me in the first place to prevent an embarrassment at the July meeting of DSJ PC.
At last week’s DSJ PC meeting (27 August) Cllr Dobson did submit a report, in his capacity as LCC Cllr for DSJ, which appeared to offer some useful information as follows:.
“The Leisure Centre building itself will now be located entirely on LCC land and the artificial surface pitch. The Rugby Club pavilion will remain in situ providing approval is given to lose one football pitch. However, should this be approved, it is suggested that the Rugby Club improve the condition and appearance of their facility subject to SKDC/DSJPC approval”.
Make of those comments what you will but don’t spend too long worrying about them because when presenting Cllr Dobsons’s report (in his absence), the Chair of DSJ PC, Cllr Steve Gilbert began by stating clearly “Barry Dobson has issued a report; there are some inaccuracies in his report and we will clarify those with him at some later date”.
Cllr Dilks and I both tried to clarify which parts of Cllr Dobson’s report were perceived to be inaccurate or rather, whether any of his comments relating to the Leisure Centre were accurate. This was not possible.
The good news is: Deepings St James Parish Council has agreed, in principle, to allow SKDC to have a lease on (some of) its land in order to progress the delivery of leisure facilities at the site.
The site of the school fields is owned by the County Council and the Parish Council. The Parish owns and L-shape which starts at ‘Woody Heights’ skate park and runs East to the boundary of the rugby field and then down to the Bowls Club including some, but not all, of the current all-weather pitch (aka the ‘Astro’).
The school and the Parish Council have wanted to resolve this issue since at least 2011 but the recalcitrant attitude of the Lincolnshire County Council legal department has, until now, prevented any leases being signed. Since achieving Academy Status almost a decade ago, the Deepings School has been using the playing fields on the precarious legal basis of a ‘Tenancy at Will’. The rugby club has been operating with even less security of tenure.
Since the mid-1970s the fields have been used effectively as one unit by the school and by sports clubs. In the 1970s it was assumed that all the Councils were working together in the common public interest – Those were the days!. The grounds maintenance of the fields is funded entirely by residents of Market Deeping and Deeping St James as a designated Special Expense Area (SEA). The land used to be freely accessible to members of the community as an open space but, about five years ago, the school decided to put a perimeter fence to keep the children in and so-called trespassers out. The fence cost over £40,000. No adjustment has been made to the SEA to reflect that fact that Deepings residents can no longer freely access the fields they pay to maintain.
The important part of the decision by Deeping St James PC last week is that SKDC should now have sufficient confidence to engage consultants, partners and other professionals to further develop plans for the delivery of a new Leisure Centre as well as new All-Weather pitches.
Any sport you like, as long as it’s football
With regard to the All-Weather Pitch(es), the Council has budgeted £200,000 in this financial year for the replacement of the 30 year-old ‘astro’ which should have been repaired or condemned several years ago when the Bourne Deeping Hockey Club (BDHC) were forced, by safety concerns, to stop playing on it. It wasn’t until November 2019 that it was actually condemned after two injuries allegedly caused by its atrocious condition.
BDHC currently train in Peterborough where they also have to play their home games because there is no pitch available in the South of the SK District. Most of the training takes place in Glinton but because this is a school site, there is very limited access during the school holidays so the club misses out on the potential income and benefits of holiday clubs.
The cost of a new astro is estimated to be over £600,000, therefore SKDC will need to find additional income from other sources. The most likely funder is the Football Foundation who are rightly impressed by the success of Deepings growing new side, Deeping United who cater for almost all ages and abilities. Unfortunately, the artificial playing surface required for competitive adult hockey is not suitable for competitive adult football, and vice versa. Therefore, it is unlikely that a pitch funded by the Football Foundation would meet the needs of Bourne Deeping HC (established since the 1920s). Consequently, it seems the new leisure centre either needs two new pitches or the hockey club need to find a permanent new home.
Whether or not an artificial soccer pitch would be suitable for other other sports to train and compete (e.g. cricket, rugby, lacrosse, baseball, athletics etc) is an unknown. I’ve had lots of conversations about the pros and cons of, for example, ‘3G Rubber Crumb Filled Turf’ but I still don’t consider myself an expert!
My daughter swims with the Deepings Swim Club, and lately her squad has been training in the wind and the rain. I think I can speak on behalf of all the parents when I say that, while we’re very grateful to the folks at Tallington Lakes, we can’t wait to get back indoors!
The following District Council report was presented by Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind, Deeping St James) to Deeping St James Parish Council last Thursday 27 August, 2020.
Phil was the only one of the three DSJ District Councillors to submit a written report (The County Councillor submitted a report I will publish later). Nevertheless, Cllr Dilks was criticised by the Chair for not complying with Standing Orders requiring papers to be submitted via the Clerk and 72 hours ahead of a meeting. DSJ’s two Conservative Councillors, who had little to report, whined that Cllr Dilks’ report was overtly partly political and insisted there is ‘another side to the story’. When challenged to explain their alternative view, the Conservatives declined so I am afraid I can only present you with Cllr Dilks report, as follows:.
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.NB. I have added the hyperlinks and photos.
Councillor Phil Dilks (Ind) Report to Deeping St James Parish Council – August 2020
Cost of Covid…
Government grants mean the costs of the pandemic to SKDC in lost income and provision of extra services are now expected to be just over £1 million – down from earlier predictions of over £3 million. A revised budget with some capital projects deferred until next year is being worked on to bring finances back into balance and is expected to be presented to full Council in September.
Council Leader’s ‘errors of judgement’…
There have been calls for Cllr Kelham Cooke to resign as Leader of SKDC after he was caught breaking the Covid-19 social distancing rules he has been urging the rest of us to follow.
In what has been described as a serious error of judgement by someone in a position of power, photographs of Cllr Cooke taken on two separate occasions showing him and his mates ignoring social distancing rules have appeared in the local press and on television news.
The previous restructuring resulted in the entire senior management team leaving the council, almost £1 million in ‘payoffs’ to senior staff in exchange signing non-disclosure agreements and recruitment of a new senior management team.
At the request of Cllr Cooke, the Council’s third Chief Executive in as many years has launched a private consultation exercise with existing senior staff. The extent and costs and potential benefits of the restructuring is not yet known.
However, first casualty appears to be Steve Bowyer, Chief Exec of Invest SK, the council funded regeneration company. Mr Bowyer departed earlier this month following reports that his post was being reviewed.
(InvestSK is the council funded regeneration company set up a couple of years ago as part of the last management restructuring under former Leader Cllr Matthew Lee and his Deputy Cllr Kelham Cooke. InvestSK’s remit was curtailed earlier this year and its £1.4 million annual funding was reduced to approx. £800,000).
I have asked questions at Cabinet regarding Mr Bowyer’s sudden departure, but it is not yet known whether he received a payoff from the public purse, nor whether he and the Council or InvestSK have signed a non-disclosure agreement.
SKDC to be abolished….??
SKDC may disappear under local government re-organisation to be announced by the government in the autumn.
Lincolnshire County Council, under its Leader Cllr Martin Hill, is advocating a ‘unitary’ authority to cover the whole of Greater Lincolnshire – incorporating the south bank of the Humber. This would involve the abolition of the seven current district councils covering what is now Lincolnshire, as well as the unitaries covering the Scunthorpe (now North Lincolnshire) and Grimsby (now North East Lincolnshire).
SKDC’s Cabinet this month approved spending of up to £50,000 to help develop of a business case for local government reorganisation in Lincolnshire that best serves the needs of local residents.
All seven district councils in the current county are working together on the best way forward for local government in the county ahead of the Government’s White Paper on Recovery and Devolution due to be published in the autumn.
Apology for Ashley…
A Deepings councillor has received an apology from council chiefs after he was wrongly ‘ejected’ from an online council meeting.
Cllr Ashley Baxter lodged a formal complaint after he was repeatedly – and wrongly -removed from a meeting of the Council’s Licensing Committee.
This afternoon, I had an online meeting with Simon Richards, the new Chief Exec of South Lincs Citizens Advice Bureau which is financially supported by SKDC They have continued to provide online and telephone advice to people across the District during the pandemic and have seen enquiries regarding employment issues triple since March and predict a surge in demand for their services in the autumn following the end of the furlough scheme and possible ending of the moritorium on debt collections.
During August, I have attended numerous site visits in advance of planning applications and two lengthy Planning Committee meetings determining applications ranging from a drive-through coffee shop on the A1 southbound north of Grantham, an entry-level affordable scheme for Morton to an extension to a Bourne care home and an Aldi store in Grantham.
The consultation process linked to an application for an Aldi store on Uffington Road, Stamford provoked local calls for a similar store here in The Deepings.
Earlier today, I was one of two members of the Planning Committee invited to attend a four hour Planning and Design Panel meeting with developers, planners, highways officials and other professionals to discuss various major applications across the District which are in the pipeline.
A team representing Aldi were at the PAD meeting to discuss their Stamford application and I can say they confirmed they are taking the call for a Deepings Aldi seriously and are already considering potential local sites.
(The Stamford Aldi application – for a brownfield site Deepings side of Morrisons is to be determined by Committee on 30th September).
This month I have attended meetings of the Environment OSC and the Finance, Economic and Corporate.
Cllr Phil Dilks, District and Parish Councillor 27 August 2020
The Full Council meeting of 16 July 2020 was a complete shambles from start to finish. The Chair was AWOL for most of the meeting and so the Chief Exec became the de facto Chair. This would be tantamount to an abuse of authority if were not the only practical option.
At one point in the meeting, while votes were being recorded on an issue, the Chair, Cllr Jacky Smith (Con), was clearly heard whispering to an Officer: “What are we voting for?”.
Later, during a heated and complicated debate concerning the correct procedure for electing a new Committee Chair, the so-called Chair of Council was silent for over 10 minutes despite members raising 3 points of order, various calls for clarification as well as interventions from officers.
As a result of the chaos, the meeting went on for over four hours but didn’t even manage to agree the minutes of the previous meeting let alone allow for open questions from Councillors or consideration of the three motions which had been proposed concerning the important issues of: the Council’s response to Covid; electric vehicles; and mental health.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this meeting for a while. There are three reasons for the delay: firstly, I needed some time to calm down; secondly lots of other things have been happening including my being illegally thrown out of a meeting; thirdly, I wanted my report to be accurate so on the 22 July I requested a copy of the recording of the meeting. Last week I was sent a file which was password protected. I eventually received the password only to discover that I have only been sent the last hour of the meeting. The remainder of the recording only arrived last Tues 4th August.
Prayers and Questions
The meeting was preceded by prayers led by the vicar from St Wulfram’s Grantham at about 13:05. The Chair then began the formal meeting by welcoming everyone to the meeting and going through the ‘housekeeping’. She requested that councillors turn their phones to silent and ‘remove any possible distractions’. You would be amazed at some of the ways in which councillors were distracted: One had to make at least two ‘urgent’ phone calls; one was travelling on a train; another was digging potatoes! Background noises included classical music, car engines starting, dogs barking and various overheard conversations with people ‘off stage’.
These were followed by two questions from a member of the public, Struan Cornell from Bourne, concerning the decision by Cabinet Member for Tourism, Coun Rosemary Trollope-Bellew (Con) to abandon the Bourne Cicle Festival.
Coun Trollope-Bellew suggested the main reason for not resurrecting the event was financial. Before lockdown, the council had already spent £24,000 on preparatory work for the Gravity Fields which is not recoverable. She said that the Cuncil is currently facing a budget gap of around £3.4 million due to the Covid Pandemic. She didn’t mention that her decision to cancel the Bourne Cicle Festival was taken before Christmas without consultation.
In response to a second question about the possibility of Bourne Cicle Festival in 2021, Coun Trollope-Bellew said the festival would need to be: well-planned; value for money; inclusive; and of benefit to the wider residents and business community. She invited Mr Cornell to put together a business case by the end of August.
Attendance and Apologies
A register of attendance was taken by roll-call. The four minute roll-call was repeated for most votes (and amendments) throughout the meeting, The cumulative time spent voting during the meeting was probably the best part of an half an hour.
Minutes of the Previous Meetings
The agenda pack sent out to Councillors included two sets of minutes. This was expected because there had been an emergency meeting on 1 July to discuss the downgrading of Grantham Hospital.
Unfortunately, the original agenda pack contained two copies of the minutes of 1 July but no minutes from the previous ‘ordinary’ meeting of 14 May. Consequently a supplementary pack was sent which included the missing minutes among other things.
The meeting managed to approve the minutes of 14 May without much trouble but when someone proposed approval the minutes of 1 July, Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind) pointed out that the two sets included within the agenda pack were different drafts and asked which set we were supposed to be approving. Cllr Dilks drew the Council’s attention to a particular paragraph which had been dropped between one draft and the next: “It was felt that the lack of clarity as to the intended procedure for the meeting has caused confusion and friction among members”
This clearly caught the Chair and Chief Executive off-guard as they clearly had no clue that there were two versions. After 2 or 3 minutes of radio silence, the Chief Executive dispatched an Officer to find out what was going on and advised these minutes would be deferred until later in the meeting.
The Council was presented with a list of the seven events attended by the Chair prior to lockdown and the three informal flag-raising ceremonies she had attended since 17th March.
Future High Street Fund
This item concerned the Council’s commitment to allocate £379,092 as an essential contribution to leverage government funding of £8m for regenerating the centre of Grantham. Most of the comments contributed to mutual back-slapping between the Cabinet members celebrating what a fantastic job they had done in shaping the bid so far.
The Leader Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) explained the bid would mean “investment in the future of our District’s largest town, Grantham, which we have discussed so much because it has so much potential; and that potential, if realised, will benefit generations within the town, to the remotest district borders, and across Lincolnshire… I will hope you will join in me in voting for this, and pursuing this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity. Grantham is growing. Let’s be bold. Let’s be innovative and LET’S MAKE GRANTHAM GREAT!”.
Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind) reprised the comments he had made at the Finance & Econ Dev Overview Scrutiny Committee (OSC) concerning the secrecy behind the bid-writing process and the fact that councillors hadn’t been properly consulted. He drew the Council’s attention to the ‘project board’ which had been meeting since last November and asked who had decided on its membership. He mentioned that the draft bid had already received feedback from the Government and asked where elected Councillors could access the feedback document. He asked why there was no formal scrutiny of the bid until the last possible moment (just 12 days earlier). He challenged the Leader and his Deputy to commit to stop paying lip-service to scrutiny and, in future, embrace real pre-scrutiny that is meaningful and robust, especially on major multi-million pound projects.
Coun Dilks final point concerned the bid’s stated intention to establish a permanent “Grantham Town Team”. This would be comprised of key stakeholders including landowners, businesses, community groups etc and be Chaired by an SKDC Councillor. The aim of the ‘Town Team would be to co-ordinate activities and improve the town centre. He suggested proposed ‘Town Team’ looked dangerously like a backdoor attempt to create an unelected Town Council.
Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) responded with a lot of waffle during which he mentioned several times that Cllr Dilks is not a Grantham Councillor but omitted to mention that neither he nor Cllr Cooke represented Grantham wards either. Typically, the Conservatives expect all Councillors from across South Kesteven to show solidarity in supporting Grantham when it suits their agenda but if we start asking questions then they switch to ‘Mind your own business’!
Many of Cllr Dilks concerns were echoed by Cllr Charmaine Morgan (Lab) who does represent a Grantham ward. Cllr Dobson responded to Cllr Morgan by talking about the crisis on the High Street mentioning in passing that now “Boots is leaving us, I understand”.
Regarding the role of InvestSK (I-SK) Cllr Dobson elucidated: “InvestSK was given a task, or they actually instigated it. It was all down to the efforts of I-SK to get this through. When I took over the portfolio back in January I was so excited by it that I just ploughed on with what was there and I just wanted to give Grantham everything we can give it…”
Cllr Ian Stokes (Con) stated that this was ‘first time’ he had seen the bid which seems odd for two reasons: a) he is a Grantham Councillor; b) he is Chair of Governance and Audit Ctte; and c) his son Cllr Adam Stokes Con) is Cabinet Member for Finance who must have been involved in writing the bid – one can only assume the Stokes family don’t talk about Grantham or politics at home.
Cllr Stokes Snr went onto say the bid was 10 years too late: “We went through all this early in the 1910s (sic) and we couldn’t get it through then because we were stuck with various properties like the four little Victorian buildings near the station which have got a class II listing on them. We would have liked to have had a wonderful area there and we were going to have IT offices in that particular place and it would have been a wonderful way to get into the centre of town but we were thwarted [back] then. This looks to be a lot better. We are still stuck with those houses unfortunately. I hope this will progress the centre of town… And those comments about town councils from various people are a complete waste of time”.
Cllr Knowles (Ind) expressed that any development of Grantham would be mindful of transport links across the District. There are currently no public transport links between Grantham and any of the District’s other towns.
The Chief Executive requested permission for Mr Paul Thomas to contribute to the debate. Mr Thomas, Director of Growth, clarified some of the questions asked by Cllr Dilks including that the membership of the project board was limited to members of the SKDC Cabinet. His explanations were far more specific and useful than those of Cllr Dobson.
Despite the various concerns, the recommendation to submit the funding bid was agreed unanimously.
Financial Impact of COVID-19 on the Leisure Service
Agenda Item 15 was bumped up the agenda because, the Chair said, it was “important”. I’m not sure what that says about the rest of the agenda but she said what she said. The item was to be considered ‘in camera’ (closed session).
One of the Members asked if it was permissible to participate from the railway carriage on which he was travelling. He added that he was not intending to participate in the debate. The Chief Executive asked if he was listening via headphones, which he confirmed, and this was deemed acceptable. In the event, he did participate in the debate by complaining about the questions I was asking about the Leisure Service. I cannot give you any more detail because the debate remains confidential.
At risk of breaking the rules, I am prepared to divulge that when the item was brought to the vote, one Councillor abstained because he had not listened to all of the debate. He apologised to the Chair saying that the reason for his absence was because he had been outside digging potatoes for a good cause!
Programme of Meetings 2020-21
It was announced that due to the volume of business, there would be an extra Full Council meeting on 1 Oct 2020.
Changes to the Constitution
Two Councillors abstained because he had not listened to all of the debate. One was making an urgent phone call. He apologised to the Chair saying that the reason for his absence was because he had been outside digging potatoes for a good cause!
Constitutions are only interesting when they are in dispute. The Council’s Constitution Committee has met only once in 2020. There have apparently been several ‘workshops’ concerning the proposed changes to the constitution but these were only attended by a very small number of people meeting behind closed doors. At the time of the meeting there were no minutes available of either the formal meeting nor the informal workshop,
The proposed changes were pretty radical and there was not time to go through everyone’s specific problems in detail. Therefore, Cllr Paul Wood (Ind) proposed an amendment to refer the issue back to the Constitution committee for more thought with respect to councillors’ feedback.
Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) a former Leader of the Council, made it clear that the Conservatives would be doing as they were told: “I will be voting against this amendment because that is what I have been asked to do. I just think it is a huge shame…”.
It was during the vote on the amendment that Cllr Jacky Smith, who was supposedly Chairing the meeting, was clearly heard asking “What are we voting for?”.
The debate around changes to the constitution continued for well over an hour. The changes were agreed with no Conservative voting against the changes and no opposition member voting for them.
Appointments to Committees
This was easily the most contentious item on the agenda.
Owing to the resignation of Cllr Chris Benn, a vacancy had arisen for the Chair of the Council’s Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee. In a group leaders’ meeting prior to the meeting, Coun Paul Wood had informed the Council’s Leader and Chief Executive that he wished to make a nomination for the vacant Chair and was given the impression that this would be allowed and that there would be a straight-forward vote for the Conservative candidate or another candidate.
When it came to the agenda item, Cllr Wood proposed that Cllr Ashley Baxter (That’s me!) for the position. My environmental credentials are well-known.
Sadly, at this point, former SKDC Leader, Cllr Bob Adams (Con) made an spurious comment that a contested election would be contrary to the Constitution. The Council’s Monitoring Officer was asked for clarification and, after prompting, quoted para 6.5.5 which clearly states: “If the Chairman or Vice-Chairman resigns either from that position or from the Council by giving written notice of resignation to the Chief Executive, the Council shall, at its next meeting, elect a successor”
However, without any comment, direction or clarification from the Chair, who remained silent for more than 10 minutes, various Conservatives jumped up and down with their own observations on the ‘real meaning’ of the constitution. Tellingly, former Leader Cllr Bob Adams commented “This is why I hate constitutions”.
Long story short, the Monitoring Officer was browbeaten into changing her advise and the nomination of an opposition candidate was disallowed.
In my opinion, this moment marked a watershed for the Council. From that point on there was absolutely no doubt that the Conservatives don’t want a fair fight, or a fair debate, or proper scrutiny. They are afraid of the implications of allowing any opposition member to take a position of power or influence. What is worse is that the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer are clearly afraid to present an opinion which is contrary to that of the Conservative group.
These comments are not ‘sour grapes’ because I didn’t get elected as Chair of the Environment Committee It was always clear that the Conservatives would never openly vote against one of their own group (even though, on paper, as several members pointed out, there is no Councillor better qualified than me). The most shocking part of this chaotic decision is that the Conservatives have employed senior officers to defend them against effective scrutiny and allow them to do whatever they like with impunity and without challenge.
This is further illustrated by the way in which complaints about process, transparency and decision-making are batted away by officers and Cabinet Members alike. Democracy at South Kesteven is in a terrible state.
Parish Council Matters
It was agreed at the last minute that changes to two Parish Councils should be nodded through by the council without debate. I abstained because I hold an old-fashioned belief that Councillors should always have an opportunity to ask questions and debate agenda items before decisions are taken.
At the conclusion of the meeting the Leader of the Council was allowed to make the following brief comment: “If I can just say very briefly before we draw this meeting to a close, this is not one of the best meetings that we’ve ever had at the District Council. I will certainly be revising on this (sic) and I know the Chairman will as well. Obviously the previous minutes will need to be voted upon, as will [agenda items] 12, 13 and 14, and the motions as well will have to go on to another meeting”.
The Chair followed up by saying “Yes, I hope the next meeting will be a much better, much friendlier one and that we will get away from all this back-biting and so on. We are here to do work and to get the best we can out of everything for the betterment of the Council and the town; and people must be absolutely horrified if they come in and see this sort of behaviour”.
An Independent Member from Bourne then asked the Chair to clarify which ‘town’ she was referring to. The Chair responded that she meant “any town, all of the towns…”.
The next meeting of the Council is the AGM scheduled for September which will include the election of a new Chair. For everyone’s sake, it can’t come soon enough!
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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: email@example.com
Meanwhile here’s a clip of some good old fashion whistleblowing of a different kind…