Report to MDTC Full Council 10th June, 2020 from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.
Leisure Centre / All Weather Pitch
Despite various SKDC committee meetings in February deciding to set up Members Working Group(s) to keep abreast of progress towards the Leisure Transformation strategy, no meetings have taken place. Cabinet Member, Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) reported in April (to DSJ PC) the plan for the new Leisure Centre in the Deepings is progressing well and that two options are currently being drawn up and priced. Unfortunately, the plans haven’t progressed far enough for any detailed plans, proposals or costs to be shared with anyone outside the Conservative cabinet.
What I have discovered is that leisure consultants Mace have been paid £284,000 for a report which has yet to be published. Evidently it did not deliver the detailed business plans which were promised because the Council has now engaged a new, thankfully much cheaper consultant, to make sense of the findings of the first consultant.
Next week’s Cabinet meeting includes draft workplan with an aspiration to consider Leisure Centre investment at the September Cabinet meeting. It is one of no fewer than twelve proposed agenda items for that particular Cabinet meeting so don’t hold your breath!
The first meeting of the Full Council was little more than a PR stunt and a rubber-stamping exercise. Motions from Councillors were not allowed and neither were open questions from Councillors and members of the public. Large chunks of the meeting were taken up with voting because every decision, even including approval of the previous minutes, required a roll-call of all 55 councillors in attendance.
During one of the votes, despite a quite labourious explanation by the Chief Executive, the Chair of the Council inadvertently voted against her own party and consequently the voting had to start all over again.
The Finance meeting spent most of its time speculating the likely impact of Covid19 on the Council’s finances. Unsurprisingly the general consensus was a pessimistic outlook. Income from arts centres; car parks, businesses rates and other areas have reduced virtually to zero while waste collection costs have risen. There are some unknowns including: the extent to which the Government will bail out Local Authorities; and whether or not the leisure provider, 1Life, will succeed with a legal claim it has submitted to the council for financial losses (the council is obviously disputing the claim).
The Governance and Audit Committee almost took place on 24th May but just after it started I pointed out that no access details had been provided to members of the public and officers confirmed that the meeting could not proceed if it was inaccessible.
The reconvened meeting discussed external audit reports which were critical of the Council’s medium term financial strategy and lack of a meaningful corporate strategy. The meeting discussed internal audit reports which were highly critical of the council’s failure to consistently follow its own procurement rules as well as various shortcomings of the council’s homelessness function. Thankfully some of the issues have been addressed between the Internal Audit visit and their presentation to the G&A Committee.
This morning’s Planning Committee meeting was supposed to discuss plans for a waterski and touring caravan facility in Tallington. Unfortunately, at the very last moment, it was decided to defer the item until after a site visit could take place.
Many, many thanks are due to all the volunteers and organisations who are supporting local residents and businesses through Covid lockdown. The Deepings Round Table deserve a special mention and I am happy to be one of three Deepings Councillors who have allocated a total a thousand pounds from SKDC Community Funds towards their ongoing costs.
Finally, it is sadness that I report the passing of my friend, and former Town Councillor Roy Bell. Roy was Deputy Mayor in 2010-11 and did loads of work with the Council’s Summer Playscheme. He passed on yesterday after a long struggle with cancer. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.
The agenda for the South Kesteven Cabinet meeting of 16th June has not yet been published. I don’t have a crystal ball but I am going to make a prediction: the Conservative cabinet will present proposals for a review and report of the impact of the Coronavirus on SKDC’s operations aimed at identifying lessons to be learned which can improve the council’s ‘normal’ day-to-day activity as well as for any future crisis emergency.
If the Cabinet does propose such an investigation then I, for one, will fully support the idea. In fact, I already have! I proposed pretty much the same idea as a motion to the last Full Council (See below). My proposal was made 30th April, well ahead of the normal deadline and was acknowledged by the democratic services team. I mentioned it in a phone call to the Council Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con), who hadn’t seen it so I sent him a copy. The following day he informed me that he was “happy to support the majority” of the content of my motion but he had spoken to the Chief Executive who had decided, under her delegated powers, that the first virtual meeting of Full Council would have no motions nor any open questions from Councillors of the public; in other words, just a rubber-stamping exercise for publicity purposes. I was formally informed of this decision later the same day just minutes before the publication of the agenda. The Chief Executive did not have the courtesy to phone or e-mail me to explain the reason for her decision, let alone discuss the content and aspirations of the proposals.
So, rather than try to establish a cross-party consensus for a pragmatic and straightforward action, the council’s high command decided to delay the decision for a month so that it can be trumpeted as an innovative, original and (most importantly) Conservative idea.
Obviously, I am disappointed with the way the issue has been dealt with, especially regarding the continued lack of communication and colloboration with Independent and other opposition councillors, but I am not at all surprised. The SKDC Conservative’s Modus Operandi is to oppose almost any idea from Independent councillors and then present it as their own idea a few months later. If you think I am exaggerating, here are some examples:
When I proposed the Council adopt the Woodland Trust’s Charter for Trees in June 2019, the Conservatives voted firmly against the idea. Happily, within a few days the relevant Cabinet Member was posing for press photos holding a copy of the Charter in his hands. It was adopted a few weeks later.
A proposal to ensure major planning applications are decided by Councillors and not just officers was turned down in November 2018 when presented by Cllr Phil Dilks (then Lab, now Ind) but was adopted by the council in March 2019.
Never mind though; the important thing is to get the Council to accept good ideas. I suppose it doesn’t matter if it takes a bit longer and the people with the original ideas don’t get the credit.
Here, for future reference, is the text of my motion which I hope and expect will have been implemented before it is presented to the Full Council meeting in July.
Motion to Full Council – 14th May 2020
Creating a new ‘normal’.
The recent and ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has presented historic challenges to government at all levels and across the world. At South Kesteven District Council, the episode has required the implementation of emergency procedures and the establishment of new and innovative ways of working. The work of our staff, senior management and fellow councillors through this time has been invaluable and we owe a debt of gratitude.
The effect of Coronavirus on our economy and society has been huge and, in many cases, heartbreaking. However, some of the new ways of working have had positive impacts which could potentially provide long-term benefits.
The council resolves that:
Cabinet commissions a report into how the Coronavirus episode has impacted our operations, focusing specifically on opportunities to make long term environmental and financial savings (The report should be produced and published before the end of the December 2020).
Environment Committee and Cabinet to prioritise within their workplans: a) consideration of how to use remote working opportunities for staff and members to the mutual benefit of the council and individuals. b) further consideration of opportunities to improve grounds maintenance practices to improve ecology and reduce costs c) in partnership with the waste disposal authority, consideration of how waste collection and disposal systems could be enhanced to improve efficiency and recycling rates.
Proposed by Cllr Ashley Baxter Market & West Deeping 30th April 2020
My last update regarding the new Deepings leisure centre was published on March 12th. Obviously, the world has changed since then, due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that, despite the lockdown, there appears to be some evidence of progress with the plans.
The Deputy Leader of the Council has promised that some detailed proposals will be shared with the Deepings ward councillors before the end of June. It appears that plans for a new leisure centre at Stamford have been abandoned and investigations into whether Grantham’s facilities should be relocated from the Meres to the town centre have concluded that this would not be feasible (The latter decision shouldn’t have taken more than ten seconds of informed research). Instead, the facilities at Bourne, Grantham and Stamford will receive facelifts and refurbishment of varying extent while the Deepings Leisure Centre remains firmly on the table as a new-build project.
Meanwhile, Independent Councillors who represent Deepings wards continue to ask questions about the lack of progress made so far. Cllr Ashley Baxter (Ind, Market and West Deeping and author of this blog) has discovered the Council has squandered £284,000 on paying consultancy firm ‘Mace’ to evaluate options for leisure centres across the District. A heavy tome has been produced by Mace but it is apparently of little use. I have recently asked for a copy of the report to see what ‘magic beans’ it prescribes but I fear I might have to wait a while and, if I ever do see it, the content will be commercially confidential.
The commisioning of the consultants’ report was approved by the SKDC Full Council of 2019. During the meeting, the then newly-elected Cllr Virginia Moran prophesied that it would be a waste of money declaring ““We shouldn’t need to spend more than 6p to determine the business case for a leisure centre for the Deepings.”.
The expenditure was proposed by Cllr Helen Goral (Con) who has since resigned from the Cabinet during the leadership of Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) who has since resigned as Council Leader. The Chief Executive at the time was Aidan Rave but he has now left the Council altogether.
Before authorising the expenditure, the Council was told that Mace would be used as the preferred supplier because the Council already had a working relationship with them and consequently there was no need to shop around. It was also stated that the £250,000 additional funding allocation would “allow for the detailed business cases to be developed for Stamford, Market Deeping and Bourne”. Now here we are, a year later, £284,000 poorer and it seems that no detailed business cases emerged from the consultant. I am not altogether surprised as it was rumoured at the time that the supposed leisure centre experts didn’t appear to know that modern swimming pools can have movable floors.
It was the aforementioned Cllr Lee who, in 2017, made the bold promises of:
a new leisure centre in the Deepings
a new leisure centre in Stamford
10,000 ft2 of new office accommodation in the Deepings;
a 300-seat ‘digital hub’ in Stamford,
a serviced office facility for micro-businesses in Bourne.
Three years later and none of this has been delivered, furthermore it seems the Deepings Leisure Centre is the only item on the shopping list which currently shows any sign of intent or progress. I hope that my next ‘leisure centre update’ post will have some far more positive news.
Concerns over income
At the Finance Committee earlier this week it was revealed that the incumbent manager of the SKDC Leisure Centres, 1Life, has submitted a legal claim to the Council for financial losses resulting from the Covid crisis. The claim is being reviewed and challenged so it is not possible to specify the financial impact at this time.
Confusion over decision-making
As a Ward Councillor, it has always been quite difficult to keep up-to-date with what’s happening regarding the Leisure Transformation programme, and especially to find information which can be shared ‘on the record’. The Council Officers have been very good at answering questions as honestly as they can and as transparently as they are allowed. The recently appointed Head of Leisure has been very clear with me about the challenges she faces in terms of the existing leisure centres and the new-build and refurbishment projects and I am very grateful for her candour.
However, the ‘proper democratic process’ has been far more difficult to navigate. Independent Councillors for the Deepings, namely Cllr Virginia Moran, Cllr Phil Dilks and myself, have asked publicly for updates regarding the Deepings facilities at every appropriate opportunity. For three years now we have received patronising ‘all in good time’ and ‘wait and see’ responses. We have been subjected to phoney consultations and genuine consultations and have tried throughout to keep local sports clubs informed.
The most recent formal decision of the Council was to create a ‘Members Working Group’ or possibly a number of ‘Members Working Groups’, either concerning the Leisure Transformation plans across the District or relevant to each town, depending on which meeting minutes you read and whether or not you were in the room when the Group(s) were formed.
Regardless of the remit and the membership, no meeting of any formally established Members Working Groups have been convened. However, it is hoped that the Deepings will be the first to have a serious conversation about the available options for a new Leisure Centre and that conversation will start next month, hopefully!
If you have comments, suggestions or concerns about the impact of the new Leisure Centre you can respond to this post, contact me or, if you prefer, e-mail SKDC officers directly using firstname.lastname@example.org
I might have complained before about how some Council meetings have a reputation for being boring and that ‘Governance and Audit Committee is one of them’.
I was actually quite looking forward to this afternoon’s meeting because of the revelations of the council’s Auditors concerning ‘Financial Sustainability’, ‘Procurement and Contracts’, ‘Homelessness’ and ‘Void Management’ which I have outlined below.
Unfortunately, when I tried to join the virtual meeting, I could not find the joining details on the public website, Thankfully, with the help of council staff members, I was able to find the skype address in my ‘in-box’ and arrived at the meeting just in time.
The meeting began with housekeeping and a roll-call of the committee members, the other councillors, the council officers and the various auditors who were presenting reports. We then moved onto the minutes of the previous meeting but I interrupted proceedings to ask the Chair, Cllr Ian Stokes (Con), for clarification of whether members of the public were actually able to view the meeting. I pointed out that if the public were not able to view the proceedings then we could be acting ‘illegally’. With hindsight, I think a better word would have been ‘improperly’.
The Committee Clerks suggested the meeting be adjourned briefly while they checked the situation. When they returned, 10 minutes later, they confirmed that there were no instructions on the website by which the public could find out how to join the meeting and, therefore, the meeting did not satisfy the regulatory requirements of a public meeting. The meeting was then adjourned until another date (yet to be confirmed) could be arranged with proper access to the public.
Governance and Audit Committee meetings are not famous for their packed public galleries, in fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a member of the public in attendance. However, we have no way of telling how many people wanted to attend the meeting now that is supposed to be accessible by remote access and, this far into lockdown, we should have systems in place to ensure our meetings and decisions are properly visible, transparent and run in accordance with all appropriate rules and regulations.
If the meeting had gone ahead, we would have discussed a range of issues presented by our Internal Auditor including:
“Conclusion: Partial Assurance; Impact on Annual Opinion: Negative As a result of testing undertaken, 11 ‘medium’ and one ‘low’ priority findings were identified. Management actions were agreed in respect of all the findings. The medium priority findings relate to: • Through review of the Service Plan in place between the Council and Welland Procurement, instances were noted where contracts had not been procured by the agreed target completion dates. • From discussions with the Procurement Lead it was confirmed that the current Contracts Register is not fully complete and there are still gaps in regards to certain departments. • A sample of 20 contracts from the Council’s current Contract Register were selected and tested. Four instances were noted where no documentation was provided in relation to the documented contracts (all in excess of £50,000) and therefore the following could not be confirmed: o That a procurement process had been followed in line with the Council’s Contract and Procurement Procedure Rules for each of the contracts; o That the contracts had been advertised on the ProContract e-tendering system; o That a scoring matrix was utilised as part of an evaluation process; o That successful or unsuccessful letters were sent out to all applicants; o That due-diligence checks such as credit worthiness were carried out by the Council on the successful contractors; o That a contract was in place that was signed by both the Council and the contracted party; o That the Council had included clauses within the contracts governing the circumstances whereby early termination or exit of the contract is permitted; o That appropriate monitoring had been undertaken of the Contracts by the dedicated Contract Managers; and o That the Council completed initial and on-going risk assessments for the contracts in relation to Health and Safety.”
Again, I have previously expressed concern that the number of households in South Kesteven has trebled in recent years suggesting we have an increasing problem with homelessness. The Internal Auditor suggests some potential reasons why the problems continue.
“Conclusion: Partial Assurance; Impact on Annual Opinion: Negative As a result of testing undertaken, seven ‘medium’ and seven ‘low’ priority findings were identified. Management actions were agreed in respect of all the findings. The medium priority findings relate to: • A training log spreadsheet is in place for staff members within the Homelessness Prevention Team. It was however noted that certain staff members did not have any delivered training documented. Additionally, instances were noted where dates were not recorded for when the relevant training was completed and there is also no information currently documented for refresher training if applicable. • From testing a sample of 20 homelessness applications from the current financial year, instances were identified whereby the initial assessment had not been carried out or the initial contact was not made promptly with the applicant and instances where decision letters were not sent to the applicant promptly. • Testing identified one instance where the Prevention or Relief Duty was note ended within 56 days and an extension had not been applied. It was also noted that a supporting decision letter was not produced and sent to the applicant once duty had ended. • The Council has a Temporary Accommodation Procedure in place although it was noted that the Procedure had not been updated since 2015. It was also noted that the Procedure does not cover the booking of emergency accommodation. Additionally, the Procedure does not specify a need to consider value for money, or a list of approved hotels and bed and breakfasts which the Council has negotiated favourable rates with. • From testing a sample of 20 homelessness applications which had resulted in the allocation of temporary or emergency accommodation during the current financial year instances were noted whereby a Temporary Accommodation Request Form had either not been completed or authorised, no evidence of any action being taken to recover monies owed to the Council by tenants with outstanding utility charges or where emergency accommodation costs had been covered by the Council. • From a review of the Temporary Accommodation Rent Procedure it was noted that it does not provide adequate detail to allow rent officers to recoup rent and utility charges. Additionally, the Procedure does not specify the point at which a Notice to Vacate should be served and does not provide any guidance on the recovery procedure for outstanding utility charges. • At the time of audit, it was noted that there is currently no monitoring undertaken by the Homelessness Prevention Team to identify repeat users of temporary or emergency accommodation.“
The Internal Audit of the way SKDC manages empty properties (aka ‘Voids’) was slightly less disparaging although it was noted:
“At the time of audit, the Council did not have a Voids Policy in place. Through discussion with the Head of Improvements and Repairs it was confirmed that a Voids Policy is due to be drafted”.
I am now trying to find out whether the voids policy has been drafted and/or adopted. This is partly in preparation for the meeting when it comes back from its adjournment and partly to try to make sense of why at least one council property in Market Deeping has been empty for more than six months. I am sure there must be a simple and reasonable explanation.
The External Audit Plan was also due to be presented to this afternoon’s meeting. The audit report (which costs over £40,000) has rightly drawn attention to the potentially massive impact of Covid19. However it also identified following significant VFM risks (Value for Money):
“For 2020/21 the Council is proposing a balanced budget with no use of General Fund reserves. The Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) to 2022/23 shows funding gaps of £1,009k in 2021/22 and £1,302k in 2022/23 and officers are working on addressing these gaps in early 2020/21. The Council have recently appointed a new Chief Executive and their first priority is to update the Corporate Plan. An updated MTFS will be developed to supported this updated corporate plan. We will review the work the Council is undertaking to address the gaps identified in the MTFS. We will also review the updated Corporate Plan and its effect on the MTFS.”
When Karen Bradford arrived as Chief Exec of SKDC earlier this year, she mentioned the need for a refresh or rewrite of the Corporate Plan. I agreed and drew her attention to the previous colourful plan we had approved which was full of pictures of exotic animals but rather light on practical planning.
The review of the Medium Term Financial Strategy will, it is hoped, be completed before too long and the Cabinet Member for Finance, Cllr Adam Stokes (Con), will have to present it to the relevant committees for scrutiny and approval.
I am sure the Chair of the Governance and Audit Committee will have no misgivings about asking challenging and difficult questions of the Cabinet Member for Finance; He is, after all, his father!
During the financial year 2019/20, four out of the eight Stamford district councillors allocated the whole £1,000 to good causes. Cllr Susan Sandall (unaligned) awarded £500 and Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) only £250. Cllr John Dawson (Con) chose not award any grants at all.
I do not currently have specific project details for each award but I have written a more general overview of the scheme.
During the financial year 2019/20, four out of the eight Stamford district councillors allocated the whole £1,000 to good causes. Cllr David Bellamy (Con) and Cllr John Cottier (Con) both chose not award any grants at all.
I do not currently have specific project details for each award but I have written a more general overview of the scheme.
St John’s Ambulance
Cllr Adam Stokes
Cllr Annie Mason
Grantham Ark (St Wulfram’s Church)
Cllr Annie Mason
Colsterworth Parochial Church
Cllr Bob Adams
Grantham Lions Club
Cllr Charmaine Morgan
Grantham Food Bank
Cllr Dean Ward
Grantham Disabled Children Society
Cllr George Chivers
Cllr George Chivers
St Wulfram’s Church (Grantham Ark)
Cllr George Chivers
United Parish of the Trinity
Cllr Graham Jeal
Barrowby Open Door
Cllr Hannah Westropp
Friends of Sandon & Ambergate
Cllr Helen Goral
St Wulfram’s Church (Choir)
Cllr Hilary Westropp
South Kesteven District Council (SK Charity Cup printing)
Cllr Ian Selby
Harrowby Football Club
Cllr Ian Selby
Grantham Town FC
Cllr Ian Selby
Bourne Town Football Club
Cllr Ian Selby
South Kesteven Charity Cup
Cllr Ian Selby
Grantham Journal Children’s Fund
Cllr Ian Selby
Great Gonerby Parish Council
Cllr Ian Stokes
Peascliffe & Ridgeway
Belton & Manthorpe Parish Council
Cllr Ian Stokes
Peascliffe & Ridgeway
Dr Friers Children’s Holiday Fund
Cllr Jacky Smith
Commemorative Tree & Plaque Wyndham Park – Frank Northing
Cllr Jacky Smith
Commemorative Tree & Plaque Wyndham Park – Nora English
In 2018, after years of to-ing and fro-ing, South Kesteven Councillors agreed to establish an annual budget of £1,000 for each Member to allocate to projects of direct benefit people in their ward. Yes, at the time, I argued that this might be perceived as a bribe and a photo-opportunity in the year before the SKDC election but with hindsight it was a welcome u-turn by the Tories.
The second year of ward budgets has just concluded and I am pleased to be able to publish the details of how councillors have spent and, in some cases, not spent their allocation.
From the £56,000 budget, a total of £49,882.02 was awarded by 53 councillors and paid to 97 seperate organisations. These included sports clubs, food banks and village festivals.
The organisation that received the highest amount of grant funding was the Butterfield Centre in Bourne which received a combined total of £2,633 from four different councillors. Eighteen different organisations received grants of £1,000 or more.
There were seven grants of £100 or less. The smallest grant was the £50 paid to the Rotary Club of Bourne which was one of the four organisations sponsored by Cllr Anna Kelly (Ind).
Although the scheme was set up to give councillors a funding stream to support grassroots projects run by community groups, organisations, charities etc across the district, over £8,000 was paid to town and parish councils across the district. This is a reasonable acknowledgement that in many villages parish councils are the best available constituted organisation for handling the finances of small projects.
Each grant was supposed to be awarded for a specific project or initiative and not to be used for either ongoing revenue costs or regular events (unless the funding relates to a new aspect).
Some Councillors decided not to allocate their budgets. Three councillors, all Conservative, did not allocate any grants at all. Some others did not use all the available grant. This, of course, is their prorogative and they don’t have to explain their decision to anyone. It is possible that they received no sensible applications; alternatively they might think it is in their residents’ best interests to leave the money in the central coffers at SKDC. Personally, I am exceedingly keen to repatriate as much money from Grantham back to Deeping as possible.
This year I shared our £1,000 among four grant recipients. These were:
£250 to Deepings United FC for stretcher equipment. The team also received funding via the other two councillors for Market and West Deeping. (This doesn’t come close to reimbursing them for the unfair and extortionate fees they are charged by SKDC’s Leisure Centre for rent of pitches but that’s another story)
£334 to Bourne Deeping Hockey Club towards new equipment. The team also received funding from the other two Independent councillors in the Deepings. (Sadly, the small grant does not compensate for the disaster of having nowhere in South Kesteven to train after the Deepings all-weather pitch was condemned, but that’s another story)
In March this year, less than 12 months after the election, councillors voted to slash the budget down to just £500 but maybe this was down to concerns about pressures on council budgets which no-one knew about the previous year? In any case, it doesn’t matter because the world has changed since March and the Council Leader has unilaterally (and rightly imho) decided to put it back up to £1,000 to allow us to support the hyper-local organisations which are supporting our communities through Coronavirus. Furthermore, the County Council has also urgently reinstated its ward budgets of £3,000 for allocation by each of its 70 individual councillors and, yes, it is the year before the county council elections but this is definitely no time to be cynical!
It should go without saying that the worldwide CoronaVirus epidemic is awful, tragic and we all wish it could have been avoided and we all pray it is over soon.
However, like many crises we have faced, there are some useful learnings and positive outcomes that we should be grateful for when, God-willing, we get through the current turmoil and back to a new normal. These will hopefully include closer families, stronger communities and a greater sense of gratitude for our safety net of NHS, social infrastructure and all the people who work at the hitherto thankless tasks of emptying bins, stacking shelves and keeping us alive.
Another positive is the reduction in carbon emissions which proves that despite the previous protestations of politicians, Greta Thunberg has been making a valid point i.e. we could get by without a lot of the carbon-filthy activities that we used to think were essential.