“A lot of fluffy and flowery targets!” – Are SK Conservatives losing confidence in InvestSK?

Cllr Kelham Cooke with InvestSK CEO Steve Bowyer

Yesterday, at the first ever meeting of the SKDC ‘Companies Committee’, senior Councillors expressed their concerns regarding the appropriateness of InvestSK Ltd.  It was revealed that discussions have taken place between members of the Tory group over whether to continue with the InvestSK project or to bring services back ‘in-house’.

Newly appointed Director of InvestSK, Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) who is Deputy Leader of the Council, stated “I think it is very important that it stays actually as an external company. I know that we talked about bringing it back in-house and everything… We have had a long conversation this morning about it. I have only been a director for about a week officially, and I think that it’s got a great future providing we manage it well”.

The meeting was the first opportunity for formal scrutiny of the InvestSK project since a Growth Ctte in May 2018 which discussed a ‘call-in’ request that I co-ordinated before the company was incorporated. The new Companies Ctte was supposed to be ready after the election earlier this year but was delayed due to the election and constitutional obligations. The Committee has responsibility for overseeing the work of all Council’s companies (of which there are now six) but the first meeting focussed on the ‘busiest’ of those companies, namely InvestSK.

Lack of Transparency

My main complaint about the whole InvestSK project is that of transparency.  Although the company has been set up for over a year, funded almost entirely from well over £1million of tax-payers money via SKDC, it has been very difficult to obtain any detail of how the money has been spent. It emerged yesterday that £680,000, more than half, of the organisation income is spent on the salaries of core staff. There are no details of how many staff this includes nor how much they are paid.

I have personally made some one-off enquiries about the expenditure of InvestSK. These have been answered. The first concerned details of the hundreds of thousands of pounds allocated by InvestSK as grants to heritage schemes, community projects and businesses. Another concerned the award of £15,000 of press and PR consultancy work to a company based in Lincoln.

However, while SKDC is required to publish a list of transactions over £500 incurred by the Council, once the money has been transferred to InvestSK the spending becomes more opaque and therefore less accountable.

Lack of a useful Business Plan

Another example of the lack of transparency of InvestSK is the late publication of the Business Plan. The first time it was available to members of the Companies committee was when the agenda pack for the meeting was published last week as a restricted (confidential) item but after the intervention of the Chair, Cllr Graham Jeal (Con) and others it is now in the public domain. The 44-page business plan was originally written ten months ago in February but only the Company Directors have been able to read it before now. Incidentally, the three Company Directors are the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council (both Conservatives) and the Chief Executive.

The published plan contains a reference to “budgets for the next 3 years” contained at ‘Appendix 2’. I commented that although I could find ‘Appendix 7’ and annexes ‘i’ to ‘ix’, I could not find ‘Appendix 2’. It emerged that it had been omitted from the documents but would be circulated to members in due course. Curiously no-one asked what happened to ‘Appendix 1’.

Lack of Clarity

A number of councillors, including me, expressed frustration at not knowing where SKDC ends and InvestSK begins. For example, the provision of Arts Centres and Markets are both SKDC services yet in both cases the management structure involves staff from both SKDC and InvestSK. In an attempt to clarify the situation, the CEO of InvestSK explained that some of the staff of InvestSK are seconded from SKDC payroll. Consequently, as Cllr Ian Stokes (Con) pointed out, the Council is lending staff to InvestSK in order to buy back their services as consultants. This situation has led to confusion.

Lack of Ambition

During discussion of the business plan, a variety of comments were made. I asked why it was so long. I have previous experience of reports which have been deliberately written in a long and turgid fashion in order to discourage people from reading and understanding the content (let alone the missing appendices).

Refreshing the Chair, Cllr Jeal, did not conceal his disappointment with the Business Plan. He stated that he was expecting more about from the business plan in terms of big goals and also evidence that the team had learned from their time at Opportunity Peterborough and elsewhere and how these experiences could be used to “turbo-charge this business”.

Lack of Detail

Addressing his comments to Steve Bowyer, Chief Executive of InvestSK, Cllr Jeal continued “The other thing that I found myself writing all over the business plan is that I would like more SMART deliverables (strategic, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based) and there’s a lot of fluffy and flowery targets. I don’t want to criticise officers at all but it’s something that I think is a big difference between the private sector and the public sector. The public sector don’t like writing things down that in a year’s time we can look at and say ‘Did they do that, yes or no?’. Now if it’s a ‘no’, that’s fine, we can learn from it, but I’m looking for a document that lives for a year that I can pick up in a year’s time and say ‘brilliant, brilliant, what can we learn from not achieving that?’. Now some of those may be in here but I’m not getting enough of those smart deliverables and I think a lot of these could be much smarter. I also picked up the point that some of our ‘targets’ are written in the past tense…”

“Moving on, there’s a lot of stuff about Corporate Strategy in here but I don’t see anything about a PR strategy. I actually think that there needs to be… There needs to be a proper communication strategy with Members and, through Members, to the electorate who are actually paying for this”.

“I think it definitely needs a big goal that evolves and it needs ambition. And it needs ambition based on your experiences from Opportunity Peterborough. It is no coincidence that you come from a body like this. I was expecting to see much more of ‘this works this didn’t work, we’re going to do this…’.

The lecture continued through comments on the lack of detail regarding succession planning, competitor analysis as well as the company’s fundamental vision and aims.

What happens next?

The Council Leader and InvestSK Director Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) responded on behalf of the InvestSK Board. “Actually, a lot of the comments you and others have raised are really valid actually. I appreciate where Councillor Baxter is referring to with regard to this business.  I suppose, for me, I’m looking forward. We now have this committee, and I think I have already said to the committee that I want us to re-prioritise what InvestSK actually does for the Council. I think if we are looking at budgets, I don’t think it is for us as a council. We set the budget and we decide what money can go to InvestSK and that can only be done when we’ve actually worked out really what we want InvestSK to deliver on behalf of the Council. So ultimately, it is us that commission InvestSK to do the work. The Directors, myself and Barry, are ultimately looking at what it does. We will come back with a proposal and a revised business plan will be submitted back to this committee where it can be scrutinised and discussed by elected members. And ultimately, the budgets are decided by us in our budget meeting”.

The next meeting of the companies committee is scheduled for January 7th.

Report to Market Deeping Town Council – November 2019

Report to MDTC Full Council  13th November 2019
from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.

Deepings Neighbourhood Plan

The Neighbourhood Plan for the Deepings is currently in its consultation phase.  If you care about the future of our community and its built environment, please respond to the consultation.  Comments are particularly welcome concerning the future of Mill Field, the expansion of the town centre and the types and layout of new housing.

Deepings Neighbourhood Plan is at the public consultation stage

Christmas Market

Market Deeping Christmas Market and lights switch-on will take place on Sunday 1st December. There are more than 80 stalls booked and the entertainment is going to be varied and awesome.

Young musicians performing at the 2018 Christmas Market

Stop the Knock

Last year, SKDC used bailiffs’ services for non payment of Council Tax over 2,000 times.  The Council also evicted 31 of its own tenants.  There surely must be a better way… and there is!  The ‘Stop The Knock’ campaign is monitoring council’s approach to debt collection and has some innovative ideas for reducing the costs and heartache associated with council tax collection.  I have written to the Council Leader and the Chair of the Rural and Communities OSC and officers have informed me that the subject will hopefully be discussed at an OSC meeting early in 2020.

Meetings Not Attended!

In terms of Council business, October was a very quiet month with only 1 scheduled meeting.  I’m not talking about my meetings, I mean that South Kesteven District Council only had one formal meeting which was Planning Committee on 16th October.

16/10/2019   Planning Committee

I don’t sit on the Planning Committee at the moment but I had already sent comments and objections on two of the applications which were on the agenda because I had asked for them to be ‘called in’ by the committee rather than considered only by the planning officers.

The first was the erection of roadside services to including a petrol filling station with ancillary retail floor space on the Langtoft roundabout, north of Market Deeping. –  This was the second time the committee had discussed this application and I am pleased to say that the application was refused, contrary to Officers’ recommendations.  Not a single Councillor voted in favour of it (although two abstained). There were a variety of reasons for refusing it including the loss of a greenfield site, visual amenity and highways considerations.

Secondly an application to allow the transfer of up to 75,000 tonnes of waste per annum at the existing waste depot at Unit 2 Whitley Way Northfields Industrial Estate Market Deeping. This was a County application but the SKDC planning committee discussed the application and resolved to “urge the County Council to give due consideration to highway implications including increased parking and possible adverse impacts on amenity on surrounding developments, particularly the children’s nursery, through odour noise, and other pollution that may result”.

The meeting also dealt with:

  • Four dwellings at 21 Broadgate Lane, DSJ (Reserved Matters) – Approved
  • Seven industrial units at Spitfire Park, Market Deeping – Approved

Meetings Attended (Climate Change)

Despite the lack of ‘official meetings’, I have attended two council meetings, on consecutive days, concerned with South Kesteven’s approach to Climate Change.  

The first was a workshop for members of the Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) which heard evidence from the Environment Agency, the Woodland Trust and the Council’s own planning team.

The second was an inaugural meeting of the ‘Task and Finish Group’ on Climate Change commissioned by September’s meeting of Full Council. It was meandering at times but, on the whole, very productive.  The meeting was introduced to the fundamentals of Climate Science by the external expert, Prof Edward Hanna of Lincoln University.

Aside from the meetings, I have been doing my homework regarding the council’s environmental performance. I have discovered that in recent years recycling rates have been falling due to a number of reasons mostly concerned with the Conservatives’ cut backs.  At the same time, contamination of silver recycling bins has increased meaning even less effective recycling.

On the issue of the Council’s own energy use, officers are struggling even to establish a baseline.  It appears that almost no proactive monitoring of energy consumption has taken place for nearly a decade.  The figures presented have been incorrect and at times comical.  For example, it has been claimed that gas use at the small changing block next to the all weather pitch adjacent to Deepings School field is three times as high as gas use to the Council’s main office in Grantham.  On the positive side, officers are beginning to work with the suppliers and brokers to get more reliable information.  It would be very difficult to achieve the target of 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 without any baseline figures.

General Election

John Hayes might be an affable chap but please don’t vote Conservative!!

Remember, it is the Conservatives who have turned off the streetlights, caused the rise in foodbanks, made the cuts to the Deepings Library and Deepings Youth Centre causing them to become dependent on volunteers and grants from the Town Council. It is the Conservatives who have chosen to cut budgets for schools, hospitals and police. The Conservatives have also failed to negotiate any acceptable resolution to Brexit.

As ever, if you require any further information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Cllr Ashley Baxter
Market and West Deeping Ward



Report to Market Deeping Town Council – October 2019

Report to MDTC Full Council  9th October 2019
from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.

Meetings Attended (and Not Attended!)

17/09/2019   Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee  

This was a meeting where we discussed the Council’s approach to Climate Change. I had already proposed a Climate Emergency motion to Full Council (see below) but Cllr Peter Moseley (Con) also proposed a similar idea. The OSC discussed the idea of setting up a ‘Task and Finish’ group on Climate Change. This is definitely a different forum to the ongoing secret workshops on climate change commissioned by the previous OSC meeting. It will have 6 Councillors, 5 Officers and, at my suggestion, 1 external expert to offer an alternative perspective.

At this meeting we also discussed and (almost) agreed a new protocol for informing District Councillors about trees in their respective wards. This should mean that we should at least be made aware of imminent felling of trees by the Council even if we might not be able to save them.

The Committee also proposed to recommend to Cabinet that SKDC adopts the Woodland Trust’s Local Authority Tree Charter. If this sounds familiar it is because it is very, very similar to the Woodland Trust’s other tree charter which most Conservative Councillors voted against when I presented it to Full Council a few months ago. Happily, we have now reached an acceptable form of words and, because it is now a Tory idea, we should be signed up very soon.

The OSC also discussed progress on some other issues including the Food Waste Collection pilot scheme which has apparently been applauded by DEFRA for its excellent participation rate although they haven’t yet gone so far as to offer the additional funding required to roll it out across the district, let alone the county or country.

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South Kesteven is recruiting a Climate Change Officer!

South Kesteven District Council is recruiting a Sustainability and Climate Change Officer to assist the authority in tackling Climate Change! The deadline for applications to this exciting job is 14th October 2019.

Who can hold back the tide in Market Deeping, Bourne, Stamford and Grantham?

The recruitment of this Officer is a direct result of the Council’s declaration of ‘Climate Emergency’ following a debate last month’s Full Council. I originally put the issue on the council agenda as a motion (submitted immediately after the previous Full Council meeting). However, in the intervening months, Cllr Peter Moseley (Con) presented a Climate Emergency report to Cabinet which also appeared on the agenda of Full Council. Cllr Moseley’s proposal included the establishment of a ‘Task and Finish Group’ to investigate how SKDC can address issues of Climate Change.

Our two separate proposals differed in terms of specific objectives and targets but happily I was able to meet with Cllr Moseley to discuss the differences between our two Climate Emergency proposals and to try and find a middle-ground.

It was agreed that I should propose an amendment to Cllr Moseley’s proposal which would include three key points:

  • Establish environmental performance indicators
  • Set a target of achieving ‘net zero’ emissions for the Council as early as possible before 2050
  • Set a target of reducing emissions from the Council by 30% by 2030.

We each took the draft compromise amendment to our respective Party groups and the proposal and the amendment were discussed by Council on 29th September.

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Trouble in paradise… Matthew Lee makes a resignation statement as outgoing leader of SKDC.

The dream team in happier days! Cllr Matthew Lee, Mr Aidan Rave and Cllr Kelham Cooke.

Loyal readers will remember that I posted a couple of months ago speculating as to the reasons for the sudden resignation of Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) as Leader of the SK Conservative group, and therefore as Leader of the whole Council.

At last Thursday’s Full Council meeting, Matthew had an opportunity to explain the reasons for his departure. Standing orders were suspended in order to allow him to deliver a ten-minute farewell speech (although he still continues as a Councillor on the backbenches – the Tories wouldn’t want to risk a by-election in his ward!).

There appeared to be no mention of the recent departure of the Chief Executive, nor the departure of the Council’s Monitoring Officer last November nor any mention of any health issues which colleagues had cited in the media as potential reasons for the resignation. In fact, the first seven minutes were devoted to celebrating the highlights of Cllr Lee’s two years at the top and how brilliantly he has been managing the ongoing projects and challenges that it faces. However, anyone hoping to understand why Cllr Lee chose to pack it all in so suddenly was only offered these next few lines:

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Notes from the secret ‘informal’ South Kesteven Climate Change workshop

The minutes of the formal SKDC Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee of 18th June, 2019 record that: “it was suggested that perhaps a series of workshops be held to gather evidence and explore what direction the Committee wished to take, what priorities they wanted to take forward.” 

“Some Members felt that workshops should be open.  Caution was stressed in relation to having open workshops as this could stifle debate as Members may feel unable to express all their opinions.” 

In my opinion, one of the most important roles of an elected District Councillor is to express your opinions and those of the people you represent. Unfortunately, the Conservatives appear to hold a different view which is reflected at almost every Full Council meeting where backbench Tories rarely speak except to sycophantically applaud their front-bench colleagues.

The so-called ‘informal workshop’ took place at the end of July and supposedly does not form part of the Council’s decision-making process. Councillors who do not serve on the Environment OSC were not invited to the meeting (except perhaps the portfolio-holder Cllr Moseley (Con)). The details of the meeting were not published and members of the public were not allowed in. The notes will not be presented to the forthcoming 17th September meeting of the Environment OSC so I am sharing them here instead. The notes below are exactly as circulated to Committee Members except for the bits I have added in italics and parenthesis. NB These are the notes circulated by the Council. They do not exactly match my own recollection of the meeting but I have not commented on the accuracy because I was at the end of a skype-line which was not 100% reliable

Climate Change Informal Workshop
30 July 2019 – Room 6
10:00am – 12:40pm

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Recycling rates tumble in Lincolnshire

Despite the boasts of high recycling rates on Conservative election leaflets, recycling rates in Lincolnshire have plummeted since 2010 according to national recycling league tables.

In the County of Lincolnshire, the total rate of waste diverted from landfill has fallen every year for seven years from 53% in 2010 to 43% in 2018. The rate in South Kesteven has fallen every year resulting in a similar 10% reduction in overall rates which includes recycling through the silver and green bins.

The figure for 2017/18 has not yet been formally published but information data published by SKDC under a freedom of information request suggests that the percentage has now fallen to significantly below 40% (38.57% to be precise).

The main cause of the falling rates is the Conservative austerity measures which have had a massive impact on Council funding especially at Lincolnshire where local Tories decided to withdraw Recycling Credits which removed the incentive for many organisations to recycle.

Other reasons for the falling rates include:

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Deeping St James Parish Council Meeting – Thursday 29th August 2019

Cllr Andrew Bowell

In the Open Forum it was reported that SKDC Culture Committee is working at opening up the festivals held in the four towns to a wider audience. Also SKDC continues to hold a healthy level of reserves of £28 million as at 31 March 2019, for the General Fund. Within this figure is a specific allocation of £1.5 million to deal with any unforeseen fluctuations in annual expenditure. In terms of the annual accounts audit inspection, the council received a positive opinion for the last financial year, and fully expect a positive value for money opinion to be presented to the next Governance and Audit Committee meeting on 25 September.

Following the heavy storms and recent flooding members were pleased to be told that local flood defences are designed to protect the area for the next 100 years.

After many months of hard work a “Four Year Strategic Plan,” was…

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Recycling’s rubbish in South Kesteven (Well, 30% of it is!)

Recycling efforts in South Kesteven are being undermined by increasing levels of contamination of the weekly silver bin recycling system. Recently released figures reveal that, since 2016, contamination rates have gradually increased from 20% to over 30% meaning that almost a third of so-called ‘recycling’ ends up in landfill.

There are a number of factors causing the contamination including:

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Minutes of the May meeting of Market Deeping Council – Forty years on and ‘Plus ça change’!

I was recently given some ancient papers by a generous benefactor which include the minutes of the Market Deeping Parish Council (as it was then known) from exactly 40 years ago this month (May 1979).

At that time, the Council spent its time discussing the poor state of the roads, the overgrown verges, youths causing damage and creating a nuisance, the lack of a visible police presence, inconsiderate parking, and grants to the youth club.

Nothing at all like nowadays, eh?

Last night was the first meeting of the new Market Deeping Town Council. It is much the same as the old Market Deeping Town Council as before the election except for the two people who have retired (Thanks very much, Roy Stephenson and Colin Gamble) and the one person who has joined (Best of British to you, Brian Hembrow)!

I circulated my monthly written report before the meeting started but unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the election of Mayor (Congratulations Xan Collins) or the other exciting agenda items.

Being a Town (or Parish) Councillor is an unpaid, often thankless task and an uphill struggle. Please keep them on their toes but at the same time give them your support and the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it can take a very long time to get stuff done!