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
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!
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.
Report to MDTC Full Council 12th February, 2020 from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.
Deeping Shorts – Film Festival
‘Deeping Shorts’ – a short festival of short films – has held two Saturday evening cinema screenings with two more to go (15th and 22nd February). The screenings have been well attended and well received. Tickets are £5 from Stamford Arts Centre or at Open Door Baptist Church on the night.
Leisure Centre / All Weather Pitch
News about the proposed Deepings Leisure Centre and the future of the condemned All Weather Pitch has failed to yield any concrete proposals (nor proposals for concrete). At Full Council, the new Portfolio Holder, Cllr Barry Dobson stated that a Working Party would be formed with representation from the 3 Deepings Independent Councillors. By the time of the Finance Committee a week later, this Working Party had been extended to include two Deeping Conservatives. A few minutes later, it was explained that the Working Party would be an overarching group for all Leisure Facilities in South Kesteven. When I asked for clarification, the Finance Committee was told there will be more than one Working Party. I later asked Cllr Dobson for written clarification of the roles, purpose and composition of the working party (or parties). A week later and I am still waiting.
Cllr Dobson also mentioned that nothing would be decided about Leisure Centres until he had visited the sites personally to see what was needed. This is slightly confusing given that the council has commissioned leisure professionals an architects to conduct feasibility studies at a cost of more than £250,000.
I am pleased to say the Communities Committee agreed to implement some of the measures recommended by the ‘Stop the Knock’ campaign which I had brought to their attention.
I am less pleased to say that they rubber-stamped proposals to ‘rationalise the face-to-face customer service provision’ in Stamford and the Deepings. This effectively means closing the SKDC offices at the Deepings Community Centre and at Maiden Lane in Stamford.
There is a consultation about the plans to close the Stamford and Deeping SKDC offices. The deadline is 20th February.
The Council meeting began with a silence in respectful memory of former Chair of SKDC, Cllr Peter Speigl and former Chair of the world’s longest running radio panel show and much-loved Grantham born entertainer, Nicholas Parsons CBE. The silence was, suitably, just a minute. It would have been great if all the afternoon’s debate could have been conducted without hesitation, repetition or deviation but this was unlikely from the outset.
On Thursday 30th January, the Conservatives once again showed their true, narrow-minded, partisan colours by following the party whip to reject a modest proposal to improve recycling in South Kesteven. It’s pathetic that despite their empty rhetoric about putting politics aside, and caring about the Climate Emergency, South Kesteven Tories couldn’t bring themselves to support an opposition motion aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
I had submitted a motion to the Full Council meeting suggesting that charitable organisations be given permission to put just four textile recycling banks on Council-owned sites across the District. This would generate a financial income for the council and the charity, it would give people additional places to donate old clothes and shoes to charity and it would reduce contamination in the silver wheelie bins (currently around 30%).
Never mind inner cities and the red-belt towns of the North, the decline of the high street is obvious even in Tory heartlands like historic Spalding. For all the ‘shop local’ campaigns, it is clear that the Tories are losing the battle to maintain town centres in traditionally Tory towns including Spalding and Grantham. I spent Sunday afternoon in Spalding and the number of boarded up properties and ‘to let’ signs’ was quite depressing.
The first was the black swan pub on New Road. It doesn’t look particularly salubrious and will have suffered stiff competition from the Wetherspoon’s that has opened just a few doors down. Pubs in England are still closing at an alarming rate due to a number of factors including high tax, high business rates, oppressive brewery chains and cheap supermarket alcohol. Who can afford to go out for a pint on a regular basis when a pint costs almost £5, and the same pint at home costs less than £2?
Driving past the edge-of-town supermarkets and back to Spalding Town Centre, I parked outside the old Johnson hospital immediately opposite the South Holland Council Offices. This Listed building was closed about 10 years ago and is now an eyesore with graffiti, boarded windows and lamps being stolen from right outside. The site is apparently owned by a company based in the British Virgin Islands who also own the former sorting office in Spalding which is in a similar state of disrepair.
Report to MDTC Full Council 15th January 2020 from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.
Happy New Year to all Town and Parish Councillors, residents of the Deepings anyone else who is takin the time to read this. I hope your 2020 is splendid!
Regular readers will know that the Council (SKDC) declared a climate emergency in September 2019. SKDC has now appointed a Climate Change Officer and have also begun a set of ‘Task and Finish’ workshops and engaged the Carbon Trust to assist with compiling baseline data to ensure a meaningful Action Plan is delivered.
The market which was launched with much fanfare by InvestSK at Easter last year has struggled against inclement weather and lack of budget which has led to a spiral of decline with few stalls leading to few customers and vice versa. The last stall threw in the towel just before Christmas (and hats off to the Brown Bread stall for sticking it out for so long) and, in light of the lack of any traders, SKDC have decided to cease trading until later this year. It is not clear whether the Spring will bring a revived Saturday market or a relocation of the ongoing Wednesday market, or neither, or both.
Deeping Shorts – Film Festival
The Open Door Baptist Church is hosting ‘Deeping Shorts’ – a short festival of short films – on the first four Saturday evenings in February. It has been organised in association with the help and support of InvestSK/SKDC and will make use of the cinema screen originally purchased for the Deepings Arts Group. The films have been collated from 17 different countries and include a range of comedies, animations and thought provoking works. Many have won awards. Tickets are £5 from Stamford Arts Centre or at ODBC on the night. Here’s an excerpt from one of the films…
Report to MDTC Full Council 11th December 2019 from ASHLEY BAXTER, SKDC Councillor for Market & West Deeping.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the month. This year’s Market Deeping Christmas Market was the best ever. I was pleased to be involved, once again, in organising the entertainments. It was a bit scary to find, at 10am, that the stage hadn’t arrived but some nifty reversing by the driver meant the show could go on with just a couple of amendments to the schedule. I was also delighted to be involved in planning the ‘pop-up nativity’ which integrated the traditional stories of Christmas with the town’s traditional celebration of Christmas.
A distinct feeling of déjà vu at this meeting when, yet again, the report of performance indicators were criticised for being presented without any context.
I really don’t understand the problem as I have been able to find the historic data relating to each of the KPIs. Here is a graph showing the increase in the numbers of households in temporary accommodation (aka homeless) in South Kesteven.