Did he jump or was he pushed? My speculations on the recent resignation of the Leader of @SouthKesteven

A few days before the SKDC Full Council meeting of 25th July, I heard rumours that the knives were out for the Leader of the Council, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con). On the day it seemed that Cllr Lee had survived the alleged insurgency and all of the Conservatives were extremely well-behaved. In fact, I don’t think a single Conservative, other than Cabinet Members made any comment or question during the meeting except in response to specific questions[i].

However, just 10 days after the meeting it was announced ‘out of the blue’ that Cllr Lee had resigned as Leader of the Council.  Independent Councillors received no notification, let alone explanation, from Cllr Lee himself but opposition group leaders received a cursory note from the Deputy Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) as follows:

“I am writing to you today to inform you that Matthew has resigned with immediate effect as Leader of the Conservative Group. As per the Conservative Group Constitution, I am now Acting Group Leader…”[ii]

Here are some of the reasons why Cllr Lee might have chosen to resign. They are pure speculation on my part but in the absence of any detailed explanation from either the Council, the Conservative Group or Cllr Lee himself, it’s the best I can offer.

Ill-Health

This potential reason for Matthew’s departure from ‘front-bench’ politics wouldn’t have occurred to me if it hadn’t been suggested by SKDC Cabinet Member, Cllr Robert Reid, who was quoted in this week’s Stamford Mercury “He’s resigned owing to ill health. The ill health wasn’t something that was very apparent. I do not know what has brought it on. It’s something that sad. None of us are immortal. We will have to get on with it.”

If Matthew is seriously ill then all I want to do is wish him a full and speedy recovery.  I may have disagreed with some of his decisions and actions, as well as his political affiliation, but I wouldn’t wish anyone ill-health.

However, it is odd that there was no mention of ill-health in the e-mail from the Deputy Leader. Cllr Lee spent a great deal of Council money on PR and communications. It is surprising that if his departure is due to ‘personal reasons’ that his has not been spun accordingly.

Of course, it is perfectly plausible that Matthew resigned because he was ‘sick of the Tories’, but that’s something different.

Departure of Senior Staff

Just 19 days before Cllr Lee’s resignation, the Council’s Chief Executive, Aidan Rave Esq, left suddenly in order to ‘pursue new ventures’. This expression is not-too-cryptic shorthand for jumping before he was pushed. The reason for his departure appears to have been a disagreement with Cllr Lee about the future direction of the Council. i.e. Mr Rave wanted to be part of the future of the Council and Cllr Lee appears to have disagreed.

I shed no tears of the departure of Mr Rave. During his two years as Chief Executive I only spoke to him about a couple of issues and I was disappointed with the lack of tangible action that resulted. However, the manner of his sudden departure is a concern as it appears to have been at the whim of Cllr Lee who, during his two years as Leader, has apparently hired and fired staff with a non-chalance reminiscent of Alan Sugar.

Since being appointed as Leader in April 2017, Cllr Lee has overseen the departure of two Chief Executives, two Chief Finance Officers as well as a Head of Legal Services who had worked for almost thirty years.  The cost associated with sudden unexpected departures is probably nearly £400,000 in less than two years.

Arrival of Senior Staff

Since his arrival as leader, Cllr Lee has been criticised by many people, including me, for appointing cronies from Peterborough without following a proper recruitment process. For example, there was much controversy over the engagement of a communications consultant at a cost of over £140,000 per annum with no tender process or formal contract in place between the consultant and the council. The Consultant had previously worked with Cllr Lee when the latter was a Councillor in Peterborough. The issue came to a head when I asked about the continued costs at Full Council in September 2018. I was accused then, by Cllr Helen Goral (Con), of pursuing a “personal vendetta” but less than two weeks later the consultancy was terminated. In April this year a new Communications job was invented with a salary of over £50,000/annum and the aforementioned consultant was one of only two people who applied for it. His recent reappearance at the Council has allegedly caused concern among the Conservative group.

Lack of Transparency

As part of Cllr Lee’s laudable efforts to make the Council more agile and business-like, the Council has created three separate ‘arms-length’ businesses (Gravitas Housing Ltd, InvestSK Ltd and EnvironmentSK Ltd) with another one on the way. These companies are able to act slightly beyond the normal barriers of a local authority even though they are 100% funded from the public purse. InvestSK has taken some of the responsibility for running markets, festivals and heritage projects. It has also dished out around a quarter of a million pounds in grants for arts, heritage, sports and retail projects.

The problem with the Council’s private companies is that they are not controlled or scrutinised in the same manner as the Council’s ordinary operations. In April this year, the Council handed over £400,000 to InvestSK and this was followed in May by a further £1.3 million. This presents a challenge for backbench councillors, including me, in scrutinising and influencing how all this money is spent.

There are other transparency issues at SKDC in relation to access to Committee meetings and workshops but I do not believe Cllr Lee is responsible for these problems. In fact he has had a positive influence on access to meetings by encouraging participation by all Councillors at Cabinet and Committee meetings.

The Conservative Group are revolting

The last three meetings of Full Council have been dominated by discussion of the underfunding of Lincolnshire Police. Well, to be more accurate, they have been dominated by an ongoing argument between Cllr Ray Wootten (Con) and most of the opposition councillors over whether he misled the council by boldly announcing an additional £10 million of extra police funding which didn’t actually exist. His statement led to confusion at the time but this has been aggravated by his refusal to apologise or accept any responsibility for relaying incorrect figures to a public meeting of the Council. At the July meeting of Full Council, Cllr Wootten repeatedly refused to apologise and appeared more ridiculous every time he spoke. This was all rather embarrassing especially when not a single Conservative colleague, neither frontbench nor backbench, offered Cllr Wootten any word of support during the meeting.

It could be argued that a strong leader would have ‘nipped this in the bud’ months ago by telling Cllr Wootten to back down and by enforcing his authority by threatening to remove him as Chair of the Council’s Committee which comes with a Special Responsibility Allowance of around £5,000/annum.

The strength of Cllr Lee’s leadership was also recently undermined by the elections in May where the Conservatives lost several seats and Cllr Lee only held on to his own Stamford seat by seven votes. Such a result was hardly an endorsement for him personally, or for his supposed radical programme of change.

Several of the Conservative group also still hold grievances concerning the manner of Cllr Lee’s original election as Leader. Having previously been a Peterborough City Councillor, Cllr Lee was only elected to SKDC in 2015 and within a year was organising a hostile takeover of the Conservative Group. His first attempt was unsuccessful but it took only two years to oust the personable Cllr Bob Adams (Con) from the position of Leader that he had held since the election.

Unfulfilled promises

Another reason why the Conservatives might be unhappy with their leadership is the lack of tangible delivery on promises.  Immediately after the coup of 2017, there was a display of action and vigour in the form of The Big Clean which was a half million pound project to tidy and clean the streets which the County and District councils had failed to keep on top of in previous years. This was followed by a flamboyant summit for business leaders, the great and the good of South Kesteven.  Cllr Lee made promises of improved markets and festivals as well as eye-catching building projects including new Leisure Centres for the Deepings and Stamford.  These promises were renewed a year later at a private summit (which cost £14,000) but very little has actually happened as a result.

The existing Deepings Leisure Centre is becoming more decrepit by the minute with rain literally pouring in through the roof, yet there is still no declared site, budget or plan for its replacement.

A market has been launched in Market Deeping but there is no budget for its ongoing promotion, management or marketing.

The St Peter’s Hill cinema, which was over five years in the planning and well over £5m is the building, is now open to customers but the building is shared with two restaurant units which remain empty due to lack of commercial interest. A university centre for Grantham is still stuck on the drawing board.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and big projects can take a long time to come to fruition, but the lack of progress on so many issues at South Kesteven, combined with all the factors above, is surely one of the reasons why Cllr Lee has thrown in the towel.

Does anyone know which dynamic Conservative will now step in to take the helm at South Kesteven? The Leadership election is due to take place on 2nd September.


Footnotes:

[i] Actually, Cllr Sue Woolley and Cllr Bob Adams did propose a procedural motion to move to the vote but they didn’t express any opinion on the question at hand so it doesn’t count

[ii] The e-mail continued with some house-keeping arrangements and an invitation to Group Leaders to phone if they had any questions. I have tried phoning Kelham but so far I’ve had no reply.

South Kesteven adopts a fast-track approach to recruitment of Communications Officer

Regular readers will know that I have previously been critical of the Council circumventing proper recruitment procedures by shoulder-tapping individuals and handing them jobs without formal advertising or competitive interview.

I am pleased to confirm that the recent appointment of a position of “Strategic Communications and Policy Lead (Housing)” was recruited by a formal process. Remuneration for the post is £54,468 per annum (pro rata) with excellent benefits .

The initial staff requisition was signed off by the relevant Cabinet Member for Housing who was subsequently defeated in the District Council elections in May.

The role was advertised on three external jobs websites as well as the Council’s own website. The advert was first published in the public domain on Friday 12th April and the closing date for applications was Tuesday 23rd April which allowed a full seven working days for people to apply for the position (assuming they found it within the timescale which fell amid the season of election campaigning).

The role was not proactively advertised on the Council’s twitter account nor any other social media.

Given the level of remuneration (over £50k plus benefits), it is perhaps surprising that only two people applied for the role and only one was shortlisted for interview.

By contrast, a recent recruitment for a ‘Head of Leisure’ at SKDC attracted nearly 20 applications although this was via a recruitment consultancy and the post was advertised for almost a month.

Nevertheless, congratulations are due to the successful applicant who has previous experience of working in the Communications Team at South Kesteven albeit as an external consultant with Emulus Communications Ltd. Small world though, innit!?

Talking of trees…

On 27th June, I proposed a motion that South Kesteven District Council should adopt the Woodland Trust’s Charter for Trees and develop a tree strategy to protect, improve and enhance the number and quality of trees in the District. Conservatives at South Kesteven tied themselves up in knots in order to prevent an Independent-led proposal from being passed.

The Tree Charter can be signed by individuals and also by organisations. More than 70 organisations and 300 local community groups have signed up to the Charter including at least two Parish Councils in the South Kesteven area have already signed up (Deeping St James and Barkston and Syston). However, meaning no disrespect to the Woodland Trust and their partners, the Charter for Trees is a relatively bland statement of commitment to protecting and promoting trees, forest and hedgerows, in fact one of my Independent colleagues described parts of it as ‘airy-fairy’. It is more a statement of attitude and intent rather than a detailed program of actions.

I argued that signing up to the Charter would demonstrate the Council’s commitment to trees, biodiversity and also to the Woodland Trust which is the leading national charity on this issue and is based in Grantham.

I was gobsmacked when the SKDC Cabinet Member responsible for Environment, Cllr Peter Moseley (Con) decided to oppose the motion. He suggested three reasons why Councillors should vote against it, all of which were spurious. Continue reading

The times they are a-changing…

South Kesteven Council descended into chaos yesterday when the Chairman and Deputy Leader failed to give direct answers to a simple question about the time of the meeting. The consequent debate lasted a full 10 minutes purely because a decision had been taken by the Conservative group without any consultation with the rest of the Council.

Cllr Lee Steptoe (Lab) (LS) raised the original question with the Deputy Leader of the Council, Coun Kelham Cooke (Con) (KC) because the Leader, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) had decided to take a holiday which prevented him from attending Full Council.

Here’s what was said:

LS: “I believe that the meeting times for Full Council were changed after the last meeting. Historically I believe that meetings have always started at 2pm. That has now been moved forward to 1pm. Can I ask what consultation within the Council and the public was made on this issue? Members of the public do attend. Some of us work full-time as well as being elected members and it’s a lot of hassle quite frankly to book time off and so on. It is a personal inconvenience – I’m sure I’ll get over it – but what consultation took place with elected members and with the public before this decision was arrived at?

KC: “Thank you Madam Chairman and thank you Cllr Steptoe. Obviously it is not for me to dictate to any Chairman of any Committee or even to this Council as to what time they meet. The Chairman, Cllr Jacky Smith (JS), took the decision to move that meeting to 1pm. Personally, I also work full-time and I know that a number of people in this room also have young families and children so it gives them the ability to pick their children up from school. But it is ultimately up to the Chairman.

Cllr Baxter (AB): “Thank you Madam Chairman, may I ask the same question to the Chair of the Council?

JS: “Yes there were some discussions and it was agreed that we would try it to see how it went. There was quite a feeling that we ought to move the meeting People do have to go and collect children from school. It is to try to ensure that we get the maximum number of people attending the Council meeting.

(AB): “Madam Chairman, the question was “Who was consulted and when?” because I wasn’t consulted and I don’t think Cllr Steptoe was consulted either?

(Long pause)

JS: Any other questions?

Cllr Knowles (PK): Can we have an answer to the last question, please?

JS: “The question has been put and I have answered it to the best of my abilities…

(Loud mutterings of “really?” from the floor)

PK: Who was consulted, Madam Chairman?

JS: “The question has been put and I have answered it. It was discussed among a number of people and it was agreed to move the time.

There then followed a number of interventions including from Cllr Bosworth (Con) who said she supported the change of time and from last year’s Chair, Cllr Stevens Con) who begged to differ with Cllr Bosworth and suggested the whole Council should be consulted. The Chair then continued:

 JS: “It was discussed. We had quite a few comments about having it at a different time. I know the Leader of the Council was involved in the discussions and a number of other people were involved. (Cries of “Who?”) It is also the Chairman’s decision. I agreed, because there were a number of requests for it, to try it. Now we can have further discussions, we can take more soundings. There were Council members who were involved (Cries of “Who?”). I think what this is indicating that we need to do, with the leader and deputy leader, is to set up some method of having further discussions but we can’t at any time please everyone.

There then followed further comments and chaotic discussion about whether the issue should be referred to Constitution Committee, whether the Council had become an autocracy and one Councillor claimed that members were being disrespectful to the Chair.

It was then asserted that the decision to move the time of the meeting had already been discussed and decided by Full Council. This was disputed.

The Chair concluded the debate by proposing that the 1pm start would be retained for a year in order to establish the impact on attendance and then the decision should be reviewed next year.

The purpose of this post is to inform, educate and entertain. If you find this kind of post interesting, please hit the like button or share it on social media. This will give me an indication of whether such detailed feedback from Council meetings is useful. It is quite time-consuming but I have only related this particular incident because I am still so upset about the attitude and conduct of senior Conservatives in relation to the very next item on the agenda which was “Charter for Trees”. Another blogpost coming soon!

VOTE FOR THE DEEPINGS! – In the Ramblers ‘Best British Walking Neighbourhood’ awards.

The friendly Deepings has been shortlisted in the search to find Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood 2019. I hope you will vote at ramblers.org.uk/vote
The Ramblers nominated the area because of the Deepings Green Walk which was developed during the Deepings First Neighbourhood Planning process supported by Market Deeping Town Council and Deeping St James Parish Council which aims for all new developments to include “safe, accessible, attractive, linked” footpaths.

The annual award celebrates areas which create green and welcoming walkable neighbourhoods, supporting increased physical activity, as well as the health, social, economic and environmental benefits that brings to people and their communities. Last year’s winner was Hastings Old Town.

Announcing the finalists, The Ramblers recognised the local councils’ plan to create The Deepings Green Walk, a 15km circuit to link local facilities, housing and green spaces. It is a key part of The Deepings Neighbourhood Plan which all new development will be expected to support.

Mrs Pam Byrd, of the Deepings First Neighbourhood Plan group, said: “This came from the Neighbourhood Plan process, where instead of deciding where housing and industry should go, we looked at the green space and pathways first, the environment and the community, and then worked other things around that.

“I would encourage everyone to give The Deepings the best chance to win by encouraging their friends and family to get online and vote.”

Local rambler Peter Jackson said: “I’ve done walks around the Deepings and it is a beautiful place to walk around, with a lot of different environments. It’s very calm, very safe, and there are some beautiful views to be seen and paths to tread.”

The winner will be decided by an online public vote which closes on 30 June.†

The Deepings
https://www.ramblers.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/walking-neighbourhoods/britains-best-walking-neighbourhood-award/the-deepings.aspx

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!

Seriously? Are @SouthKesteven Conservatives really planning to procure services from a non-existent company?

Last year, the Conservative cabinet at South Kesteven had a good idea of designating a fund for ‘Invest-to-Save’ activities. It’s hard to argue with the principle of such an initiative especially when I have been arguing for years that the Council should invest in energy efficient lighting which typically has a financial payback of less than three years (slightly more complicated with street-lighting projects but it would still be worthwhile.

Last month, the Portfolio Holder for Finance, announced the first decision about the first ‘ project to use the ‘Invest to Save’ Reserve.

The ‘project’ decision was an amalgam of three initiatives. The first is a review of Council Financial Procedures. It is hoped it will result in efficiencies and savings (hopefully no involuntary redundancies but I always get nervous when Tories mention ‘efficiency savings’). The review will be undertaken by an external partner whom the report states has already been identified although the name of the partner is not mentioned in the report.

The second part concerns the ‘Internet of Things’. Again, the proposal is to work with an external partner but the partner has not been named.
“The initial area is to develop is intelligent street lighting across the district. The proposal is to combine an LED lamp with Internet of Things sensors. This will create saving on the power with LED and also allow proactive monitoring of use, condition and other factors such as footfall monitoring and air quality.The proposal will also see the implementation of an IoT network which can then be utilised for future initiatives.”

This sounds spectacular. At face value it could revolutionise street-lighting across the UK and possibly the world. The investment at this stage is only £10,000 which, in my experience of R&D, doesn’t usually pay for a lot of research or development. Regular readers will know that I have attended dozens of meetings about SKDC street lights and the cost of replacing or adapting all 3,000 of them to LED is likely to be over £300,000 so I’m fascinated to know what the anonymous partner is offering the council for £10,000. I suspect it might be non-existent technology but I am genuinely trying to curb my cynicism so let’s wait and see.

The third and final part of the report concerns advertising and sponsorship. It begins: “South Kesteven District Council has worked with Publitas Consulting to complete an audit of advertising income received by the Council and the potential extent of opportunity within the local market”.

It goes on to recommend that we spend a further £40,000 with Publitas Consulting to manage a procurement process on our behalf to generate additional advertising revenue.

I have a few problems with this proposal. The main one being that Publitas Consulting does not exist! A simple check of Companies House website reveals that there used to be an organisation called Publitas Consulting LLP but it was dissolved three years ago.

Looking for more evidence of Publitas Consulting I discovered a website consisting of a single page with a backdrop of a River Thames skyscape but no address or contact details other than a mobile phone number. I phoned the mobile number for more information and was greeted by an answerphone message stating I could leave messages for Swedish Interior Design Ltd and also Publitas Consulting. Now, to give them the benefit of the doubt, we’re all busy people and lots of us have roles in more than one organisation. Publitas Consulting might be the best in the business for income generation and just want to keep a low-profile but surely, if a Local Authority wants to spend money with an external partner company, then it is basic due diligence to make sure the company exists!

The decision was originally planned for 9th April 2019. Before then I did ask for more details from the relevant Portfolio Holder but I received no reply. When the decision was delayed I was hopeful that someone had looked a bit more closely at the credentials of Publitas. Unfortunately, the Decision was taken a few days later and consequently I have asked for it to be ‘Called In’. This should mean that a special meeting of the Growth Overview and Scrutiny Committee will be called and the details of the three sub-projects will be looked at properly.

A ‘call-in’ request requires five Councillors to agree that the decision needs more scrutiny. This is one of the reasons we need more Independent and opposition Councillors. A massive majority for the Conservatives (or any other party) is not good for democracy and accountability.

Deepings Leisure Centre Update – What’s wrong with this picture?

Great news! The Council has announced new exciting new leisure centres for the Deepings and Stamford. Brilliant, fabulous, fantastic… but technically this is old news as it was also announced in October 2017 and again in October 2018.

As predicted in my previous blog concerning the new Deepings Leisure Centre, it’s now just eight weeks before the District Council elections and South Kesteven has announced ‘further details’ of new leisure centres with a blaze of publicity.

The Conservatives want everyone to know that they are planning new leisure centres in Stamford and the Deepings and a refurbished and enhanced leisure centre in Bourne. The publicity has included a double-paged spread in SK Today, almost three pages in the Stamford Mercury, umpteen tweets and other social media posts and, to top it all, 6 massive banners parading the exciting new facilities “delivered by South Kesteven District Council”. The irony is that nothing has really been delivered yet except for the posters.

I attended the South Kesteven Cabinet meeting last Thursday where a report on the new approach to sports and leisure facilities was formally approved. I wanted to ask the questions that everyone else is asking me. Here’s a summary of the questions I asked and the answers I was given:

Q. Where will the leisure centres be built? Continue reading

“Must try harder!” say SKDC employees in annual survey

An annual survey of staff at South Kesteven has revealed that a significant proportion (28%) of employees feel their jobs are insecure, more than a third (36%) don’t feel their hard work and good performance is recognised and only 41% would describe morale as ‘good’.

Arguably the most worrying finding is that only 29% of employees feel processes and procedures are applied consistently across the Council, e.g. in recruitment, flexible working, sick leave. This is hardly surprising in the field of recruitment where it appears that many people are chosen on the basis of who they know rather than what they know and multiple senior posts have been appointed without adverts or competitive interview.

The 69% survey response rate has been hailed as ‘exceptional’ by the project team that conducted the exercise. I’m not quite sure why as it is down from 72% the previous year and, if I’ve understood correctly, it is only marginally above the public sector benchmark for this kind of consultation.

On a far more positive note, it is clear that despite various reservations about the working environment, 97% of SKDC staff are fully committed to doing their very best for the Council and 88% feel trusted to get on with their jobs.

More details of the staff survey results are on the SKDC website.