SOUTH KESTEVEN BEST KEPT VILLAGE COMPETITION 2019

Cllr Andrew Bowell

I am pleased to announce that Deeping St James is the winner of South Kesteven Best Kept Community Award for 2019.

Organised by The Lincolnshire Branch CPRE, the competition is judged by volunteer judges.

The Judges visited the village twice, without any announcement, and on each occasion had a maximum of 150 points available to award across the following criteria:-

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• Overall appearance and condition – Absence of litter, unauthorised / unsightly refuse, absence of graffiti / vandalism, dumps on verges, general condition of roads and paths.
• Green Spaces – Provision for wildlife (such as bird boxes / feeders, bat boxes) and wildflowers. The general appearance of public greens, trees, ponds, streams, dykes, parks, nature areas, hedges, gardens, and allotments, as well as the condition of footpaths, stiles, field gates, signposting and children’s play areas.
• Public Premises – The condition of town halls, community centres, public halls…

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£5,000 for a “Future Visioning Programme” turns out to be a waste of money!

On 17th July, it was announced that the SKDC Chief Executive, Aidan Rave, was leaving the council to ‘pursue new ventures’. According to the blurb, Aidan had been with the council for two years and steered the authority through a period of significant change. Like so many other senior officers at Lincolnshire councils he was helped on his way with a financial settlement. The value of the golden handshake has not been revealed but, according to the Stamford Mercury, a cabinet member believed there was an ‘amicable settlement’ of around £75,000.

It is abundantly clear that Aidan didn’t spontaneously volunteer to ‘pursue new ventures’. We know this because just 8 months earlier he was participating in a ‘Future Visioning Programme’ which involved travel to Boston… I don’t mean Boston, Lincolnshire, I mean the other Boston in the USA.

The cost of the return flight to Boston was over £1,000. The cost of the course, which included 12 days of workshops or training, was a further £3,900. When the additional accommodation and mileage is added in, it can be shown that the total cost of this ‘Future Visioning’ was over £5,000.

I think it’s great that a local authority is prepared to invest in the personal development of its staff and it’s not uncommon. Back in the ’90s, as a relatively junior member of staff I was sponsored by my local authority employer to study an MSc. At the time, my study was subject to ‘golden handcuffs’ meaning that if I left local government within a specified period I would have to pay back some or all of the costs of my training.

Given the stories in the Grantham Journal that Aidan Rave’s sudden departure was due to a “clash of personalities” and a “big row” between him and the then leader of the council, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con), somehow I doubt if anyone will have asked Mr Rave for a refund.

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.

Continue reading

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.