“What are we voting for?” – SKDC Full Council shambles, July 2020

The Full Council meeting of 16 July 2020 was a complete shambles from start to finish. The Chair was AWOL for most of the meeting and so the Chief Exec became the de facto Chair. This would be tantamount to an abuse of authority if were not the only practical option.

CEO Karen Bradford, the de facto Chair of SKDC.

At one point in the meeting, while votes were being recorded on an issue, the Chair, Cllr Jacky Smith (Con), was clearly heard whispering to an Officer: “What are we voting for?”.

Later, during a heated and complicated debate concerning the correct procedure for electing a new Committee Chair, the so-called Chair of Council was silent for over 10 minutes despite members raising 3 points of order, various calls for clarification as well as interventions from officers.

As a result of the chaos, the meeting went on for over four hours but didn’t even manage to agree the minutes of the previous meeting let alone allow for open questions from Councillors or consideration of the three motions which had been proposed concerning the important issues of: the Council’s response to Covid; electric vehicles; and mental health.

I’ve been meaning to blog about this meeting for a while. There are three reasons for the delay: firstly, I needed some time to calm down; secondly lots of other things have been happening including my being illegally thrown out of a meeting; thirdly, I wanted my report to be accurate so on the 22 July I requested a copy of the recording of the meeting. Last week I was sent a file which was password protected. I eventually received the password only to discover that I have only been sent the last hour of the meeting. The remainder of the recording only arrived last Tues 4th August.

Nail-biting moments at SKDC’s virtual Full Council

Prayers and Questions

The meeting was preceded by prayers led by the vicar from St Wulfram’s Grantham at about 13:05. The Chair then began the formal meeting by welcoming everyone to the meeting and going through the ‘housekeeping’. She requested that councillors turn their phones to silent and ‘remove any possible distractions’. You would be amazed at some of the ways in which councillors were distracted: One had to make at least two ‘urgent’ phone calls; one was travelling on a train; another was digging potatoes! Background noises included classical music, car engines starting, dogs barking and various overheard conversations with people ‘off stage’.

These were followed by two questions from a member of the public, Struan Cornell from Bourne, concerning the decision by Cabinet Member for Tourism, Coun Rosemary Trollope-Bellew (Con) to abandon the Bourne Cicle Festival.

Coun Trollope-Bellew suggested the main reason for not resurrecting the event was financial. Before lockdown, the council had already spent £24,000 on preparatory work for the Gravity Fields which is not recoverable. She said that the Cuncil is currently facing a budget gap of around £3.4 million due to the Covid Pandemic. She didn’t mention that her decision to cancel the Bourne Cicle Festival was taken before Christmas without consultation.

In response to a second question about the possibility of Bourne Cicle Festival in 2021, Coun Trollope-Bellew said the festival would need to be: well-planned; value for money; inclusive; and of benefit to the wider residents and business community. She invited Mr Cornell to put together a business case by the end of August.

Attendance and Apologies

A register of attendance was taken by roll-call. The four minute roll-call was repeated for most votes (and amendments) throughout the meeting, The cumulative time spent voting during the meeting was probably the best part of an half an hour.

Minutes of the Previous Meetings

The agenda pack sent out to Councillors included two sets of minutes. This was expected because there had been an emergency meeting on 1 July to discuss the downgrading of Grantham Hospital.

Unfortunately, the original agenda pack contained two copies of the minutes of 1 July but no minutes from the previous ‘ordinary’ meeting of 14 May. Consequently a supplementary pack was sent which included the missing minutes among other things.

The meeting managed to approve the minutes of 14 May without much trouble but when someone proposed approval the minutes of 1 July, Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind) pointed out that the two sets included within the agenda pack were different drafts and asked which set we were supposed to be approving. Cllr Dilks drew the Council’s attention to a particular paragraph which had been dropped between one draft and the next:
“It was felt that the lack of clarity as to the intended procedure for the meeting has caused confusion and friction among members”

This clearly caught the Chair and Chief Executive off-guard as they clearly had no clue that there were two versions. After 2 or 3 minutes of radio silence, the Chief Executive dispatched an Officer to find out what was going on and advised these minutes would be deferred until later in the meeting.

Chair’s Engagements

The Council was presented with a list of the seven events attended by the Chair prior to lockdown and the three informal flag-raising ceremonies she had attended since 17th March.

Future High Street Fund

This item concerned the Council’s commitment to allocate £379,092 as an essential contribution to leverage government funding of £8m for regenerating the centre of Grantham. Most of the comments contributed to mutual back-slapping between the Cabinet members celebrating what a fantastic job they had done in shaping the bid so far.

The Leader Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) explained the bid would mean “investment in the future of our District’s largest town, Grantham, which we have discussed so much because it has so much potential; and that potential, if realised, will benefit generations within the town, to the remotest district borders, and across Lincolnshire… I will hope you will join in me in voting for this, and pursuing this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity. Grantham is growing. Let’s be bold. Let’s be innovative and LET’S MAKE GRANTHAM GREAT!”.

Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind) reprised the comments he had made at the Finance & Econ Dev Overview Scrutiny Committee (OSC) concerning the secrecy behind the bid-writing process and the fact that councillors hadn’t been properly consulted. He drew the Council’s attention to the ‘project board’ which had been meeting since last November and asked who had decided on its membership. He mentioned that the draft bid had already received feedback from the Government and asked where elected Councillors could access the feedback document. He asked why there was no formal scrutiny of the bid until the last possible moment (just 12 days earlier). He challenged the Leader and his Deputy to commit to stop paying lip-service to scrutiny and, in future, embrace real pre-scrutiny that is meaningful and robust, especially on major multi-million pound projects.

Coun Dilks final point concerned the bid’s stated intention to establish a permanent “Grantham Town Team”. This would be comprised of key stakeholders including landowners, businesses, community groups etc and be Chaired by an SKDC Councillor. The aim of the ‘Town Team would be to co-ordinate activities and improve the town centre. He suggested proposed ‘Town Team’ looked dangerously like a backdoor attempt to create an unelected Town Council.

Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) responded with a lot of waffle during which he mentioned several times that Cllr Dilks is not a Grantham Councillor but omitted to mention that neither he nor Cllr Cooke represented Grantham wards either. Typically, the Conservatives expect all Councillors from across South Kesteven to show solidarity in supporting Grantham when it suits their agenda but if we start asking questions then they switch to ‘Mind your own business’!

Many of Cllr Dilks concerns were echoed by Cllr Charmaine Morgan (Lab) who does represent a Grantham ward. Cllr Dobson responded to Cllr Morgan by talking about the crisis on the High Street mentioning in passing that now “Boots is leaving us, I understand”.

Regarding the role of InvestSK (I-SK) Cllr Dobson elucidated: “InvestSK was given a task, or they actually instigated it. It was all down to the efforts of I-SK to get this through. When I took over the portfolio back in January I was so excited by it that I just ploughed on with what was there and I just wanted to give Grantham everything we can give it…”

Cllr Ian Stokes (Con) stated that this was ‘first time’ he had seen the bid which seems odd for two reasons: a) he is a Grantham Councillor; b) he is Chair of Governance and Audit Ctte; and c) his son Cllr Adam Stokes Con) is Cabinet Member for Finance who must have been involved in writing the bid – one can only assume the Stokes family don’t talk about Grantham or politics at home.

Cllr Stokes Snr went onto say the bid was 10 years too late: “We went through all this early in the 1910s (sic) and we couldn’t get it through then because we were stuck with various properties like the four little Victorian buildings near the station which have got a class II listing on them. We would have liked to have had a wonderful area there and we were going to have IT offices in that particular place and it would have been a wonderful way to get into the centre of town but we were thwarted [back] then. This looks to be a lot better. We are still stuck with those houses unfortunately. I hope this will progress the centre of town… And those comments about town councils from various people are a complete waste of time”.

Cllr Knowles (Ind) expressed that any development of Grantham would be mindful of transport links across the District. There are currently no public transport links between Grantham and any of the District’s other towns.

The Chief Executive requested permission for Mr Paul Thomas to contribute to the debate. Mr Thomas, Director of Growth, clarified some of the questions asked by Cllr Dilks including that the membership of the project board was limited to members of the SKDC Cabinet. His explanations were far more specific and useful than those of Cllr Dobson.

Despite the various concerns, the recommendation to submit the funding bid was agreed unanimously.

Financial Impact of COVID-19 on the Leisure Service

Agenda Item 15 was bumped up the agenda because, the Chair said, it was “important”. I’m not sure what that says about the rest of the agenda but she said what she said. The item was to be considered ‘in camera’ (closed session).

One of the Members asked if it was permissible to participate from the railway carriage on which he was travelling. He added that he was not intending to participate in the debate. The Chief Executive asked if he was listening via headphones, which he confirmed, and this was deemed acceptable. In the event, he did participate in the debate by complaining about the questions I was asking about the Leisure Service. I cannot give you any more detail because the debate remains confidential.

At risk of breaking the rules, I am prepared to divulge that when the item was brought to the vote, one Councillor abstained because he had not listened to all of the debate. He apologised to the Chair saying that the reason for his absence was because he had been outside digging potatoes for a good cause!

Programme of Meetings 2020-21

It was announced that due to the volume of business, there would be an extra Full Council meeting on 1 Oct 2020.

Changes to the Constitution

Two Councillors abstained because he had not listened to all of the debate. One was making an urgent phone call. He apologised to the Chair saying that the reason for his absence was because he had been outside digging potatoes for a good cause!

Constitutions are only interesting when they are in dispute. The Council’s Constitution Committee has met only once in 2020. There have apparently been several ‘workshops’ concerning the proposed changes to the constitution but these were only attended by a very small number of people meeting behind closed doors. At the time of the meeting there were no minutes available of either the formal meeting nor the informal workshop,

The proposed changes were pretty radical and there was not time to go through everyone’s specific problems in detail. Therefore, Cllr Paul Wood (Ind) proposed an amendment to refer the issue back to the Constitution committee for more thought with respect to councillors’ feedback.

Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) a former Leader of the Council, made it clear that the Conservatives would be doing as they were told: “I will be voting against this amendment because that is what I have been asked to do. I just think it is a huge shame…”.

It was during the vote on the amendment that Cllr Jacky Smith, who was supposedly Chairing the meeting, was clearly heard asking “What are we voting for?”.

The debate around changes to the constitution continued for well over an hour. The changes were agreed with no Conservative voting against the changes and no opposition member voting for them.

Appointments to Committees

This was easily the most contentious item on the agenda.

Owing to the resignation of Cllr Chris Benn, a vacancy had arisen for the Chair of the Council’s Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee. In a group leaders’ meeting prior to the meeting, Coun Paul Wood had informed the Council’s Leader and Chief Executive that he wished to make a nomination for the vacant Chair and was given the impression that this would be allowed and that there would be a straight-forward vote for the Conservative candidate or another candidate.

When it came to the agenda item, Cllr Wood proposed that Cllr Ashley Baxter (That’s me!) for the position. My environmental credentials are well-known.

Sadly, at this point, former SKDC Leader, Cllr Bob Adams (Con) made an spurious comment that a contested election would be contrary to the Constitution. The Council’s Monitoring Officer was asked for clarification and, after prompting, quoted para 6.5.5 which clearly states:
“If the Chairman or Vice-Chairman resigns either from that position or from the Council by giving written notice of resignation to the Chief Executive, the Council shall, at its next meeting, elect a successor”

However, without any comment, direction or clarification from the Chair, who remained silent for more than 10 minutes, various Conservatives jumped up and down with their own observations on the ‘real meaning’ of the constitution. Tellingly, former Leader Cllr Bob Adams commented “This is why I hate constitutions”.

Long story short, the Monitoring Officer was browbeaten into changing her advise and the nomination of an opposition candidate was disallowed.

In my opinion, this moment marked a watershed for the Council. From that point on there was absolutely no doubt that the Conservatives don’t want a fair fight, or a fair debate, or proper scrutiny. They are afraid of the implications of allowing any opposition member to take a position of power or influence. What is worse is that the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer are clearly afraid to present an opinion which is contrary to that of the Conservative group.

These comments are not ‘sour grapes’ because I didn’t get elected as Chair of the Environment Committee It was always clear that the Conservatives would never openly vote against one of their own group (even though, on paper, as several members pointed out, there is no Councillor better qualified than me). The most shocking part of this chaotic decision is that the Conservatives have employed senior officers to defend them against effective scrutiny and allow them to do whatever they like with impunity and without challenge.

This is further illustrated by the way in which complaints about process, transparency and decision-making are batted away by officers and Cabinet Members alike. Democracy at South Kesteven is in a terrible state.

Parish Council Matters

It was agreed at the last minute that changes to two Parish Councils should be nodded through by the council without debate. I abstained because I hold an old-fashioned belief that Councillors should always have an opportunity to ask questions and debate agenda items before decisions are taken.

Concluding Remarks

At the conclusion of the meeting the Leader of the Council was allowed to make the following brief comment: “If I can just say very briefly before we draw this meeting to a close, this is not one of the best meetings that we’ve ever had at the District Council. I will certainly be revising on this (sic) and I know the Chairman will as well. Obviously the previous minutes will need to be voted upon, as will [agenda items] 12, 13 and 14, and the motions as well will have to go on to another meeting”.

The Chair followed up by saying “Yes, I hope the next meeting will be a much better, much friendlier one and that we will get away from all this back-biting and so on. We are here to do work and to get the best we can out of everything for the betterment of the Council and the town; and people must be absolutely horrified if they come in and see this sort of behaviour”.

An Independent Member from Bourne then asked the Chair to clarify which ‘town’ she was referring to. The Chair responded that she meant “any town, all of the towns…”.

The next meeting of the Council is the AGM scheduled for September which will include the election of a new Chair. For everyone’s sake, it can’t come soon enough!

District Councillors’ reports to Deeping St James Parish Council – July 2020

At each monthly meeting of Deeping St James Parish Council, the 3 District Councillors and 1 District Councillor who represent the village are invited to deliver a written or verbal report.

This month, I have asked for copies of the written reports and I publish those which I receive below.

Disclaimer: The reports below are not written by me, I am merely publishing them for the benefit of those who wish to know what’s happening at SKDC and in the Deepings. I cannot take responsibility for any errors within or offence which may be caused. However, if any factual inaccuracies or other errors are brought to my attention I will do my best to correct them.

Councillor Phil Dilks (Ind)
Report to Deeping St James Parish Council – July 2020

Chaotic Council:

Thursday, 16 July – One of the most shambolic and farcical meetings ever of South Kesteven District Council when sadly:

  • The Council’s Constitution was politicised by the ruling group imposing a party political whip on its members to steamroller through 40 pages of amendments to the Constitution.
  • The Council failed to even adopt minutes of the previous meeting because no-one could advise which of two versions published with the Agenda were recommended for approval.
  • A resigning chairman of a scrutiny committee was controversially replaced by a vote in which only one candidate was allowed – the nominee of the Leader of the ruling group (despite the Constitution stating at paragraph 6.5.5 that in these circumstances an election should be held).

Another staffing review:

Another ‘Corporate Structural Review’ is now underway following the previous Corporate Structural Review launched while Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) was Council Leader in 2017 which led to replacement of [almost] the entire Senior Management team:  Hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money has been paid out in redundancies and ‘golden goodbyes’, with some long standing senior staff told they’d be leaving by the end of the week and given a lump-sum in exchange for their signature on a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

I regret that the Council is in a position where another staffing review is apparently necessary. The level of this latest review of the senior staffing structure has not yet been made public, but I hope it does not lead to yet another lengthy period of massive uncertainty and stress for our current officers.

Cost of Covid-19

The pandemic is estimated to cost SKDC some £3 million – it is hope there will be further financial assistance to local authorities to reduce the final cost.

A revised Budget for the current year is due to be considered and adopted at the next meeting of the Council in September.

Grants to Local Businesses

SKDC has distributed almost £30 million of Government grants to assist local businesses survive the pandemic. Following a request by a local resident, I’ve been trying to establish how many Deepings business have been assisted but I’m told those figures are not yet known.

Planning update:

We are still trying to ‘catch up’ with the backlog of planning applications. I have attended four site visit days since the last parish council meeting – this week’s typically involved most of the day and  round trip of almost 90 miles looking at application sites in Grantham, Belton House Garden Centre, Toll Bar Filling Station (on the A1 north of Grantham), Horbling, Bourne and Carlby with the meeting to determine those application to be held virtually next Wednesday.

This month I also attended two Planning Committee meetings held virtually – each lasting the best part of a day, probably due to their virtual nature.

No Deepings applications determined, but I was pleased to be able to support the application for construction of a public art gallery at Grimsthorpe Castle to house a now private collection of national significance which will hopefully boost tourism and the local economy.

No dates announced yet for any of the controversial applications from DSJ.

Other Overview and Scrutiny meetings:
This month I have attended meetings of the Environment OSC and the Finance, Economic and Corporate Services OSC

This month I have attended meetings of the Environment OSC and the Finance, Economic and Corporate.

Cllr Phil Dilks,
District and Parish Councillor
30 July 2020

SKDC Finance Ctte pre Covid

Update on the Deepings Leisure Centre – An Independent Update (July 2020)

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been contacted by various would-be users of the leisure centre asking “What’s happening with the Leisure Centre”. Consequently, I’ve written this blog-post to bring you up-to-date with progress (or lack of it) with the proposed new Deeping leisure centres.

This blog concerns the legendary ‘New Deepings Leisure Centre’. I am planning to write another blog within the next few days about the lack of progress in re-opening the existing Deepings Leisure Centre (and pool) now that the Covid Lockdown has been eased and the government has given permission for Leisure Centre and swimming pools to be opened.

Just before publishing this blog, I received an e-mail in relation to questions I had asked at a Finance Committee meeting. This contained the ‘official position on Leisure centres‘ as provided by the Cabinet Member and I have published it, in full. I think you will find my interpretation (below) is more comprehensible, credible and correct. I apologise if it appears somewhat acidic which is due to my continued frustration at not being given clear answers nor access to information.

Regular readers will be aware that new Leisure Centres for the Deepings and Stamford were announced by SKDC Leader, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) back in October 2017. Since then, Cllr Lee has resigned, the Stamford idea has been abandoned but the Deepings Leisure Centre is still a ‘work in progress’.

The Conservatives have repeatedly promised that ward Councillors will be kept up-to-date with progress. The last update meeting with ward Councillors regarding the new Deepings Leisure Centre was on 30th January before the responsibility for Leisure Centres formally passed to Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) who is now Deputy Leader of SKDC as well as County Councillor for ‘Deepings East’ (even though he lives in Thurlby).

On 21st May, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Independent Councillors
We are expecting the plans along with costings for the new centre to be ready shortly. Once we have these and have looked into the financial solutions, I will get together with our Deepings group. The present situation hasn’t helped in expediting the proposals, but I am pleased to say that good progress is being made”.

On 23rd May, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Councillors I look forward to sharing the options with you very soon”.

On 26rd May, when pressed for a specific timescale, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Independent Councillors Consultation should be in June – I certainly hope so” and “June – end of probably”.

On 27th May, I challenged Cllr Dobson about working groups and consultants’ reports the Council had commissioned (one of which cost over £250,000) and he reiterated as follows:
“Although I thought it would be useful to have an overarching group at the beginning, it would only delay and possibly confuse the situation. The new report will show proposals to upgrade the three centres at Grantham, Bourne and Stamford and a completely new facility for the Deepings. 

“As soon as the report is ready, we will have a meeting so that we can all contribute to its success by putting the plans in motion: planning and finance will need to go hand-in-hand so that we can expedite the realisation of the new centre. You will be informed at every step of the process – I promise. 

“Next step: Show and discuss the plans with relevant members for each of the centres, including facilities and finance.
Date: Before the end of June 2020.
Method: MS Teams through invitation”.

So, having promised three times to hold a meeting with Ward Members before the end of June, what do you think he delivered to us before the end of June? … Correct – Nothing at all: no plans; no strategy; no meeting.

Undeterred, local Independent Councillors Phil Dilks, Virginia Moran and I have persevered with questions about the plans for the new leisure centre at every opportunity. These have included formal public meetings including Cabinet as well as written requests for information and informal conversations with officers. When I was first elected as a Councillor I didn’t expect to take on the role of an investigative journalist but that’s seems to be an essential part of the role.

At a SKDC Cabinet meeting on 16th June, I asked about the Leisure Centres and Cllr Dobson, Deputy Leader, responded that before the September meeting of the Cabinet a meeting would be arranged with the Chairman of the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services OSC to confirm a date for a joint meeting to discuss the leisure programme and the options available to the Council”.

He also added that “consultation had been carried out with an architect who had undertaken design for Sport England projects”.

The Cabinet minutes also record that “The Leader of the Council stated that the leisure programme would be the largest expenditure that the Council had confirmed that engagement would take place with local Ward Members (sic). There would be opportunity for Members to debate the issue at the joint OSC meeting, Cabinet and Council, which would make the final decision”.

Further questions were asked at the following Cabinet meeting of 7th July for which the minutes are not yet available. At that meeting, a workplan was presented which stated that Cabinet meeting of 8th September would “consider the Procurement Strategy and Investment Proposals for the Leisure facilities within the District Leisure Centres” and “agree the approach to delivering the programme to enhance leisure opportunities for everyone”. I challenged the Deputy Leader over whether this time-scale was realistic and he admitted that it was extremely unlikely that the necessary consultation would be completed by that date; nevertheless the workplan was approved.

Questions about the existing Leisure Centre were asked during the extremely chaotic Full Council meeting of 16th July but unfortunately the agenda item concerning Leisure Centres was held in closed session so I am forbidden to report the questions and answers at that meeting.

Full Council usually allows for 45 minutes of open questions to the Cabinet but due to the incompetence of the Chair, and the party politicking of the Conservatives, there was no time for councillors to ask questions or debate motions but that’s another story.

Meanwhile, after a lengthy exchange of e-mails, I had managed to obtain a redacted copy of the aforementioned expensive consultancy report produced by MACE. I can confirm that I agree with Cllr Dobson’s opinion that it is inadequate. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to share any of the detail as the report is still regarded as ‘confidential’.

I have also asked for the second consultancy report, produced by the ‘Sport England’ consultant. At time of writing I have been refused access to the report because it is still in ‘draft’ form. I have protested stating that if the Deputy Leader is able to cite reports at Cabinet meetings then, as an elected Councillor, I have a legal right to see them.

The Council’s Monitoring Officer has responded with the view that I am not entitled to view the Sport England report until the Conservatives are willing to publish it. The Independent Group Leader and I have immediately responded by quoting section 100(f) of the Local Government Act 1972 which clearly states:
“Any document which is in the possession or under the control of a principal council and contains material relating to any business to be transacted at a meeting of the council or a committee or sub-committee of the council shall be open to inspection by any member of the council.”

Is now a good time to remind you of the Conservative Council Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke’s comments during his inaugural speech that he wanted “a more open, transparent and collaborative style of council that welcomes constructive challenge and respects differences”?

Despite the procrastination and prevarication by Cabinet Members at SKDC, I am pleased to say council officers are speaking to some interested parties behind the scenes. This includes some of the current leisure centre users and also Deeping St James parish council.

Actually, the district council has no choice but to speak to the parish council because the latter owns a significant part of the land which comprises the school playing field and the intended site for the new leisure centre. Before the leisure centre project can proceed to formal stages of planning procurement, it is required that all the landowners ie. the parish and the county councils will need to have signed an ‘in principle’ agreement to co-operate.

Informal negotiations led to a more formal meeting last Thursday to which all 15 parish councillors were invited. I requested permission to observe that meeting but was refused access, therefore I cannot report what was said. What I can say with confidence is that Cllr Dobson, for all his promises of collaboration, has shared more information with the parish council than he has with his district council colleagues.

One of my district council colleagues has speculated that the leisure centre project is being timed to align with the county council election process, i.e. we should expect another big announcement towards the end of February so that the Conservatives have something to put on their leaflets. Having spoken to officers, I am not so cynical. I believe there is a genuine will to make progress but the secrecy and naivety of the Conservative cabinet members is more of a hindrance than a help. Certainly, nothing they have said or done since January has been of any tangible use.

Update on Leisure Centres – The official line!

On June 30th, I attended the SKDC Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Comimttee (aka FEDetc), I asked the Deputy Leader for an update on the Working Groups on Leisure Centres established, in a confused manner, at two of the Council’s Committees. I was promised a written update and, 40 minutes before today’s FEDetc meeting I was sent the following which does not appear in the public agenda pack:

Written update from the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Growth and Leisure (Cllr Barry Dobson)

Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Committee – 28th July 2020

This written update is in response to the following minute and action from 30th June 2020:

Minute:

A member [Cllr Ashley Baxter] questioned the membership of leisure centre working groups and asked for an update on the working groups or if they had been abandoned since the last meeting. He went on to ask if the list of recreation grounds assets requested at the February meeting could be circulated to other Councillors, as well as to Committee members.

Action:

A written response on the status of the leisure centre working groups to be provided

Response from Councillor Barry Dobson:

The proposed Member Working Group for Leisure was considered at FEDCO on the 4th February 2020. The minutes noted that:

As the Deputy Leader of the Council, I introduced an item relating to the review of the leisure provision across the district. I informed the Committee that visits to all of the leisure centres would be carried out and that the input of local Councillors would be welcomed when considering the options for the specific leisure sites.

A Member Working Group for Leisure was being formed to help shape and develop the overall leisure review process, to allow a small group of Members to track progress and feed back to the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committees as needed. Although the Terms of Reference stated that two Members of the Committee would be required, there were four members of the Committee who volunteered, and I agreed to amend the requirement to allow all four Members to join the Working Group. The Committee also suggested that it would be beneficial for a representative from the Finance Department be invited to join the group.

Whilst no timescale was given for its implementation, it was proposed that the group should remain in place until the new management option has been implemented in April 2022.

A further update was provided to Cabinet on the 16th June. The minutes note that:

A question was asked [by Cllr Baxter] about the leisure transformation programme and the Working Groups that had been nominated by the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) and the Culture and Visitor Economy OSC. These working groups had not met but I had spoken to Parish Councils on the subject.  Investment Plans for the Leisure Centres was on the Forward Plan to report at the September Cabinet and the non-Cabinet Member [Cllr Baxter] wanted to know the scrutiny path for the issue and whether consultation would take place with Ward Members.  The non-Cabinet Member [Cllr Baxter] also asked whether a joint OSC meeting would take place between the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services OSC and the Culture and Visitor Economy OSC.  

I referred to my meeting at the end of January 2020 with Members for the Deepings area and the meeting I had also attended with Deeping St James Parish Council.  Before the September meeting of the Cabinet a meeting would be arranged with the Chairman of the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services OSC to confirm a date for a joint meeting to discuss the leisure programme and the options available to the Council. The leisure programme would require significant investment and feedback from the joint OSC meeting would allow for the refinement of the report and future engagement and consultation with Members. 

I further reported that I had visited all the leisure centres with Members from all groups [which is simply not true!] and the proposal was to upgrade, facilities in Bourne, Grantham and Stamford and build a new centre in the Deepings.  Consultation had been carried out with an architect who had undertaken design for Sport England projects and I hoped to progress the issue as soon as possible.  

The Leader of the Council stated that the leisure programme would be the largest expenditure that the Council would have and confirmed that engagement would take place with local Ward Members.  There would be opportunity for Members to debate the issue at the joint OSC meeting, Cabinet and Council, which would make the final decision. 

In February it was originally intended to set-up a Member Working Group for Leisure and that this working group would be responsible for providing advice and direction for the leisure improvement programme, together with monitoring progress and providing advocacy for the project. Since that time, Cabinet have established a Leisure Board to include the key Members of the Cabinet whose areas of responsibility are connected to the leisure improvement programme.  

The Members of the Board and their respective portfolios are:

Cllr Kelham Cooke [Con] – Leader, and Cabinet Member for Property

Cllr Barry Dobson [Con]- Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Growth and Leisure

Cllr Adam Stokes [Con]- Cabinet Member for Finance

Cllr Rosemary Trollope-Bellew [Con] – Cabinet Member for Culture and Visitor Economy

In addition to this the Project Board, an officer working group, led by the Chief Executive, has been established to advise the board on relevant matters.

Significant steps have been made in respect of leisure since the last update to FEdCo:

  • The feasibility work undertaken by MACE has been concluded and the Council received the draft report on the 17th February this year, the finalised report being received on the 17th March.  Following receipt of the draft report it was apparent that additional feasibility work was required, and [an] Architect was commissioned on the 13th March to identify alternative schemes and provide the associated capital costs in relation to these.  This work is ongoing.
  • As a result of Covid-19 the Government closed all leisure facilities on the 21st March 2020.  Since that time the Council have been assessing the impact of Covid-19 and a claim for financial support received from our leisure provider, 1Life.
  • The Council were successful in securing grant funding from Sport England to provide expert consultancy support and as a result Sport and Leisure Consultancy Ltd (SLC) were appointed on the 1st May 2020. 
  • The first phase of SLC’s work was to assess the claim received by 1Life and provide advice in this regard.  This work has been concluded and a financial support package for the period March 2020 to June 2020 was agreed at a meeting of the Cabinet on the 7th July and a subsequent meeting of Council on the 16th July. 
  • Since December 2019 the Council has been engaging with Lincolnshire County Council and Deeping St James Parish Council to secure a long lease of the Linchfield Road site in Deeping St James.  This site has previously been announced as the preferred site for a new leisure centre development.  Final [Final?] amendments to the draft heads of terms were circulated in July and discussions are ongoing.

The next key milestones are as follows:

  • Report to Cabinet on further impact of Covid-19    –    18 August 2020
  • Report to Cabinet on proposed land deal     –   8 September 2020

Work is ongoing to identify appropriate schemes of improvements across the leisure facilities.  When there are some clear options available the previously proposed Member Working Group will meet to assess these, and a joint OSC will be convened to ensure that the improvement plans have the appropriate level of scrutiny.  In addition to this, consultation will take place with Ward Members (supplementing the Initial meetings and site visits which took place with Ward Members in January and February of this year) so that an informed report can be presented to Cabinet later this year.

Thank you,

Barry

Whistleblowing on the increase in South Kesteven

Since 2010, the Conservative Government has systematically reduced the amount of Revenue Support Grant Funding to local authorities. In South Kesteven this means the District Council is fast reaching the point where it will receive no funding from central government under normal circumstances (The Covid19 pandemic is not normal).

Consequently, most council services are funded by income raised directly by the council in the form of Council Tax, business rates and sold services. Fraud has always reduced the income of local councils but the impact of council tax and other frauds now has a greater relative impact. The financial cost to the council of fraud could be somewhere in the region of £1million.

There is a difference between deliberate fraud and a genuine mistake. You only have to look at some of the forms relating to tax credits and other benefits to realise they are often complicated and sometimes require a forensic level of detail about earnings which many people do not have to hand. Within an annual report on ‘Counter Fraud’ being presented to the SKDC Governance and Audit Ctte this week is a table which suggests that £561,765 was overpaid in Housing Benefit last year. Well over half of this amount was recovered from the claimants and it would be wrong to assume that all the mistakes were made by the claimants (rather than the council) let alone that any large proportion of the overpayments were the result of deliberate fraud.

Lincolnshire has a counter fraud partnership and the County Council manages a Confidential Reporting Line for whistleblowers as a central point of contact for people wishing to report suspected fraud.

An analysis of district related referrals made to the Whistleblowers’ line during 2019-20 identified that 125 referrals were received ( compared to 102 in 2018/19). The maintype of referrals relate to council tax and housing tenancy fraud.

Of the 125 referrals received by Assurance Lincolnshire, 41 related to South Kesteven. As can be seen from the graph above, the annual number of reports relating to SKDC has climbed steadily in recent years. Increased reports to the Whistleblowers’ line is thought to be more likely an indicator that fraud awareness is reaching a wider audience rather than purely an increase in the amount of frauds being committed.

All 41 whistleblowing allegations have been investigated and action taken where appropriate (although most involved no further action or referral to the DWP).

If you wish to report an alleged fraud, or would like more information about whistleblowing, you can contact the confidential freephone whistleblowing number on 0800 0853716
or email: whistleblowing@lincolnshire.gov.uk

Meanwhile here’s a clip of some good old fashion whistleblowing of a different kind…

Did you remember to turn the gas off? – South Kesteven spends £35,000 to decommission former Cummins site.

The Conservative’s flagship development project – St Martin’s Park in Stamford (aka the old Cummins engineering works) – is costing council taxpayers around £20,000/month in maintenance costs including rates, electricity, water etc.

Yesterday, SKDC announced that an additional one-off sum of £35,000 is to be spent on essential health and safety works and to decommission the gas supply. Given that the factory was purchased over 18 months ago, at a cost of £7.5million, one might have assumed that all essential health and safety works would have been implemented much earlier but this additional expenditure is now deemed justified because of “the number of times the property has been broken into by unauthorised persons. Additional security measures have been put in place (presumably incurring additional cost) in the interim to minimise the risk to life but it is now important to switch the gas system off and release all gas from the pipework.

The grand scheme for the St Martin’s Park development changes from one month to the next. Originally it was purchased “in order to preserve its use as an employment site in the town, rather than risk it being taken by private developers solely for housebuilding”.

The site are being promoted for a mixed-use development including commercial, residential and retirement homes along with associated public open space, car parking, retail and infrastructure. These uses are subject to planning consent. The objective is to create space for a minimum of 500 jobs on a mixed-use development site while protecting the setting of Burghley House and its grounds.

Originally the preferred delivery mechanism was going to be a new company called DeliverSK. This entity was supposed to allow the Council to take a much more flexible, commercial approach, while ensuring the council can scrutinise and approve any decisions involving council-owned land or projects requiring further council investment. It has clearly failed on both counts since after 18 months the DeliverSK company hasn’t even been registered at Companies House.

The most recent report to Councillors explains that despite the Council already having spent £77,000 on legal costs, the establishment of DeliverSK has collapsed due to confustion over the legal status of the Guernsey-based partner company who was supposed to be our partners. IAG were supposed “to assist with development and regeneration projects in the area seeing them through from the concept stage right through to completion”, Instead it turns out that they didn’t even tell us their real name!

Scrutiny failure

South Kesteven District has been criticised for a prolonged delay in returning to its normal cycle of meetings. During the first seven weeks of lockdown, the Council held only one formal meeting which lasted less than ten minutes. Since then it has held it resumed some statutory meetings virtually but there are not even any confirmed dates for most of the Council’s committees.

Cllr Ashley Baxter (Ind) who represents the Market and West Deeping ward explains: “Everyone understands that we are living through ‘unprecedented times’ but this is no excuse for shutting down democracy. For the first few weeks of the lockdown it was understandable that the Council and its Officers would be focussed on implementing emergency plans and maintaining essential services. Unfortunately, even though the Council has found a new rhythm of ‘normal operations’, there is still no timetable for the public meetings which are necessary to hold the Conservatives to account”.

Cllr Baxter continues “Some of these meetings are farcical at the best of times, I recently attended a sequence of over a dozen meetings where we literally discussed whether or not to change lightbulbs! However, the Committees are the only opportunity where Councillors can publicly ask questions and offer constructive criticism of the work of the council. The fact that most of the Committee Chairs (all Conservatives) haven’t even published a date for their next meeting demonstrates how little they care about the ‘special responsibilities’ for which they are handsomely paid.”

The Leader of the Council, Kelham Cooke (Con) had previously promised the Independent group of Councillors a draft programme of meetings. This was sent to Councillors the day before the Full Council meeting which took place virtually on 14th May. It later became clear that the draft schedule, which indicated two meetings in the first week of June, had not been agreed with the relevant Committee Chairs and consequently was not published or adhered to.

At a time when the Council’s standards and procedures are under particular stress, one might imagine the Constitution Committee would be particularly busy but the Chair, Cllr Linda Wootten (Con) has not called a meeting since before Christmas and there is no published date for its next meeting. Similarly, Cllr Wootten’s husband, Cllr Ray Wootten (Con), Chairs the Rural and Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee which has not met since 20th February and has not published a date for its next meeting.

Image
Cllr Linda Wootten (Con), Chair of the SKDC Constitution Committee, with the biggest Con of them all!

The ‘Great Plague’ of 1665

With all the recent talk about bookcases I noticed, in mine, a copy of “A New History of England and Great Britain” by Prof. J. M. D. Meikeljohn, of the University of St Andrew’s, and published in 1903.

Unsurprisingly, it records many notable events in the story of our nation including the first ‘English’ landing in 449 – “They sent word home to their friends how fertile the land was, and how weak the people; and thus began the stream of English immigration into the goodly island of Great Britain.”

A recent blog about ‘The Black Death’ of 1349, was surprisingly well-read, perhaps because of its topicality or maybe because it was widely shared, so I’ve plucked out a passage about England’s second most famous plague incident…

The Great Plague

June of 1665 was a month of extraordinary heat, and the winter and spring had been the driest ever known in England. London was at that time a city of narrow streets, overhanging houses, and no drainage of any systematic kind. There was in this summer no grass to be seen anywhere, and the country round London looked dreary, parched, brown and dusty.

In the coffee-houses – which were the clubs of the seventeenth century- hushed whispers pass from man to man, that the Dutch fleet is in the waters of the Thames, and that the plague is in the city. On the 7th June, Pepys, the Secretary for the Navy, see in Drury Lane “two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors (the ‘fatal red cross, a foot in length’), and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” Into the ill-drained and narrow streets of London neither light nor fresh air could easily penetrate. The richer people fled, and even the physicians and the clergy ran to the country for their lives.

The streets were filled all day and all night with “coaches and wagons and carts hurrying away with goods, women, servants, and children,” and the king and his sorry court were the first to set the bad example of flight. Only the stout Duke of Albemarle, Monck, among the higher ranks, stood to his post, and fearlessly chewed tobacco and drank his strong beer, in his town garden.

All night – and, when the plague had advanced, all day and all night – the dead-cart went its rounds, with the weird noise of the gloomy bell, and the hoarse voices of the buriers crying, “Bring out your dead!” Slowly it rumbled along, picking up a corpse in this house and another in that, until it appeared at the mouth of a vast and deep common foss or grave, into which it shot at once sixteen or seventeen bodies, uncoffined and unshrouded, unattended and uncared for by friends or by relations.

“The people fell thick as leaves in autumn when they are shaken by a mighty wind;” grass grew everywhere in the silent and untrodden streets, – silent but for the groans of the dying and the doomed; rows of houses stood empty, and those that were occupied were marked with the red cross; and a strange and wild-looking man walked the streets day and night at a swift even pace, speaking to no one, but constantly uttering the words, “Oh, the great and dreadful God!”

In September a huge bonfire was kindled at every sight house, and kept burning day and night; ten thousand people died in one week; and in six months more than a hundred thousand had perished.

Most of the clergy had fled, but the Nonconforming ministers had the courage to stay with the people, to preach from the forsaken pulpits, to visit the sick, to relieve the poor, and to minister to the last moments of the dying. The reward which these brave men received for their self-denying work from Parliament was the Five-Mile Act.

Footnotes

  1. The plague of 1665 is called The Great Plague, because it was the worst – the last of many which under the names of The Death, The Black Death etc., had frequently devastated London and England. The narrow ill ventilated streets, the filthy lanes and alleys, the want of systematic drainage, the complete ignorance of the time as to the value of pure air and cold water, made the great cities of mediaeval and of later Europe hot-beds and forcing-houses for all kinds of pestilence. “The terrible visitor came to London once in every twenty years, and then swept away a fifth of the inhabitants.”
  2. The most picturesque account of the Plague is given by Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year. There are also some vigorous verses on the subject in Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis ( = Wonderful Year -because the Plague and the Fire both fell within a twelvemonth).

Self-isolation, the South Lincolnshire experience – A feature for St Guthlac’s Day

This DeepingDo blog is primarily about news relating to the Deepings and/or South Kesteven but in the absence of any council meetings I’m branching out. My recent topical post about the Black Death of 1349 was particularly popular so perhaps historical context is what you all want?

The 11th April is the Saints day of our local hero, Guthlac of Crowland. Two of the five Deepings churches are named in his honour as well as one of the ‘colleges’ at Deepings school and the local freemasons’ lodge.

Guthlac on his way to Crowland. Photo: British Library

Guthlac’s big thing was ‘self-isolation’ which is as topical today as it has ever been. Here’s a potted history of Guthlac. Less is known about his sister, Pega, although she was also into self-isolation so I might write more about her at a later date.

Wilder even than the western woodland was the desolate fen-country on the eastern border of the kingdom stretching from the “Holland,” the sunk, hollow land of Lincolnshire, to the channel of the Ouse, a wilderness of shallow waters and reedy islets wrapped in its own dark mist-veil and tenanted only by flocks of screaming wild-fowl. Here through the liberality of King Wulfhere rose the abbey of Peterborough. Here, too, Guthlac, a youth of the royal race of Mercia, sought a refuge from the world in the solitudes of Crowland,…1

Yes, Guthlac wanted to get away from it all. Life had been pretty hectic up to the point when he arrived at the edge of the fens in AD 699. Loads of us who have moved to the Deepings can identify with that.

Guthlachttps://www.bl.uk/people/guthlac was born into a noble family in AD 674, As a teenager he started fighting, as a warrior on the side of Æthelred of Mercia2. He fought for about 9 years before experiencing a spiritual encounter after which he entered a monastery at Repton. He only stayed there for two years because the other monks didn’t get on with him because he didn’t drink alcohol. Still, he kept the Faith and moved to Crowland for some peace and quiet. Crowland is quiet now but back then it was quieter still. There was nothing there, except for the aforementioned noisy birds and an ancient burial mound in the marshes which had been partially excavated by treasure hunters and which became Guthlac’s new home.

So how did Guthlac use his time of self-isolation?

https://www.wnsstamps.post/stamps/2018/BY/BY010.18.jpg

Firstly, he didn’t drink too much. He didn’t drink at all in fact.

Secondly, he watched his diet. It is said that he made a solemn vow never to eat before sunset.

Thirdly, he tried to keep in touch with his friends and family. He was visited by various people seeking his advice including the Mercian king, Æthelbald. It is said that Guthlac’s sister Pega lived with him for a while but there was an incident with the ‘eating before sunset’ rule and sadly they parted company. Pega went to live by herself in nearby Peakirk (which is why it’s now called Peakirk).

Fourthly, he prayed. Being by yourself all day gives you time to contemplate, reflect, meditate and listen to God. This was much easier in the days before Facebook and Netflix box-sets which can be a waste of time. Anyway, for Guthlac it was the whole reason for him moving to South Lincolnshire in the first place so he got on and dealt with it seriously.

Finally, he faced his demons. According to Felix, who wrote an early biography of Guthlac, the demons took many forms including horrible, ferocious and sometimes frankly disgusting beasties. In our so-called enlightened age, we don’t think about literal demons very much but we all face our own modern demons, e.g. in the form of addictions, domestic violence, low self-esteem, ignorance, arrogance etc. A time of self-isolation is a good time to confront them and deal with them. There is far more help available for dealing with these demons than Guthlac would have had when he faced his.

“...and so great was the reverence he won, that only two years had passed since his death when the stately Abbey of Crowland rose over his tomb. Earth was brought in boats to form a site; the buildings rested on oaken piles driven into the marsh; a great stone church replaced the hermits cell; and the toil of the new brotherhood changed the pools around them into fertile meadow-land.” 3

This year, St Guthlac’s Day has fallen on Easter Eve, and in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. For the first time in living memory, we are living through a plague which is spreading throughout the UK as well as the rest of the world. The only weapon we have against it appears to be social-distancing (staying at least 2 metres away from other people) and self-isolation (leaving the house as infrequently as possible). Guthlac of Crowland was one of the most popular pre-Norman English saints and he taught us that being in isolation is not only possible, it can also be productive and even Holy.

Happy St Guthlac’s Day and Happy Easter!

Places to visit in Peterborough: Crowland Abbey - We Love Peterborough
Crowland Abbey – Built on the site of Guthlac’s hermitage.

1 “A short history of the English people”, John Richard Green, 1877
2 Not to be confused with Æthelred the Unready who was king of England 200 years later.
3 “A short history of the English people”, John Richard Green, 1877

The Black Death – 1349

..It was while this struggle was growing in intensity that a yet more formidable difficulty met the lords who had been driven, by the enfranchisement of their serfs, to rely on hired labour. Everything depended on the abundant supply of free labourers, and this abundance suddenly disappeared.

The most terrible plague which the world ever witnessed advanced at this juncture from the East, and after devastating Europe from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Baltic, swooped at the close of 1348 upon Britain.

Disease and Death

The traditions of its destructiveness, and the panic-struck words of the statutes which followed it, have been more than justified by modern research. Of the three or four millions who then formed the population of England, more than one-half were swept away in its repeated visitations. Its ravages were fiercest in the greater towns, where filthy and undrained streets afforded a constant haunt to leprosy and fever.

In the burial ground which the piety of Sir Walter Manny purchased for the citizens of London, a spot whose site was afterwards marked by the Charter House, more than fifty thousand corpses are said to have been interred.

An 1834 woodcut of Black Death victims being buried in London
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