Knowle relocation: Deputy Chief Executive’s “update”

… which raises many more questions than it answers:

http://new.eastdevon.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/committees-and-meetings/overview-and-scrutiny-committee/minutes/16-october-2014/office-relocation-update/

and simply “noting” this report at an Overview and Scrutiny meeting is disgraceful.

Our Overview and Scrutiny Committee – not so much a toothless tiger as a toothless teddy bear.

3 thoughts on “Knowle relocation: Deputy Chief Executive’s “update”

  1. I am NOT the most knowledgeable person when it comes to Knowle issues, but here are the issues that these minutes raise in my mind:

    1. He (again) failed to explain why the figures remain confidential – i.e. both the business justification and the legal basis.

    2. Why are some parts of the Council located elsewhere (e.g. in the East Devon Business Centre in Honiton) if there is really c. 3,700 sqm of space unused at the Knowle?

    3. The fact that the receipts for selling only the excess space (the hotel part) of the Knowle would be lower is not in itself relevant. The correct comparison needs to be of the overall business cases for each option i.e.:

    a. Stay at the Knowle and sell off the hotel part – whilst the receipts from the sale of the “hotel” would be lower, EDDC would not incur ANY of the other costs of relocation. So this could be a good business case?

    b. The current plans to sell off the whole of the Knowle and Manstone Depot and Heathpark and buy land and build new offices and pay to relocate and pay compensation to staff – and be hypocritical about stated goals to increase small business units (not sell them off), be open about lifetime-cost based business cases (not hide the costs or pretend ignorance) etc.

    c. Stay at the Knowle and find alternative uses for the spare space in the “hotel” part of the Knowle for e.g. local groups, to house the new shared services IT organisation, to let it out as office space to commercial organisations etc. etc.

    d. etc. etc.

    4. Once again the Overview and Scrutiny Committee has abdicated its responsibility to hold the council and council officers to account by simply “noting the report”. Shameful!!! Disgraceful!!!

    P.S. The minutes are of course a summary – I would be interested to see a transcript of the detail of what Richard Cohen said.

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  2. A couple more questions:

    1. Businesses in EDBC have been “reassured” that there will be no change in the next 6 months – which is not much reassurance for any business which needs to look ahead much further than 6-months.

    2. Will mobile working reduce the need for office space to the point that the council could e.g. move some people to the Exmouth Town Hall and the remainder into the hotel part of the Knowle (retaining the council chamber which Mr Cohen was so concerned about) and allowing the newer part of the Knowle to be sold for redevelopment into flats?

    And some points having now listened to the audio recording:

    3. I don’t quite understand why Mr Cohen says that EDDC only needs 3,300 sqm but also says that it can’t fit into the new part of the Knowle (disregarding issues of a council chamber) which is presumably bigger than the hotel part? These statements appear to say different things.

    4. Mr Cohen objected to “a confrontational approach” (15:35 into the recording) – well IMO the answer to that is “Tough”. Senior council officers appearing in front of an Overview and Scrutiny committee should accept that the committee’s approach may be confrontational – particularly if the officer concerned is keeping information confidential or is declining to answer previous questions openly and fully or if he has previously admitted to the Information Commissioner’s First Tier Tribunal that he had edited a consultant’s report and presented it to councillors as if it was not edited i.e. retaining the consultants name, logos etc.

    5. When asked about the sale of EDBC being against the old policy, Mr. Cohen has said that EDBC is not economically viable whilst at the same time stating that small-business units are in short supply. Again this seems to be contradictory and no explanation has been given.

    6. When asked about the costs of mileage compensation to staff, Mr Cohen said that the costs were known but was not able to give any detail.

    7. When asked about cost of internal staff, Mr Cohen said that even estimates were not included in the project costs (despite the whole-life cost approach which is council policy).

    8. When asked when confidential would be released, the chairman said he assumed it would be once it ceased to be commercially confidential rather than the completion of the project, however Mr Cohen said (35:20 into the recording) that it would be at the LATER of these two dates rather than the earlier of these two dates as we might expect.

    9. Andrew Ellins from the SW Audit Partnership is attached to the relocation project (unclear whether the costs of this are included in the project).

    10. Mr Cohen stated (c. 38:00) that the work undertaken by Mr Pratten was verified by (his employers) AECON aka Davis Langdon – which is presumably the director’s signature on the report. (Though presumably they did not verify Mr Cohen’s edited versions – it is unclear whether he removed any statements of verification or sign-off by AECON before republishing his edited version to councillors because it is deemed confidential.) Whilst Mr Cohen implied that this oversight by Mr Pratten’s bosses was a separate service from Mr Pratten’s services as a consultant (or “embedded pseudo employee) I am not sure how such oversight can be considered separate from oversight of Mr Pratten’s work as a AECON employee.

    11. According to Claire Wright (43:00 onwards), EDDC are planning to make a decision to sell the Knowle in December without being certain about whether to move to SkyPark (just getting an update) potentially leaving the council without a home. So on the one-hand, EDDC claims commercial confidentiality because revealing finance numbers would jeopardize negotiations, whilst on the other hand is willing to commit to selling the Knowle and open EDDC up to time pressure in its commercial negotiations with SkyPark owners who by spinning things out can pressure EDDC into paying more. Ironic or what?

    12. Cllr Humphries (45:00) was asked by the Chair to ask his questions but instead he use dthe time to make a statement thinks that Mr Cohen’s report is “excellent” – and since the project is “within budget” then there is no reason to question it. My question is therefore “Why should Cllr Humphries be on the Overview & Scrutiny Committee if he doesn’t see his role as probing, questioning etc.???” Shame on him!! Roger Giles apparently agrees with me – he said that “noting a report has no place whatsoever on Overview and Scrutiny” … “is a dereliction of duty” and “We are here to scrutinise and to hold the council to account, we are here to ask awkward and challenging questions and to get some answers and ‘noting the report’ has no place in that.” At least Roger seems to understand the role of Overview and Scrutiny even if the “toady” Cllr Humphries doesn’t.

    13. For reasons of segregation of roles, the relocation project has not verified (c. 49:00 – 53:00) either whether the land on the Heathfield Park estate can actually get planning permission for a supermarket or what planning permission could be obtained for the Knowle – so it is unclear whether any capital receipts can be achieved on these at all. A developer would be unlikely to purchase outright either of these sites without having planning permission, though they might be willing to take an option to purchase once planning permission is obtained. So capital receipts that will fund this project are not at all certain, and therefore the project as a whole must be very uncertain.

    14. Mr Cohen committed to providing a report (though presumably it will be confidential) in December. Cllr Howe requested Mr Cohen to provide a document in December explicitly listing the gaps and unknowns in the project. Mr Cohen did not respond to this request.

    15. Mike Allen gets my great respect AGAIN by requesting that Cllrs are notified immediately if Skypark becomes rejected as an option.

    16. A Cllr requested that the December report should contain considered alternatives to SkyPark in order to demonstrate “best value”, and Mr Cohen responded by saying that this was legally required so it would be done, but not necessarily by him (as the leader of the relocation project). Which prompts questions as to:

    a. Whether anyone else can make a like-for-like comparison of alternatives without having the detailed knowledge of requirements, costs etc. that Mr Cohen has; and

    b. Whether such comparisons can be considered meaningful if they have not been seriously considered as alternatives by the project leader;

    c. Therefore, whether Mr Cohen is therefore acting in the best interests of the electorate or not by seriously considering and costing alternatives rather than putting all his eggs in the Skypark basket.

    Perhaps most importantly, the Overview and Scrutiny committee voted down Claire Wright’s and Mike Allen’s motions (with Cllr Humphries speaking against these motions, again saying that Mr Cohen’s report was excellent and should just be “noted”) and so Overview and Scrutiny effectively agreed that:

    A. The council are allowed to sell the Knowle, Manstone Depot and Heathpark Estate without having bought a new site, thus leaving the council open to becoming homeless (though Mr Cohen assured the Cttee that the December recommendations would not leave the council in this position);

    B. Decisions on sale of these assets can be made without the costs of the project being known i.e. without knowing that the project has a sound business case and is actually viable;

    C. The decision can be made at the December Cabinet / Council meeting despite being just before Christmas (and therefore likely to have less scrutiny and publicity).

    D. Councillors, and therefore the Overview and Scrutiny committee itself) can be kept in the dark (presumably for some weeks, and presumably at a critical point for this major project) if SkyPark falls through, even if the decision to sell the Knowle has already been made.

    You couldn’t invent this stuff if you tried!!

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