Another day, another council HQ sale mess

Owl says: what is it about councils and HQ relocation that seems it ALWAYS goes pear shaped!!!

“Active Urban Property Group (AUPG) wants to build 100 homes at Suffolk Coastal District Council’s (SCDC) former Melton Hill offices in Woodbridge, sparking residents opposition.

The Ipswich firm won the council contract to redevelop the site in 2016 and its application for the homes was given provisional approval by SCDC’s planning committee in October 2017.

But it needed to satisfy conditions – including affordable housing – before councillors would grant full planning permission.

Since then, nothing has come before the planning committee and critics said the project had stalled, leaving the future of an important site in doubt. …

The proposals had already generated hundreds of objections, many criticising the design of the buildings, which have been described as “cheese wedges”. Public scrutiny has been heightened due to the site’s prominent location and its role in SCDC’s accommodation plan.

The plan, which saw the council move to new £3.9million headquarters in Riduna Park, Melton, in 2016, is hoped to save the taxpayer £8m over 20 years through cheaper running costs.

Although SCDC insists it is still on course to make the savings, the council cannot finalise the sale of Melton Hill until planning permission is granted.

It is understood affordable housing is the main issue to be resolved. AUPG had entered a partnership with Flagship Homes, one of Suffolk’s largest providers of social housing, but the agreement was dissolved in August 2017.

Councillors familiar with the deal claim Flagship’s involvement influenced SCDC’s choice of developer, due to its reputation and financial position. They say Flagship’s withdrawal as a partner in the scheme should have led SCDC to question how AUPG could deliver the project alone.

David Hughes, a director with AUPG, said the partnership’s dissolution was due to a “change in personnel” at Flagship and he expected the planning application to go before the planning committee on April 19.

He insisted the affordable housing would be delivered and said its plans were submitted to the council’s planning department “before Christmas”.

Flagship Homes managing director Tony Tann has not commented on the partnership ending but said Flagship was still involved and “would be pleased to procure the affordable homes”.

He said Flagship was awaiting a response from AUPG regarding its offer.

Much of the criticism of AUPG’s proposals has focused on the difference between its designs and those in a masterplan, released in April 2016.

While the first plans were for 68 homes, retaining two older buildings and the Drummer Boy statue, AUPG’s revisions released last June were for 100 homes and to remove the older buildings.

People at a consultation event last year expressed “shock” at the “radically different” plans, which were “completely unsympathetic” to the surroundings. …”

“The Case for Public Consultation Hearings”

In its latest Briefing Paper, the Institute argues the case for Public Consultation Hearings. In the recommended format, organisations undertaking a consultation will provide the opportunity for selected consultees to appear before decision-makers and give their evidence and their viewpoint – a little like Parliamentary Select Committees.

It is not a new idea, but there are important reasons why the time is right to consider these forms of dialogue:

People are heartily fed up with perfunctory, tick-in-the box forms of dialogue, especially simplistic online surveys with questions like ‘Do you agree with us that we should revise the regulations …. Blah blah.? ‘ Serious stakeholders want a better level of debate that considers issues properly. Public hearings can help.

We have to tackle what can be described on the week of Stephen Hawkins’ death) as the consultation ‘black hole’ It is where respondents make a submission or reply to a consultation but have no idea what happens to their views. Does anyone read them? Are they considered? If so, by whom. It is as if responses disappear down a black home never to reappear. Public hearings are one way to demonstrate that consultors listen!

All the emphasis is now on digital dialogues, and they have many fine features that encourage participation by large numbers who might not have responded using traditional methods. Public hearings can be a welcome antidote to the de-personalisation of electronic media – where real people can be seen to sit down and discuss evidence. Video-streaming can make this visible and transparent to far wider audiences, and be living proof that consultation is really taking place.

The Briefing Paper looks at the role of evidence in public debate, and the need for participants in consultations to evidence their claims and assertions. It then presents the arguments in favour of public hearings, and explores whether they might work in the context of public consultations. For existing public engagement practitioners, the most valuable section may well be on the practicalities of organising a programme of hearings and the challenges that might need to be overcome.

Our conclusion is that where there is a considerable amount of public interest, or where the subject-matter is deeply controversial, they will help convince sceptical communities that decision-makers care enough to explore the issues openly and in public. There is even a case for holding events like this well before a consultation is launched. A pre-consultation exploration of key issues and an opportunity for stakeholder to spell out what they would like to see considered might be a first-rate way of involving the public. Used in this way, hearings can even form part of a co-production approach.

Make your own mind up by reading the latest ‘Briefing Paper 35’ which you can view here if you are member. Alternatively contact Rebecca Wright to request a copy if you are not a member, or would like Institute Associates to help prepare a programme of Public Consultation Hearings for your own organisation.”

“Struggling Tory council paid acting boss more than £1,000 a day”

“Tory-controlled Northamptonshire county council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt last month, paid its acting chief executive more than £1,000 a day, it has emerged.

Damon Lawrenson had been interim chief executive at the council since November, having previously acted as temporary finance director at the council since October 2016. Lawrenson left the council this week “by mutual consent”.

Northamptonshire was heavily criticised in a recent government inspector’s report, which identified deep-rooted management and governance failures over the past four years as the prime cause of its financial problems.

The report highlighted what it called the council’s “sloppy” approach to financial management and lack of realism in business planning. It called for a clear-out of the existing leadership in order to restore stability to the council.

A freedom of information (FOI) request by the GMB union revealed that the council paid out £371,000 to DDL Consultancy, owned by Lawrenson, during 2016-17 and 2017-18. His company had earlier been paid a further £540,000 between 2008 and 2011, when he had stints as assistant chief executive and commercial director.

The local government secretary, Sajid Javid, is considering the report’s recommendation that the county be run by a team of Whitehall-appointed commissioners until it can be scrapped, along with seven local district councils, and replaced by two new smaller unitary authorities.

The council, which recently warned that its overstretched adults social care services were “on the verge of being unsafe” issued a section 114 notice in February, signalling that its finances were unsustainable. It banned non-urgent spending, and pushed through £40m of cuts plans, including the closure of 21 out of 36 libraries.

A GMB official, Rachelle Wilkins, said: “For Northamptonshire county council to splurge almost £1m on consultancy while people are losing their jobs and services are being cut is a real kick in the teeth.”

A spokesman for Northamptonshire county council said: “Salaries reflect responsibilities associated with the posts, many of which require highly-qualified, professional staff, while being mindful of the necessity of providing value for money.

“It must be noted that about £560k was incurred in the three years between 2008/09 and 2010/11. Additionally, as a contractor Damon is not eligible for sick pay, holiday pay or pension contributions.” …

Helpers needed to drive forward Honiton’s neighbourhood plan

“Honiton Town Council and existing members of a steering group have been working together to formulate the town’s Neighbourhood Plan, a document which will enable residents to have a say on its future development.

A council spokesman said: “The aim is to work as a community to develop a plan which reflects the aspirations we all have for the future of Honiton.

“However, we now need a Chairperson and additional members of the Steering Group to lead and deliver the project for the benefit of the community.
“We are looking for a chairperson who is a collaborative leader, an effective communicator with project management experience who has the willingness, enthusiasm and time to devote to the whole project.”

No experience or qualifications are required, although anyone with knowledge of project management, town planning, community engagement and consultation and report writing will be warmly welcomed.

Additional information about the role of Chairperson and the Steering Group, including a person specification and job description, is available on request

Those interested in joining to help steer the group can contact deputy town clerk Heloise Marlow

“Survey reveals another section 114 notice [council insolvency] expected within a year”

Some councils are taking on riskier investments with consequent higher returns to maximise income – risky indeed in the current uncertain financial climate. As with those councils that bought (non-local) shopping centres as investments … which will need very savvy auditors to monitor …

“Three quarters of senior finance officers expect at least one other council to issue a section 114 notice in the next 12 months, according to a Room151 survey.

Last month, Northamptonshire County Council’s director of finance issued a 114 notice imposing immediate spending controls on the authority.

Room151’s Local Government Finance & Treasury Current Affairs Survey, sponsored by investment manager CCLA, found that more than half of respondents expect one or two more notices in the next year.

Presenting the findings to Room151’s LATIF north conference in Manchester this week, John Kelly, client director at CCLA, said that a further 20% expect between three and five further section 114s, with 3.5% expecting between five and 10.

However, when asked about their own council, 56% of treasury officers said they were either confident, or very confident, of financial sustainability.

Kelly said this result “doesn’t suggest there is any panic or any need to get unduly worried at present”.
Elsewhere in the research, 36% of those surveyed said that they had begun to invest in higher yielding instruments, due to the current funding squeeze, compared to 30% who said there had been no impact. …”