Exmouth, EDDC and Grenadier – when does a gamekeeper become a poacher?

“Dear East Devon District Council,

[order slightly changed for clarity]

I am writing to request an internal review of East Devon District Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Was independent advice sought on the governance of Queen’s Drive Exmouth Community Interest Company’.

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is available on the Internet at this address: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/w…

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.

Councillor Paul Millar has made some attempt to answer this FOI via Social Media. He provided more detail to my FOI than provided here, in, as I understand it his new role as a director of Queen’s Drive Exmouth Community Interest Company and a Councillor. However, although he asserted this via social media and also announced that there was another new director, according to Companies House, Cllr Stott and Cllr Williamson are still in place.

Are you able to provide more detail on the £200k that Grenadier made a good business case for according to Councillor Millar? Are you also able to clarify the amount of interest chargeable by Grenadier on the loan and other charges that the company is making to the CIC.

There appears to be some splitting of identity here, that may lead to a conflict of interest. For example when is Grenadier acting as a commercial business and when is it acting as the majority shareholder of the CIC? Are you able to offer reassurance and evidence that a valuable community asset is being utilised for community benefit rather than commercial gain?”

[Previous] council poor workmanship costs current council £150,000 to put right!

It is just a bit rich that the damage was done on the watch of the past chair of Asset Management – who is also the present chair and he now somewhat pompously says it must be put right!!! Er, if, as a council officer says “the survey wasn’t as extensive as in hindsight the council would have wished it was ..” perhaps this is one for the Scrutiny Committee!

“An extra £150,000 will have to be spent on resurfacing an Exmouth car park – because it was never laid properly by the council in the first place.

Improvement works, including resurfacing and construction of a new entrance, had been taking place at the Maer Road car park.

But John Golding, East Devon’s strategic lead for housing, health and the environment, told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that when work began, it became apparent the car park construction was substantially poorer beneath the surface that had previously been assumed.

He added: “We have found that the construction of the existing surface in the vicinity of the new entrance appears to be made up of compacted stone with a thin veneer of tar and chip over the surface.

“Given the limited depth of construction, and surface condition, it is likely that the car park would deteriorate very rapidly once larger vehicles are allowed onto it.

“More extensive works comprising both new sub-base and a tarmac finish are required to complete the project satisfactorily. We already have the contractors on site and we can do the work before the summer holidays commence.”

He added that this would result in an increase in the total overall budget of £151,760 and asked cabinet for approval to complete the work.

Cllr Geoff Pook, portfolio holder for asset management, added: “We need to do this. We have to look at our assets on a long life basis. We need to do a proper job from day one and don’t want to have to patch in a few years’ time or have a car park that cannot be used by heavy vehicles. It is out car park so we in any case would have had to do something and bring our own car park up to standard.”

Cllr Jack Rowland asked why this defect wasn’t discovered at an earlier stage during the survey works.

In response, Mr Golding said that the survey wasn’t as extensive as in hindsight the council would have wished it was.

Cllr Ben Ingham, leader of the council, added: “We made a false assumption that we had done the job properly in the first place and that they didn’t need to check the sub-layers, but that was a wrong assumption.”

The cabinet unanimously agreed to the extra spending to resurface the car park to provide a good surface and base layer for 20 years.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/exmouth-car-park-resurfacing-works-3082742

EDA Councillor helps out Exmouth with acceptable compromise on Queen’s Drive

Officers sought to get permission to use land it owns at Queen’s Drive, which previously housed recreation facilities, as a temporary overflow car park for 3 years. Exmouth councillors were appalled but could see no option but to agree. Colyton EDA Councillor proposed that the land should be so designated for 14 months only until September 2020.

Compromise achieved and agreed.

Lesson learned? Hhhmmm … let’s wait and see.

https://www.exmouthjournal.co.uk/news/queen-s-drive-seafront-car-park-plan-approved-1-6152147

“Unlawful decision by town council to open café led to £234k debt: watchdog”

A warning here for all councils.

“A town council did not give due consideration as to what powers it had to open a café, the decision was based on a poorly prepared business plan and, as a result, the decision to open the establishment was unlawful, the Auditor General for Wales has found.

Since opening the café in 2011, Connah’s Quay Town Council went on to incur a cumulative deficit of more than £234,000.

Finding failures in its decision making, the Auditor General’s report made three clear recommendations for the council to:

undertake a full option appraisal for the operation of Quay Café, incorporating a full financial appraisal of each option;

ensure appropriate advice is received prior to making decisions on the provision of new or novel services;

review the services it provides and ensure that it understands the statutory basis on which it provides those services.

The town council now has one month to consider the issues raised within the report and to make a decision on whether to accept these recommendations.

The Auditor General’s report is issued alongside public interest reports for Glynneath Town Council, Maenclochog Community Council and Cynwyd Community Council.

These reports set out significant failures in governance arrangements and inadequacies in financial management and internal control at all four councils.

The Auditor General for Wales, Adrian Crompton, said: “Given the scale of the deficit incurred at Connah’s Quay Town Council, I believe it is important that the public has a full and proper awareness of the events concerning the council. When it opened the café, the council did not have the statutory authority to do so and its decision was not supported by a clear and coherent business plan. As a result the decision was, in my view, unlawful.

“There are lessons to be learnt not just by this council, but by all town and community councils in Wales. The public interest reports issued today serve to highlight the shortcomings at four different town and community councils. Councils need to be innovative in dealing with community issues, but they must at all times display appropriate risk management and operate within their legal framework.”

Crompton added: “All four councils now have an opportunity to demonstrate that the risk of such governance failures recurring is reduced to a minimum. The public need to be assured that town and community councils have proper governance arrangements in place to manage the activities of the council both financially and administratively.”

https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/governance/396-governance-news/40854-unlawful-decision-by-town-council-to-open-cafe-led-to-234k-debt-watchdog

“Auditors find ‘significant weaknesses’ in record-breaking investment deal and slam Surrey council’s £1bn ‘property roulette’ “

“Auditors have slammed a district council in Surrey which undertook the most expensive property investment ever made by a local authority after it found “significant weaknesses” in its financial processes.

KPMG delivered a damning assessment of Spelthorne Borough Council’s purchase of a BP research centre in Sunbury for £385m in September 2016, one of a number of costly property investments in the authority’s £1bn portfolio.

The auditors found that the acquisition of the site was decided by council officers without any public scrutiny, and the decision-making process was conducted via email and was “generally poor and difficult to follow.”
This meant it was “difficult to identify whether all the risks associated with such a large and significant transaction had been fully considered and mitigated,” the auditor said.

KPMG said it found little evidence the council had properly considered legal advice which said the purchase, the largest of its kind by a local authority in England, may be “disproportionate” to the rest of its spending.
Most worryingly, the auditor failed to determine whether the council had considered the financial impact if BP had decided not to renew or change the terms of its 20-year lease of the site.

The council then took four months to publish its decision, leading the auditor to conclude that “we are not satisfied that, in all respects, Spelthorne Borough Council put in place proper arrangements.”

Spelthorne has been the biggest investor in property in local government and since 2016 has borrowed £1bn from the Public Works Loan for the takeover of BP’s business park – as well as the purchases of offices in Reading, Slough and Uxbridge for £285m and a number of other investments.

The authority told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that the “adverse value for money conclusion does not mean that the auditors are saying the actual transaction does not represent value for money but that in their opinion some aspects of decision-making processes were not conducive to maximising value for money.”

Surrey County Council’s Robert Evans said he was surprised Spelthorne had not done due diligence around the deal, and said the authority seemed to be “playing property roulette with council taxpayer’s money.”

“If the climate is good that might be okay but with Brexit around the corner everything is uncertain and this is foolhardy at best and downright dangerous at worst.”

http://www.publicsectorexecutive.com/Public-Sector-News/auditors-find-significant-weaknesses-in-record-breaking-investment-deal-and-slam-surrey-councils-1bn-property-roulette

How to make very bad council decisions – leave them to clueless councillors!

Owl says: Do you think this applies to Tavistock? Dream on!

“Auditors have blown wide open failings in the way plans were cooked up for a sprawling Premier Inn development in a leafy Devon town.

West Devon council chiefs have been criticised for the way they led multi-million plan proposals to build over a key car park in the heart of Tavistock.

A damning new independent dossier reveals how Invest to Earn – a team of three councillors tasked with leading the project – lacked crucial knowledge of the property market and received no training to ensure they knew every risk before taking decisions.

A lack of communication between elected members about the gravity of the development, ‘hostility’ on social media and a failure to access key documents online all inevitably brought down what many deemed a pipe dream, the public file reveals. …”

[read on for more shocking information how bad decisions got worse]

https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/plymouth-news/premier-inn-tavistock-report-findings-2665718

“The Mass Sell-Off Of Public Land Is Driving The Housing Crisis”

“A major new investigation by the Bureau Local and HuffPost UK revealed austerity’s dirty little secret: massive funding cuts have been, in part, offset by a mass sell-off of public land. But what’s not being examined is who is buying that land, and what they are building on it. If used appropriately, surplus public land could be an important first step towards solving the housing crisis, but the present fire sale is, if anything, making it worse.

The Bureau’s research uncovered 12,000 public spaces sold into private ownership since 2014/15, ranging from grand metropolitan libraries to small patches of scrub land. Guy Shrubsole and Anna Powell Smith, in mapping landownership in England, discovered that £100million worth of the land sold-off by councils between 2017 and 2018 went to offshore companies. Earlier this year, Brett Christophers revealed that 10% of the UK’s land has transferred from public to private hands since 1979. In 2016, our own work at NEF revealed an alarming spread of sales from central government departments in recent years. The government itself claims to have sold 25% of the ‘core’ property holdings government departments since 2010.

Why are we offloading land at all? Ostensibly it’s to meet the government’s target: 160,000 new homes on previously public land by 2020. But the murky reality is that local authorities, like other public bodies, are selling land to fill the vast funding gaps driven by austerity. And it’s because of this fact that selling public land won’t generate the affordable homes that we desperately need to solve the housing crisis.

Local government funding has been cut in half between 2010/11 and 2017/18, so when government policy dictates selling surplus land, it’s no wonder that councils are using their land assets to plug the holes in their budgets. Birmingham City Council has used £53million from asset sales to balance its books, more than any other local authority in England, with as much as £26million of that revenue used to fund redundancies (also a result of austerity) at the council.

As NEF have shown, a key driver of the housing crisis is the price of land. When the incentive in selling public land is to raise cash to keep vital services afloat, councils inevitably sell to the highest bidder, as quickly as possible. While local authorities are technically allowed to sell at slightly less than the highest value (although many don’t out of financial necessity), central government departments are actually prohibited from selling land at lower than the ‘best consideration reasonably obtainable’. Developers cannot both build affordable housing and make a profit, because the price of land is prohibitively high. Expensive land leads to expensive houses. In this upside-down system, the price paid for land ultimately dictates what gets built when it should be the other way round.

This theory is laid bare in the planning documents that sit behind the sites. In our research on the central government sell off, we’ve come across countless examples of developers securing planning permission with promises of affordable housing, only to wriggle out of their commitments a few months later by claiming they can’t afford to.

Take Runwell Hospital in Wickford. Chelmsford City Council’s affordable housing plan requires that 35% of homes on new developments are affordable. Yet the site’s initial planning permission required only 20% affordable housing provision. Even so, the developer later submitted an application to reduce this further to just 10% on the grounds of affordability – just 61 of 575 homes.

Our research in 2017 revealed that:

Only one is five of the new homes to be built on sold-off public land is likely to be classed as ‘affordable’ (which, at 80% of market rates, is still largely unaffordable to those who need it most).

As little as 6% of new homes are likely to be social housing, and in some cases developments comprise solely of luxury properties.

New homes on formerly public land are dramatically behind schedule. At the current rate, the government’s target of building 160,000 homes will take until 2032 to achieve, 12 years later than promised.

Releasing land into the private market is not delivering the quantity or quality of affordable homes we need. As more land is sold, there is less opportunity to reverse these trends.

The sell-off of public land for hole-plugging cash receipts is not only economically short-sighted and unsustainable, it’s also driving the housing crisis. There is a clear tension between disposing of land to plug funding gaps and developing high-quality, genuinely and permanently affordable housing and other infrastructure. This year we are continuing to get to grips with the effect of the public land sale on the housing crisis. First up is a close look at NHS sites sold in the last year, then in the coming months we will be bringing together central government and local authority land sales to get a truly national picture of the sell-off. Only then can we build a picture of an alternative to the fire sale of public land, that results in the supply of genuinely affordable homes.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/housing-crisis-public-land_uk_5c811055e4b0a135b5199d5d