“‘Questions hang in the air’ over council HQ relocation project”

 

 

Owl says: Leader Ingham seems to be thoroughly persuaded that the previous Tory majority council is whiter than white on the relocation project. Many disagree and had hoped that his new broom might be doing some sweeping – but not under the carpet as seems to be happening.

“A full report will be provided that will analyse in detail East Devon District Council’s relocation from Sidmouth to Honiton as ‘questions hang in the air’ over the project.

East Devon District Council’s moved into their new headquarters at Blackdown House in Honiton on February 11.

The new HQ, which replaced the council’s existing HQ at The Knowle in Sidmouth, cost the council £8.7m, while an additional £1.5m was spent on upgrading Exmouth town hall where one third of the council staff are to be based.

The controversial decision to relocate offices was taken back in March 2015 as it was decided the council needed to relocate into buildings that are affordable, cost efficient, and would significantly reduce the overheads of the council.

But the relocation project has faced criticism over the lack of transparency throughout the project, the procurement process, and the amount of cash the council received for the sale.

A freedom of information request asking how much the Knowle would be worth with planning permission said the answer was £50m, £42.5m higher than the council agreed to sell the land to Pegasus Life for, the latest edition of Private Eye states, naming the council as a ‘rotten borough’ because of it.

At Wednesday night’s full council meeting, Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the East Devon Alliance, said that ‘questions hang in the air’ over the project.

He asked: “Both the disposal of the Knowle HQ and the procurement of the new Honiton HQ are matters of great concern to thousands of people in East Devon. Questions will hang in the air until they are fully addressed.

“Will the leader of the council support the immediate creation of a councillor-led working party, politically balanced, of up to 10 members, all of them newly elected in 2019, reporting to the scrutiny committee, to look into these matters in the public interest?”

In response, Cllr Ben Ingham, the council leader, said: “Relocation has been a key element of the council’s transformation agenda in terms of delivering against priorities of reducing council operational costs and introducing modern ways of working.

“Throughout its lifetime the relocation project has been subject to regular reporting to cabinet and council, dedicated project management, senior member and officer oversight through the Office Accommodation Executive Group, regular risk review and the scrutiny of South West Audit Partnership.

“Prior to the decision to move to Exmouth and Honiton and dispose of the Knowle site an independent audit was carried out to inform the decision to relocate and to test the financial projections for the project. These findings were included as part of the report to cabinet in March 2015 seeking approval of the move.

“Both Audit and Governance and Overview and Scrutiny committees met jointly to consider the relocation project programme and gave their endorsement. Cabinet and Council were provided with extensive detail, independent evaluation and wider committee endorsement as part of their approval.

“Relocation has been delivered successfully in terms of the physical moves and performance of the council. Furthermore this complex project has been delivered within budget.

“A project closure report will be provided to council at the one year anniversary of the project which will include a full project cost analysis and detail of operational costs for the first year of operation of Blackdown House and annual running costs of Exmouth Town Hall.

“If Scrutiny were so minded they could ask to consider the officer report or undertake a piece of work themselves and as Leader I would not want to restrict or pre-empt their independence to set their own forward plan. The Scrutiny Committee is politically balanced and already well placed to do this without the imposition of a working party which is constitutionally unsound in terms of its suggested membership.”

Cllr Arnott said that ahead of the May elections, the East Devon Alliance manifesto on their website saw their page on the relocation project have page views that were ‘streets ahead’ of anything else.”

He asked: “Can I be assured that if anyone on scrutiny wanted to commission a piece of work on sale off the Knowle and procurement of this, there would be nothing to stop them?”

Cllr Ingham confirmed if a member of scrutiny wanted to request that, then they could do so.

He added: “At the moment the project is coming in favourably to the target budget. The idea of waiting a year before the report was to establish more accurately exactly the savings that the council is making in the new building.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/questions-hang-air-over-council-3148843

EDDC Tories appear in Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” column

From the blog of DCC EDA Independent Councillor Martin Shaw:

Private Eye goes to town on EDDC Tories’ handout to developers of the Knowle

Oh dear – and now “The Independent Group” led by EDDC Leader Ben Ingham has chosen to cosy up to Tories, rather than East Devon Alliance independents, whom he has frozen out.

With current Councillor Ingham having the been a member of all 3 groups and Leader of 2 of them (former Tory, former Leader of East Devon Alliance and current leader of ‘The Independent Group’) he really has to decide which side of the fence and his cohort are on!

Or maybe he has already decided – given that he appointed a Tory as Chairman of the Development Management Committee, who then used his casting vote to push through a controversial planning applucation in Axminster, opposed by Axminster EDA councillors on safety and pollution grounds:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2019/07/19/eddc-tory-dmc-chairman-uses-his-casting-vote-in-controversial-planning-application/

Reality check needed for some of his colleagues, perhaps?

This wouldn’t have happened at the “old” EDDC HQ!

Sidford Business Park Olanning Inquiry live feed:

“… Jeremy Upfield is the first witness of the inquiry.

He is a Devon County Council’s development management officer and will give evidence as the highways and transport case officer familiar with the site.

We are just having a pause to rearrange the tables so that the evidence can be heard by everyone in the room. …”

Might have been better and easier to use HQ 2 – Exmouth Town Hall!

https://www.sidmouthherald.co.uk/news/sidford-business-park-application-goes-before-planning-inquiry-1-6160654

PegasusLife not listing Knowle Sidmouth as forthcoming development

Inputting “Sidmouth” into PegasusLife’s “current and future developments” website search brings up the nearest development as one in Bournemouth (Canford Cliffs) 70 miles away:

https://www.pegasuslife.co.uk/our-developments

And Pegasus Life appears in the last few days to have taken out a refinancing loan of MORE THAN HALF A BILLION POUNDS secured on its assets to provide capital for further growth:

Oz Real Estate completes £525m financing for retirement living company the PegasusLife group

“Damian Green: local authorities avoid care home developments”

Owl says: Didn’t stop EDDC flogging The Knowle to PegasusLifedid it! Though, of course, it will be DCC and the NHS that picks up the tab, not EDDC.

“Local authorities are increasingly reluctant to allow care homes and retirement homes to be built in their areas because they can’t afford the social care costs associated with that demographic, Conservative MP and former deputy prime minister Damian Green has said.

The chair of the all-party parliamentary group on longevity, who has produced his own policy paper suggesting a solution to the social care funding crisis, said it was a “quiet secret” that local authorities – who have to fund social care costs – try to avoid applications for homes for older people.

He also warned that unless all parties agree to seek a cross-party consensus on social care funding, a political crisis triggered by an “enormous scandal” will force them to act.

“We need to face up to these unpalatable truths,” he said. “The current system isn’t sustainable financially or politically. An enormous scandal will break and suddenly, there will be a political crisis. Cynically, it may be that we need something like that, but we should be able to avoid it because we know it is probably coming.

“Local authorities don’t want to become attractive places for retired people,” he added. “If things go on as they are, local authorities will become social care providers with everything else as ‘add-ons’ and the traditional things we all expect from them simply not existing.”

Age UK estimates that 1.4 million older people have unmet care needs. This is despite the average share of local authority funding going on adult social care reaching almost 25% of their total budget in 2017-2018.

Local authority budgets have seen devastating cuts under the Conservative government. Despite announcements of extra funds, and a £20bn boost to the NHS under Theresa May, the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned of an £8bn funding black hole by 2025.

Last month, Jeremy Hunt – the longest-serving health secretary in British history – admitted social care cuts went too far on his watch.

On a BBC debate for the Conservative party leadership election, Hunt said: “I think having been responsible for health and social care, that some of the cuts in social care did go too far.”

Ian Hudspeth, chair of the Community and Wellbeing Board at the LGA, said: “I haven’t come across any planning permissions not being put forward in this way but we’re very aware that the social care structure is at a crisis point.”

He pointed to a recent report by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services which reported that almost half of councils have seen the closure of domestic home care providers in their area in the past year and a third had seen residential care homes closed, collectively affecting more than 8,000 clients and residents.

“There have been instances of care homes going out of business without warning and immediate pressure being put on local authorities to provide care and accommodation for their residents,” he added.

Green was speaking at a debate on Tackling Britain’s Care Crisis at the Resolution Foundation alongside Liz Kendall MP, former shadow minister for care, Norman Lamb MP, former minister for care, and David Willetts, president of the Intergenerational Centre.

All of the speakers called for a cross-party consensus on how to fund social care. There was wide agreement for a year-long programme of citizens’ assemblies and town hall meetings so the public could have their say.

Kendall said it was “absolutely a national imperative” that politicians create a cross-party consensus.

Lamb agreed, lambasting the current system as “completely dysfunctional”. It “fails people completely”, he said, criticising the government for failing to produce the long-awaited green paper.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said:
“People deserve to have a choice of high-quality care services wherever they live in the country. Local authorities are best placed to understand and plan for the care needs of their populations and are responsible for shaping their local markets so they are sustainable, diverse and offer high-quality care and support for local people.

“We have given local authorities access to up to £3.9bn more dedicated funding for adult social care this year with a further £410m available for adults’ and children’s services. We will set out our plans to reform the social care system at the earliest opportunity to ensure it is sustainable for the future.”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/11/damian-green-local-authorities-avoid-care-home-developments?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Former EDDC CEO fears he may have contracted asbestos-related disease at Knowle

Was PegasusLife aware of this?

“A former council CEO has been diagnosed with terminal asbesto-related cancer – and urgently needs to reach out to former co-workers at former East Devon HQ The Knowle.

John Vallender, 72, was given the devastating mesothelioma diagnosis in January last year after seeking medical help having suffered from recurring breathlessness and severe back pain.

Mr Vallender was Local Authority Solicitor and CEO for the East Devon District Council between July 1984 and June 2002.

Initially thought to be suffering from a blood clot, the father of three was referred by his GP for an X-ray, before further intrusive investigations revealed the extent of his condition.

He has now instructed expert asbestos-related disease lawyers at Simpson Millar to investigate his employment history.

It comes amidst concerns that he was exposed to dangerous asbestos fibres whilst at work at the Knowle Council Offices in Sidmouth.

According to a freedom of information request carried out by Mr Vallender, the premises, which it is understood will soon be demolished after the Council moves to new premises in Honiton, contain large quantities of asbestos.

In the 90s action was taken to remove asbestos from the Council Chamber, and whilst the Council acknowledge that asbestos was present in the building, they claim that the fibres were not disturbed and would have been safe.

But Mr Vallender, who clearly recalls work being carried out throughout the Council building at times whilst he worked there, said: “The Council building itself was very old, large and dusty.

“My office was refurbished during my time there and I saw people carrying out maintenance activity over the years and that included rubbing down fire doors and working up in the roof space above the offices on the top floor.

“It feels very plausible that I – as well as my colleagues – would have been inhaling dangerous and microscopic asbestos fibres as a result or working in and walking around the entire buildings, over the years, and I am hopeful that this appeal with provide additional evidence to support my case.”

Simpson Millar is now appealing on behalf of Mr Vallender and his family for anyone else who worked at Knowle Council Offices between 1984 and 2002 to come forward with any information they may have in relation to maintenance and repair work undertaken over the years.

“Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer, and we are now working hard to try to gather as much information as possible to ensure that he receives the answers he rightly deserves with regards how and when he was exposed to asbestos, as well as why more was not done to protect him from its harmful consequences.

“Should anyone have any information regarding the conditions of the Council offices in general and maintenance/refurbishment works during the 80s through to 2002 please do get in touch to help Mr Vallender and his family.”

Mr Vallender continued: “I have so many questions relating to how, when and why I was exposed to asbestos at a time when its dangers were so widely known, and I am hopeful that there are other people out there who worked at Knowle Council at the same time as I did who may have further information regarding the conditions of the offices where I spent almost 20 years of my career.”

If anyone has any information then please do come forward and contact Helen Grady of Simpson Millar on Freephone 0808 129 3320.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/former-devon-council-boss-terminal-2901167

East Devon Alliance Councillor Gardner clarifies Sidmouth Herald EDDC debt story

Owl reported this story from the Sidmouth Herald in full yesterday:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2019/04/22/more-than-86-6million-in-outstanding-loans-is-owed-by-east-devon-district-council/

East Devon Alliance councillor Cathy Gardner has contacted EDW to clarify the story:

“To my knowledge (as a District Cllr), EDDC has over £80m in debt because it had to borrow money to hold on to its council housing when the conservative government were making councils sell it off. So this is debt for a good & bad reason!

I’m surprised that the ‘politically neutral’ press officers have not added this to their comment to the Herald. I’ve objected to the council proposing to borrow money to invest in commercial property (to generate income), something else forced on them by the conservative government cuts to council grants (now zero).

The relocation from the Knowle is another matter. If re-elected I will continue to push for transparency on costs and to see if any of the Conservative group can ever prove break even.”

“More than £86.6million in outstanding loans is owed by East Devon District Council”

EDDC blames the overspend on loans (see last paragraph below) on “the purchase of assets related to service delivery, these being assets required “for recycling and refuse collection”. Are we to believe that it has ALL been spent on waste contracts and NOT on the £10 MILLION on HQ relocation (originally described as “cost neutral”)?

Owl would be interested to see a breakdown of the costs (but bets they will be conveniently avoided under a “commercial confidentiality” clause with the contractor …

“The amount the authority has borrowed has also increased by £3million in just one year.

Experts have warned councils are risking taking on too much debt while others say that councils are simply adapting to plug funding gaps made by Government cuts.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says delivery of public services could be put at risk by unsustainable borrowing, after debt among UK local authorities rose to more than £100 billion.

By the end of December, EDDC’s outstanding loans stood at £86.6 million, according to figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

This was a four per cent increase compared to a year ago, and one per cent higher than at the end of 2013-14.

All the outstanding loans were long-term advances, which last for more than one year and are used to finance large projects or purchases.

The Chartered Institute says many cash-strapped councils are taking out large loans to buy property, as the rent they collect can be higher than the interest they pay on the loans.

Funding for councils fell by almost half between 2010-11 and 2017-18, according to the National Audit Office.

The government’s Public Works Loan Board was the sole lender to EDDC as of December.

The loan board offers low-interest loans to councils, without requiring them to prove they can afford the repayments.

There is no limit to the amount councils can borrow from it.

Don Peebles, head of policy at the Chartered Institute, said: “With government funding in decline, it is unsurprising councils are having to adapt and find alternatives.

“While councils are borrowing for a wide range of purposes, such as building houses and investing in major infrastructure, one trend which has been concerning is the growth in investment in commercial property – which exposes public finances to new risks.”

A spokeswoman for the MHCLG said: “Councils are responsible for managing their own finances and making the right decisions for the communities they serve – including making appropriate investments.

“Guidance on council investments was updated in April 2018 with new codes that strike the right balance between allowing councils to continue to be innovative while ensuring that taxpayers’ money is properly protected.”

An EDDC spokesman said: “The annual increase in borrowing identified was used to finance the purchase of assets related to service delivery, these being assets required for recycling and refuse collection.”

https://www.midweekherald.co.uk/news/outstanding-loans-at-east-devon-district-council-1-6004947

PegasusLife ‘to build in phases’ at Knowle

Owl says: Won’t be much fun for those in Phase 1 (or their neighbours) to live on or near a building site until other phases (how many?) are completed.

“… Sidmouth Town Council revealed on Monday night 3.5hectres of land at Knowle could be transferred sooner than expected after members were told the land and car park would not be available until the completion of PegasusLife’s 113-home retirement community.

Town clerk Christopher Holland told the meeting the developer has decided to build its 113-home retirement community in phases, rather than one go, meaning it will be able to contain its construction materials without using the public car park.

In November, the Herald revealed the developer had been allowed the use of the lower car park and meadow as storage space for the duration of the works. …”

https://www.sidmouthherald.co.uk/news/transfer-of-knowle-parkland-to-sidmouth-town-council-moved-up-1-5992919