The short report – at item 9 from the link below – raised more questions than it answered in mine and Cllr Roger Giles opinions and we asked many questions of the deputy chief executive.
I am not convinced that we received many answers, suffice to say that a new level of uncertainty appeared to emerge over the plans to sell off the Knowle and multiple other EDDC owned assets, to fund a new office build.
The meeting started off with several members of the public – Richard Thurlow from Save Our Sidmouth, Richard Eley (Sidmouth businessman) and Marianne Rixson (Sidmouth resident), all urging scrutiny committee members to fully scrutinise the proposals to relocate.
A reasonable request …. you would think.
Richard Eley expressed concern that the relocation costs may spiral up to £20m.
The council (at least the conservative group, most of the rest of us made vehement representations against) made a decision in February to start detailed negotiations to purchase land at Skypark to build new offices (land price alone almost £1m) Yet we are now in October and the deputy chief executive was unable to offer assurances this evening that the negotiations were successfully proceeding.
In fact when asked by Cllr Graham Troman about whether the plans to move to Skypark were still definite, the deputy chief executive replied in a rather vague manner, prompting me to probe further – eliciting more woolly responses.
To throw another spanner into the EDDC works to relocate, the supermarket which has expressed an interest to build an umpteenth such facility in Honiton, on the site of the relatively new and very valued East Devon Business Centre, now wants to build a smaller store, thereby reducing the potential income to EDDC, which it is relying on to fund new offices.
Add this to the town and village green application for the Knowle gardens – and the application for a public right of way (still unresolved) there are more than a few unknowns.
Of course there is still the long awaited decision from a judge about several reports into the state of the Knowle buildings that EDDC is spending tens of thousands of pounds on trying to keep secret, despite an Information Commissioner’s ruling, insisting the reports must be made public.
The council (despite repeated requests from me) is also refusing to release information on how much it is spending on barrister fees to fight its case for non disclosure. This has been going on for months.
It was confirmed this evening that officers were considering a loan of several million pounds to get them over any cash flow problems. Although when I asked what was the maximum loan that the council believed was acceptable to borrow, I was informed that it all depended on the sale of assets. This was an unsatisfactory response because the value of a loan should not depend on these things.
Surely the council should know in advance what figure would be acceptable – or not. Especially at a time of extreme financial restraint.
I wasn’t remotely assured. And judging from the comments at the back of the room, neither were the members of public present.
Cllr Roger Giles went through the report and asked about the staff survey, as well as the procedure for a planning application. Some councillors did not like this line of questioning and argued against it (?!)
I was quite alarmed by the final paragraph of tonight’s report, which indicated that a decision on the sale of the Knowle would be made by full council in December – just a few days before Christmas (17th). However, it sounded from the report that there would simply be an update on Skypark to accompany it.
It appeared to me that the council was proposing to sell off the Knowle potentially without securing a location to relocate to! This was very worrying and I asked what happened if we found we couldn’t afford Skypark land or things changed. How could it possibly be justified that we could sell the Knowle at such a time?
Also, I was concerned about the timing of such a decision. Just a few days before Christmas when people were very busy doing other things.
I was assured by officers that this was not the case, but I didn’t see how we could be in a position of certainty in just a few weeks time when the current situation is anything but. And we have still not been given any information about the possible costs of a new build.
So I proposed that the council made no decision on selling the Knowle and other assets associated with the relocation until there was complete certainty over a new location.
AND that no decision be made until all the costs were published – both expenditure and potential new build costs.
AND that no decision on the relocation be made until after December.
Cllr Roger Giles seconded my proposal.
I wasn’t sure how anyone could argue with these proposals , they seemed a bit of a no brainer to me – but of course some of the conservatives did!
Cllr John Humphreys seemed quite outraged that I had proposed some recommendations to cabinet when the report stated it was for “noting” only. He described the report as “excellent” and it was not our job to make recommendations where there were none on paper.
There was a mixture of chortling and outrage from the public gallery at this. It prompted an angry outburst from Cllr Roger Giles about the role of scrutiny – which is most certainly not to note reports.
The vote was a draw – five votes to five (all voting against were conservative). And unfortunately it was lost on chairman, Cllr Tim Wood’s, casting vote.
A subsequent proposal by Cllr Humphreys to note the report was a draw again, but this time Cllr Tim Wood supported it with his casting vote.
It is the overview and scrutiny committee’s statutory job to hold the cabinet (all conservative) to account and tonight it failed most miserably to even back a few basic proposals to provide a modest check on one of the most financially risky, secretive and controversial projects in recent years.
Here’s the link to the agenda and reports – http://new.eastdevon.gov.uk/media/427365/161014-os-agenda-combined.pdf
Photograph: The Knowle gardens, part of which EDDC is selling off for development to fund its relocation ambitions.