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Comment: Review Could Unlock a Culture Change, But Leaves More Questions Than Answers

Published on: 22 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 25 Nov, 2020

The Corporate Governance & Scrutiny meeting was held online.

By Martin Giles

The meeting was quite an occasion for council watchers.

See: Former Leader Claims Council Officers Anti-Tory Over Burchatts Barn Leasing Report

Something might have gone wrong and a review had been arranged. So far, so normal. Guildford Borough Council had shown they were well aware of the Sir Humphrey tactic of arranging a long-winded enquiry which ends up with, “Nothing here. Don’t know what all the fuss was about. Everything’s tickety-boo.”

Or, as was infamously said after the Monika Juneja council inquiry, “No wrongdoing found” before police investigated and she was convicted at the Old Bailey.

And the KPMG review of the disposal of Burchatts Barn, commissioned by managing director James Whiteman in January after a request by Cllr Maddy Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity), has certainly qualified as long-winded. Work commenced in March.

So when the report appeared to be discussed at the Corporate Governance and Standards Committee there was little surprise, until it became clear it was very critical of the council and obviously incomplete, leaving far more questions than answers.

Hon Alderman Gordon Bridger and Cllr Maddy Redpath

The Dragon immediately asked for comment from two who had pressed for the review, Cllr Redpath and Alderman Gordon Bridger, as well as two former lead councillors who oversaw the process at different stages.

Former councillor Geoff Davis was unaware of the report but promptly responded saying: “Nigel, as lead on Finance and Assets, was in charge of this matter, I was repeatedly asked not to involve myself as it was not in my ward.”

Geoff Davis and Cllr Nigel Manning

But Cllr Nigel Manning (Con, Ash Vale), in line with his decision not to communicate with The Dragon, did not respond.

Cllr Paul Spooner

Then came the committee meeting. Former council leader Paul Spooner (Con ‘Ind’, Ash & South Tongham) had not been mentioned in the KPMG report or ours.

But he seemed determined to elbow his way into the frame to complain it was all unfair. And despite his reservations about the report he wanted “heads to roll”.

Nonetheless, Cllr Spooner made some good points:

Why had the report been published in its incomplete state?
Why were other councillors involved not spoken to?
Why was the error on the Barn’s maintenance costs made and who made it?

The Dragon will add others:

Why had the report taken eight months?
Was a completion date included in the terms of reference?
Who was monitoring its progress?
Why was the council so keen to dispose of a beautiful venue available for community use?
Why were the Barn hire rates hiked to such an unaffordable level?
Why was authority for such a decision delegated to a council officer and why was that considered to be real delegation if the officer would not counter the lead councillor’s will?
Why was the Barn categorised as “operational property with a sub-category of community facility”?
Why did KPMG not check The Dragon archive where they could have found, among many relevant articles, one showing in 2017 the council issued a press release saying they were market testing the Barn (the article led to at least one bid)?
What happened at the informal meeting of the Executive that former councillor Davis claims was held?
Why have council papers, unavailable to KPMG for the past eight months, suddenly become available now?

But, despite the unanswered questions, the proposed recommendations appear sound.

* Improved advertising of proposals to dispose of property assets;
* Accuracy checking of reports used as evidence for decisions;
* Correct sequencing of the decision-making process;
* A formal scorecard system to evaluate bids;
* Improved record-keeping;
* A review timetable of the council’s policies; and

Another about categorisation of property assets is expected.

The KPMG Report

The most crucial remaining question is not about Burchatts Barn. That question is, does publication of this report really mark a watershed moment at GBC? Is this council truly willing to live up to its stated value of openness?

Individuals and organisations are imperfect. Some intentionally break rules, some simply make mistakes.

When it comes to governments at any level, which wield power over the rest of us, it is crucial actions are scrutinised, if necessary investigated, and any discovered wrongdoing or error admitted. Failing to do so and covering up is often a bigger wrong than the original error.

Effective scrutiny requires openness, revealing the whole truth. Secrecy, obfuscation, even undue delay in providing information, inevitably results in distrust, even contempt.

So let us hope this report, imperfect and incomplete as it is, premature as it appears to be, is the first sign of a culture shift at our borough council. It’s about time.

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test 4 Responses to Comment: Review Could Unlock a Culture Change, But Leaves More Questions Than Answers

  1. David Roberts Reply

    November 23, 2020 at 11:29 am

    This is what happens if you neglect the basics, as I pointed out in October 2019:
    https://guildford-dragon.com/2019/10/19/letter-gbc-needs-an-independent-review-of-its-transparency-policies/

    Otherwise there could be another Juneja case waiting to happen.

    • Martin Elliott Reply

      November 23, 2020 at 11:30 pm

      I don’t know what ‘model’ the Local Authorities management systems are based upon, but from experience I’d say they are far distant from any recognised international standard used by business and industry.

      As David Roberts pointed out a year ago, to anybody with any experience, not only at the top level are the protocols and procedures suspect but also right down at the bottom.

      A classic example is that if you ask why financial information is not supplied to a tenant (an invoice) the answer is there is no fault as the GBC procedure doesn’t require it.

      Perhaps the procedure is wrong?

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 23, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    Cllr Spooner may have made a few valid points, but it would have been more honest to hold up his hand to the fact that he allowed this to happen on his watch. As to “heads rolling”, perhaps his should be the first?

  3. Anthony Mallard Reply

    November 26, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    As I have remarked before, openness, transparency, and good communication are alien bedfellows to this council.

    Let’s see if this report (the unanswered questions) and subsequent recommendations change anything.

    Don’t hold one’s breath would be my advice.

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