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‘Damning’ Report Debated at Council Meeting – CEO Calls for Councillors to Come Together

Published on: 18 May, 2024
Updated on: 22 May, 2024

By Martin Giles

“Shocking”, “astonishing” and “damning” were words used to describe the recently published Solace report on Guildford Borough Council when it was debated at the Corporate Governance and Standards Committee meeting on Wednesday evening (May 15).

Introducing the the debate the new chief executive officer, Pedro Wrobel, said that he and all the senior officers accepted the report as correct. This was important, he said, because “before you can deal with an issue, first you have to accept that there is an issue”. He said the findings were “unacceptable” and senior officers were united in their determination to deal with them.

He intended to report progress to the council every six months and proposed appointing an independent assurance panel to “provide support and challenge and help us to navigate the best course” and to give an independent view on progress in public.

He hoped that the committee would recommend the findings of the report and endorsement of the proposed approach to the full council on June 17.

He concluded: “I know there’s going to be political elements at play today. But this is a moment for the council to come together regardless of politics. You have from your officers the very best view on how to move forward and we would really appreciate your support.

“Much of this shouldn’t be controversial. It’s about the basics, getting the right culture, the right strong strategic direction and values, the right covenants, appropriate financial controls and audit and making sure that we provide services that our residents and businesses deserve and that we provide them in a way that is very clearly openly and transparently value for money.

“We want your support so that we can move that forward and so we can play our part in making this a council that we can all be proud of and making Guildford a great place to live, work and do business. That’s the objective at the heart of all of this.”

Cllr Pat Oven

Introduction over, councillors lined up to raise questions on the report’s content. Cllr Patrick Oven (GGG, Send & Lovelace) raised the issue of the housing maintenance and the reported multi-million pound overspends on contracts. He found the report’s conclusions “absolutely astonishing” and said there was “really no mitigation at all”.

He sought clarification on when the two contracts with contractors Seville were agreed. It was confirmed that one had been made in October 2021 for electrical maintenance work and one for general maintenance in June 2023. Monitoring officer Susan Sale said “the contract was entered into on the 13th of June with the commencement date of the 1st of June but… there are some outstanding questions around the timeline”.

The Solace report stated that the first whistleblower report had been made in October 2022 and Cllr Oven pursued the matter: “I want to know exactly how much information there was when this second contract was entered into how many warnings had there been that had effectively been disregarded?” He was advised that that was still being investigated.

Cllr Julia Osborn

One of the parish councillor members of the committee, Julia Osborn (Send Parish Council), said she did not accept there had been a culture of complacency – recalling some robust challenging of reports at the committee and adding: “We’ve seen that even this evening from Cllr Oven. It’s not easy to be a critical voice… there has not been an appetite for change, it’s just been business as usual and it’s been the status quo.”

She then highlighted another apparent anomaly in the report: “It talks of two strategic directors claiming that documentation was signed in their name for significant contracts, and that the actual directors, the only thing they knew was an automated email that was sent to them afterwards. This comes directly to the point about governance that needs to be improved.”

She continued: “I know from experience in the planning directorate that there was a decision taken to vary a planning condition which was crucial to the application of Garlick’s Arch. It was taken by a delegated officer in the name of the head of planning. I understand that because there was a transition in place the head of planning wasn’t aware of that decision. We challenged it as a parish council at the time. But again, the response we received frankly was not a response that to me indicated accountability. And that’s what we’ve got to improve.”

Bob Hughes

Cllr Bob Hughes (Con, Tillingbourne) picked up on the request from the CEO for the council to come together which Cllr Hughes agreed was very important. “But,” he said, “it does have to be led by the administration… I don’t think there’s much sign of that at the moment.”

He also agreed with the CEO about the importance of who knew what and when. “I don’t know who signed off the second contract that has been discussed earlier but plainly it was long time after the whistleblowing had happened.”

And he agreed with an earlier request from the Labour group leader, James Walsh (Bellfields & Slyfield), that progress should be reported to the council more frequently than every six months.

Cllr Hughes then turned to the collaboration with Waverley Council, which he referred to as the “merger by stealth”. He asked, had there been a business plan? The report, he said, talked about overstretched officers and suggested if any quick decision should be taken it was bringing the collaboration, “which is doing nobody any good at all”, to an end.

Cllr Julia McShane

Asked by the meeting chair if she wished to respond, Council Leader Julia McShane (Lib Dem, Westborough) said: “Obviously we need to work together as a council to make this successful. This administration has faced challenges since it was elected in May and we’ve been working with officers to address the financial issues. We’ve made those public. We’ve provided updates on on that work. We created an Executive Working Group, invited members across the council to be part of that group.

“Obviously, we then had this situation in housing which again, was made public, and we commissioned the reports that we now have in front of us. We’ve acknowledged and accepted all of those recommendations and are working with officers to make sure that those recommendations are carried through and acted upon.”

Answering a point raised by Cllr Hughes regarding the need for “the administration”, which appeared to imply the council’s leadership, to be visibly leading the recovery activity, Cllr McShane thought the leadership of the administration should be obvious to anyone present and was puzzled why anyone could think they weren’t leading.

“I’ve already stated before and made it quite clear that we will continue to not leave any stone unturned. We will root out all of the issues that need to be addressed. We’ve still got two investigations ongoing, one with the police, and obviously the other one that’s been referred to this evening where we will find out who knew what and when.

“…we will continue and we will not rest until we’ve addressed all these issues. And we have… a resilient and well managed council that we can all be proud of.

“So I hope that reassures people in the room and I hope… it also reassures our residents and businesses across the borough because they’re the people that matter the most.”

Cllr George Potter

Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Merrow) recalled his induction as a new councillor in May 2019 being told that Guildford “was a well run council… good finance officers good leadership, a good culture, there was a £10 million gap to fill by the Future Guildford [staff rationalisation] programme, but that that was going to be fine… there’s nothing to worry about”.

Since then, he said, it had been discovered that none of that was the case. There had been a complacency around the strategic direction and governance of the council.

But he defended the collaboration with Waverley. “We’ve had the cross-fertilisation wave of people coming in saying, ‘Well hang on a minute, there’s something not quite right. You’re not doing things in a way that’s in accordance with best practice. That work is what has led us to this point of where we are uncovering these problems and we start to deal with them.”

He thought that in addition to the hundreds of thousands in salary savings the collaboration had allowed issues to be uncovered “in time to avoid hitting the iceberg rather than after hitting the iceberg which is quite clear happened to other councils like Birmingham for instance.”

However, Cllr Potter agreed that there were “some quite shocking things in [the report] and I think ‘shocking’ just really can’t be understated.” To describe them as damning was also correct, he said.

One which stood out for him was the fact that a key software system had not had required software updates for eight years.

The meeting formally agreed to recommend to the full council that it noted and endorsed the findings of the Solace review and endorses and adopts the subsequent improvement plan.

Read the full Solace review here.

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Responses to ‘Damning’ Report Debated at Council Meeting – CEO Calls for Councillors to Come Together

  1. Paul Spooner Reply

    May 19, 2024 at 8:45 am

    Cllr Potter is mistaken as usual. The position presented in 2019 upon his induction was correct.

    It was subsequent decisions and actions under the coalition between Lib Dems and R4GV followed by Lib Dems alone, primarily, in my opinion, and the mismanagement of “Future Guildford” that set the meltdown in motion.

    The principle of change management is good but key to success is effective implementation and it was clear to those of us sitting on the backbenches after May 2019 that things were going badly wrong.

    We were ignored by the Lib Dems who wanted nothing to do with the Conservatives. The result is clear for every resident to see. Very sad that the work under Conservatives over several administrations has been wasted.

    Paul Spooner is the former Conservative leader of Guildford Borough Council.

    • Jules Cranwell Reply

      May 21, 2024 at 6:03 am

      Perhaps former council leader Paul Spooner will acknowledge that the biggest failure ever by the council was the forcing through of the disastrous Local Plan, under his leadership.

      The direct result was the decimation of the Tories at GBC and the introduction of the current incompetent Lib Dem leadership.

      Far from the work of the Tories being wasted it is their work that has been the ruin of our villages, with none of his promised infrastructure being delivered.

  2. H Trevor Jones Reply

    May 19, 2024 at 2:35 pm

    Interesting, and I’m glad to see sensible comments from people of all parties not criticising people of other parties but, by implication, trying to work together for the common good!

    Regarding the software, I worked in IT mostly on IBM mainframes from about 1976 (before it was even called IT) until 2003, and it was certainly good to write new systems or modify existing ones to add useful new facilities or to correct the inevitable programming errors that got uncovered from time to time. But at the same time there was no need to keep updating systems that worked perfectly well. Better to leave well alone!

    On one occasion the system in my responsibility hit a 29 Feb problem, causing files of Government Gilts stock price data to get corrupted, which I had to fix overnight. But I remember it coming up to nearly four years later and telling my boss that I’d better be given time to fix the program bug before it went wrong again!

  3. Hyde Peter Reply

    May 21, 2024 at 7:55 am

    Only one person has raised the possibility that the collaboration with Waverley Council should now be reconsidered. Savings may have been made, but at what cost? GBC needs a chief executive and management team focused only on its affairs and priorities.

  4. David Roberts Reply

    May 21, 2024 at 10:51 am

    I take it that Mr Trevor Jones would not include Mr Spooner or Cllr Potter on his first remark.

    What a shower!

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