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Exposed: How Tory Borough Council Mishandled Burchatts Barn Lease

Published on: 16 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 18 Nov, 2020

Burchatt’s Barn on Stoke Park

By Martin Giles

The former Tory borough council’s mishandling of Burchatts Barn has been exposed by an independent report made public under this administration’s policy of openness.

The report, by the council auditors KPMG, reviewed the decision to lease the Barn on Stoke Park for commercial use.

The KPMG Report graded “Partial assurance with improvements required”

In 1925, Burchatts Farm on Stoke Park was sold to the Guildford Corporation, forerunner of the borough council, for £42,500, and safeguarded as a community asset under the Guildford Corporation Act 1926 until that was repealed under the Surrey Act 1985.

In a damning summary, the report states: “In the case of Burchatts Farm Barn, we found governance to be inconsistent and ineffective.

“The council was unable to provide sufficient documentation to evidence when key decisions were made and by whom, and there was no clear trail of information to evidence effective decision-making.

“Although the business case was found to have been approved, some of the information it included was found to be inaccurate, and there is no evidence alternatives to commercial leasing were considered until five years after the council first commissioned a market report for leasing.

“There was no evidence that the council monitored, assessed or reported the costs or benefits realised…

“The council discharged its legal responsibility by notifying the community of the proposed disposal in an advert in the local newspaper [The Surrey Advertiser]. This occurred after a tenant had been already been selected. No objections were received, yet at the lessee’s planning application stage, 86 written objections were submitted.

“Using such channels of communication means information may not reach a sufficiently wide or diverse audience and we recommend that the council broadens the range of communication channels it uses to notify and engage with the public regarding proposed asset disposals.”

The report echoed calls from critics of the former administration over the last decade, saying: “There is a need to increase the transparency of the tender process to demonstrate robust governance in council decision-making.”

Perhaps most serious of the findings was that inadequate records had been kept of the relevant Property Review Group meetings, preventing KPMG from naming those who made the decisions.

Cllr Nigel Manning speaking in the council chamber in March 2019

GBC told The Guildford Dragon they were unable to say who was on the Property Review Group at the time the decision was made. But checks by The Dragon show Cllr Nigel Manning (Con, Ash Vale) was a member of that group and the lead councillor responsible.

That is confirmed by an email sent to Hon Alderman Gordon Bridger. In December 2018, Cllr Manning wrote to Mr Bridger: “As lead member for Assets and Finance, I have Delegated Authority for disposal of certain GBC assets, in this case the granting of a lease, and I exercised that authority in this case.

“There is no need to put such matters before the Executive. The Leader of the Council [Cllr Paul Spooner] was aware of this and both [Christchurch] Ward Councillors [Matt Furniss and Nikki Nelson-Smith] were notified and no adverse comments were received.”

Former councillor Geoff Davis

His former GBC Executive colleague Geoff Davis told The Dragon: “When I was a councillor, I sat for some time on the Property Review Group, although [it was] chaired by Nigel with Caroline Reeves as a member too, among others.

“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.

“I remember at one point requesting an urgent meeting of the Executive, as the Barn was clearly a matter of significant public interest. That was at short notice, but a good number of the Executive came in to attend.

“The decision was continued by Nigel, clearly basing it on pure economics. I find it amazing that KPMG did not meet with Nigel in this matter. He is the most relevant person to interview.”

Whether KPMG did speak to Cllr Manning is unknown. He has declined our invitation to comment.

Cllr Maddy Redpath

The KPMG report was initiated at the behest of Cllr Maddy Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity).

“I have witnessed how many council assets are financially failing and heading in the same direction as the Barn,” she said.

“I knew something had to change to avoid them all being privatised and I pushed very hard for this report to be completed and used as a case study to save other assets.

“Many of them fall within my ward but they all belong to the whole borough and are the responsibility of all councillors. All of us, councillors and residents, have an interest.

“Only through honest criticism and evaluation can organisations evolve. In reality, it is no longer about Burchatts Barn at all but how we can protect what assets we have left.

“Improvement is needed in several areas including transparency, public communication, documentation and accountability. Most importantly we need to implement a rigorous and robust process that ensures these improvements happen.

“I would like to thank the council officers in supporting R4GV’s pledge for more transparency and releasing this report without issue.

“This review doesn’t contain all the answers but it is a big step in the right direction. I hope it provides residents some peace of mind that the council is now in the hands of a party that will care for and protect our community assets.”

Gordon Bridger

Alderman Gordon Bridger has been critical of the council’s disposal of Burchatts Barn from the outset. He said: “For some considerable time I have been trying to ascertain how the decision on Burchatts Barn was approved since it did not go to the Executive Committee, formally at least.

“I have asked how it was approved and by whom on two occasions, with Freedom of Information requests, but received no response.

“KPMG’s report makes no mention of the individuals identified elsewhere and does not describe how councillors decided between different bidders.

“The council needs to take this very seriously. Somebody senior has to take responsibility.”

The report is on the agenda to be discussed at the next Corporate Governance & Standards Committee meeting on Thursday (November 19).

The committee is normally chaired by Cllr Manning but given his involvement, it is understood he will be asked to stand aside for this item.

Click here and scroll down to page 13 read full report on GBC website.

See archived stories on Burchatts Barn here.

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Responses to Exposed: How Tory Borough Council Mishandled Burchatts Barn Lease

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 8:10 am

    I confidently predict that the Standards and Corporate Governance Committee will do nothing, and nobody will be sanctioned, as per usual at GBC. They are even less likely to do anything, under the chairmanship of Cllr Manning.

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    I think a thank you to Maddy Redpath is appropriate at this stage.

    Now there should be an investigation into the real viability of the Weyside Urban Village should be next on the agenda before the old sewage treatment works is built over. The new one has yet to be proved technically viable.

  3. Gillian Cameron Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    I agree our thanks are due to Cllr Maddy Redpath and also Alderman Bridger, who was the first to ask questions about this matter and raise public awareness of it.

    As Cllr Manning’s perception of appropriate actions under “delegated authority” was manifestly wrong, surely he should be required to relinquish the chairmanship of the Standards and Corporate Governance Committee.

  4. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    And then let’s have a truly independent report on the soundness of the Local Plan. It was equally devoid of justification.

  5. Gordon Bridger Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    Congratulations to The Dragon for its coverage of this extraordinary situation. In my view, the most sensible, cost-effective way forward is to appoint one of GBC’s experienced experts in local government to access every aspect of the handling of the Burchatts Barn affair.

  6. Lisa Wright Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    If only KPMG were contracted to delve into the detail of what happened with our Local Plan and whether serious decisions were also delegated, papers lost and whether it also based “purely on economics”.

    Now that would be interesting.

  7. Wayne Smith Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    Well done to Cllr Maddy Redpath for commissioning this report, the conclusions being quite damning of the lack of record-keeping and decision-making framework of the Property Review Group. Unexpectedly high, and it turns out, erroneous expenditure figures were used in assessing the GBC’s running costs for Burchatts Barn.

    I would urge anyone to look at the timeline of events in the KPMG report (from page 26) which is quite illuminating. All under the watch of Cllr Manning who may or may not have been the chair of the Property Review Group, but reportedly a member and certainly (by his own admission) the Lead member for Assets and Finance. This is the same Cllr Manning that is now chair of GBC’s Corporate Governance and Standards Committee. Not only should he stand aside when this item is reviewed, he should relinquish his position permanently.

  8. Andy Clapham Reply

    November 16, 2020 at 11:19 pm

    After this, Cllr Manning cannot remain a member, let alone chair, of the Corporate Governance and Standards Committee.

  9. Mike Murphy Reply

    November 17, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    Gradually more and more skeletons are appearing from the previous Cllr Spooner And Cllr Furniss cupboard.

    Is it not time that a thorough in-depth investigation into all aspects of their time in charge of GBC. I remember the trips to China, the failed Christmas Market and, of course, the biggest scandal of the lot the GBC Local Plan.

    Particular thanks to The Dragon for their excellent journalism. Please keep looking for the murky secrets.

  10. David Roberts Reply

    November 17, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    Isn’t it time Cllr Manning just quit the council altogether, and make way for more new talent like Cllr Redpath? Why do old politicians never seem to understand when their time is up?

  11. Martin Elliott Reply

    November 17, 2020 at 10:13 pm

    I wonder if there has already been any change in legislation on how statutory notices have to be advertised.

    It used to require a notice at the property and an advert in the public notices of the newspaper (Surrey Advertiser).

    The most common notices I think are planning applications and traffic orders.

    Given the falling circulation of printed media and the use of social media by many local authority departments, has the law or local authority protocol changed to ensure proper distribution of information (without relying on the Guildford Dragon)?

    Editor’s response. Following an enquiry from a potential advertiser, we have just rechecked the position with GBC. As we thought, it remains unchanged, ie statutory adverts have to be placed in printed media. Local authorities currently have no discretion. We have raised it with Guildford’s MP, Angela Richardson.

  12. Anthony Mallard Reply

    November 18, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Congratulations to Cllr Redpath for her efforts, through this report, to shine a light on the past activities of some of the elected members of GBC.

    I agree with Andy Clapham that Cllr Manning must seriously consider his position. Through commission or omission, he has lost personal credibility and certainly cannot continue as chair of such an important borough council committee.

    One wonders what else lurks in the hidden corners of the former leadership team’s activities? Openness, transparency and good communication seemed somewhat alien bedfellows to them.

  13. Martin Elliott Reply

    November 18, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    But that is the minimum requirement.

    There is nothing to stop applicants and local authorities, from advertising in other media as well, as sometimes they do.

    But unless the local authorities have adopted policies and protocols it is, as now, very inconsistent.

  14. Paul Jarvis Reply

    November 20, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    As a non-partisan Guildford resident, I find this whole Burchatts Barn debacle quite baffling. I’ve never set foot in the place and frankly doubt if I ever would if it was still in public use. Although as a Chiropractors I’m more likely to!

    However, I find it odd that the Barn was shut for public use (according to the KPMG report) in 2017 and then marketed in one of the largest local commercial property agents, so hardly difficult to spot. But, the public outrage seemed to have jumped two years until 2019 when The Dragon stories begin.

    For those who are mourning the loss of the asset, why did it take two years for you to miss it?

    Frankly, from the outside, it looks like a case of people believing it should have been rented to people other than chiropractors, rather than actual outrage of the asset being lost for the community.

    Be interesting to hear the cost of the KPMG review as well, although many on here will be happy with any price to put the knife into the old administration one more time.

    Hopefully, we can soon stop dwelling on the mistakes of the past and start seeing what the new administration is going to bring forwards.

    Editor’s comment over coverage of the proposal to dispose of Burchatts Barn as a community facility commenced in March 2017 with this article: Council to ‘Market Test’ Future Use of Burchatts Farm Barn

    • Paul Jarvis Reply

      November 21, 2020 at 9:14 am

      That article wasn’t listed on the original link. But anyway, it kind of reinforces my point. I don’t see much outrage in the comments section of that article.

  15. David Halliwell Reply

    November 20, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    Trying to understand what this is all about but unfortunately the link : Council to ‘Market Test’ Future Use of Burchatts Farm Barn does not work and that article is not in the archive referenced at the end of this article.

    Editor’s response: Apologies. Now fixed. Thank you for the alert.

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