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

Published on: 20 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 20 Nov, 2020

By Martin Giles

Emotions flared at a council debate last night (November 19) about the KPMG report on the leasing of Burchatts Farm Barn, refurbished in 2003 for community events.  Unnamed officers were accused of being anti-Conservative.

That claim came from former GBC leader Paul Spooner (Con ‘ind’, Ash South & Tongham), at the Corporate Governance and Standards Committee. Council officers could not respond but the accusation was swiftly dismissed by Cllr Tim Anderson (R4GV, Clandon & Horsley), lead for Resources.

Publication of KPMG’s draft report has provoked hot debate within the council. One councillor said only after publication of The Dragon article (Exposed: How Tory Borough Council Mishandled Burchatts Barn Lease) “the real drama kicked off”.

The KPMG report, critical of the council’s handling, includes six recommendations:

  • 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; and
  • A review timetable of the council’s policies.
  • Another regarding the categorisation of property assets is expected.

Claire Morris

Before the committee debate, GBC’s director of finance, Claire Morris, said further information reports and minutes are now being submitted to KPMG.

Burchatts Barn, she said, had not been classified as an “asset of community value” but an “operational property with a sub-category of community facility” and the disposal process had been consistent with that categorisation.

She also said financial information used to justify the decision was incorrect and confirmed the decision to grant the lease had been taken with authority delegated to a council officer.

But senior councillors have told The Dragon council officers would not use such authority to operate against the will of the Executive and, in particular, the lead councillor responsible.

The KPMG report has been long-awaited. Apparently, the decision to commission it was taken in January and work started in March. Covid restrictions were given as one reason for delay.

Cllr Deborah Seabrook

Cllr Deborah Seabrook (R4GV, Merrow), who chaired the committee for the item, said members “might wonder why incomplete reports were being presented to the committee”.

“The reason is this item has been on the agenda for several months so an update to the committee is due.”. A final report is expected in January.

Gavin Morgan, of the Guildford Heritage Forum, who was interviewed by KPMG, said the report confirms the council did not consider the community value of assets.

Gavin Morgan

“GBC is not a business or a property management company,” he said. “It is a public service.

“When difficult decisions about the disposal of buildings or the reduction of services have to be made, councillors should ask themselves, ‘Are we considering the community impact as much as the financial cost?’.

“And when considering the cost of anything, councillors should ask themselves, “Do these figures actually add up and does a document exist that demonstrates these figures add up?”

Cllr Maddy Redpath.

Maddy Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity) was the first councillor to speak from “the floor”. She said: “In the past week, it has become clear there were members of the last administration who felt uncomfortable with the disposal of this particular asset but felt unable to report their reservations.

“This report is not intended to be a witch-hunt but a learning exercise. We need to see this report as an opportunity to improve the council, better engage with our residents and support our officers in giving them clear direction for the future.”

She then thanked the council officers, “for their cooperation… and supporting the council’s transparency pledge by releasing this review to the public”, as well as Alderman Gordon Bridger (see The KPMG Report Does Not Tell the Whole Burchatts Barn Story). “Without his constant persistence I probably would have given up months ago.”

Cllr Paul Spooner

Cllr Spooner was soon on the attack. “I do have significant issues with the way this has been handled,” he said.

“As the previous leader of the council, the first I heard about this was when I saw it coming through and saw The Dragon article, and I can’t possibly understand, assuming the article is correct, that someone who is not a member of the Executive was able to commission KPMG and the public cost involved.”

He said he also could not understand why the report was being presented in its draft state, “except that this is purely political, and officers aren’t supposed to be that political” nor why he not been interviewed by KPMG. The report, he said, in its incomplete state was “fundamentally flawed”.

He continued: “I see this went through due process and I would like to understand, and perhaps we should audit, the process for that decision-making in its own right. I cannot understand, why you are having two bites at the same cherry here.

The KPMG Report (click on image to link)

“This is coming forward in a state that is not, and clearly is not, factually correct, it is a draft. And I cannot understand, in what I would describe as an early draft, why we are bringing it to this committee.”

Then, turning his fire squarely on the finance directorate, he said: “I was very uncomfortable and I think I stated it publicly about the way this was handled and I am extremely concerned about the errors, and it is a significant error because councillors have to trust officer input in relation to inaccurate [sic] financial information.

“That would have had a significant impact on this decision-making process. And I think we need to very seriously look, and heads, I am afraid, should roll.

“This is a very, very sorry state of affairs and reflects very poorly, not just on this administration or the previous administration, but reflects very poorly on this council.

“And I do think we need to think very seriously, not just about the recommendations, but actually about the process and the way this has been handled, in my opinion deliberately political, and that is really, really sad that officers have behaved so politically trying to damage my party.”

This was Cllr Spooner’s second reference to “my party” despite him leading a breakaway from the official Conservative group at GBC earlier this year (see: Local Tory Parties’ Silence on Spooner Split Seems to Say, ‘Least Said, Soonest Mended’).

Cllr Anderson said: “I think Cllr Spooner makes some very relevant points but our officers aren’t able to defend their reputation and I think the officers have supplied information and helped KPMG to the best of their ability.

“I think Cllr Spooner knows what a dedicated, honest collection of officers we have. And so I do think he should take back the accusation that they are acting politically.”

No withdrawal came.

Cllr John Redpath

John Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity), said: “Thank you to Cllr Spooner to effectively prove that you had actually lost any control of what was going on under his administration, including on the Barn.

“At the end of the day to blame the officers… [but] not a single member of the last council, Cllr Davis, Cllr … well, any of them, they’re all innocent, everyone’s innocent.

“I find it absolutely amazing to blame the officers and I find it shocking. I do echo what Tim Anderson has said. No one is perfect but it’s cruel to bring this fully down on the officers.”

Cllr Nigel Manning (Con, Ash Vale), who was the lead responsible for assets when some Barn decisions were taken was calm in the delivery of his prepared statement. He said: “I seem to have come in for a bit of serious criticism without the full facts being presented.

Cllr Nigel Manning

“I was not involved until May 2018 regarding Burchatts Barn… and the decision to actually sell Burchatts Barn was taken back in October 2016.” In that time, he said no one came forward about the proposed disposal.

He believed officers had supplied their reports and the figures they contained in good faith, adding, “We are all human and sometimes mistakes happen but it’s important to learn from these mistakes and understand why they happened.” The mistakes were “very regrettable” but he was not sure they affected the decisions.

“I was contacted by KPMG three weeks ago, to give some comments,” he added. “I got the distinct impression this was an afterthought.

“Yet I spent over an hour discussing the situation and what had happened, as far as I was aware. I am very surprised nothing of what I discussed with them or told them has actually been included in the report, neither has it been identified that they spoke to me.

“I was not aware who else had been contacted to give feedback until the draft report came out. I was very surprised it came out in that particular format [without] the full facts.

“I don’t understand why GBC told KPMG there were no records of decisions and minutes because I do keep lots of agendas and minutes… and I have a large number from the time I was involved.”

Cllr Manning said he supported the recommendations in the report and would do what he could to “help them through”.

Listen to the whole debate here.

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test 4 Responses to Former Leader Claims Council Officers Anti-Tory Over Burchatts Barn Leasing Report

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    November 20, 2020 at 4:28 pm

    There are common factors emerging. Either the principles were correct and practised incorrectly or the base principles were incorrect but followed to the letter.

    Either way, the end result was a serious failure.

    Clearly, there was a maths error from with the officials presenting the figures, but a political problem of commercial confidentiality based on the behaviour applicable to a commercial, not a local government organization.

    Bottom line, a mess caused by people not using common sense asking “what if?” and forgetting they work for us, not their political party or the council but the residents of Guildford Borough. Perhaps that is what should be learnt from this draft report, which will, I suspect, be far more honest than the final redacted, amended, re-edited and reduced final version.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 20, 2020 at 6:22 pm

    I would have to advise Cllrs Spooner and Manning “When you’re in a deep hole, it is often best to cease digging”, lest the hole becomes even deeper. A bit of quiet reflection would perhaps be more dignified.

  3. Wayne Smith Reply

    November 20, 2020 at 8:51 pm

    Cllr Manning said: “I don’t understand why GBC told KPMG there were no records of decisions and minutes because I do keep lots of agendas and minutes… and I have a large number from the time I was involved.”

    Surely the issue is that the council should have a formal record of meeting minutes and decisions taken/by whom? Not just a reliance on some personal notes that may or may not have been kept. Is this indicative of a wider problem with a lack of policies and procedure within GBC?

    • Ben Paton Reply

      November 21, 2020 at 12:21 pm

      Dead right.

      Why hasn’t the Guildford Borough Council taken and retained the necessary minutes? How is not retaining the minutes consistent with common sense, good practice or the Code of Conduct?

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