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Council’s Project Handling Bungled, Committee told in Shock Outburst

Published on: 3 Mar, 2021
Updated on: 5 Mar, 2021

Cllr John Rigg making his statement during the online meeting.

By Martin Giles

The borough council’s project management capability was torn to bits last night (March 2) at the Overview & Scrutiny Committee meeting in an excoriating blast by Cllr John Rigg, lead for Regeneration.

Cllr Rigg (R4GV, Holy Trinity), an experienced chartered surveyor who formerly worked on major property development projects for Savills, pulled no punches in his comprehensive list of the problems he had to face.

Committee members sat in stunned silence listening to his unexpectedly blunt summary of the position. But he said he was mindful of the Nolan principles of openness, accountability, integrity and objectivity.

He detailed how he had been prevented from seeing information on the council’s 20 major projects he was charged with overseeing. “An example of this was North Street where I sought a copy of the development brief passed to the developer,” he said. “I was not given one. So far l still have not identified if one exists.

“I spent most of 2019 attempting to find out what was happening with this project from the then director [Tracy Coleman] and found out only in mid-October at a meeting I sought with the developer.

“Subsequently, an offer letter came to light from the developer dated July 2019 [which was] still without reply in 2020. For this to be Guildford’s major town centre and regeneration project with an absence of information available to the portfolio holder was not ideal.”

Quotes from earlier articles on GBC projects…

Cllr Rigg says he hasn’t see development brief despite asking.” Nov 11 2019. See: Shock North Street Developer’s Scheme Catches Councillors By Surprise

And it is claimed Cllr Rigg found difficulty getting Ms Coleman to hold meetings with him, despite his senior council responsibility.” Jun 26 2020. See: Controversial Head of Planning Leaves Borough Council With a Deal

Cllr Rigg said: GBC does not have the expertise to manage or deliver a highways project but last May, after being elected, we manfully accepted we would take it forward.” Jul 24 2020. See: How Consultation With Informed Resident Identified Route to Solving the Hotspot Issue

Cllr Rigg said he was forced to take advice from the Local Government Association and the borough solicitor to get access to information and cooperation.

His penetrating criticisms included the lack of project structure, lack of project mandates, a failure to make business cases, a lack of project methodology and inadequate reporting.

And there was, he said: “A resigned acceptance of the council to approve increasing costs with an attitude of inevitability…”

But all was not doom and gloom. Cllr Rigg also sounded a note of cautious and conditional optimism.

“I am now relatively happy with major projects but it still needs to deliver regular systematic reports to the Major Projects Board,” he said, “We need a major projects capability but it needs resourcing with experienced qualified professionals appropriate for the type of project we wish to undertake.”

Cllr David Bilbe

David Bilbe (Con, Normandy), a member of the Conservative Executive in power unit 2019, said: “I was surprised and disappointed. To criticise a combination of council officers and the previous administration, in the main, for lack of progress in major projects for Guildford is weak.

“These are big projects and vitally important for the borough but this administration has been in office for two years and it is time to stand up and be accountable and to stop giving the impression of blaming others.”

Cllr James Walsh

But Cllr James Walsh, the Labour member for Stoke, said: “It was certainly an interesting meeting. Cllr Rigg’s statement raised some virtual eyebrows and, to be fair, I applaud him for saying it as he sees it.

“Too often in the political sphere, we get a lot of hot air and little substance. ‘Professional speak’ can obscure key issues.

“I suspect Cllr Rigg will feel a little heat from some, though he has never pretended to be a local authority ‘insider’ and his speech was very much in keeping with that. But I would advise a little more caution in criticising officers so publicly.

“As a lead member, Cllr Rigg has to work closely with them and I can see how such criticism might be demoralising and perhaps unconstructive.

“I was concerned to hear about alleged failures in the processes around the major projects ‘from the horse’s mouth’, lead members not being invited to key meetings, allegations of inexperienced officers leading on projects and problems with audit trails, for example, and I hope to hear more about this and the measures taken to address them by the Executive shortly.”

Cllr George Potter

Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham), said: “I think all of us at the meeting were somewhat surprised by the frankness and candour of his remarks. But the openness and honesty with which he spoke about the previous failures and successes of project management at GBC were refreshing.

“One concern I do have is that, although his general point was that often political decision-makers were setting officers up to fail by failing to ensure they were fully trained or resourced before being expected to deliver major projects, there is a risk his remarks could be interpreted as being critical of the officers themselves.

“I’m sure that wasn’t his intention, because it would be unfortunate and unfair for officers to be publicly criticised by political decision-makers when officers are not able to publicly defend themselves.”

Today Cllr Rigg said: “I’m not looking for a battle here. I am just seeking a better way of doing things and unless when things go wrong and there is transparency nothing will change.

“I am very happy with the new directors and with the present state of most of the projects but there is no harm in believing we can do things better. We must do things better.”

See also: Dragon Interview: John Rigg Asks Why Has Guildford Inherited SCC Infrastructure Projects?

GBC MD James Whiteman Outlines Efforts on Council Strengths and Weaknesses

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Responses to Council’s Project Handling Bungled, Committee told in Shock Outburst

  1. A W Derbyshire Reply

    March 4, 2021 at 2:46 pm

    Well done John Rigg! It’s about time GBC officers and councillors were told about the real world of business.

  2. RWL Davies Reply

    March 5, 2021 at 7:44 am

    “His penetrating criticisms included the lack of project structure, lack of project mandates, a failure to make business cases, a lack of project methodology and inadequate reporting.”

    Such failings are common in the private sector as well; but that’s no excuse. Well done Mr Rigg.

    Be interesting to see if and when any discernible and significant improvements emerge.

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