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‘Wisley Bid Errors Must Not Recur’ – GBC to Consider Constitutional Changes

Published on: 9 Jun, 2021
Updated on: 13 Jun, 2021

By Martin Giles

Continuing anger over GBC’s handling of a bid, made over two years ago, to obtain government funding for a Garden Village plan at Wisley Airfield, came to the surface again at a council meeting last night (June 8).

The Overview & Scrutiny Committee were considering the report of a second investigation into what happened.

Cllr Paul Spooner (Con, Ash South & Tongham), the GBC leader in 2018, when the bid was made, said the debate “felt like a witch hunt”. He had stepped aside from his role as chairman of the committee because of his involvement in the matter.

Cllr John Redpath

The latest investigation was triggered by a statement made by Cllr John Redpath in January 2020, which has not been made public.

The report concluded: “…the issues raised do not require any further action to be taken by the council.” Setting out his case for strongly disagreeing, Cllr Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity) gave three examples of how the council had collectively misled others.

  • The badging of the bid document (see copy of the front cover above), he said, showed “The council tried to pass off a document that was almost entirely prepared by the site owners’ consultants as one of their own.”
  • The response of Cllr Spooner to a question from Cllr Colin Cross at a full council meeting on December 4, 2018. Cllr Spooner had responded: “The primary authors are the Planning Policy Team at Guildford Borough Council.” In fact the authors of almost the entire document were agents of the developers and the investigation had revealed that Cllr Spooner had attended an unminuted meeting with them and GBC planning officers about the bid just six weeks before.

  • That the close involvement of Cllr Paul Spooner (then GBC leader and lead councillor for planning) and Matt Furniss (then GBC deputy leader) with the owners of the Wisley site, while they were both members of the Planning Committee, could have led to public concern that the political majority might be biased towards their leader’s support for the development of the Garden Village.

Cllr George Potter

Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) said that he was disappointed the report answered a set of questions different to the ones posed.

He said the questions were: Why was there a lack of transparency about the fact that the bid document had been produced by the developer? Why was it, allegedly, not known that a letter, taken to the leader of SCC, had been written for GBC by the developer? Why was the bid made so late that it was not possible for the Overview & Scrutiny meeting to “call it in” for review? And who knew what and when?

It was “deeply disappointing” that these questions remained unanswered and he found it very hard to believe that lead members at the time did not know or suspect the true provenance of the documents. It raised serious questions about whether dishonest claims had been made.

Cllr Fiona White.

Next to speak was the most experienced of GBC’s councillors, Fiona White (Lib Dem, Guildford West). She said: “What worries me more than anything is the reputational damage this has done to Guildford Borough Council and I think that’s really sad.”

Former Executive members, she said, had had a responsibility to know what had been going on, they were the decision-makers. “‘I didn’t know’, was not a defence,” she said, adding: “I think Cllr Redpath is right, that the damage that has been done to the council in the eyes of our residents is going to take a long time to heal and that is very, very sad.”

Cllr Colin Cross

Cllr Colin Cross (R4GV, Lovelace), introduced a new concept into the discussion. He said that “regulatory capture”, which he defined as: the corruption of an authority when a political entity, policymaker or regulatory agency, such as GBC, is co-opted to serve the commercial, ideological or political interests of a group such as WIPL or their agents Savills, “is exactly what we are looking at here”.

The bid document, he said, contained a massive amount of misinformation and outright untruths adding that he had received no apology for what had happened [his exclusion as the ward member] a matter which had caused him to resign from the Lib Dem party.

He asked why Savills had “turned their back” on the council inquiry, something he found deeply suspicious; it was still unknown if GBC had paid Savills for their involvement in the bid preparation.

He concluded that on each page of the investigation report there were one or more erroneous statements made which, together, made it deeply misleading.

Cllr Paul Spooner

Responding to the criticism, Cllr Spooner started by saying that he welcomed the investigation and the report but wondered how many more would be asked for by Cllr Redpath to score political points.

“It feels like a witch hunt, to be perfectly honest. With reference to the damage that’s been done to this council, many are quite keen to damage this council if it involves damaging the previous administration.”

The second report, he said, aligned with the first, in its key findings.

“The error here … was that it [the bid] was rushed at the end. After the initial discussions in the leadership suite the project was not moved forward until it became a rush.

“Whether we like it or not, Wisley is and was a strategic site that planning policy were promoting.”

He expressed disappointment that ward members had not been more involved, it had been an error, and “the leadership suite… leader and deputy leader” had dropped the ball by not monitoring [progress] resulting in the last-minute rush.

But “there is nothing wrong,” he said, “in seeking information from other stakeholders. The fact that I was not specifically aware of the amount of information … is almost irrelevant. I believe Matt Furniss [former deputy leader] when he says was not aware either.

“I did meet with Saviils and they agreed to provide information in support of planning policy developing a bid and I see nothing wrong with that as a process at all.”

He also saw nothing wrong with senior councillors being involved in discussions with developers so long as it was alongside officers. And said he made no apology for such liaison which was continuing today with talks between current senior councillors and developers.

He concluded by saying: “Cllr Redpath has consistently, for more than the last two years, tried to damage me personally, and I do hope that this is the end of the Redpath agenda in relation to me and my party. Can we move on as a council and stop deliberately damaging the council scoring political points?”

But Cllr White was concerned. “It almost looks as if we are saying ‘Nothing to see here, move on,’ ” she said at a stage in the meeting when it appeared that little action might be taken by the committee, “but I am sorry, there is something to see here and we really can’t move on until we have a very clear formula for dealing with it in future.

“Things like this should not happen. We have a responsibility, all of us, regardless of political party … to the public in Guildford, to be open and transparent… they should never have any cause to distrust what we are saying to them.”

Cllr Will Salmon

The committee, having listened to suggestions from Cllr Will Salmon (Lib Dem, Onslow), agreed to ask the Corporate Governance Task Group to review:

  • the council’s Constitution regarding the definition and processes for “Key Decisions” so that any bids, tenders or other activities that may lead to key decisions in future are included in the GBC “Forward Plan” or communicated to relevant ward councillors with sufficient notice for transparency;
  • how it can be ensured that any meetings involving lead members, officers and the private sector are minuted and available in the public domain; and
  • how the council can ensure that any failings in transparency or procedure are communicated to the public as soon as identified.

See also: Second Investigation into Wisley Bid Reveals More of Developer/ GBC Relationship

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test One Response to ‘Wisley Bid Errors Must Not Recur’ – GBC to Consider Constitutional Changes

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    June 11, 2021 at 7:06 am

    Cllr Spooner says he “saw nothing wrong with senior councillors being involved in discussions with developers so long as it was alongside officers”. I infer from this that he does see something wrong in senior councillors meeting with developers, without the presence of officers.

    This is something he did on a number of occasions, as did Cllrs Furniss and Davis, [as declared in the GBC register of interests]. Are we expected to believe that, over such lengthy meetings, hosted by developers, that such developers did not want to discuss development matters and sites?

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