Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Asleep at the wheel or just incompetent?

Last night we had a meeting of CWaC's Overview and Scrutiny Call-in Sub-Committee.  This not-so-snappily titled committee is where decisions that are being challenged can be examined in more detail.  It is one of those few places where councillors from all parties can engage in meaningful dialogue and debate ... although if last night is anything to go by that is theory but not the practice.

Labour Councillor and Cabinet Member Brian Clarke was present at the committee to debate two decisions:

  1. The Cabinet's approval at his recommendation of the Business Plan for Avenue Services; and
  2. The Special Planning Document ('SPD') relating to student accommodation in the Borough.
He was supported by Cllr Armstrong - Labour CWaC's finance portfolio holder.

The meeting started at 5:30pm and didn't finish until 9:45pm.  

Avenue Services is a joint venture between CWaC and Sanctury Housing (the Social Landlord covering Chester) to take over and manage public open space and grass cutting in Blacon.  

The business plan for Avenue Service - or at least the version approved by the Cabinet and debated last night proposed more than £2m worth of council land be transferred to Avenue Services.  In addition both Sanctury and CWaC would provide Avenue Services with more than £1m of income each, each year in return for Avenue Services carrying out things like grounds maintenance.

Nothwithstanding this considerable 'sweetheart deal' the surplus Avenue Services is expected to make - and which can be reinvested in other support services in Blacon is set to be an unambitious £75,000.  I'm struggling to think of any business that would accept making a profit of £75k per year on a turn over of around £2.2m.  That is around a 3% return.  As I pointed out last night - you'd get a better return investing that money in solar panels - or perhaps worth taking a chance on premium bonds.

Now this isn't a case of 'profiteering' at Blacon's expense - this is a question of everyone wanting Avenue Services to be a rip roaring success so that it can produce a significant surplus to provide further support for that community.  Being unambitious is not what Blacon needs or wants in my view.

It was interesting to see that neither Cllrs Clarke or Armstrong were on top of their brief.  Neither had a grasp of the numbers, nor did they see how unambitious the business plan was or how lacking in detail.   No one could tell me what benchmark had been set for Avenue Service's performance.

Incidentally Sanctuary Group made a surplus (profit) of 14% on their group wide turnover.  If that's what they expect from their general activities - a 14% surplus on £2,2m would see around £300k being made to be invested in Blacon.

The call-in sub-committee agreed agreed and has recommended that this decision be reviewed.  I hope we end up with a more effective and ambitious business plan.

The second item for consideration was the SPD on student accommodation.  Everyone in the room appeared to agree that actually we needed more planning policy not less when it comes to managing the studentification of Chester.  However notwithstanding previous work done and a broad consensus that the SPD should contain a needs assessment - in other words requiring those seeking to build student accommodation having to demonstrate a need for it - the Labour Group had voted for the needs test to be removed.  I take the view, as do many others that this weakens the SPD and sends the wrong message to the Planning Inspector who will in the fullness of time consider detailed planning policies on this issue.

What became very clear last night was that CWaC's officers were taking a very limited, restricted approach and Cllr Clarke and many of his Labour colleagues were not prepared to insist on stronger policies being applied.

The number of times in the meeting that Labour Cabinet members had to refer to officers was staggering.  It reminded me of the late Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech where he referred to people being 'in office, but not in power.'  This was what we were seeing.

You could also describe it as incompetence - or being asleep at the wheel.  Either way the people of the Borough deserve far better than this.