Friday, 31 January 2014

Knowle relocation project: getting the figures straight

The District Council's Overview and Scrutiny Committee has overwhelmingly demanded an independent professional survey be carried out into the viability of Knowle:

EDDC watchdog calls for ‘independent’ Knowle survey

The EDDC offices at Knowle in Sidmouth as it is today. Photo by Simon Horn. Ref shs 7705-15-12SH To order your copy of this photograph visit www.exmouthjournal.co.uk and click on myphotos24

The EDDC offices at Knowle in Sidmouth as it is today. Photo by Simon Horn.

Friday, January 31, 2014 

A DISTRICT council watchdog has called for ‘independent’ professionals to carry out a survey of Knowle over concerns about the amount of money being spent on the authority’s relocation project.
Overview and scrutiny committee members last night agreed to make the recommendation to cabinet.
East Devon District Council (EDDC) has decided to leave Sidmouth – saying Knowle is not ‘fit for purpose’.
But concerns over the £800,000 of tax-payers’ cash already spent or budgeted on the project prompted calls for a re-think.
Councillors called for evidence to back-up the main argument that is driving the argument for a purpose-built new HQ elsewhere.
Councillor Claire Wright told committee colleagues at last night’s meeting: “It does feel to me as though the council made a decision to go and its getting out of control. The finances are getting out of control. It’s very worrying.”
She said the council had a ‘huge PR problem’ and the public ‘don’t trust’ that Knowle is in a dilapidated state.
She called for an ‘independent person’ – a qualified engineer - to come in and carry out a survey of Knowle and suggested campaign group Save Our Sidmouth could be asked to pay for it.
EDDC’s deputy chief executive Richard Cohen pointed to a previous technical report by experts, commissioned by the authority, that showed £1.5 million would be needed to ‘do the basics’ at Knowle. This report is to be re-circulated to al councillors.
Committee members agreed by eight votes to none, with four abstentions, that a motion would go to cabinet recommending a professional survey of the building be carried out – not undertaken by EDDC.
The Sidmouth Herald was the only newspaper at the talks and will publish a full account of the meeting in its next edition.
EDDC watchdog calls for ‘independent’ Knowle survey - News - Sidmouth Herald

Council watchdog shows its teeth, over ballooning costs of the Knowle move

31st January
Members of EDDC’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) last night gave a resounding vote of no confidence in what a senior Conservative councillor has termed the Council leadership’s “creative accounting”,  over their proposed relocation of the District HQ. The debate preceding the vote had shown Councillors of different political persuasions, and the public, uniting in their call for more precise information about EDDC’s calculations.
A question from Richard Thurlow, Chair of Save our Sidmouth, pointed out that the sum allocated to planning the move was now over £800,000, with £350,000 already spent. There had been no public accountability. “We must be able to see how much has been wasted” he said, particularly on the abortive first  planning application to develop the Knowle site.
Deputy CEO Richard Cohen, who leads the relocation team, resisted the demand for public scrutiny of the finances. There is a difference he said, between “what is of interest to the public, and what is in the public interest”.
Many members of the Committee were not on Mr Cohen’s wavelength. CllrRoger Giles (Independent) asked how the figures had been arrived at, and referred to what Cllr Peter Halse (Con),  at the last OSC meeting, had termed EDDC’s  “creative accounting” concerning the relocation. In response, Richard Cohen admitted that he had not asked the Head of Finance for  “a full breakdown” of the costs.
Cllr Graham Troman (Conservative) said he was strongly opposed to the decision to devastate the economy of Sidmouth by relocation without clear and published accounts. “We need to know the asset values of the Knowle and Manstone Avenue so we can make an informed decision,” he argued.
Cllr Mike Allen (Conservative) said he had no confidence in the “lemming method of management” which threatened to drive the Council over a financial cliff. “We have come to the point of raiding our assets at Honiton to pay for this move……why are we willing to sacrifice so much?”  (At this point Council LeaderPaul Diviani left the room!)
Cllr Allen added that the costs of merely planning the relocation were approaching the estimate of what it would cost to repair the Knowle. “It’s time we took a second look”, he said.
Cllr Claire Wright (Independent) agreed that “finances are getting out of control” at a time of “huge financial hardship.” She added that the Council’s documents used to justify the relocation were “heavy on persuasion, light on (financial) detail”. She said EDDC faced a severe PR problem because the public did not trust consultants’ reports commissioned by the Council which claimed that the modernisation of the Knowle would be prohibitively expensive.She proposed a motion (seconded by Roger Giles) that an independent survey of the Council offices be commissioned to clarify the situation.
Cllr Derek Button (Lib Dem) added his support: “We are racing ahead on a project that may not be necessary……..Now is not the time for a massive spending of public funds.”
Deputy Leader Cllr Andrew Moulding (Conservative) tried to calm fears with the leadership’s mantra that Knowle was “not fit for purpose” – a claim echoed loyally (as usual) by Sidmouth Rural councillor Chris Wale), but no evidence was forthcoming.
Then ,by eight votes to four abstentions, the OSC voted in favour of Claire Wright’s motion for an independent survey of the Knowle offices, with an amendment by Mike Allen that the consultants’ report on the costs of Knowle refurbishment should be “republished”.
Those voting for the proposal were: Mike Allen (Con); Peter Bowden (Con) although he had argued against the proposal!); Derek Button (LibDem); Roger Giles (Ind – seconder); Brenda Taylor (LibDem); Graham Troman (Con); Eileen Wragg (LibDem); Claire Wright (Ind – proposer). Total 8, with 4 abstentions (and probably 2 non-abstention abstainers).
Included in those not supporting the motion were: Conservatives John O`Leary, and, most astonishingly perhaps, two Sidmouth Councillors Frances Newth  and Chris Wale.

The Committee then also unanimously supported a motion proposed by Cllr Tim Wood (Conservative) –whose chairmanship of the meeting was exemplary- that it should receive from the leadership a detailed breakdown of the planning costs surrounding the relocation project.
Council watchdog shows its teeth, over ballooning costs of the Knowle move | Sidmouth Independent News 
Knowle relocation….an informed decision? | Sidmouth Independent News 
“The lemming method of management ” for Knowle relocation | Save Our Sidmouth

Here are a couple of Freedom of Information requests on the subject:
Costs of relocating EDDC HQ vs refurbishing Knowle - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow
Correspondence with potential Knowle developers - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

The District Council's cabinet is to meet in secret next Wednesday to discuss the next moves in its relocation project:

Home - Sidmouth Herald

A comment at independent Councillor Claire Wright's blog this evening:

At 07:12 pm on 31th Jan Conrad Black wrote:

So it is a race against time? The EDDC meats in secret to push forward its proposal to leave the Knowle, as it has made clear - by any means possible. That usually means regardless of the actual costs. And the result will be a triumph no matter how disastrous for the council tax payers.

By next year, according to the information they have published, at least £1 million will have been spent without us having anything to show for it. For not a lot more, according to Richard Cohen, we would have had a basically refurbished Knowle - and that on a project that is easily managed and very low risk.

So there we have it - EDDC want a high risk high cost project because it will move the Knowle to Honiton (I don’t believe the supposed ‘competition’) and the District will be in debt by £4.5 million. EDDCwill be forced to ‘give away’ the Knowle site because the developers know they don’t need to hurry to purchase - the price will come down as an increasingly desparate Council will sell off at any price.

Oh, by the way, it is not possible to budget £200k in a capital account without having a very specific thing or things to purchase. It is not a ‘oh I might need it’ account. It has to be highly specific. Or is this to try and disguise interest payments on a capital acquisition - which have to go to revenue, not capital. Something to do with virement of budget the auditors tell me.

What do you prefer: substantial or reasonable assurances that our council is following proper procedures? | Sidmouth Independent News
SWAT-South West Audit Travesty | Sidmouth Independent News

What exactly are 'the figures'?
Astounding figures re Knowle relocation | Sidmouth Independent News
And how 'transparent' are they?
Knowle and Staff Wishes - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

See also:
Futures Forum: Costs of relocating District Council offices vs costs of refurbishing Knowle
Futures Forum: District Council: Knowle relocation: "EDDC closes in on new office site": more reports in the press
Futures Forum: District Council: Knowle relocation.... EDDC Office Accommodation Stakeholder Event... Friday 8th November: first report
Futures Forum: Knowle: relocation... costs of borrowing......................? Another presentation to be given to 'stakeholders'................. And another ‘confidential briefing for councillors’
Futures Forum: Knowle: relocation... costs of borrowing...?
Futures Forum: Knowle: Freedom of Information requests: Relocation Working Parties: latest response from District Council
Futures Forum: Knowle: Freedom of Information requests: Relocation Working Parties
Futures Forum: Knowle plans: expense
Futures Forum: Knowle: old bricks vs new build: embodied carbon: letter
Futures Forum: Knowle: moving and improving
Futures Forum: Probity, accountability and transparency

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