Friday, 20 September 2013

Knowle: Freedom of Information requests: Relocation Working Parties

Today's Herald carried an article voicing the concerns of independent District Councillor Claire Wright about the decision-making process behind the relocation project from Knowle:

Councillor 'staggered' by HQ move secrecy

Friday, September 20, 2013 

A 'staggered' District Councillor says it is 'alarming' that 12 out of 14 reports concerning the authority's proposed relocation appear to have been considered with the public and press excluded.

Claire Wright has expressed concern that the Council's all-Conservative cabinet has 'made decisions to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money' without residents present or able to see the associated documents.

She has submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to East Devon District Council as it has 'resisted her calls to publish the reports and minutes in a redacted form, telling her that discussions are commercially sensitive.

An EDDC spokesman said Mrs Wright's FOI had been received and added: 'This request is currently being processed in the normal way and Councillor Wright will receive our response in due course.'

Home - Sidmouth Herald 

This is Cllr Wright's set of concerns in full: 

Virtually all discussions on EDDC office move taken in private

Out of 14 reports to cabinet concerning EDDC’s office relocation in over two years, an alarming 12 appear to have been considered, with the press and public excluded.
And the all-conservative cabinet has made decisions to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers money, without residents being able to either see the associated reports, or be present when major decisions were being made.
EDDC says that discussions are commercially sensitive and has so far resisted my calls to publish the reports and minutes in a redacted form.
There are increasing fears that relocation costs are spiralling and July’s report to the cabinet on the relocation project hinted that the emphasis had shifted from a “cost neutral” scheme, to an aim for a “nil cost on the district’s council tax”, which is not quite the same thing.
The office relocation working party meetings have all been held behind closed doors.  Recommendations from July’s report to cabinet mean that a new group is to be established to oversee the project, which involves “selected cabinet members (all conservative), senior officers and the project manager.”
It appears that this group will also be held behind closed doors.
The recommendations to July’s cabinet states that “wider engagement with members will be sought through a leader’s think tank on relocation.”
Think tanks are also held in private and there appears to be no enforced rule about whether they have minutes and agendas. 
The report to July’s cabinet, which runs to some 50 pages, is almost entirely devoted to making a case for why the Knowle is “not fit for purpose.”  A few pages at the end of the report gives some non-specific information on project costs… and risks…
Risks largely appear to be related to either the sale of Heathpark not realising its full value ..... and the need to borrow an unspecified (presumably large) amount of money because of a “potential cashflow shortfall.”
There are a range of options outlined for borrowing the money including:
- finance from EDDC reserves
- use of public borrowing facilites
- sale of existing sites and acquisition of new offices from a single party
- forward sale and leaseback of new offices
The 10-strong members of the cabinet rubber-stamped a further £95,000 (ex VAT) to be spent from the transformation budget, at July’s meeting, to “to fund further services necessary to continue the project and secure the most advantageous development agreement.”

Although I was aware that the project had submitted some reports to cabinet in part b, I was staggered to find that such a monumental undertaking, with such significant implications and risk has had virtually no public scrutiny. 
The process has been almost entirely shrouded in secrecy so it is no wonder residents are cynical and sceptical about the promotional leaflets, which they see as propaganda.
It is why I have made a request under FOI for all the reports and minutes to be published, in a redacted form.
Page 2 of the cabinet report states:  “This is one of the most significant decisions that the council will take since it was first created. The risk analysis within the viability study recognises that this is a project of both necessity and risk.”

Claire Wright - Your Independent East Devon District Councillor for Ottery Rural

There have been parallel FOI requests for this information:
Unredacted MInutes and Reports of Relocation Working Parties - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

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