Saturday, 21 February 2015

Knowle relocation project ................................................... "the difficulty in predicting future energy rates" ................... And: "the overview function was not as strong as under the previous setup" .............................................................. Scrutiny Cttee to meet Thursday 26th February

The debate over relocating from Knowle rages on:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "the whole situation is Kafkaesque" >>> "misleading figures, loaded and biased consultations and the heavy handed (and expensive) use of lawyers to force a decision through..."

And one of the most contentious areas is how the figures have been arrived at:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: energy and consultancy figures: "possible errors in the Council’s facts and figures"
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: 'checks and balances': the SWAP ... an appeal to the public to send in "any information about possible errors in the Council’s facts and figures..."
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "a thorough examination of all facts and figures in respect of the relocation"

Last month, the Scrutiny Cttee looked at the costs of the project:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: Scrutiny Cttee to consider report on "cost for refurbishment": Thursday 22nd January

And next month, the Audit Cttee will be looking at the figures:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: energy and consultancy figures: Auditors' reports to go to joint committees 5th March 

Next week, the Scrutiny Cttee will be meeting.

Here are the minutes of the previous month's meeting - where the Knowle relocation project was one of the contentious areas for discussion:

Minutes of a Meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee held at Knowle, Sidmouth on 22 January 2015

*58 Public Speaking

Richard Eley spoke about the projected energy cost savings that a move in offices was reported to provide, recently discussed at the Audit and Governance Committee. 
He recognised that internal audit had been instructed to review the relocation figures and reminded councillors of their duty to check them. 
He commented that the predictions for energy costs in the future were extremely high, especially in the light of the government predicted rates of cost increase that were significantly lower than the 10.47% increase above inflation figure being used in the relocation calculations. 
It was too important a decision to get wrong and the local community deserved better.

*61 Office relocation update

The Deputy Chief Executive updated the committee on progress made since his last update to Cabinet on 3 December 2014. In considering the Cabinet minutes at Council on 17 December 2014, Council resolved that a thorough examination of all facts and calculations in respect of the relocation be carried out by the Audit and Governance Committee; the Overview and Scrutiny Committee; internal auditors; and independent auditors.

The Office Accommodation Project Executive Group met on 8 Jan 2015 to consider the shortlist of developer proposals for Knowle. A preferred developer was selected and has a period of exclusivity in which to pursue their proposal in detail. This involves pre-application discussions with the Planning Authority.

The Strategic Lead – Finance is finalising the commissioning of Grant Thornton to review the figures that are informing the Council’s cost calculations in response to the resolution by Council on 17 December 2014. SWAP (our internal auditors) have also been asked to undertake the same work and report to the Council.

In response to Richard Eley’s points, the Deputy Chief Executive voiced sympathy with him given the difficulty in predicting future energy rates. Energy rates would form part of the work tasked to both internal and external auditors.

Councillors commented on and questioned various aspects of the potential relocation, including the following:

 Relocation should be reconsidered in the light of how the economy had changed, including decreasing energy costs;

 The relocation energy increase percentages had been taken from previously
published Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) detailed figures.
Other alternative percentages had also been used to assess the potential financial impact. As an example, energy increases over 10% would lead to relocation leading to a cost neutral position in 10 years; increased energy costs of 5% lead to that position in 13 years. These would however be fully examined and reported back to Council members and the public by both the internal and external auditors;

 In response to a question, the Deputy Chief Executive confirmed that no bidder for the Knowle site expressed an interest in retaining the existing structure, except for the bat roost that would have to remain;

 In response to a suggestion to put the relocation on hold until the auditors had reported, the Chief Executive reminded the committee that no final decision to sell the Knowle site had been made, but it was prudent to continue work on the assumption that relocation (as already agreed by council) would still take place. He assured councillors that they would have all the information necessary before them when they had to make the final decision;

 Exmouth Town Council welcomed the prospect of a district council presence at Exmouth;

 Any responses to questions by members of the public by the Deputy Chief Executive should also be provided to councillors for information;

 It was requested that information presented to councillors on all costs was
straightforward and clear to understand;

 The view was expressed that, in the light of decision to relocate, there would be excessive pressure on the Development Management Committee if and when an application for redevelopment of the Knowle site came before them. It was therefore suggested that any such application should be heard by a neighbouring authority. In response, the Chief Executive stated that this view was doing the DMC a massive disservice and that members should have confidence in the DMC hearing any such application on planning merits. It was, in any case, not possible for a neighbouring authority to determine an application outside its own area unless the Secretary of State agreed to it; this would not be considered by the Secretary of State until the application was actually submitted;

The land that the current offices sat on was seen to be the most valuable land asset held by the council;

 One councillor felt that the members of the committee who had spoken on the relocation issue had concerns about the relocation, as did the public. This implied that the majority of the committee held the same view but it then became clear that views on the matter were very varied.

The Leader reminded councillors that the Council should not and would not be taking any decision that would not be in the best interest of the district, including Sidmouth residents. He assured members that everyone was working towards the best possible decision.

The Chairman informed the committee that he was in talks with the Chairman of Audit and Governance and relevant officers to work out how best each committee could scrutinise the auditors findings in order to ensure the best value for the district.

EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL Minutes of a Meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee - 22 January 2015 
Overview and Scrutiny Committee minutes for 22 January 2015 - East Devon District Council 

Another contentious area for discussion is the role and composition of the Scrutiny Cttee.

This has been debated for some time now:
Futures Forum: "Half of officers and members see scrutiny as not challenging enough."
Futures Forum: Scrutinising the scrutiny committee: Motion before the full District Council: Wednesday 17th December

The agenda looks to a discussion following a 'think-tank' consideration of the Scrutiny Cttee:

Agenda for Overview & Scrutiny Committee Thursday, 26 February 2015

10 Scrutiny function – feedback from the joint Think Tank (pages 16-18) Report back from the joint think tank of the Portfolio Holder – Corporate Business and Portfolio Holder – Corporate Services on discussion relating to the scrutiny function raised at Council on 17 December 2014; and the deferred task and finish forum improvements presented to committee on 22 January 2015. 

Joint think tank notes (PHCB & PHCS) 28 January 2015 by DM

Present: PHCB; PHCS; Pauline Stott; Steve Hall; Christine Drew; Frances Newth; Alan Dent; Ben Ingham; Roger Giles; Graham Godbeer; Tim Wood; Graham Troman; Tom Wright; Peter Bowden; Deborah Custance Baker; Andrew Moulding; Iain Chubb; Debbie Meakin

Discussion covered:

Overview and Scrutiny functions

Many members felt that the overview function of the council was not as strong as under the previous committee setup, when there were separate committees for each function.

Many views were expressed on the need for the next elected council to operate a separate overview committee to work on formulating policy, perhaps encompassing another element – planning policy. A clear focus on overview would also permit the council to put more effort into forward planning, and to give officers a clear steer of the work required of them.

Separating the planning applications from planning policy was another common theme, with a view that the two elements should be separated out to be covered by two committees. The practicalities of a new overview committee covering such a wide area of work (in also covering planning policy) would need
careful consideration and officer resource before implementing.

There was general agreement that planning applications were dealt with well and could continue to be so under the structure of a separate committee to that of planning policy.

Scrutiny could still maintain the ability to review decisions before taken, in order to prevent poor decisions being made, and was preferable over a call-in option.

Smaller committee sizes may operate more effectively for committees covering overview functions. There was general agreement at any committee tasked with determining planning applications should remain at the same number of councillors.

Overview and scrutiny chairman

In debating the role of chairing an overview or scrutiny committee, many were in agreement that it was key to have the right person for the role, with strong chairing skills, regardless of political affiliation.

An example was given by the current chairman, of the common outcomes from his parliamentary experience, whereby a chairman of the majority party on a select committee usually had the greatest impact. It could not be assumed that the chairman would necessarily agree with the majority view. The role
for scrutiny was also clear – as a critical friend.

Views were expressed that the public may have more confidence in seeing such committees being chaired by a councillor not from the majority party. The non-majority element could suggest their best candidate for the role to the Leader.

Possible recommendations from this meeting:

 Debate amending the constitution to permit the following:
o Replace the Overview and Scrutiny Committee with two separate committees of a smaller membership, overall involving more councillors
o Split the current responsibilities of the Development Management Committee, amending to retain (as Development Control ) determination of planning applications, remain at councillors, and retain a Planning Inspections Committee; the remaining responsibilities of developing planning policy to be undertaken either as a dedicated Development Policy Committee OR taken into the responsibilities of the Overview Committee.

 The separate Overview committee to be chaired by a member of the majority party, with an invitation to the opposition to nominate the chairman of the Scrutiny committee. The Leader retains the right to fill the role of Scrutiny Chairman from the majority party if no suitable nomination is made. The Housing Review Board to remain as chaired by a member of the majority party.

Agenda for Overview & Scrutiny CommitteeThursday, 26 February 2015 

See also:
Even Tory councillors unhappy with Overview and Scrutiny function | East Devon Watch
Overview and Scrutiny Agenda – meeting 12 June 2014, 6.30 p.m. Knowle – very little overseeing and almost no scrutiny and two elephants not in the room | East Devon Watch
Public accountability charity urges national review of scrutiny mechanism | East Devon Watch


Paul Foster said...

Has anyone done any costing based on the number of people employed at the existing offices, where in the region they are currently living, what the loss of the jobs to the local economy is likely to be and what the relocation cost/transport cost of employees will potentially be?

Jeremy Woodward said...

Thanks, Paul, for the observations.

EDDC have provided lists of where employees come from and have set up payment schemes to compensate for any further travel costs. However, that is not the full story - and your questions do raise some awkward points.

I had asked similar questions myself as FOI requests on the WhatDoTheyKnow website:

> https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/access_to_statistical_justificat#incoming-615349

> https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/access_to_the_accommodation_ques#incoming-615347

> https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/opportunities_for_service_provis#incoming-615345

The answers are hardly satisfactory.

EDDC have consistently claimed that the point is not loss of jobs to Sidmouth, as the whole of the District has to be considered. What has not been admitted to is the probability that a lot of any new employees over time will come from outside the District, from Exeter itself and beyond.

This Council - its officers and its elected members - will not engage with the public on such obvious questions as yours and mine. But we have to keep asking and insisting on proper responses to these legitimate concerns.


Jeremy Woodward said...
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