At the recent Asset and Enterprise Panel, an item was published on the agenda to sell Warley Training Centre for development. The proposal, one of a series led by the chairman, Cllr Russell Quirk was one which Conservatives were set to support, after all it had been our idea in the first place… However, at the last minute, after the reports had been published, the meeting started and without warning, Cllr Quirk decided to change the recommendation to not just sell the land but also to include the retention of an arbitrary 5 units by the Council. No business plan, no financial projection, just done on the hoof as part of another PR announcement designed to generate headlines.
Given that the site will now undoubtedly be worth less when sold, the decision would affect the approved budget for this year and as the panel does not have the power to make such a financial decision, Conservative councillors have “called in” the item for review by the Scrutiny Panel.
The attempt to call in the decision has clearly rattled the Chairman who has since engaged in email exchanges on the matter with my Conservative colleague, John Kerslake, with a clear desire for him to drop the matter.
He’s not and I back him and the other signatories to the call in, 100%.
1. It is clear that this was a mess up, with no-one in the new Lab / Lib coalition acknowledging the financial implications of the “on the hoof” proposal, nor recognising the panel’s remit and decision making powers. Full Council approval was not brought up nor mentioned as part of the on the night discussions. Why? Convenient assurances now that they “may” bring it to Full Council once negotiations have taken place simply don’t cut it.
2. Despite the idea of the retention of units being included in the report, there is no mention under sections 8.1 or 8.2 (financial or legal implications) that such a decision would have a financial impact outside of the budget and therefore, there could be a requirement to seek further approval. In fact, the finance section just says there will be a “capital receipt” from the sale, no mention that in such circumstances, that capital receipt would be less and is therefore not budgeted for ( and to a potential figure of anything up to £1m no less!!) Clearly it should have been in there and recognised as an issue / consideration along with an acknowledgement that approval of such a financial difference is outside of the panel’s powers, but it’s not. Interestingly, reports on other items ( eg: Halsford Bridge in the same agenda) do make reference to items having possible negative budgetary impacts, so why doesn’t this item?
3. Questions need to be asked as to how previous statements from the chairman regarding the retention of the 5 dwellings, now fit with the line that it’s just a decision “in principle” and that they are “negotiating only” (Backtracking again..) Not the first time he has spoken prematurely on matters.
4. Nowhere in the minutes does it talk about the decision being ” in principle” anyway so the use of this as a defence is baseless! The minutes are quite clear that this item has been resolved as approved. ( Please take a look for yourself – http://www.brentwood.gov.uk/minutesdocs/minutes/amdoc3030.pdf – see item 75)
In sum, this should serve as a warning to the dangers of making up policy on the hoof. If so sure that retention of units was the right thing for Brentwood, why not have that clearly as the recommendation in the papers and outline openly all of the financial implications, so everyone; Public, and Councillors alike can see all the facts?
The new Lab / Lib coalition promised more openness and transparency. For all of the rhetoric, it looks like someone forgot to tell the new Asset Chair…