In an astonishing move, Hart Council is attempting to take over the Stakeholder Forum (SHSF) it has set up to seek advice from the community about the Shapley Heath project. The Council hosted the kick-off meeting and then tightly controlled each of the Thematic Group meetings. The end result is that 4 out of the 10 places on the Stakeholder Forum Steering Committee are now held by Hart Council Officers. In addition, the Hart Project Manager, team members and the joint Chief Executive attend the meetings, giving Hart overall control.
Hart Breaks its Own Rules
In doing this, Hart has effectively broken its own rules governing the Stakeholder Forum. The Terms of Reference (ToR) list the core functions of the Stakeholder Forum.
These make clear that it is supposed to be a space for community representatives to feedback to the Council, not for the Council to effectively represent itself. We don’t have accurate figures to hand, but some of the Thematic Groups have many Hart Officers as members. This effectively drowns out the very voices from the local community that the Forum was supposed to listen to. The ToR then goes on to list the groups that will be invited to be members of the SHSF. As one might expect, Hart District Council is notable by its absence, except for the Project Manager.
The membership section then states that organisations may only be represented by one person each:
So, to summarise, Hart Officers shouldn’t be there in the first place. Even if they were allowed as members, there should be only one officer in the whole Forum. It’s almost as if they’re afraid of local community opinion, especially as Hart’s finances are in trouble.
Paper Thin Justification
As you might expect, a number of people and groups have expressed their concern at this development. To our knowledge, nobody has received a proper answer. They have been referred to a new FAQ on the website that says:
Why are Council Officers participating in the Stakeholders Forum Thematic Groups and the Steering Group?
The Garden Community project is a council run project and therefore it is entirely appropriate that council officers sit on the Thematic Groups and the Steering Group as key stakeholders and technical experts. The Council operates within multiple disciplines and employs experts within these disciplines accordingly, many of whom have significant experience. To exclude these experts from the Thematic Groups and the Steering Group would be perverse and seriously limit the collective expertise of these groups. As the Council does and will continue to work within its community, its presence as stakeholders accords with the spirit of the project. As the Cabinet are the ultimate decision-making bodies for this project, no conflict of interest arises. The Stakeholder Forum Terms of Reference confirms that “The Stakeholder Forum, (Steering Committee and Thematic Groups), will be supported by members of the Garden Community Project Team as appropriate.“
Many people have suggested that Hart Officers would be welcomed as subject matter experts when invited by the Chair of each Thematic Group. That would be an appropriate role. We will keep readers posted on further developments.