Regular readers may recall we made a statement at this month’s Cabinet meeting about the Shapley Heath debacle. In the debate on the item Council Leader Dave Neighbour made the extraordinary statement that he did not accept all of the findings of the Audit Report. In particular he disputed the finding that none of the project milestones were met.
A number of other interesting points were made that we shall go through in detail below:
- Councillor James “It’s Only Rhetoric” Radley claimed that he gave “honest and full” answers that were “full and accurate” reflections of the facts. Yes, really!
- Remarkably, the “facilitated reflection” they were supposed to be discussing transformed in an “Investigation” and “Independent Inquiry”.
- Councillor Radley also gave an explanation why they were only discussing “process” questions and it was too painful to discuss the substance of the Shapley Heath Audit.
- At no point did they agree a cost budget for this work, other than being reassured it would be covered by the JCX’s “legal budget”.
Hart Leader Denies Shapley Heath Audit Report Findings
Here is the video of Lib Dem leader Dave Neighbour denying the findings of the Shapley Heath Audit report.
Councillor Neighbour makes a number of erroneous claims in that video. The first is that TIAA carried out the report in November 2021. This is simply not true. It was only agreed by Audit Committee on 7 December 2021 that the Audit should take place. The Audit report itself says the work was carried out in March and April 2022. The first draft was published on 24th June 2022 and the final document was published on 6th July 2022.
He then went on to claim that the report reflected a “point in time” and since then a number of reports had been received by developers. Again, this is untrue. The Baseline Studies to which he refers were all published in January 2022, well before the audit work began.
He went on to say that milestones were met because the studies were received after the date of the audit. Again, this is a false statement. We know from the project documents the deliverables that needed to be completed before the first milestone could be met.
These were the:
- Communities Survey
- Vision and Objectives
- Communication and Engagement Strategy
- Technical Studies
- Strategic Viability Appraisal
- Phase One Masterplan (Concept)
Items 1 was delivered and a draft of 3 was produced. Although the results of the survey were devastating in that the vast majority of respondents did not want the project to go ahead. Items 2, 5 and 6 were not delivered. Only some of the Technical Studies were delivered. The Technical Studies were made up of Baseline Studies and Strategy Reports.
There were supposed to be 13 Baseline Studies, of which nine were delivered.
No Strategy Reports were ever published. Of course, they also stopped the project in September 2021, well before the February 2022 deadline for the first milestone.
Councillor Neighbour is entitled to his own personal opinion, but he isn’t entitled to his own facts. It is a sad indictment of him that he misled his Cabinet colleagues, Councillors and the public in his answer. It is astonishing that he chose to denigrate in public the excellent work of TIAA.
Councillor Radley Insisted he gave “Honest and Full” Answers at All Times
During the discussion, Councillor James “It’s only rhetoric” Radley claimed that he gave “honest and full” answers that were “full and accurate” reflections of the facts.
We have to take issue with this statement. In July 2021 we asked a number of questions about Shapley Heath finances. In particular we asked about £63.7K of spending against a zero budget. We also asked about the apparent lack of financial controls governing transfers from reserves and advertising contracts that exceeded the external consultants budget. He also gave a false answer to the reason why they overspent on staff costs in FY20/21.
Councillor Radley defended the financial controls of the Council yet the Audit Report said there was:
- No evidence to suggest that the project was financially managed appropriately.
- Little financial monitoring information presented to members and some of that was inaccurate.
Therefore we have to come to the conclusion that Councillor Radley’s answers were nothing more than rhetoric and his statement at Cabinet was nothing more than getting his excuses in early.
Facilitated Reflection Transforms Into Independent Inquiry
The paper they discussed recommended they approve a proposal to review project governance, financial controls and reporting by holding
“an independently facilitated reflection (perhaps supported by the LGA) that recognise[s] both the positives as well as any short comings in the application of the governance arrangements associated with the project”.
However, during the course of the meeting the “Facilitated Reflection” transformed first into an “Investigation” and then into an “Independent Inquiry”.
We can only interpret this subtle change of terminology as an attempt to kick the can down the road. The Audit Report itself was the independent inquiry. The report has been published. The conclusions were clear and damning. They shouldn’t need new investigations or inquiries. Now is the time for action and for those responsible to fall on their swords.
Why Talk About Process and Not Content?
Councillor Radley tried to explain why the Cabinet was only talking about “Process” matters and spent no time at all talking about the content of the Audit Report (except to deny the findings).
Apparently, there are new investigations under way, one of them the “Facilitated Reflection” instigated by Cabinet. We might hazard our own guess why they refuse to discuss the content of the report. It is obvious that it would be too painful to face up to their own failures and take responsibility. Kicking off new activities allows them to avoid responsibility for now, hoping that we all forget about it and they can carry on as normal.
Failed to Set a Budget for Facilitated Reflection
As if to indicate their desire for things to go back to the old normal, they failed to set an actual budget for the Facilitated Reflection/Investigation/Independent Inquiry, other than to be reassured it would be funded from the legal budget.
Several of the many criticisms made in the Shapley Heath Audit Report related to the lack of financial controls and inadequate reporting. Surely, one of the basic building blocks of financial control is to set a budget at the outset against which performance can be measured.
It is clear they have learned nothing yet from this debacle.
Full Video of Shapley Heath Audit Item on Cabinet Agenda September 2022
Hart have stopped their videos being embedded on other sites. However, you can watch the item in full by following the link below: