Back in July last year, Audit Committee demanded that:
Cabinet be asked to provide a response to the management recommendations contained within the Shapley Heath Audit Review report, and to review the application of project governance, financial controls, and reporting for the Shapley Heath project and to provide a response to Audit Committee on lessons learnt.
The Cabinet responded by setting up a “facilitated reflection” into the fiasco that was originally due to take place in November 2022. For various reasons, this was postponed to January this year. The CCH and Lib Dem councillors involved held a roundtable workshop that was facilitated by Emanuel “Manny” Gatt of the Local Government Association (LGA). Manny has now produced his report.
The scope of the workshop was constrained by the questions it asked. These were:
- What lessons emerge on how to balance member/officer accountabilities and responsibilities on future project boards?
- How might members use their democratic powers to challenge when governance arrangements don’t appear to be functioning?
- How might member oversight be improved to ensure that clear and accurate updated information is provided to Cabinet in future?
- What safeguards need to be in place to flag when processes are not being followed?
- How might wider scrutiny arrangements be improved to support future projects?
Eagle-eyed readers will note that the five questions above do not really get to the heart of what the Audit Committee asked Cabinet to get to grips with. In particular, there’s no attempt to get to grips with how they managed to squander over £800K and deliver nothing of substance.
Findings from the Shapley Heath Whitewash Workshop
Needless to say, the findings from the report are pretty anodyne. Each question has a short section on things “members noted” and “learning points” they highlighted.
Astonishingly, at one point the Councillors claimed they were reluctant to push the project forward because of public resistance. However, each and every time they were challenged to stop the project, they continued forward like a driverless steamroller. They also inevitably place some blame on Covid. It’s as if the virus ate their homework. If Covid was disrupting the governance of the project, then surely the prudent thing to have done was formally pause it until conditions returned to normal.
One admission they made is that “the project’s oversight was viewed as beyond the remit of the Council’s normal scrutiny orbit”. However, it was Cabinet who took the decision to carry out the project outside of the Local Plan framework.
The closest we can get to a smoking gun is the following passages:
Despite all these [governance] mechanisms being in place, when questions were raised by members throughout the timeline about anticipated financial spend and governance of the Shapley Heath Garden [Village] project, the answers given failed to fundamentally address the concerns raised.
Elected members are both accountable and responsible for decisions made in respect of this and any other project. Notwithstanding the Opportunity Board’s role, the Cabinet remains ultimately accountable for all of the council’s projects and the portfolio holder is responsible for holding officers to account and alerting cabinet about areas of concern.
In other words, the Cabinet members responsible, Councillor Radley for finance, and Councillor Cockarill as chair of the Opportunity Board failed to master their brief and gave inadequate answers to questions. Four members of Cabinet (Radley, Cockarill, Leader Dave Neighbour and Stuart Bailey) were on the Opportunity Board. As members of both bodies, they should be held accountable for this fiasco and resign.
Most of the other learning points fall into the motherhood and apple pie category, for example:
- All future projects must be monitored by Overview and Scrutiny
- Cabinet members and portfolio holder must challenge officers’ report constructively
- Ensure that member/officer roles and responsibilities are clear
Heads should roll, but we won’t hold our breath.