main item on the Agenda for Tuesday evening was the acceptance of Eco
Communities to run the Howbury Community Centre. It was never likely to be an
honest debate and it wasn’t, the tone was set before the meeting started when
the Eco Communities representative in the public gallery was greeted like an old
friend by council officers and some Conservative councillors alike. The large
contingent of Howbury Friends was ignored.
At the outset council leader Teresa O’Neill was at pains to point out that the decision to appoint Eco Communities had not yet been taken. Maybe it hadn’t but it soon became clear that cabinet members were not at liberty to vote any other way.
Environment and Wellbeing Director Peter Ellershaw said his officers had gone through a process that would result in Eco Communities taking over management of the Howbury Centre in September 2014. Mr. Ellsmore added that the process involved writing to 40 community groups of which seven expressed an interest. Five were invited to put in business plans but only two did so. “An officer team did the individual scoring. Scores were weighted.” 34 ‘areas’ were scored, though only the six point summary is available for public consumption. Openness and transparency to the usual standard then. On finance, Director Mike Ellsmore said, Eco Communities “scored significantly higher”. “Start up funding, contingency funding and the robustness of the cash flow statement” had impressed him.
Cabinet member Don Massey repeated the explanation of ‘the process’ stressing each one was different and that ‘local’ could not be defined and that Lewisham based Eco Communities/Greener Bexley had a good reputation.
Their bid was better than Howbury Friends’. “Social enterprise finance”, Massey said, “was not going to give massive financial strength, cash balances or reserves. You have to examine what they are based on. To be honest Howbury Friends answers were not convincing to the panel. They left a lot of doubt and uncertainty. In contrast, the Greener Bexley people were far more convincing on the finance side and backed up by their financial assumptions. They made a lot more sense. One bid was a lot better than the other”.
At the end of Massey’s speech a few people in the stalls jeered and chairman Teresa O’Neill immediately jumped on them claiming that they were preventing cabinet members hearing which, as the minor disruption was only during the interval between speeches, was of course the sheerest nonsense.
As already noted, this was a highly theatrical meeting and the first thespian on stage had me fooled for a minute or so. Councillor Gareth Bacon seemed keen to explore the possibilities for voting in favour of Howbury Friends. “Were all the bidders made aware of the process before it was taken further than the written representations?” Mr. Ellsmore didn’t seem very sure. A hesitant “It was my understanding that they would have been, yes”.
“If a decision was taken here tonight to reverse the decision how strong a grounds would we have to resist judicial review?” asked the Shakespearean Fool Bacon. Legal Officer Akin Alabi replied. “The options are” he said, “to appoint Greener Bexley or commission further work. The council would be at risk if it overturned the decision”. This strikes me as very odd given that the leader had by then said several times that no decision had been made.
“Are there any grounds for rerunning the process?”, asked Bacon. Ellsmore and the female lead combined to give a very protracted “No”.
Supporting actress Katie Perrior entered stage left praising the achievements of Howbury Friends and saying how “the council respected them a great deal”.
Dame Linda Bailey “recognised the disappointment of Howbury Friends but Greener Bexley would work with Job Centre Plus and came out top on getting people back to work”. “So do we” said he audience but Biffa said she would vote for Greener Bexley. No one ever believed otherwise.
The spotlight then fell on councillor John Fuller, referring back to the Belvedere Community Centre he said they “used the exact same procedure”. Who shall we believe? Fuller’s “exactly the same” or Ellsmore’s “each are different”? Fuller said it would be difficult for the council to go against the recommendation. Let’s hope he never becomes chairman of the Planning Committee.
Councillor Alan Deadman (Labour) said Eco Communities selling point was funding and referred to a cloud being over it. I suppose he meant their £53,000 debt and County Court Judgment. He was at a loss as to how and where they obtained their claimed experience in running community centres. He queried how a decision not yet taken could be judicially reviewed. Chairman O’Neill reaffirmed that no decision had been taken but changing the decision that had not yet been made would put the council at risk. Heads Eco wins, tails Howbury loses. Just to be sure she repeated that the decision had not yet been taken.
Councillor Brenda Langstead (Labour) said that “the proposal had caused quite a stir”. Gathering several of her sentences together; Howbury Friends look after 100 children after school for £1 per session. They ran their services in an old run down building and now that new premises are available it is to be given to a new Lewisham based group which isn’t sure of its name. Their accounts show more debt than cash and they plan an £8 a session charge for after school activities in an area well known for its low incomes. Elsewhere Eco Communities “had made 75% of its staff redundant after four years of spending more than what was coming in”. Chairman O’Neill made some condescending remarks about Howbury Friends but said that “in a procurement exercise they had not won but can still work in the community centre”.
Brenda Langstead (Labour) said that Howbury Friends were not given a level playing field with an undeclared ex-Conservative councillor behind the rival bid.
Councillor Katie Perrior was concerned about the £8 charge and requested clarification. Councillor Don Massey had learned his lines well. He went straight to the highlighted section of his script and read from it that “the £8 is one example of a fee. It does not relate to anything being proposed for Slade Green”.
Thus reassured, Katie bowed out, her starring role of feigned concern satisfactorily completed.
Massey countered the disregarded 2,000 plus signature petition by referring to one lady who had phoned him to relate a grudge against Howbury Friends. Having signed the petition she now wanted to change her mind. He told us why but had no excuses for the other 1,999. Massey went on to say that Eco Communities had committed themselves to run all the Howbury facilities at or below present prices. “I can’t say fairer than that, it is on their bit of paper.”
Councillor Stefano Borella wanted to say something about the preferred bidder’s links with Bexley council but the chairman stopped him in his tracks; so he moved on to Eco Communities financial status. Referring to the poor situation revealed by Companies House records, “it made him think how on earth that score was arrived at. One could argue that such a scoring system [weighted but otherwise unrevealed] could be set up in a certain way. Down the line they could raise charges to a more sustainable level”.
Gareth Bacon said that “the council did not have a cat’s chance in hell” of withstanding a judicial review. Funny he pretended not to know earlier on and councillor John Fuller chipped in with some irrelevant history about Belvedere. Councillor Chris Taylor said he “was uncomfortable with what councillor Borella had said, inferring (sic - implying you nitwit) that the process was corrupt”. He asked that councillor Borella “rephrase” his statement. Stefano said “you said you set a process up, every process in a different way, and you set the scoring system up the way you wanted, and that is all I said”.
The chairman ad-libbed to Mr. Ellsmore “the procedure was a set process, wasn’t it?” and the Director required the services of the prompt. Belatedly fumbling his lines he said, “Err, umm, err. It was set up under thirty four different headings by the procurement team, so, umm, I’m, I’m one hundred percent confident that it wasn’t set up for an end result”.
Deputy leader Colin Campbell was impatient for the final curtain and urged a vote, “I am entirely happy with the process”. Every cabinet member promptly hurled the residents of Slade Green into the orchestra pit. Quelle surprise!
Previous council meeting report.