On Tuesday afternoon, without fanfare or a press release, Shropshire Council published the full report into the alleged breach of conduct by Keith Barrow, leader of Shropshire Council. The report is the result of a thorough and proper investigation by Olwen Dutton of legal firm Bevan Brittan into allegations of a breach of conduct by Barrow. After the investigation, Shropshire Council’s standards board ordered that the council leader apologise for the breach and undertake training in standards. Barrow has also resigned as chairman and director of his flagship council company, ip&e.
The report by Olwen Dutton is revealing. It is not a good report for ip&e, which shows its procedures in its early days to be lax. It also shows that someone with a long experience as a councillor, such as Keith Barrow, can still be unsure when standards procedures apply. (Numbers in brackets below refer to paragraphs in Olwen Dutton’s report.)
The sorry story of Keith Barrow and ip&e’s auditors…
Two new planning appeals are underway. Alexander Arcache of Kronos has appealed to the planning inspectorate against the refusal of a solar farm at Henley Hall on the outskirts of town (15/02332/REF). Richborough Estates have appealed against the refusal of plans for 137 homes off Foldgate Lane (15/02340/REF). Continue reading
Shropshire Council’s leadership has launched “The Big Conversation”, a five-year long consultation on the future of council services. This is an important survey and it is important that people take part in it. But I have my doubts about how much difference it will make to what the council leadership does. I hope to be proved wrong but the track record of this leadership is not good. It has ignored the outcomes of previous consultations and shown that it neither listens nor learns.
Here in Ludlow, the council conducted two consultations over the Coder Road recycling and waste centre. Both received a unanimous response against the closure so the cabinet closed the facility anyway. The consultation on using converting half of our Youth Centre into offices was a sham. The builders moved in well before the consultation closed and Shropshire Council staff moved just one a day after the consultation formally ended. This pattern has been repeated with consultations across the county.
Shropshire Council’s leaders say the Big Conversation will be different. I hope so. The Big Conversation must be more than a repackaging of what the council has been doing for years. It must be more than a public relations exercise. It must be more than the council seeking a public mandate for decisions that it has already made. It must be more than a council that is acting politically.
I am sorry to say, the early portents for the Big Conversation are not good.
Times are tough. There are more funding cuts to come. But Shropshire Council’s assumptions the worst will happen are not justified. They will damage the council’s role as a civic leader and its ability to act for the public good.
Shropshire Council is beginning to consult on some tough financial decisions. Since 2009, the council’s budget has been reduced by £146m due to significant government cuts. It says it expects lose a further £43m by 2020/21, when the government is expected to end the council’s Revenue Support Grant. The council currently estimates that it will be a further £77m worse off in 2020/21, once inflationary increases and growing care needs are taken into account. So the council has begun to consult on how to manage a £77million cut to its finances.
I am not convinced by the council’s approach. It is going out to consultation based on the worst possible case for future finances. I think it is running ahead of itself in making such important decisions at this point. George Osborne will announce the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and present his Autumn Statement next Wednesday (25 November). No one is expecting Osborne to be generous but he may announce that council tax can be increased by an extra 2% to pay for care costs without the need for a referendum. He has already said that councils will be able to keep 100% of business rates from 2020/21.
The resignation of Shropshire’s council leader Keith Barrow from the board of ip&e has left the future of the company in limbo. My view is that the council should drop its obsession with making a profit out of other public sector organisations. ip&e must become the council’s innovation hub.
This company is very much a Barrow baby. He has been the champion promoting ip&e. He has been the one claiming that it will make the council enough money to alleviate some of the government’s cut to local government budgets. He has been, until today, the public face of ip&e.
But Barrow’s future as council leader is on the line. Can ip&e survive without him?
It is a press release slipped out with minimum of publicity. Visitors to the Shropshire Council Newsroom website are only greeted with the headline: “Shropshire Council Standards Sub-Committee meeting – 20 November 2015.” That’s a headline designed for boredom. Which is surprising because the news website is run by Three Sixty Communications, a subsidiary of ip&e. Three Sixty has often shown itself to be on the ball when it comes to communication. But ip&e is wholly owned by Shropshire Council. So we shouldn’t be surprised that this headline was written to disguise the leadership crisis that is enveloping the council.
Keith Barrow quietly resigned as a director and chairman of ip&e ten days ago. At that point, he must have been aware that the external auditors had determined that he had failed to declare a conflict of interest when appointing Oswestry based auditors to ip&e.
At the time, Keith’s resignation looked no different to an outsider from the perpetual turnover of ip&e directors. Continue reading
The owners of the riding school and camp site at North Farm applied for planning permission to build a “traditional style” house just above the Whitcliffe Common more than a year ago (14/03832/FUL). On Wednesday, planning officers threw the plans out saying that they conflict with SAMDev. The applicants have also failed to provide sufficient information on the potential ecological impacts of the scheme.