Yesterday I outlined the agenda for this evening’s meeting. Here’s what I said about the two most controversial items.
Future role of the Shareholder Committee
“This reference from the Shareholder Committee consists of three recommendations:
- Revisions to the terms of reference of the Shareholder Committee
- Revisions to the Shareholder Agreements of the council’s companies
- A new document, variously called a modus operandi or a memorandum of understanding
The first two recommendations are related to each other, and their primary purpose is to reduce the ability of the Council to influence the activities of its two companies.
Under these proposals, the Council will no longer have any say over the ability of the directors of the companies to
- Pay dividends
- Engage in business activities outside their business plan
- Increase the remuneration of employees or consultants by more than 1 per cent
- Introduce bonus schemes, share options or profit-sharing for employees
- Start or settle legal proceedings
- Borrow money, provided the Council is not providing a guarantee or security
- Create security interests over the business
- Enter into contracts or transactions outside the normal course of the business, or
- Make loans or grant credit.
The Shareholder Committee at least reinstated the requirement that the Council should approve any changes to, or replacement of, the companies’ business plan. After all, as one member of the committee observed, it was ‘nonsense’ that the Council should be required to approve the companies’ business plans, but not required to approve any amendment to, or replacement of them.
The changes to the terms of reference of the Shareholder Committee double the frequency of the Board’s reports to the committee, but substantially reduce the committee’s remit. The requirement for the committee to review the services and performance of the companies is struck out. It will no longer receive management accounts, just summaries — though it is hard to imagine anything more summary than the financial reports the committee has received to date.
The Shareholder Committee has already been emasculated under the existing arrangements. Its chairman cancelled two meetings of the committee during the time in which the trading company it is supposed to scrutinise was drawing up applications for over £45M in loans from the Combined Authority.
The company is required to send all agendas and supporting papers to members of the Shareholder Committee at the same time as they are issued to the Board. I regret to inform the Council that under the existing arrangements, the company is already in breach of the Shareholder Agreement, as I have never received any such paperwork — a fact confirmed by the Chief Executive today. Loosening the control of the Council over its companies can only make matters worse.
I used the word ‘scrutinise’, because that is the stated and sole objective of the Shareholder Committee in its terms of reference: ‘to scrutinise the East Cambridgeshire Trading Companies’. This brings me to the so-called Memorandum of Understanding. When this was presented to the committee, it was called a Modus operandi, a title the document still bears in its footer. It fact, it is neither a modus operandi nor a memorandum of understanding, as it neither describes how the committee will work, nor lays out the terms of a relationship between two or more bodies.
If this document is anything it is something akin to an Oath of Allegiance to the Council and its companies. It does not use the word ‘scrutiny’ once, despite this being the stated constitutional purpose of the committee. Instead we are supposed to be not the Board’s scrutineers, but its cheerleaders. I utterly reject that, and I say to this Council that my duty is not to the company, not even primarily to the council, but to the residents of East Cambridgeshire who elected me — and it is my intention to carry out my constitutional duty on their behalf to scrutinise the activities of the Board in the way they run the council’s two companies.”
End of Year Council Report
“We are requested only to note this administration’s End of Year Report — not to comment, consider, approve or any other more active course of action.
But I do not feel I can let it pass without some form of challenge.
I shall forbear from addressing the various typographical errors in the document, though it is somewhat symptomatic that the very first word after the front cover should be mis-spelled — and indeed that the subtitle ‘some of our successes over the previous 12 months’ should be followed by a question mark. I question it too.
The report talks of improving infrastructure and local transport, but refers only to roads and parking spaces. There is no reference at all to bus transport, and if the response of the administration is that this is not something for which the district council is responsible, I would simply say — roads aren’t either.
The report talks of recycling, but not the year on year fall in recycling rates, from 56.6 per cent in 2015, to 56.4 per cent in 2016, to just 52.4 per cent in 2017.
The report talks of affordable housing, but gives no figures. Last year just 11 affordable homes (out of 234 homes in total) were completed in East Cambridgeshire — the lowest number for at least five years. The council’s new development at Barton Road nominally provides for two out of the 11 dwellings there to be affordable, with a third affordable property to be delivered somewhere else in the district. I have asked where and when this third affordable home will be delivered, or even how that is to be decided, but have received no concrete answer.
It talks of Phase 1 of the North Ely development, but not the low levels of affordable housing on those sites. It does not refer to the fact that an under-provision of about 850 affordable homes within this district was part of the inspector’s deliberations when allowing the recent appeal by Gladmans against refusal of planning permission in Fordham, nor that the ‘substantive unmet need for affordable housing which remains in East Cambridgeshire’ is part of the statement of case by Endurance Estates in their ongoing appeal against refusal of planning permission in Sutton.
The administration’s answer is not to negotiate hard with developers, but to encourage the building of many hundreds of unaffordable homes in rural areas — areas which would never have otherwise been granted planning permission — to deliver no more than the 30 per cent affordable housing it says it expects of any commercial developer building within the development envelope.
The report talks of apprenticeships, but not of the dramatic fall in apprentice starts across Cambridgeshire in the last year. And it states that the Council itself employs over 250 staff. This is particularly interesting because if that is true, the Council is obliged by law to report on gender pay gaps under the Government’s defined headings. Yet the council’s own Resources & Finance Committee was recently advised that the Council would not be reporting under the legislation because it had fewer than 250 staff. Something is not right here, and I would appreciate an explanation of whether the Council is in breach of the law, or just does not know how many people it employs.
But the report is as interesting for what it omits as for what it includes. It does not see fit to mention the Purge on Plastics anywhere in the document — perhaps because the administration refused to draw up an action plan to achieve it.
The report does not update us on its promise to draw up plans to redevelop the council building by 2019 and to relocate offices. Nor does it mention progress on its promise to seek to deliver a crematorium in the district by 2019.
This is not a report which inspires me with confidence in the commitment of the council to deliver on its promises.”
- Cllr Christine Whelan (Ely South) also commented on the report. She pointed out that the health and wellbeing section of the report appeared to blame people with chronic ill-health for being ill – and that many residents of East Cambridgeshire suffer ill health through no fault of their own. They would love to be more active, and need to be encouraged and supported, not condemned and criticised. She also observed that the community and tourism section of the report fails to mention that the markets in Ely are now run not by the Council but by the East Cambridgeshire Trading Company. It also fails to refer to the fact that tourism in Ely has now been handed over to the City of Ely Council, but that there is no tourist service or strategy for the rest of the district.