Horsham District Council v Big Society

 

To the HDC the intended plans, the Big Society, will amount to a culture change, where transparency means transparency and listening to the residents of Horsham means listening to the residents of Horsham!

Interestingly enough one West Sussex County Times reader recently posed a question in a letter; ‘Why is it that the Big Society and Localism appear to work in reverse in Horsham MP Francis Maude’s own backyard?’

The highlighting of poor practice;


In a letter to a local charity Francis Maude, the Member of Parliament for Horsham, wrote;

‘Charities and voluntary groups are also being encouraged to red flag poor practice and make sure it does  not go unchallenged.’

As a further encouragement in our efforts to raise public awareness, the Chief Executive, Tom Crowley wrote, in a recent letter to the BFMT;

‘I do not believe that a meeting, such as you have suggested, would be helpful or constructive. I will, therefore, leave you to take this matter forward as you consider appropriate.’


This web page is the Trust is taking the matter forward as we consider appropriate!


1 - HDC is defying the government on openness and transparency in Local Govt. They regularly refuse Freedom of Information Act Requests and in doing so, fail to abide by High Court judgements.

 


2 - HDC also failed to declare to the High Court, the identity of their own restaurant planning application, which subsequently led to an erroneous High Court decision.


3 - Theory versus Practice

 

From the Governments own website comes the popular theory...

 

‘The Localism Bill includes new rights for local communities, including the Community Right to Buy and the Community Right to Challenge.

Community Right to Buy - Under the Community Right to Buy important local amenities and buildings - such as old town halls, community halls or the last village shop or pub can be nominated for listing by the local authority as assets of community value. If listed assets come up for sale, communities will have extra time to prepare a bid to take them over, making it easier to keep much-loved assets in public use and part of local life.’


What about the practice?

In 2006 Horsham District Council was a visionary Council and wanted a community group to run the Old Town Hall at zero cost to the taxpayer. A winning bid was selected and recommended after due dilligence. This bid was further backed by a favourable Full Feasibility Study independently validated by the Faculty of Social & Environmental Studies at the University of Liverpool.

However, destructive Cabinet Members sabotaged the deal and decided that the Council wanted to run the building for themselves after all. Figures from the District Auditor show that in just one year the Council had dramatically increased the losses and decreased the usage of the building - the opposite of their declared intention. Rather than do the honourable thing, the Cabinet desperately decided to rent the Old Town Hall out to a restaurant. When the restaurant pulled away too, in a childish 'fit of pique' the Cabinet decided to ensure the building was left empty and unused - rather than let people book it once again and the community group professionally run and market it in line with the Tourism Strategy for Horsham District.

(The Horsham Town Hall has now been locked up since 2009!)


What kind of example is this regarding the Localism Bill and the Big Society?


4 -  The Conservative website for the Horsham local elections states;


‘Delivered all 2007 manifesto pledges.’

(The BFMT is a non political charity and does not mind who runs the council.)


Here are a couple of the Conservative party pledges that appeared in the ‘cut out and keep guide’ published in the WSCT 11 May 2007.








Below Martin Jeremiah, business adviser to the Blue Flash Music Trust, examines what the Council has achieved since 2007;


Pledge on public consultation


The Council denied a Community Governance Review consultation on dubious financial grounds. This reversal of the commitment in the Corporate Plan was criticised in writing by the District Auditor's manager. For example, at £39,000 (excluding a referendum) it would have cost less than £40,000 given to Dial Post Village Hall on the say-so of just one Cabinet Member. The denial of a CGR effectively prevented the Neighbourhood Councils having the option to form Parish Councils in the town, or town parishes combining to form a Town Council. It also prevented the option of 'town tax' payers managing their own assets such as the Old Town Hall.

 

Verdict: Could do better.

 

Pledge on the Old Town Hall


The Council metaphorically stomped all over the people's vision for the Old Town Hall in favour of a restaurant. The restaurant move deservedly collapsed therefore. In response to a recent Cabinet question, the Cabinet said they would find another restuarant. It won't happen.

 

Verdict: Disastrous move by the Council that still needs to be rectified.


5 - The Blue Flash Music Trust raises the profile of the Old Town Hall issue
by responding to Government consultation on the Localism Bill.


It was recently announced that the government was consulting voluntary organisations on 'best value,' and a response to the government consultation was submitted on behalf of the Trust by Business Adviser, Martin Jeremiah. Under the new proposed Localism Bill, the Council would be encouraged to consider the 'social value' to the community.


6 - Truth about Town Hall Saga continues to be witheld
from councillors, council staff  and public alike

 

Last year a report to Council Members implied that there were no significant costs to the Council arising from the judicial review. In the end the council paid the barrister C Colquhoun

£5, 605. Presumably, a good share of this was for her work on the judicial review?

 

The public and Council staff were also led to believe that the Trust's Treasurer, Mr. Mayfield was responsible for £24,115 spent on the District Auditor's inquiry. In fact, the District Auditor's initial response to the valid objection concerning the 2008/09 accounts, encouraged both sides to get together and sort out their differences by negotiation. Mr. Mayfield indicated his willingness to do this but the Council appeared reluctant to do so. In our view, it was therefore the Council's irresponsible decision to commit the expenditure. The cost of the inquiry could also have been higher if Mr Mayfield hadn't generously withdrawn the objection when he became aware of the costs. Nevertheless,  the District Auditor produced a result in her letter of December 21st 2010 which was critical of the Council's handling of the Old Town Hall issue. She was keen that as much learning could be gained as possible.

 

However, there is little evidence to suggest that the Council has learned anything thus far!


7 - Government guidance says:

 

‘To achieve the right balance – and before deciding how to fulfil their Best Value duty – authorities are required to consult a wide range of local persons, including local voluntary and community organisations and businesses. This should apply at all stages of the commissioning cycle, including when considering decommissioning services.’

 

This is precisely the thing that did not happen when the out-of-town Cabinet dictated to the townspeople that their Old Town Hall was to be de-commissioned and turned into a restaurant.