The Council Chamber at the Civic Offices in Eastleigh hosted its final theatrical performances this evening, in front of an empty public gallery, as the Full Council met for the last time prior to the move to its new offices at Eastleigh House, in the Town Centre.
The main purpose of this meeting was to discuss the Budget for the forthcoming year.
Having been criticised for last years introductory speech, which Cllr Olsen observed had lasted 15 seconds, the Leader of the Council, Cllr Keith House, gave a much longer and much fuller speech this year.
In his speech, Cllr House highlighted all of the good work that is being done by Eastleigh Borough Council, despite the difficulties of year-on-year cuts in the grant from Central Government, and he explained the importance of Eastleigh Borough Council becoming ‘more commercial’. His familiar argument was that the revenues from commercial ventures offset the reduction in grants from Central Government and thus help to keep Council Tax down.
In his reply, the leader of the opposition, Cllr Godfrey Olsen, expressed his concern at the level of borrowing that has now been accumulated by the Borough Council, to fund projects such as the new hotel at the Ageas Bowl, saying that;
“The commercial world produces good income when things are going well, but things don’t always go well… “
“Borrowing of £100m is worrying for an Authority of this size. “
“Borrowing should not be extended further.”
Cllr Olsen also suggested that Eastleigh Borough Council could be made more efficient, by scrapping the Local Area Committees and by reducing the number of Councillors. He said that 44 Councillors were too many and suggested a review of Cabinet systems and the number of elected representatives.
That was subsequently denied by all of the Lib Dem Cllrs who spoke in the budget debate, reminding the Council that the decisions taken by the Local Area Committees are taken exclusively by the Councillors who represent that part of the Borough. For instance, the Cllrs who represent Chandlers Ford don’t get involved in decisions that affect Hedge End, and vice-versa. Scrapping the Local Area Committees would be a retrograde step, claimed the Lib Dems.
Another bone of contention this evening, was Cllr Olsen’s suggestion that a master plan was needed for the Town Centre, as it needs to be rejuvenated. Neighbouring Towns and Cities have such a plan, claimed Cllr Olsen, but Eastleigh does not.
Here too, the Lib Dem Cllrs who spoke in the debate denied that there was a problem in Eastleigh Town Centre, saying that there was a good mix of individual shops with few empty units, plenty of footfall and observing that because of facilities like the Cinema and the Bowling, the Town Centre was popular at night.
Cllr Olsen didn’t propose any amendments to the budget, saying that he knew what the outcome would be. Cllr House subsequently bemoaned the lack of an amendment, saying how he appreciated the Labour groups effort to always put forward an amendment when they were in the Council…
During the budget debate, Cllr Caldwell took the opportunity to note that this was the last meeting in the Council Chamber and playing somewhat theatrically to the occasion, he compared Cllr House to ‘Moses’ and the arrangements for future Council meetings to be held at different locations around the Borough as a ‘Travelling Circus’. Everybody, including Cllr House, laughed, though Cllr Bloom rubbished the religious comparison when she spoke later in the proceedings.
Responding to an announcement at the start of the meeting, that the Budget vote now had to be a recorded vote due to a change in legislation, Cllr Caldwell also suggested that because it was not possible for everybody to agree with every part of the budget, a vote on the section about keeping Council Tax frozen should be recorded separately. His suggestion was duly ignored when it came to the vote, and the budget was passed by 28 votes in favour to non against, with the Conservative group abstaining. The Conservatives were thus denied their opportunity to publicly support the Council Tax freeze…
After the Cabinet Statements, which were another chance for the Lib Dem Cabinet Members to explain all the good things that have been happening around the Borough to some noticeably bored Lib Dem Cllrs and an empty public gallery, the meeting moved on to Members Questions.
Always a good piece of theatre which brings otherwise dreary Council meetings to life, this evening was no exception.
Cllr Caldwell, from the Conservatives had tabled four questions on the Ageas Bowl, the first of which sought an update on the situation. These questions were published in advance, so everybody knew what was coming, but Cllr Caldwell wasn’t given the opportunity to clearly ask the second, third and fourth questions in the chamber. Cllr House cunningly included his response to the subsequent questions when answering the first one…!
Cllr House explained that;
“The Councils position has been scrutinised in great detail, by all parties, and it is totally protected from the risk of a failure of the main contractor.”
“The Council’s liability is to buy the hotel for £27.4 million when it is complete.”
“The Council is not a direct party to the build, it is not the employer so has no direct influence over who is employed to build the hotel”
“However, a new contractor is expected to be on-site, within a matter of days”
“We’re endeavouring to secure the position of existing local contractors, where possible”
“Costs have been kept to a minimum over the last four months.”
Having had his thunder stolen, Cllr Caldwell battled on but didn’t really draw anything extra from Cllr House.
Cllr Grajewski then picked-up the gauntlet, asking about the losses to the Council and the impact on the local economy, given that the hotel was due to be completed this spring and that the Council has previously been told that an income stream from this hotel was crucial to balancing the books..?
Cllr House replied that;
“The Budget presented this evening takes into account the delay in the hotel”
“The impact on the wider economy is that it will take longer for the benefits to be fully realised, but it is not a cost-benefit we can quantify at this time and it doesn’t directly affect the Council.”
“My feeling is that the Council will be a net beneficiary in this process, rather than a loser”
Clrr Grajewski, who was being allowed to ask all of her questions, followed-up by asking about the Council’s contingency plans, in the event of one of the parties to the agreement deciding to cut its losses and withdraw from the agreement to sell the completed hotel to the Council for the previously agreed price.
Cllr House responded;
“This is a really good question, as it gives an opportunity to deal with some myths that have been floating around”
“The legal agreements provide a number of contingencies for the Council. Other funders and developers can be engaged, without compromising the basic structure of the deal which recognises that these things can happen.”
“The Council have first option to buy the hotel and that must be at the agreed price of £27.4 million. No higher offer can be accepted.”
“Any of the funders can walk away, but they have no security on what they’ve built so far. In effect they realise nothing on what they’ve built so far. ”
“That’s why the Councils position is so strong”
The next question, again from Cllr Grajewski, probed the cost of the Councils recent victory in an appeal against the Information Commissioner’s direction in April 2013 to disclose information under the Environmental Information Regulations (2004). The Councils appeal was heard on 12th September 2013 and was allowed on 24th January 2014.
Cllr House explained why the Council appealed the case, saying;
“It was an important test case, as it applied to genuinely confidential internal meetings in respect of the draft local plan. It was imperative that Officers and Members could have a full and frank internal discussion, without risk of this being published in the public domain at that time. Its called thinking space and its been a pattern of Government, forever. You need to have free exchange of information, ideas, blue-sky-thinking, off-the-wall ideas between staff and members, and that’s never been published by any Council, anywhere in the country.”
“The need for that thinking space for some aspects of the draft local plan was and continues to be important whilst the process is ongoing. It also has much wider ramifications in respect of information and officer advice to Councillors”
“The Information Tribunal allowed the Council’s appeal as it agreed there was a stronger public interest in withholding the information, so as not to stifle internal debate”
“The decision is of significance to Local Authorites and has already been listed as an important legal update, so it was an important test case.”
“We don’t record all the staff hours, but the Case Officer recorded 62 hrs. External legal costs amounted to £21,465 and £115 was spent on staff travel to attend the appeal as witnesses.”
One final question from Cllr Grajewski, enquired whether the Council was complying with the Information Commissioner’s direction requiring the Council to provide advice and assistance to a complainant, after the Council was found to have breached Section 16 of the Freedom of Information Act by failing to provide reasonable advice and assistance to that complainant.
Cllr House explained the situation in some detail, saying that the Council would not be appealing that decision and would be complying.
Meeting over, budget approved, theatricals finished, attention now turns to the forthcoming move.
The Civic Offices in Leigh Road formally close at 4:30pm on 21st March and from Monday 24th March, Eastleigh Borough Council’s new address will be Eastleigh House, Upper Market Street, Eastleigh, SO50 9YN
Eastleigh House is smaller than the existing offices so as Cllr Caldwell noted, forthcoming Council meetings will be held at various locations around the Borough.
The next Full Council meeting will be held on 10th April, and will take place at the Lowford Centre, a new facility which is due to be opened on 11th March.
The meeting in June, which includes the Mayor Making ceremony, will take place at the Berry Theatre in Hedge End.