A not-so-merry Christmas from BCP Council

Image by Anthea Bareham

As regular readers will know, it’s been a dramatic 2022 at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP). Our local leaders have nearly signed off for the holidays, and some may already be sitting in a dark corner, mumbling to themselves while nursing a litre-bottle of sherry. So this is a good moment to reflect on the year and look at what’s ahead in 2023.

Part 1: Casino economics

One extraordinary issue dominated 2022: the Beach Hut Budget. In January, Conservative BCP leaders Drew Mellor and Phil Broadhead unveiled a plan to create £50m in revenue by selling the council’s 3,500 beach huts to itself. The scheme was dismissed by opposition councillors as “casino economics”. Mellor insisted the UK government was supportive, and kept this line for six months, repeating it during media interviews and council meetings.

Of course, the government was not supportive – in fact, ministers were so appalled that they updated national guidelines, and issued a statement complaining that “some councils have attempted to abuse a loophole to do dodgy deals”. Since then, BCP’s Conservatives have been scrabbling around for a Plan B.

But amid the ensuing scandal, one question remained unanswered. Why was this sudden cash injection needed at all?

The truth emerged quietly, in a Cabinet paper last month. One of BCP’s key projects is the Transformation Programme, intended to merge the three towns in a cost-efficient way. As noted in November’s finance report, in June 2020 the Unity Alliance administration had set the budget at £37m. But after Mellor’s Conservatives seized control towards the end of 2020, the plan was abruptly changed, and the cost rocketed. In just two years it almost doubled, to £68m. It seems clear that this escalation triggered the beach-hut plan.

So where did the money go? In a word: failure.

One of the ‘Transformation’ objectives was to reduce staff costs across the towns. But these have soared in the last two years, with BCP increasingly reliant on agency workers. In Planning, agency costs quadrupled to over £1m in one year. In Social Care, workers are being sourced from as far away as Rwanda.

And although the various administrative systems were supposed to have merged, this hasn’t really happened. BCP towns are still using separate systems for Planning, Human Resources, and even Children’s Care, and replacements are delayed. Slippage seems to be contagious: even BCP’s Local Plan is wildly behind schedule, with the flagship policy project now likely to miss its government-set deadline of December 2024. Add to this the high-profile failings in Children’s Services, among others, and the extra funds needed to address them. No wonder BCP’s finances are described as being “on life support”.

Another self-inflicted wound is FuturePlaces, the consultancy created by Mellor and Broadhead with  the intention of steering regeneration. BCP leaders have committed over £11.4m to FuturePlaces so far, but it’s sparked persistent accusations of cronyism and overspending. There are mounting concerns that the consultancy has a monopoly on regeneration projects. And despite all the money, it remains one of the most secretive projects in BCP.

Part 2: the War on Everyone

Despite his track record, leader Mellor has refused to concede any mistakes in his leadership. In fact, he’s spent a huge amount of time trying to block any criticism of it. This has taken BCP to some unexpected places.

In May, Mellor used his council majority to push through some far-reaching changes to the scrutiny system. This is the process by which councillors can question and challenge policies, and potentially affect decisions. His Conservatives transformed the system, with the main scrutiny board broken up, Conservative majorities on each sub-group, and Conservatives chairing almost all of these. This was described as “a complete attack on democracy”, and left BCP with potentially the weakest scrutiny system in England. As one seasoned BCP-watcher pointed out, it couldn’t have been designed to be worse.

But this being BCP, we had to have a scandal along the way. The original scrutiny motion had to be abandoned after Conservative leaders were accused of dragging Covid-riddled councillors into the meeting, to secure enough votes. The scandal triggered a vote of no confidence in the leadership, for bringing the council into “local and national disrepute”.

With political criticism weakened, next in the crosshairs was the public. One consequence of sensational media headlines was an increase in members of the public attending council meetings. By the autumn of 2022 this had become another awkward form of scrutiny.

What happened next was revealing. A Conservative-led review recommended major changes to BCP’s Constitution – changes which were designed to severely limit the public’s right to take part in sessions. They were withdrawn during a heated council meeting, following a month-long public campaign which argued that the proposed changes breached the 2010 Equality Act.

The war on the public didn’t stop there. By November, a petition calling for Mellor and Broadhead to resign had attracted enough signatures to qualify for a debate in council. But Conservative councillors responded by directing repeat continuous hostility at the public gallery. In one incredible outburst, Cllr Duane Farr launched a bitter tirade against “an army of social media trolls… pushing an agenda of division and distrust”. Reminder: this was in response to a public petition signed by over 2,000 residents.

For Mellor’s hapless Conservatives, the other enemy was the media. Negative headlines had piled up all year, attracting national attention from the Telegraph, Metro and Private Eye among others. But most anger was directed at the Bournemouth Echo. In November the Echo was described as “the Fake News Media”, and its reporters have been subjected to regular criticism since the summer. Yet as I noted at the time: “they’ve reported on financial scandals, political scandals… but only because THAT’S WHAT’S BEEN HAPPENING.”

What’s next for BCP?

So, after a painful sequence of scandals and failings, what’s next for BCP’s long-suffering residents?

The outlook is bleak. With finances battered, we await a package of drastic cuts and rate rises. Charges for parking, garden bins and beach huts have already increased. Council-run buildings, such as community cafes in Redhill and Highcliffe, are being shut down, and day-care centres are also in the firing line.

But this is just the start. BCP leaders are at an advanced stage of plans, described as a “firesale”, to sell off a number of council assets. And, if recent reports are correct, residents will see a whopping five per cent increase in council tax in April.

It doesn’t stop there. A BCP report presented in November 2022 proposes reductions in staffing costs, and ‘rationalisation’ of non-statutory services. There are concerns that a range of services might be quietly downscaled.

And behind all this, there’s still the possibility that BCP will go bust. The gambles taken over the last two years have left finances on the edge, with £120m drained from BCP’s reserves, and no breathing space left. Even the expected £76m government bailout might not be enough to save the council.

So, it’s a not-so-merry Christmas from BCP. Residents are already struggling with a long-term national economic crisis. In 2023 they face a double whammy of reduced services and increased local taxes.

As we enter the holiday season, council leader Drew Mellor seems less like Santa Claus and more like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

You can read past articles on the BCP saga here!