BCP beach hut meeting: I was there!

Beach huts in Bournemouth, West Undercliff Promenade. Photo by acediscovery. Wikimedia Commons

Here at WCV, we’ve been intrigued by the goings-on at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council. Ian is the latest resident to contact us with a story about the rather shabby goings-on. Editor-in-Chief

For the background to this latest development in the beach hut saga, please read this:

If you want a masterclass on how to avoid answering questions, watch the video of the meeting of the Special Corporate and Community Overview and Scrutiny Committee of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council  (BCP):

It was quite something!

But first, let me just give readers some context:

Up until May 2022, BCP’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee was chaired – and effectively so – by an independent councillor. This was very necessary, given that even the council’s own head of finance described its finances as “unorthodox”.

This chairman challenged BCP deputy leader, Phil Broadhead, so Broadhead removed him and placed him with Lawrence Williams, who seemed to be of a different mindset, more ‘amenable’ to the leadership. Broadhead also weakened this committee by slashing the number of meetings, and dividing and diluting its powers and functions into two new, smaller committees. [You can read about this in detail here. Ed.]

The meeting on 20 July 2022 was not attended by the portfolio holder or any of the council leadership. It had been called to discuss the proposal to meet the council’s financial shortfall by pawning our beach huts for £50m – perhaps half their actual value – over 20 years.

The council did not even release the Beach Hut report (from consultants KPMG), discussion of which was central to the matter. Council leader Drew Mellor had formerly said there was a report but that (six months after it had been received by the Council) it was still not complete. Broadhead, meanwhile, denied that it even existed.

There were questions to be answered and mine were the first to be asked at this meeting (and please bear in mind that frustrating 100-word limit!):

“With millions in Council assets now in opaque SPVs (special purpose vehicles), the BCP is exposed to corruptibility & non-transparency criticisms. While Overview & Scrutiny Committees are undermined by one-party domination, its meetings reduced by 75 per cent and diluted into two bodies, how can they maintain impartiality, relevance and standards?

“If leaders receive substantial directorships and fees, tolimit conflicts of interest and restore confidence and integrity, could they be required in councillors’ registers of interests?

Do committees have sufficient time, resources, authority and independence to restrain/challenge (any) risky and unorthodox ventures to preserve capital receipts for the storms ahead and the needy?”

The ‘answers’ to my questions were read out by a clerk from Democratic Services, rather than by the Scrutiny chair. Ex-BCP leader Vikki Slade kindly asked who had provided the answer to my question about whether the Overview Scrutiny Committee had sufficient authority to “restrain unorthodox and risky ventures and preserve capital”.

It turned out that the officer who had written the response was Susan Zeiss, director of law and governance at BCP council, rather than the Scrutiny Chair. I would say the answer was written in a manner that revealed nothing.

Ms Zeiss advised that Cllr Slade would have to ask Cllr Mellor herself if she wanted an answer to her question as to whether he agreed with the answer prepared by officers as she could not say whether he agreed with them or not!

My pointed comment “Thanks to whoever has written the answers” was edited out of the video record.

A convincing submission, questioning the legality of the beach hut deal under FUCR (Flexible Use of Capital Receipts) regulations, was made by a member of the public.

Another member of the public, a Mr Parkin, had also submitted a question in advance, on the existence – or otherwise – of the KPMG report. When this was not addressed, he repeated it, only to be told rather sharply by Ms Zeiss that his questions were now over the 100-word limit and could, therefore, be disregarded. He also queried the low valuation of the beach huts and asked who had valued them; eventually and very reluctantly, the sole valuers’ name was revealed.

I had to feel sorry for the chairman when he clarified that only the leadership could make decisions or answer any questions about the KPMG report – whose very existence remained unconfirmed. Cllr Mellor had, reportedly, said the report was “massively in-depth”, while Cllr Broadhead claimed on social media that “there was no KPMG report.”

It appeared the chair had been told to reveal nothing.

Another councillor complained that he had had to contact the Echo (the local newspaper) to find out if he was likely to be needed at the meeting; said that the local press, rather than the leadership, were the source of any information on policy; and berated the leadership for ducking its accountability.

Despite opposition councillors attempting several times to have a discussion on the £50-odd-million shortfall and the need for an emergency budget, they were unsuccessful.

Two councillors criticised the absence of council leaders, and attempts to sabotage the meeting, as “disgusting” and “disrespectful”, both to beach hut users who had been promised details, and to the public.

Eventually, the chair, with evident relief, ended the meeting. The only motion passed was to postpone further meetings until 2 September. He shut down the opportunity to vote on Cllr Slade’s motion for an emergency budget meeting.

What really disappointed me was the obvious lack of authority, knowledge or independence shown by the Scrutiny Committee. If any council needs transparency and accountability to safeguard it from risky deals, it is BCP’s. The task of protecting BCP funds has fallen to central government, the responsibility having apparently been abrogated by BCP’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee.

If, as a local resident, issues like this concern you, please join our Facebook group, Lowther and Milton Homewatch.