Is BCP the most corruptible council in England?

In 2020 the anti-corruption group Transparency International UK published a paper on the potential for corruption in English local authorities. Fifty key councils were assessed on how they manage corruption risks such as lobbying, oversight and conflicts of interest. One council was deemed by far the worst in England: Bournemouth-Christchurch-Poole (BCP).

Why was BCP Council rated so badly? Well, it was a new authority, formed by a hasty merger of the three towns in 2019. Arguably its processes were still a work in progress. Indeed, council officials claimed that the assessment might have been based on data from the previous town councils.

You see, BCP may be new, but it has a lot of baggage. The council is dominated by Bournemouth, which has a chequered history when it comes to scandal and corruption. Brace yourselves…

In 2008, the Conservative leader of Bournemouth Council Stephen MacLoughlin was found to have pornography on his work computer. He resisted resignation calls for more than a year and was exonerated by the Conservative-run standards committee, before handing over to Peter Charon.

Charon’s leadership was no better. Embroiled in bullying and misconduct claims almost from the start, he was brought down in 2012 after losing a vote of no confidence. At the same time, his deputy John Beesley was facing a tribunal following accusations of impropriety and conflicts of interest.

Of course, Charon’s successor was John Beesley. He was investigated by his own Chief Executive Tony Williams, after allegations that Beesley’s business work conflicted with his council duties. This investigation ended with Williams being made redundant, an event which even sparked outrage in the House of Commons. In 2017, Beesley was hit with a formal complaint from ten of his own Conservative councillors, claiming impropriety, conflicts of interest, bullying and misconduct. Central to this was an alleged “lack of transparency in Mr Beesley’s business work, much of which ends up in planning applications to his own council”.

The scandal dogged Beesley until the final day of Bournemouth Council’s existence. But he wasn’t charged with any criminal act, and a last-minute investigation ruled that he didn’t break his council’s code of conduct.

If you’re wondering what happened to John Beesley, well, he’s now chairman of BCP’s Audit & Governance Committee.

This brings us to BCP Council. Established in 2019, the council’s already seen three no-confidence votes, two different administrations, corruption fears, budget disputes, departments in crisis, and a general sense of dysfunctionality. As I’ve written previously, it’s been quite a ride.

So, how do the Council’s anti-corruption credentials stack up today? Let’s take a look.

One of Transparency UK’s key findings was that many councils have poor oversight structures around key decisions. This can be addressed by having a strong Oversight & Scrutiny Committee.

In other news, Conservative-run BCP Council has disbanded its Oversight & Scrutiny Committee. Opposition parties mourned the loss of an independent oversight board with powers to fully investigate council plans, describing the move as “a complete attack on democracy”. It’s since been replaced by several mini-committees with smaller scopes. The first mini-committees met this week, and were formed with a Conservative chair, Conservative deputy chair, and Conservative majority.

So much for oversight. But what about conflicts of interest? Well, the key issues are around planning and development decisions. In particular, Transparency UK was concerned that councils lack structures to prevent impropriety and abuse of position.

But last year BCP Council set up a private company, BCP FuturePlaces, to manage its key development programme. This project is the brainchild of Drew Mellor and Phil Broadhead, Conservative leader and deputy leader of BCP Council.

One result is that activities, roles and even meetings are removed from full public scrutiny. And, as widely publicised locally and on social media, there are huge concerns about conflicts of interest. According to FuturePlaces’ articles of association, its directors can “authorise any conflict proposed to them by any director.” And other key decisions about FuturePlaces can be authorised by the Conservative-majority council, led by, um, Drew Mellor and Phil Broadhead.

So, who are these directors then? Well, two of them are, um, Drew Mellor and Phil Broadhead. The role of Chairman, intended as an independent position, is held by, you guessed it, Phil Broadhead.

One of the other key roles has sparked much debate. James Croker previously held a lead position in corporate developers Fortitudo, but is now generously-remunerated by FuturePlaces as Corporate Engagement Director on £100,000 per year. Fortitudo retains a lot of interest in BCP projects, such as this 24-storey goliath in central Bournemouth.

Is this a conflict of interest? Not according to…wait for it… Phil Broadhead. The BCP deputy insisted in January that “none of the directors have any previous or current business relationships with planning consultancies or developers who are active within the BCP Council area.”

Still, at least BCP’s planning committee is beyond reproach, right? Well, there’s a story. Last month representatives from Christchurch made a complaint to council chiefs about perceived bias and misconduct from the Conservative’s committee chairman, leading to a call for the town to have its own planning committee.

But the days of bullying are over, right? Well, no. Only this year a senior member of the council was forced to apologise to a bullying victim after a complaint. But this time the bully wasn’t publicly named. And investigations into the crisis in BCP social care staffing revealed that the council culture is a key factor.

Okay, but what about the council’s financial planning? Well, there’s another story. The 2022/23 plan created huge controversy, after opposition councillors were asked to approve a budget based on a KPMG report which none of them had seen.

It gets worse. Leader Drew Mellor insisted: “we have done a massively in-depth piece of work with KPMG”. But the following week his deputy Phil Broadhead insisted on social media: “there is no KPMG report!” Confused? Don’t worry, we all are. What we do know is that BCP’s finance chief described the budget plan as a “non-traditional approach to the financing of local government”. How reassuring.

So, how does BCP shape up now? The Conservative leadership insists the council is well-run. But opposition councillors lament that they might as well not be there. And information about key activities is getting harder to access – currently, data about FuturePlaces is being extracted through Freedom of Information requests.

Is this really important? Well, councils have the power to award contracts worth billions. If projects go to the wrong parties, or if they fail, then it’s the public who suffer, as this drains money better spent on local services: like BCP’s children’s services, for example, slammed this year by OFSTED as shockingly inadequate.

So, is BCP really the most corruptible council in England? I’ll leave that question to Transparency UK. They’re running another survey, right..?