08:25 Wednesday 16th September 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
DOTTY MCLEOD: A review of Cambridgeshire County Council’s decision to allow a private company to take over part of Cambridge Central Library has found seven key opportunities for improvement. These cover areas including confidentiality, project management and public consultation. This Library Enterprise Centre project as it was called was very very controversial a few months ago. Our Political Reporter Hannah Olsson looks back on the story’s developments.
HANNAH OLSSON: Money saving plans to turn much of the third floor of Cambridge Central Library into a privately-run enterprise zone proved very controversial, with nearly 4,000 people signing a petition against the idea. The County Council vote came down to the wire, with six members of a thirteen strong committee voting against it, and seven for it. Councillors requested the decision to be looked at again, and in the meantime allegations emerged questioning the credibility of Kora, the private company behind the plan. So the Council decided to take back their decision, and the enterprise zone idea was shelved. Even more controversy followed because a Freedom of Information request showed that although the idea was only talked about publicly in March this year, senior council officials had held almost forty meetings with Kora, after being approached by them back in 2013. All leading to questions about trust, transparency and accountibility.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well councillor Mike Shellens has been leading the review of this process, and has compiled a report which has been published in the last 24 hours. It will be discussed by councillors next week. Mike.
MIKE SHELLENS: Morning Dotty,
DOTTY MCLEOD: Hello. Can you summarise for us your headline findings?
MIKE SHELLENS: I think the key finding right at the top is that there was no illegality in this. people were using best endeavours. They .. at no stage did anybody .. has anybody suggested that there’s been anything untoward. Had that not been the case, had there been evidence or suggestions of malpractice, then the report would have been extremely different.
DOTTY MCLEOD: But you acknowledge in your report that mistakes were made. So what kind of things are you referrring to there?
MIKE SHELLENS: Well what we’ve concentrated on, rather than looking backwards and saying tut tut, is looking forwards and saying how do we need to do things in the future. And what we’ve looked at is things like how we handle confidentiality, how we handle discussions with Members, how we make information available to the public. Because I’m fairly clear in my mind, though it’s obviously for the Council to decide, that we should be an open authority because we’re investing public money.
DOTTY MCLEOD: It does seem a bit bizarre that there were around 40 meetings between the Council and this company Kora before anything about this idea was made public.
MIKE SHELLENS: Well I think what the report says is that in future we must make sure that both the members of the public and the Members of the Council are given absolutely as much information as we possibly can.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And it was the revelation which actually came from a local blogger that one of the company directors of Kora was disqualified from being a company director in the UK. It was that revelation that threw the whole thing off course. Was that anything to worry about in the end?
MIKE SHELLENS: If you look at websites you find a very interesting list of people who have been made bankrupt in their past. You’ve got Henry Ford. You’ve got Buffalo Bill. You’ve got Abraham Lincoln. In this country a person who was bankrupted has recently taken over £25 million worth of Morrisons stores. So I don’t think the fact that an individual has been a bankrupt, of itself says that you should not have any further dealings with them. The question is, what is the status of the organisation that they represent. If the organisation is sound then you have to be cautious but you carry on I think.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And I suppose the main question really for library users is whether this plan is going to be resurrected.
MIKE SHELLENS: I don’t know that. That’s a matter for Council. What we’ve been doing is looking at how we got to where we are. And I don’t think it was our finest hour, and then how we conduct such reviews in the future. So our terms of reference did not say was this the correct decision or wasn’t it. We weren’t asked to look at that. And I’m very pleased about that, because I think it would have added enormously to the complexity of the review.
DOTTY MCLEOD: When you say it wasn’t Cambridgshire County Council’s finest hour, what are you thinking of when you say that?
MIKE SHELLENS: Well we clearly did not communicate effectively with the public, and that’s something that we must do better in the future. We clearly did not communicate effectively internally with all Members. That’s something we must do better in the future. We must be much clearer about what information we can release, and what information we can’t release. So if you’ve got a situation .. West Ham this morning, I understand they’re having to make clear their deal on the Olympic Park. Now we were in a situation where the fact that there was a deal with West Ham, the equivalent, was being withheld from the public. I don’t think that’s helpful, and I think if we’ve got ventures like this, we ought to make sure that as much information as possible is known, so that other people can express an interest, and the Council can get a better deal.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Mike, thank you very much for talking to me this morning.
MIKE SHELLENS: Always nice to talk with you Dotty. Bye now.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Councillor Mike Shellens there, who’s led the review of the process that led up to part of Cambridge Central Library almost being turned into an enterprise centre. If you want to read the report yourself, you can. You can find it on the Cambridgeshire County Council website.