Guest Author STORMIN’ NORMAN MURPHY, twenty years a Scarborough Borough Councillor whose intimate knowledge of Council practices and policies lends authority to his opinions, writes on the instigation of the District Business Improvement Destination initiative aklong the Yorkshire Coast.
If ever we required any further evidence that our current Council governance systems urgently need drastic and radical overhaul, then the, so called, “DBID debate”, undertaken by members of Scarborough Borough Council at their Full Council meeting on Monday 4th November, confirmed the need for great haste. Indeed the DBID debate, such as it was, demonstrated, to me at least, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the current systems of governance employed by SBC are not fit for purpose. The DBID fiasco, in fact, if followed from its inception in early 2018 to the shambolic debate of late 2019 shows us all, quite clearly, how dysfunctional and unsuitable for purpose our previous, and our current, systems of governance, really are.
Looking at the origins of the DBID (Destination Business Improvement District) scheme, it will be recalled that the DBID was a crafty little scheme, backed by the previous Conservative Council leadership way back in 2018. The DBIDs supposed purpose was to raise additional revenue from tourism related businesses with a RV in excess of £12K, by way of a 1.5% levy on their rates bills. This money, £5 million, would then be used, after expenses of 20% had been taken out by the organisers, on schemes that, in theory, would encourage more visitors to come to the East Coast.
Elected members of SBC were told that although the scheme would be supported by the Council, our financial input would be minimal. We were told that in any case this was a private venture and that it would only go ahead with the consent, achieved by a ballot of all those eligible to pay, if a majority of business owners supported it. All very plausible and, if you believed the proposed operators of the DBID, MOSAIC, then it would be a win-win situation for everyone.
However, as we all now know, this utopian outcome has not, and probably will not, ever, materialise. Indeed the whole scheme, now that the flawed, and highly tarnished, way in which this project was inflicted on the businesses who have to pay for it, has been revealed, it looks decidedly dodgy. Question marks hang over how the DBID was originally organised, the quality of the people running it, the Councils part in organising the ballot, loss or none delivery of ballot papers and the claim made by many business owners that they never had sight of the business plan, to mention but a few of the serious concerns expressed repeatedly by those who are now being asked to stump up the £5 million to fund this dubious project.
However, none of this discontent with the DBID scheme, nor the accusations of maladministration, needed to have happened, and would in all likelihood not have happened, had this scheme been subjected to scrutiny by a committee of elected members. Unfortunately, however, scrutiny of the DBID scheme, and many other schemes, was not allowed to happen because the former Conservative administration rearranged the governance structures and abolished all but one of the Overview & Scrutiny Committees (O/S) formally operated by SBC. As a consequence, the financial burden of the DBID, and many other financially unsound undertakings instigated by the previous administration, have been placed around the necks of the Borough’s ratepayers, without any serious scrutiny ever having taken place.
For many ratepayers, probably the vast majority of ratepayers, the lack of overview and scrutiny, and we might add openness and transparency, exhibited by the previous administration, have brought our Borough to the brink of bankruptcy and made SBC a laughing stock throughout the country. The frequent appearances of SBC in Rotten Boroughs in the magazine Private Eye, being a classic example of the ridicule we have been subjected to. In abolishing virtually all the checks and balances available to elected members – O/S Committees – the previous administration created a form of governance that bordered on dictatorship, with the views and aspirations of most residents, and most of their elected representatives, being totally ignored and marginalised.
Indeed, abolishing O/S Committees allowed controversial partnerships such as the entanglement with Benchmark, the supposed bringer of wonderful new leisure facilities like the new multiplex cinema which we still haven’t got, to develop. This rather one-sided partnership is viewed by many residents to be “heads Benchmark win, tails residents lose”. Moreover, the Council’s continuing relationship with Benchmark, as there is no O/S to keep an eye on them, is seen by many residents, to be a Council not looking out for the best interests of its residents.
This feeling that the previous Council was not looking out for the best interests of the residents it purports to represent is even more powerfully felt when viewed against the demolition of the Futurist theatre. This spiteful and vindictive act, inflicted on residents by a leadership that looked increasingly power crazy, cost the ratepayers of SBC £4.5 million. In destroying the Futurist, the previous administration brought fear and misery to not only the residents who overlooked the site, but also to thousands of people country-wide, confirming the view, already prevalent in many people’s minds, that the leadership of SBC was simply not listening to its residents.
Indeed, the previous leadership arrogantly considered that ignoring residents wishes would, in the end, not matter to them electorally, as they thought the Tory faithful would turn out and vote for them however badly they treated them. However, at the last local elections, in May, the Conservatives found out how important it is to at least try to understand and, hopefully comply with, the wishes of those who put you in power.
The Conservatives lost power because they refused to listen to the people who elected them and as there were no checks or balances to restrain them, their abolition of the O/S committees being a primary consideration, they could, and did, govern as they pleased. They probably thought getting rid of scrutiny was a good idea and it certainly allowed them to introduce schemes, such as the DBID scheme and the demolition of the Futurist, with little or no regard for the views of the people.
However, as is clearly demonstrated by the results of the May local elections, governing by dictatorship and allowing all the levers of power to be held by a small clique of people inevitably leads to bad decision-making and a consequent drubbing by the electorate. Good governance practises and robust systems of overview and scrutiny are, therefore, seen by many, to be essential if democratic and fair decision-making is to be achieved. Moreover, and, perhaps, more importantly, politically, if an administration wants to survive, then good governance should form the bed rock upon which it stands and openness, transparency and scrutiny, if as in our case they have been missing for some time, should be reinstated at the earliest opportunity. However, although we now have a new master installed in the Ivory Tower, and he has been in post for many months, we don’t seem, as yet, to be getting any of the promised changes to our governance systems, that many people thought would, by now, be in place.
Which brings us nicely back to the DBID debate of 4th November. As can be clearly demonstrated, this debate was called for because those who are being forced to pay for the DBID don’t like it. They therefore, brought their grievances to the Council with the hope that the Council membership would agree to suspend collection of DBID money and institute an investigation into the whole DBID fiasco. A simple pair of requests and ones that a capable Council should have been able to deal with efficiently and, more importantly, utilising well-established Council procedures to do so.
Sadly, but perhaps predictably, this was not to be the case and the whole debate quickly descended into farcical chaos with the Mayor, who is supposed to chair the meeting and keep a close watch on proceedings finding herself totally at a loss as to what was happening. No-one seemed to know who had tabled what motion and when and where amendments should be heard and voted upon. The end result was that although the Council voted to investigate the way in which the DBID was introduced and to look at how the ballot was run in all the confusion they failed to suspend collection of DBID payments.
This failure to suspend DBID collections is, of course, doubly worrying, as it forces businesses to pay their bills or face enforcement with the threat of the bailiffs turning up. But perhaps even more worrying is the fact that if the investigation finds that the procedures and supervision of the scheme by SBC was deficient and that the Council was in some way at fault, which seems highly likely, then all the money already collected might well have to be refunded. While the implications for the Council could be even more serious with individual elected members and officers facing investigation by the police and the possibility of criminal proceedings being taken.
As can be seen, therefore, although the introduction of the DBID was a relatively minor project in the life of the Council it serves as useful example of how, without scrutiny, openness and transparency, Councils, and their leadership, can and do ignore the wishes of the people, leading usually to the hatred of the community, electoral defeat and even criminal prosecution.
The DBID fiasco shows us then, if nothing else, that the system of governance practised by the previous administration was fatally flawed and should be replaced by a Committee-based system as soon as possible. However, although the present Leader says he wants change, it seems that there is a certain amount of reluctance on his part to actually throw out the old and bring in the new. This foot-dragging has meant that although it is now many months since the election, which was supposed to herald a new and better form of governance, we are still waiting for these changes to happen.
Worrying as this is, what is even more worrying is the fact that very shortly some hugely important issues will need to be dealt with, the Argos site development, the Borough’s public toilet provision, Town Centre Management in all our major towns and environmental issues to mention but a few. However, perhaps, the most crucial and urgent issue which the present administration will need to deal with, and one that will almost certainly be highly controversial and will need very thorough and close scrutiny, is the future development of the Futurist site.
As we have seen, the consequences of leaving even relatively small decisions to be decided by a small cabal of elected members invariably leads to bad decision-making. This proved to be the case with the old administration who tried to rule with Leader plus seven Cabinet Portfolio Holders and I suspect with the current set up – i.e. Leader plus three Cabinet Portfolio Holders, any future decision-making they attempt will be even more of a disaster.
The issue of whether or not giving Flamingoland preferred developer status can be withdrawn needs resolving urgently. If they do have a legal right to keep this status, when does it end? When, as was promised, will the site be re-offered to the market? Is a third of St Nicholas Gardens, the public land adjacent to the Futurist site, still going to be given to the developer? Can this land have some kind of protection put on it, again as was promised, or is it going to be sacrificed to appease the developers? All these issues, many would argue, should already have been addressed.
So what is the solution? Well, as I see it the new Leader needs to come good on his promise to reinstate the old O/S Committee system as soon as possible. Without effective, democratic, open and transparent systems of governance, it is my contention that we are in very real danger of exchanging one power hungry administration for an even worse reincarnation.
Indeed, unless the present leadership of SBC changes course, and soon, it is my feeling that they will soon discover that, as John F. Kennedy, put it “every dictatorship has ultimately strangled in the web of repression it wove for its people, making mistakes that could not be corrected because criticism was prohibited”.
You have been warned.