My Reply to District Auditor Letter on New Civic Centre

The District Auditor Letter to the City Council

On the whole I welcome the District Auditor recommendations that information is made available to all members of the Council on the justification and risk of the move and all costings are fully published, but would of course like to raise a few points.

1: “These views have been discussed and debated in public at Council meetings on 6 September 2012 and 24 January 2013. I am therefore satisfied that the Council has considered these views in setting its policy.” The issue of the New Civic Centre was not debated at the meeting 6th September due to Councils Constitution (see below) motions were raised to submit the Issue to relevant overview and scrutiny committee for Debate but these were out voted by the ruling Labour group so no debate could take place.

If a petition contains at least 100 signatures (but less than 5,000) it will be reported to Council, and the lead petitioner will be allowed a maximum of three minutes to speak on the petition. This will be confined to reading out, or summarising, the substance of the petition and making relevant further supporting remarks. The petition will not be the subject of a debate or decision by Council, and Members will not ask questions of the Lead Petitioner. The matter will also be referred to the relevant officer who will be responsible for ensuring that the petition is responded to and a final decision made.

h) Petition for the decision for the City Council to vacate the Civic Centre in Stoke and move to new premises in Hanley to be reversed. The Lead Petitioner, Richard Snell, addressed the City Council on behalf of the 334 signatories to the petition.

Councillor Conteh moved and Councillor Conway seconded the following motion:- ‘That the petition requesting the City Council to reverse its decision to close down the local government offices in Stoke and the e-petition on the same subject, be referred to the City Renewal Overview and Scrutiny Committee.’

On being put to the vote, the motion did not receive the support of the Council and was not carried.

The meeting of 24 January was a motion moved by opposition Councillors, while debate did take place at this meeting, no report from officers or the ruling group was submitted with evidence or facts to justify the move, balance the risks of borrowing the funds or explain how they had established that a new Civic will accelerate Private Investment

Councillor Breeze moved, and Councillor Conway seconded, the following motion (notice of which had previously been given):-

“In view of the combination of the continuing dire economic circumstances globally, nationally and, particularly devastatingly, locally in Stoke-on-Trent, and in light of the widespread Stoke-on-Trent public’s disapproval of the council’s previous decision to borrow £40 million (and rising) of future council tax-payers money to re-locate the civic headquarters from Stoke Town to Hanley, this council

1 Radically rethink its overall strategy in relation to the future regeneration of the City Centre and the city of Stoke-on-Trent as a whole, and whilst the strategy is revised, the £40m proposed borrowing for the Central Business District contained in the Councils approved capital programme is suspended.

2 Requests the Cabinet to rescind its decision to move the Civic HQ from Stoke Town to Hanley and retains the Civic Centre building in its current location and for its current use in Stoke Town.”

So not sure how you are “satisfied that the Council has broadly considered the risks to itself and the community in setting its policy” the above would never have taken place had it been left to “The Council” as is evidence by the original Cabinet decision 31st May where only the Changes to Capital Programme was referred to Full Council for approval not the decision to relocate the administration HQ of the City.

f. Present to City Council for approval, the necessary revisions to the capital programme as a result of the outcomes of this report (including investing in the construction of the buildings) in line with the Budget and Policy Framework.

2: “the Council’s proposals relate primarily to the opportunity to improve customer services through a new localities hub” “There is also the potential to generate additional savings by consolidating all staff on one site” I have been requesting information on the councils asset review which should tie in with the locality working plan since June 2012 I have recently received the information, it would appear now that far from closing and selling the majority of its 40 admin building across the City, they now plan to close just those within Stoke-upon-Trent all local area offices, appear now to be retained instead of moving the services to a 3 hub plan.

So where do they get improved efficiencies and all on one site from? Also the Locality review you refer to which was part of the old Forward plan as the “Corporate Accommodation Strategy – Central Business District” was removed from issue 36 of Forward Plan in June 2012 , and is no longer included in the Notice of Decision list of items to go before Cabinet, so cannot be going before Cabinet in April or May as claimed unless as an urgent decision.

Cabinet Member Cllr Paul Shotton also informed me that when “The Corporate Accommodation Strategy” was part of the Forward Plan that it does not need the approval of the City Council and is a matter for the Cabinet to determine. So again the disposal of Councils assets would not have gone to Full Council in any event so again no member involvement.

3: “The relocation to CBD will involve the vacation of the Town Hall and Civic Centre. The ‘one stop shop’ and library will remain in Stoke” according to the asset report linked to above the Local Stoke Service Centre is only to retained in the short term until regeneration begins in the Town.

4: Again you quote “The Council has discussed and debated the impact of the CBD on Stoke town in public meetings on 6 September 2012 and 24 January 2013.” see point 1, I feel you are putting too much weight on issues forced to Full council by a Residents Petitions and Opposition motion. No reports or evidence was submitted by Cabinet members or Officers to the Full council on either occasion.

5: “Members have had the opportunity to debate the future of Stoke town centre as part of the CBD assessment” When was this? When the Central Business would have been discussed in the past the issue of the administration move from Stoke Town was not on the agenda. News of the administration move only came to light in May 2012, while many welcome the CBD and office investment in Hanley it is the Council funded Civic Centre which needs full debate and information this clearly has never happened.

6: “I also note that the Council has not formally revisited the Stoke Town Masterplan to reflect the move of the administrative centre from Stoke to Hanley” it was reported in the local press 30th October 2012 “Officers also admit they are ‘not prescriptive’ about what happens to the buildings and will be prepared to rip up both the Stoke Town masterplan and suggested uses for the properties to secure a sale.”

7: “I am also satisfied that sufficient information has been presented to members to allow them to make their decision.” If by information you refer to the alleged debates on 6 September 2012 and 24 January 2013 where no information was actually provided I would wish you reconsider.

Ian Norris

District Auditor Reply

Dear Mr Norris,

thank you for your email of 1 April.

I note your comments about the decision making process which the council followed. The Council’s constitutional arrangements are based on an executive made up of leader and cabinet. This is a common model for local authorities and within this structure the cabinet is the key decision making body. At the Council meetings on 6 September 2012  and 24 January 2013 the concerns of those opposed to the Central Business District were clearly articulated. Members had the opportunity to reverse the decision and on both occasions supported the proposed development of CBD. Whilst I understand that you do not agree with the decisions taken, I am satisfied that they have been properly taken in accordance with the Council’s constitution.

The Council’s asset rationalisation plans are an ongoing project. I understand that there will be further reports to cabinet which will inform decisions on the future of local area offices. I also understand that there are no plans to close the Stoke local service centre.

I understand the concern that you express over the project but the Council’s regeneration strategy, of which CBD is only one part, is a long term undertaking and will take time to show results. I expect further information to be presented to members over the coming months and years as more detailed decisions are made over the development of the strategy.

I will continue to monitor the Council’s progress in implementing its regeneration strategy.

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