North Herts District Council accepts report’s calls for transparency and decisiveness

29 September, 2017 - 08:26
Foundation House in Letchworth, where the cabinet meeting was held. Picture: Archant

Foundation House in Letchworth, where the cabinet meeting was held. Picture: Archant

Archant

North Herts District Council should be more transparent and decisive about major projects – that’s according to a forthright report accepted by top brass on Tuesday night.

North Hertfordshire District Council leader Lynda Needham. Picture: NHDC North Hertfordshire District Council leader Lynda Needham. Picture: NHDC

The report to cabinet, prepared by a district council task and finish group with revisions by its overview and scrutiny committee, declared: “The council needs to be more decisive about what it wants from larger projects and once it decides, it needs to get on with them.”

It also called for the district council to have “clear, documented objectives before it embarks on projects” – referring specifically to the lingering uncertainty surrounding the Churchgate project in Hitchin.

Council leader Lynda Needham and her portfolio holders accepted all 10 of the recommendations put forward in the report, which was presented by overview and scrutiny committee chairman Councillor Cathryn Henry during a meeting at Foundation House in Letchworth’s Icknield Way.

There was disagreement regarding points added by the overview and scrutiny committee relating to public engagement and access to non-confidential exception reports.

Councillor Michael Weeks, who headed the task and finish group, opposed certain changes made by the overview and scrutiny committee. Photo: JP Asher Councillor Michael Weeks, who headed the task and finish group, opposed certain changes made by the overview and scrutiny committee. Photo: JP Asher

The task and finish group’s chairman, waste portfolio holder Councillor Michael Weeks, said making these reports publicly available would only serve to engender criticism and slow projects down – and that all projects should have a freeze point after which decisions were final.

Nevertheless, the report recommended that the council “should ensure there is meaningful consultation with the public prior to it finalising its plans, and make sure it continues to engage with the public throughout the life of the project”.

Mrs Needham said: “I don’t have a problem with this, but I do have a problem with the perception externally.

“There could be a perception that if we continue to engage with the public throughout the life of the project, that could be seen as consulting with the public rather than engaging with the public to inform them.

“I am nervous of the perception that we would be continuing to consult, which would mean people might perhaps want things tweaked or altered.”

The cabinet decided the council would instead “inform the public” throughout a project, adopting a change suggested by Councillor Jane Gray.

The report called for the publication of comprehensive business plans showing forecast profits and losses, simpler handling of invitations to tender, and circulation of project board exception reports to all councillors – with non-confidential reports made available to the public.

While accepting these recommendations, the cabinet did make some amendments to wording – for example, at the suggestion of Councillor David Levett, comprehensive financial information would be presented “in an appropriate form that may be easily understood”.

The point was also made that the council should ensure large projects were properly resourced so staff would not end up working on them in their spare time, with the report stating: “If adequate resources are not available, the project should not begin until they are.”

Councillor Julian Cunningham said that while staff did often end up working in their spare time, there was no evidence to suggest the council had ever planned projects on the assumption that they would do so.

The long-running Hitchin Town Hall and North Hertfordshire Museum project was not looked at and will be scrutinised separately once it is completed.

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