The committee received a detailed presentation of the report by Independent Chairman Graham Garbutt. It was explained that the review was sponsored by Peter Jones, Deputy Chief Executive of Gloucestershire County Council, as he had no previous involvement with the Cotswold Water Park and that the report was to be scrutinised by the council through the Audit Committee.
Mr Garbutt paid tribute to the co-operation of members and staff of the local authorities, the district audit service, the prison service and the police. In particular he expressed thanks to Janet Bruce, Principal Auditor and Rodney Semple, Business Efficiency Manager, who had been seconded to the review team.
He explained that the review had identified a number of real concerns and shortcomings. It was noted that the report addressed such concerns and made recommendations for improvements to council procedures and for the future governance of the Cotswold Water Park.
It was apparent that the events at Cotswold Water Park illustrated the risks involved in transferring service delivery and assets from local authorities to outside bodies. Members felt the report highlighted the importance of ensuring that the necessary policies and procedures were in place to manage future transfers.
In response to a question members were informed that overall Gloucestershire County Council had good governance processes, but naturally this depended on whether staff followed them correctly.
Members noted that retired members of staff had been interviewed during the process and some of the information depended on their recollection of events that in some cases dated back to 2007. During the discussion it was noted that there was a missing file relating to the Cotswold Water Park. Mr Garbutt explained that the review team had exhaustively searched paper and electronic files for evidence relating to the missing file, but sadly to no avail. In response to a question members were informed that if the file had been located then it might have shed light on some of the issues, particularly regarding the rationale behind the decision to grant consent to the sub-lease. Members raised concerns relating to the missing file and the possible facts it may have contained. Mr Garbutt agreed that it would have been useful to have access to the file although there was no guarantee that it would have included additional information to that which had been made available during the review.
It was evident that the County Council’s complaints procedure needed addressing as there had been a failure in the process. Members felt this was a management challenge that needed to be overcome with some urgency. It was explained that any complaints relating to members were dealt with through the Standards Committee. Members felt that the Audit Committee needed to look at the complaints procedure in more detail.
The report also referred to the District Auditor’s review which was reported to the committee in September 2009. It was noted that unfortunately the review was curtailed before its completion, as the financial year ended and the issues which warranted further investigation could not be pursued. Members felt that the Audit Committee was perhaps at fault within its own remit as it could have pursued those issues further. It was agreed that the report and a covering letter would be sent to the Ombudsman.
It was explained that the combination of the roles of the Monitoring Officer and that of Director of Legal and Democratic Services may create a difficult tension in such circumstances. Mr Garbutt explained that in his opinion it could be increasingly difficult to support this combination of roles in the future as the Council faces greater challenges Members felt that the council’s constitution should be reviewed, as there was a great level of responsibility placed on the monitoring officer and this role should be clearly defined in order to remain subjective and ensure transparency.
The committee felt that they should write to the Ombudsman regarding the process and the handling of a detailed complaint about the council’s role in the granting of consent for the Keynes Country Park sub-lease. The report had expressed some concerns at the how this had been dealt with. It was agreed that the report and a covering letter would be sent to the Ombudsman. Members agreed that the Ombudsman, the County Council and District Audit had not fully responded to the complaintant and allegations about the water park.
The report highlighted the fact that County Council’s complaints policy seemed comprehensive and sound but processes for its operation appeared to be inadequate in some cases. Members agreed that staff need to be made fully aware of the complaints procedure. It was also suggested that where complaints were made through elected members, directors should be notified and informed of progress.
Some discussion took place regarding Freedom of Information requests and the provision of additional information over and above that requested. Members felt that rather than anticipating what a person requires, it is more beneficial to have a conversation with them in order to pinpoint what they require.
It was agreed that any future joint committee arrangement which needs council involvement should be subjected to detailed review before it is agreed that this is the best approach to achieve the desired outcomes.
It was noted that the scheme of delegation and policy for disposals needed to be aligned and, in doing so, it was suggested that advice should be sought from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).
It was suggested that a lot of work needed to be done to transform the Cotswold Water Park from a series of field-shaped lakes into a more attractive and sustainable environment. There remained the possibility that the area could be transformed into something spectacular with thought and landscaping, Members agreed that the area needed to be seen as a regeneration project, rather than just mineral extraction site. It was essential to look at local assets and the surrounding communities as a change of mindset was required. Members felt that major landowners should be involved in discussions.
Members felt that a veil needed to be drawn at some point and lessons needed to be learnt. It was therefore essential that the local authorities involved needed to pull together and not lose sight of the overall water park concept. Members felt that a broader perspective was required and that in the meantime a full copy of the report would be sent to the appropriate councils
Members wished to note that the dominant impression was of professional public servants working with diligence in increasingly challenging circumstances. Members scrutinised elements of the report in detail, but requested more time to consider the report fully and asked that officers return with an action plan and key recommendations to the April meeting. Members requested a copy of the appendices, to read in conjunction with the main report.
Officers explained that resources needed to be allocated to this exercise as there were a number of key issues including compliance which would need to be looked at in detail. It was explained that additional resources would be identified in the Internal Audit Plan for 2012/13 to support work around some of the issues raised in the report and then further compliance testing would be carried out later in the year.
As a point of clarification, members were informed that the report made reference to a former chairman of the joint committee and not the current chairman.
Members agreed to defer their decision on the recommendations until a draft action plan had been presented to the April meeting and detailed responses responses to the key recommendations had been presented to the June meeting.
Members also agreed that:
- A full copy of the report be sent to Cotswold District Council, Swindon Borough Council and Wiltshire Council.
- A letter regarding the handling of the initial complaint and a copy of the full report be sent to the Ombudsman and the Audit Commission by the Director of Strategic Finance.
- The complaints procedure and compliance with governance requirements should be reviewed
- The role of the monitoring officer and powers of delegation required further investigation
- Advice be sought from the RICS on the disposals policy and the scheme of delegation
- Members should receive copies of the appendices
- The report be referred to the appropriate Cabinet Members.