Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Loose talk costs money

As I posted earlier, yesterday I attended a meeting of the Regeneration and Resources Scrutiny Committee, possibly the Councils most important body when it comes to monitoring what our elected members and full time officials get up to.

The meeting was dominated by a report presented by Councillor McAtominey covering the foreshore area of the Borough and the Councils plans for its development. In attendance were members of the public, local action group’s representatives and members of the business community, all invited to present their views on the council’s plans.

With Councillor Ed Malcolm in the Chair, McAtominey presented his report, the centre of attention being the plans for Gypsies Green. The Councillors sentiment was clear: the foreshore project was a “4* Plus Project” and as such it was a “must do”. Whether “must do” also means “at all costs” remains to be seen.

Deputy Leader Councillor Ian Malcolm also gave a presentation. As de facto head of the Foreshore Project, Councillor I Malcolm was on song, warbling his way through a list of reasons why the project was good for the area. He praised the Little Haven Hotel, calling it an asset to the area even though he had initially objected to its building. When asked by Councillor Anglin as to the effects of a village green application on these plans, Councillor Malcolm was unequivocal in his response: councillors and the public should be under no allusions, if a village green application for this area went ahead, then the development plan would be dead in the water. Contrast this to the legalities of a decision regarding a village green application – when councillors consider any application, they cannot take into account any ramifications of their actions: they must only look at the validity of the request. Should an application reach village green committee stage in the future, Malcolm’s comments will have raised a legal technicality which will preclude many members from voting on the issue. On the issue of sporting facilities, Malcolm assured the meeting that alternative venues would be found, paid for from lease sales re Gypsies Green, Sandhaven and Lizard caravan parks and any other revenue obtained from the foreshore developments. This came as news to many people (including many Councillors who sat with mouths open in shock) but more of that later.

On ending his presentation, the Deputy Leader left the room as quickly as he could, which was a pity because members of the public and action groups were next up for input, something you would assume Mr Malcolm would like to hear. Clear he doesn’t want to know the opinions of the people who elected him. Never mind, nothing new there.

First up was Gordon Finch, Chair of the Save Our Seafront Association and Gypsies Green Action Group. Mr Finch’s case was clear: the groups he represented were against the Gypsies Green development, but not necessarily the remainder of any foreshore plans. Redevelopment was necessary, but the emphasis should be placed on a new athletics stadium or leisure facility, not a hotel. Badgered for an explanation of PFI rules, Chair Ed Malcolm had to be reminded that Mr Finch was a member of the public and as such he should not be asked to teach Councillors how to suck eggs. Perhaps if Councillor Malcolm STILL hasn’t grasped the concepts of PFI, he should stop building any schools under there guidelines until he has done a little bit of revision himself.

Next on the stand was a representative of South Shields Harriers. With a dignified presentation on why the Borough needed a top sports orientated facility, I initially thought we were in for a bland presentation. How wrong, this lean and mean runner was on the ball. When it came to telling the truth, he lapped the officials and Councillors in attendance. How was a modern, state of the art, private sports facility able to be built on an old pit heap (Harton) yet this Council, with all its resources and access to grants, unable to ensure that the toilets in Gypsies Green even worked? It didn’t stop there. Waving a sheet of paper in classic Chamberlain “peace in our time” stance, the Harriers representative nailed Ian Malcolm to the mast: Councillor I Malcolm has promised us a facility as good as or better than Gypsies Green if the stadium closes, and I want that written into the Committees minutes. And as the bible says, so it was and so shall it be! Eye brows were also raised when it was revealed that no sporting groups had been consulted on the closure of Gypsies Green till after that press had released the details. This was contrary to Ian Malcolm and David Slaters (Executive Director Regeneration and Resources) claims, who both assured the meeting at its start that consultation, had involved all interested parties. Between 2004 and the release of the closure plans, they spoke to none of the sporting groups involved with the Stadium. Any consultation was after the fact.

Still contemplating the details of this presentation (and while Councillor Spraggon some how produced some biscuits, but didn’t offer them around) Keith Donkin, Director Tavistock Leisure, and Mr Armstrong, Finance Director (I was unable to see his first name on his name plate) were at the table. Ah, the lions enter the den. Nothing to report really, except that they promised to use local contactors, local labour and would employ local people. All of this could prove a little difficult to honour: hotel employment figures show that nearly 70% of hotel labour comes from the European block, as does over 40% building site labour (in this region, Poland). Councillor Ed Malcolm tried to calm the waters by asking would the hotel have leisure facilities (please, please, please build a running track) Oh yes, came the reply. Oh glory, can the public use it? Well, there will be a membership fee. With not so much glory, will it be affordable? Let’s just stop there: 120 beds in a brand new hotel with a 4 star rating and hopefully, a Michellin chef – will it be affordable! The reply from Tavistock was classic “Well, it depends on what you call affordable!” End of debate.

The seats still warm, the Vice Chair of Nova Sports (they of Great North Run sponsorship and organisational fame) hit the stand. Councillor Ed Malcolm has missed his vocation – he should teach people how to “fawn”, such is his majestic control of the art. The upshot of the exchange was that Nova had no objection to the hotel, they would use it (but only one weekend a year) and they thought it would be full with runners (but only on one weekend of the year). Points of note though – they needed somewhere to finish the race, and so far South Tyneside Council had not offered an alternative. No they hadn’t thought about moving the finishing line to Sunderland, but then again, nobody had the foresight to ask him if Sunderland Council had approached them with a plan to do so. A bit of a more subtle approach may have teased out some more information here, but hey, this is a “Malcolm”, a name which should never be linked to “subtle”.

Which leads us to the conclusion and confirmation of the above last two sentences. David Slater confirmed in public that any revenue earned from the foreshore development would be ring fenced for a new leisure facility Councillor Jane Branley politely asked could that include a promise that this would include an athletics sports facility. Before Mr Slater could cry “we set policy” Ed Malcolm was at the microphone, interrupting Councillor Branley at every opportunity. What is it with the Malcolm’s: as soon as a Branley rises from a chair steam comes out of both brothers ears (Ian first, who then gives his steam to Ed). Nothing to do with the fact that the Branley’s have got the measure of South Tyneside equivalent of the Krays no doubt!

As the meeting ended, Councillor McAtominey moved with unprecedented speed to speak to the Tavistock Directors. They appeared to be old friends – surely they couldn’t have met before? Speaking of old friends, clearly Ed Malcolm and Macca are not, such was the negativity of body language between the two. Council Leadership succession problems I fear!

Sarcasm to one side, yesterday a Council deputy leader and a full time official made two promises I suspect they are not authorised or in a position to see honoured. Deputy Leader Ian Malcolm promised the Borough a facility equal to or better than Gypsies Green, and it has been written into the committee’s minutes. David Slater, though leaving the Councils employment, promised that revenue from the foreshore development would be used to pay for a new sports and leisure facility. With sale of Sandhaven and Lizard Lane caravan sites, and the possibility of the revenue from Gypsies Green, that’s over £18 million in the pot already. I suspect Irene Lucas will be livid with these promises.

Loose talk costs money, possibly even seats.


Adi Amen said...

Anybody see that half wit Curly at the meeting? You can bet your bottom dollar that he will post some spin, straight from his Labour party source. They recon he is walking around with three wellies on, he has his feet in that many camps.

The Last King of Scotland said...

Aye and a brain in none of em.