Scrutiny in action: Five Acres redevelopment
By Vilnis Vesma
On 24 September the District Council's Strategic Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which I chair, met to discuss the redevelopment of the former college site at Five Acres in Coleford. This has stood empty for many years. An ambitious scheme to develop a leisure and cultural 'destination' facility was proposed by the relevant parish council. Originally conceived to cost in the region of £23 million, the project has since passed to the District Council where it has been pursued by successive administrations. The story has an extra twist: the built-up part of the site has been offered to the District Council for £1, although there are conditions attached and owning it would entail holding costs of over £170,000 a year in business rates and site security.
A recording of the scrutiny session is here and what follows is the text of a memorandum from the Committee to the Council's leadership summarising their conclusions:
1. Given the public pronouncements by the Leader to the effect that the project will definitely go ahead, we welcome your reassurances that any decision to proceed will in fact be based on evidence, and that Cabinet members feel able to act objectively regardless of the Leader's known position.
2. Given the Council's lack of operational expertise relating to the venture being contemplated, and the financial risk to which it might become exposed, we welcome the Cabinet's recognition-shared by the Project Director-that joint ventures with commercial partners should be considered as an option. We would go further and suggest that this should be recognised as the default position.
3. Although we have received update reports at intervals, some of us perceived a worrying degree of secrecy around the project. Published notes of Programme Board meetings show action points only, and for over two years it has reported only to informal meetings of the Cabinet which are held in private and publish no notes. We therefore request that the Programme Board:
a) shares with the Committee information it gives to informal Cabinet meetings; and
b) includes more details of its deliberations in its published notes of meetings
4. We welcome the fact that you are contemplating a process leading to a Full Council decision in December 2020 on the business proposition and site acquisition; and we ask that the Project Board send to the Committee within four weeks a timescale for all of those aspects of the process leading to a Full Council decision, including milestones.
5. We note that a distinction can be drawn between the ambitious 'leisure destination' concept, which would be a commercial venture, and the leisure and recreational needs of the local community (as expressed in Recommendation 2 of the Indoor Built Sports Facility Strategy produced by Max Associates). Some of us feel that the two have become confused and we would suggest that this distinction should be made clearer in future discussions of the subject.
6. Noting that the Programme Board is appointed by, and reports to, the Cabinet it seems anomalous that the Cabinet thought it necessary to defer to the Programme Board on policy regarding disclosure.
7. Finally, as discussed, we request that the Cabinet shares with the committee now:
a) the group manager's review document;
b) the project brief;
c) the methodology used for the soft market testing exercise, and
d) when available, the raw results of market testing."