To receive questions from members of the public who may wish to ask a general question of the Mayor, Cabinet Member or the Chairman of a Committee in accordance with Council Procedure Rule 12.
(1) Mr. Thirlwall asked the Leader to tell him whether the Council had an anti-nepotism policy. The Leader confirmed that there was no specific anti-nepotism policy but allegations of nepotism would be dealt with under the Officer Code of Conduct for members of staff with conflicts of interest with regards to recruitment. For Elected Members, matters regarding the Nolan Principles would fall under the Member Code of Conduct.
In his supplementary question, Mr. Thirlwall explained the definition of nepotism. He stated that the Leader had appointed his spouse, Councillor Hoddinott, to the role of Cabinet Member with an allowance of £13,000 per year. He asked whether the Leader thought he was guilty of nepotism and if the relationship should be declared on both Councillor’s Register of Interest. Mr. Thirlwall went on to state that Councillor Hoddinott had been deemed unfit to be a Cabinet Member by Louise Casey in 2015 and as such the Leader should explain why Councillor Hoddinott was the best person for this job.
In response the Leader confirmed that Cabinet Members were appointed on merit and that he was lucky to be able to choose from a selection of high quality Councillors with national experience. He gave the example of Councillor Alam who had previously worked with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission; Councillor Roche who was a former advisor to the DFE and Councillor Hoddinott who was a current national local government officer for a national political party. The Leader explained that it would be an error on his part not to use the best talent available to him to serve the Borough. The Leader also explained that at the Centre for Public Scrutiny Conference 2 or 3 years ago, Louise Casey spoke about Rotherham Council and said that there were good people at Rotherham Council, specifically mentioning Councillor Hoddinott who had been scapegoated for the failings of those that gone before her. The Leader pointed out that those that had gone before Councillor Hoddinott included people like Mr. Thirlwall. The Leader also explained that Louise Casey had described his leadership as outstanding on more than one occasion and that they had made extraordinary progress on improving the Council. The Leader stated that Councillor Hoddinott had done an excellent job for the people of Rotherham by delivering major roads improvements and transport improvements. It was confirmed that the Council had been in intervention long before Councillor Hoddinott’s appointment due to the politicisation of road improvement decisions. Councillor Hoddinott had also led a huge change in household bin collections and introduced the maternity/paternity policy. The Leader explained that the Borough was a better place for women because of the work Councillor Hoddinott had done with sex establishments. The Leader was proud of Councillor Hoddinott’s achievements as Cabinet Member and confirmed that she had not accepted any of her Special Responsibility Allowance for her work as a Cabinet Member and as such there had been no financial benefit to his household.
(2) Mr. Felstead asked a question on the PFI type funding agreement for Forge Island. He asked the Leader to demonstrate the best value to the tax payer. Mr. Felstead explained that, as he understood it, Muse Developments were putting £30 million into construction of the buildings and that the Council would then rent the buildings back from Muse for 35 years for an unknown amount of rental and that after the 35 years, the Council would have the option to buy back the buildings. Mr. Felstead believed that would cost over £200 million based on the last 35 years property prices and did not make sense and, therefore, was another example of mismanagement of money. Mr. Felstead asked why this PFI type of scheme was better value for money than the Council just investing the £30 million itself.
In response the Leader explained that this was not a PFI arrangement but a contractual arrangement with Muse where the Council would take on a head-lease for facilities that they were going to be built. The Leader also explained that the reason it is good value for money was that the Council is not a cinema developer and does not have the skills or experience to bring in a cinema developer. The Leader explained that if the Council had gone down the route of developing the project itself rather than appointing Muse, he expected Mr. Felstead would have objected to that as a waste of money. Muse were selected as the development partner though a competitive tender process which demonstrated best value. It was expected that rather than costing the Council money, the development would generate a small profit for the Council. The head-lease was not yet fixed and would not be fixed until all commercial partners were in place.
In his supplementary question, Mr. Felstead explained the Council would still get the same amount of profit if they went directly to a builder rather than through Muse Developments. He believed that if the Forge Island Scheme was a success, the Council could end up paying hundreds of millions of pounds when it could have just paid £30 million up front. Mr. Felstead was concerned about the business plan that relied on parking fees. He explained that residents would use other facilities such as Meadowhall where they did not have to pay for parking. Mr. Felstead also stated that the Cinema industry was a risky industry to invest in and may not be around in 35 years. He also explained that Muse was a London based developer which took money out of the local economy. Mr. Felstead highlighted the fact that the Council were advertising the Head of Change post at £550 a day which he believed was to help the Council get out of bad financial decisions. Mr. Felstead’s supplementary question was when would the Council conduct a full financial consultation on the scheme?
The Leader did not accept much of what Mr. Felstead had stated and explained that the risk of the development was shared and that the Council’s risk did not begin until Muse had contracts in place for the development. There are limits of the amount of commercially sensitive data that can be put in the public domain but the cinema had been widely consulted on and was a very popular choice when the Leader consulted on it around 6 years ago. All of the documents relating to the decision making on the project had been published in the correct way which allowed people to comment before the decisions were taken. The Council wanted this to be a success and the Council had acted in a usual and standard way in bringing forward this development.