The Council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee (OSC) has long been the lion which never roared.
The OSC can go on site visits, conduct public surveys, hold public meetings, commission research and do all other things that they reasonably consider necessary to inform their deliberation, within available resources. They may ask witnesses, including Council Contractors to attend and address them on any matter under consideration and may pay advisers, assessors and witnesses a reasonable fee and expenses for doing so.
The committee has two distinctive remits, these being.
‘Overview’ focuses on the development of policies made by the Council,
‘Scrutiny’ which looks at decisions that have been made or are about to be made to ensure they are fit for purpose.
Also one must remember there is now a subcommittee titled – Finance and Performance Scrutiny Subcommittee (FPSS), who have a similar remit as the OSC.
Both of these committees have the power to look and ask questions about the £88 million the Council need to borrow to fund various projects, broken down as follows:
The OSC and FPSS needs access to relevant information the authority holds, and to receive it in good time, if it is to do its job effectively.
This need is recognized in law, with members of scrutiny committees enjoying powers to access information. In particular, regulations give enhanced powers to a OSC and FPSS members to access exempt or confidential information. This is in addition to existing rights for councillors to have access to information to perform their duties, including common law rights to request information.
Each request for information, the committees make should be judged on its individual merits, and the Council should adopt a default position of sharing the information they hold, on request, with OSC and FPSS members.
The law recognises that there might be instances where it is legitimate for the Council to withhold information and places a requirement on the executive to provide the the OSC and FPSS with a written statement setting out its reasons for that decision. See Reg 17(4) However, members of the executive and senior officers should take particular care to avoid refusing requests, or limiting the information they provide, for reasons of party political or reputational expediency.
Regulations already stipulate a timeframe for the Council’s executives to comply with requests from a scrutiny member. See Regulation 17(2).
The OSC and FPSS should have a keen interest in ‘following the council pound’, i.e. scrutinising organisations that receive public funding to deliver goods and services, such as Otterpool Park LLP and Oportunitas Ltd.
The Council should recognise the legitimacy of this interest and, where relevant, consider the need to provide assistance to scrutiny members and their support staff to obtain information from organisations the council has contracted to deliver services. In particular, when agreeing contracts with these bodies, authorities should consider whether it would be appropriate to include a requirement for them to supply information to, or appear before the two committees.
The Council have five projects they wish to develop and build housing on. They are:
Biggins Wood – Cheriton
Ship Street – Folkestone
Highview – Folkestone
It is known the first two require borrowing. The full business case for Otterpool Park and the Executive Summary are in the possession or under the control of the Council’s executive, as per Regulation 17(1)(a) As such, the OSC and FPSS have the right to request the Full Business Plan, as opposed to the Executive Summary, for Otterpool Park. The Shepway Vox Team suggest the OSC and FPSS make a request to see the full business plan for Otterpool Park, as the Council need to borrow £74.7m for the project to move forward. It makes sense to ‘follow the Council pound’ which will be spent by its wholly owned company, Otterpool Park LLP on infrastructure.
The full business case cannot be seen as exempt information as the Council so often claim under LGA 1972 Sch 12a s3.
Information is not exempt information if it relates to proposed development for which the local planning authority may grant itself planning permission, or permission in principle pursuant to regulation 3 of the Town and Country Planning General Regulations 1992 LGA 1972 Sch 12A s9.
It is clear the borrowing of £74.7m, and the full business case for Otterpool Park relates to the proposed development, of up to 10,000 homes, and which the Council may grant itself planning permission.
It is in the public interest to know from who the Council will borrow £74.7m. How much it will cost in interest repayments. How long they will borrow the money for. What interest rate they will borrow at and what interest rate the LLP will pay to the Council and when they’ll repay the capital by.
The OSC and the FPSS have the power to focus on the development of policies and look at decisions that have been made or are about to be made to ensure they are fit for purpose.
Let’s hope they do look into these matters, as we are sure they’ll be a roar of approval from the public, if committee members ‘follow the council pound‘ for all the projects mentioned above.
The Shepway Vox Team
Dissent is NOT a Crime