On Monday 9th May the Lambeth Scrutiny Committee met to discuss Cressingham Gardens. I attended purely as an observer to better understand how the scrutiny process worked. In my view, the Lambeth scrutiny committee is not fit for purpose and should be reviewed as a matter of urgency. Under the circumstances I felt obliged to write to Lib Peck Leader of Lambeth Council and put my concerns on record.
Councillor Lib Peck
Leader of Lambeth Council
cc Lambeth Democracy, Councillors Scott Ainslie, Matthew Bennett, Edward Davie
On Monday I attended the Lambeth Scrutiny Committee meeting on Cressingham Gardens. I was doing so only as an observer having no direct connection with Cressingham Gardens indeed I have never even been there so am not in a position to comment on the rights or wrongs of Lambeth’s proposal or The People’s Plan. I would however like to share some observations and concerns about the scrutiny process that I witnessed that night.
What I was expecting to see was something akin to appearing before a select committee in Parliament where individuals invited to appear would be properly interrogated on decisions made. Although they would be given questions in advance to act as a framework, the actual questions asked may be very different. On select committees the Chair has a particularly important role in this respect in ensuring that the right questions are asked and that important decisions are given proper scrutiny.
Based on what I witnessed on Monday, the scrutiny process may tick some boxes in terms of its stated aims but it falls well short of the standard I would expect if good evidence based decisions are to be made. Some good questions were certainly asked and points made by councillors and the public. However, the prepared responses should have been probed properly.
What I took away from the meeting was that;
- Lambeth had been accused of coercion,
- Officers/councillors have been accused of lying
- Financial information of Lambeth’s proposal has been misrepresented
- Lambeth’s proposal has a negative NPV
- To avoid risk of potential bankruptcy an SPV would be set up.
- Tenants whose homes had been threatened with demolition were given only 20 hours (later extended to a few days) to consider complex financial information
As a local resident looking for reassurance that my Local Authority is making good decisions I was NOT reassured by my first visit to a scrutiny committee. In my view council officers were let off the hook and their decisions were NOT adequately scrutinised.
Lambeth has many good points but its record on housing management is not one of them. To diversify into property development is a very VERY high risk strategy. That decision is so far as it applies to Cressingham Gardens did not get due scrutiny at the meeting. Not even close. In my view, the current scrutiny arrangements appear not fit for purpose and should be reviewed as a matter of urgency.
I have included some specific comments on the meeting below for consideration
COMMENTS ON SCRUTINY MEETING
1. Handling of hecklers
There were some basic errors made at the beginning of the meeting and control was lost almost immediately. The technique that I’ve seen work best is to announce the ground rules and make it very clear that if anyone heckles or speaks disrespectfully then they will be asked to leave. By all means the Chair should give a warning for misdemeanours but hecklers should have been handled more robustly. Had an early example been made by asking a heckler to leave, the meeting might have run more smoothly.
2.Time allocated to speaker – was it 2 or 3 minutes?
The Chair stated that speakers only had 2 minutes whereas speakers had apparently been told they had 3 minutes. Once the discrepancy was noted it would have been prudent to check what speakers has actually been told. The approach taken by the Chair was confrontational and invited further heckles.
3 No time allocated for general questions from the floor
If the public were satisfied that the scrutiny committee were going to ask probing questions then there might be less need for questions from the floor. Given that this was not the case and feelings were running high it would have been prudent to allow means for some questions from the floor. In my experience asking for questions to be written down allows everyone – including the quiet ones – a chance to have their question(s) answered without needing to identify themselves which brings me to the next observation
4. Claims made of intimidation
This claim has been made before in other forums and where this is the case those making the claim should be required to provide evidence to the Chair The way this point was raised at the meeting was in my view confrontational and invited further heckles. If my home was under threat of demolition I would like my voice to be heard. Choosing to raise my voice in public is hardly as intimidating as threatening to demolish someone’s home. In any public meeting it is up to the Chair to manage the meeting and make sure people get heard. The method outlined at (3) above is one approach to make sure everyone gets heard.
5. Focus of questions
As is the case with Select Committees I think it important to probe decisions made by council officers and follow wherever that leads. That did not happen on Monday. Not even close. It becomes rather contrived if questions the Committee are limited to those for which advance notice was given. There were some obvious follow up questions to probe the prepared response but these were not asked.