(a) Notice invoking the Call-in;
(b) Minutes of the Cabinet Meeting held on 27 May 2021 (see pages 19-28);
(c) Report submitted to Cabinet on 27 May 2021.
The Sub-Committee received the papers in respect of the call-in notice submitted by six Members of the Council in relation to a decision made by the Cabinet on 27 May 2021 on the Council’s Accommodation Strategy and New Harrow Civic Centre.
The Chair advised the Sub-Committee that as the Cabinet report contained confidential appendices, if there were any questions in relation to that part of the report the meeting would need to move into private session. The representative of the signatories confirmed that he did not intend to raise any questions on the confidential appendices.
The Chair invited the representative of the signatories to present his reasons for the call-in. The representative referred to the call-in notice which set out six grounds for the call-in of the Cabinet decision and went on to emphasise a number of points in relation to each of the grounds as follows:
Inadequate consultation with stakeholders prior to the decision
There had been no meaningful consultation with Harrow residents as to where the Council would operate from or with those residents that lived in proximity of the Forward Drive site.
With reference to Council staff, there had been no mention of the proposed move to Forward Drive in either of the two staff Pulse surveys. There now appeared to be an expectation that staff would work 50% at home and 50% in the office which was a shift from the previous proposal. There had been no examination of where staff would be based, how they would travel to the office or the impact of the reduction of car parking spaces.
In terms of partners, for example the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), there was no evidence of consultation on the proposals. The representative stated that there had been no consultation with councillors in terms of where Council meetings would be held or details of how it was envisaged that Members, staff and residents would travel to and from meetings safely as they often ended late in the evening.
The absence of adequate evidence on which to base a decision
A key dependency of the Accommodation Strategy was the ‘flexible futures’ scheme which had not been agreed. There was no evidence in the Cabinet report of the parking requirements for either the new Civic Centre or the Forward Drive site. There had been no consideration of where staff travelled to work from or whether they were required to travel around the borough as part of their role.
The concerns in relation to the safety of Members, staff and residents at the end of late evening meetings had not been addressed in the Accommodation Strategy. There had been a suggestion that Committee meetings be held during the day, but this was not a suitable option as many councillors worked.
In terms of the Strategy for the new Civic Centre, no business plan had been presented and the representative questioned how the Cabinet made the decision without this in place.
The action is not proportionate to the desired outcome
Members were reminded that the desired outcome of the new modern Civic Centre, which would accommodate most Council staff, had been the regeneration of the Wealdstone area. This no longer appeared to be the case as it would not, by definition, be a Civic Centre at Peel Road and, due to a planning error in relation to the Forward Drive site, the top two floors of which would now accommodate staff.
It was emphasised that the scheme was no longer cost neutral.
Potential Human Rights Challenge
The Equality Impact Assessment did not provide any analysis of the staff who had classified themselves as having a disability and so the effect of the Strategy was unknown. The Cabinet report was inaccurate in that there were 24 disabled parking bays at the Civic Centre with an additional 500 spaces that could be used if the bays were occupied or a staff member chose not to advise the Council of their disability. The Strategy would reduce the overall amount of parking by over 70%.
Contrary to the Policy Framework
During the last six years all corporate documents had indicated that the Council would have one main site. This change in the way of working had not been referenced in the Borough Plan agreed by Council in February 2021. In addition, the Council Delivery Plan had not yet been approved by Cabinet.
Contrary to, or not wholly in accordance with the budget framework
Members had been assured that the new Civic Centre would be cost neutral, but the cost of the Forward Drive site had not been included. The top two floors of that site and the fit out, should be included in the costings.
Further, the Registrars team had not been consulted in terms of where they would be located.
The Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council responded to the points raised both in the call-in notice and the presentation by the representative as follows:
· The Cabinet report recognised the significant amount of work done and it was clear that a large Civic Centre was no longer required but services would continue to be delivered. There had been a reduction in the number of residents visiting the Civic Centre with many transactions now done online;
· In relation to the Peel Road site, there had been cross party discussions since 2016 and the Cabinet report set out the considerable benefits for staff;
· The Strategy would enable the Council to build houses;
· Access points for residents to Council services across the borough, such as libraries, were being considered;
· The location of staff accommodation was a matter for the Chief Executive;
· The general feedback from staff in relation to homeworking had been positive but it was recognised that some had concerns. There had been discussion with staff groups and risk assessments for homeworking would require updating. The Civic Centre was currently being remodelled as a Civic Hub and, from September, staff would be able work more agilely;
· In terms of parking and the EQIA, the Cabinet report made it clear that demand and take up for disabled parking would be reviewed. The Duty of Care was taken seriously, and any additional parking would be secured by design;
· Wealdstone was a high PTAL area and the Cabinet report indicated that the Strategy would have a positive impact. Members were encouraged to visit Wealdstone to see the improvements that had taken place;
· The Strategy had been fully costed in the budget and reported to Cabinet.
In accordance with Committee Procedure Rule 4.1, the Sub-Committee agreed that two Members, who were also signatories to the call-in notice, be permitted to speak. The Sub-Committee then asked questions, made comments and sought clarification as follows:
· Concern was expressed at the proposed reduction in parking spaces and the Leader advised that both the London Plan and Development Plan looked to reduce parking across London. The representative of the signatories stated that the purpose of the call-in was to ask Members to consider the way the Cabinet decision had been made as there was no evidence of the demands for parking or the effect on those with disabilities;
· A member of the Sub-Committee advised that the safety of Councillors, staff and residents late at night following meetings had been raised at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and he questioned the impact of the Strategy on those individuals with protected characteristics. The Leader reminded Members that the Council already had policies in relation to lone working and out of hours working in place and that officers would be undergoing training in order to make proper assessments. If necessary, the Council would meet the cost of a member of staff’s travel home late at night. A Member emphasised that there would be a greater number of individuals leaving the new Civic Centre on foot and there would therefore be financial implications for the Council in meeting that cost;
· In response to a Member’s comments that there appeared to be an issue with the process in making the Cabinet decision and the request for an assurance from the Leader that there had been meaningful consultation with staff, the Sub-Committee were advised that staff consultation had started a couple of years ago and it was clear that staff did not want to go back into the office 9-5; they wanted a modern working environment and flexible working. A collaborative space would be provided but there would also be room for those staff members that struggled to work from home, subject to the agreement of the relevant line manager;
· The representative of the signatories asked what percentage of staff lived within one hour of the new Civic Centre by public transport and was advised that due to staff turnover it was not possible to provide this figure;
· A Member, who was a signatory to the call-in notice, reminded the Sub-Committee that the Council would be applying for planning permission and that the Peel Road site might be too constrained; evidence was needed. It appeared that Cabinet were trying to correct the error in relation to planning permission at Forward Drive;
· In response to the concerns in relation to safety and accessing the Peel Road site, the Deputy Leader advised that Harrow was the safest borough in London and that Wealdstone was well connected in terms of transport links;
· Clarification was sought from Leader as to why it was felt that the decision was proportionate, and the Member also questioned the possible alternatives to the Strategy that had been approved by Cabinet. The Sub-Committee were advised that report addressed whether the size of the Civic Centre was commensurate with the needs of the Council and that the money being saved as a result of a smaller building would enable more affordable housing to be built and also improve the infrastructure across Harrow. The Avison Young report had, pre-pandemic, been optimistic in terms of lettings opportunity in relation to the new Civic Centre building in Wealdstone but it was now clear that Covid 19 had damaged the lettings market;
· In response to questions from the Sub-Committee on the costs of the Accommodation Strategy and the level of savings arising from having a smaller Civic Centre, the Deputy Leader provided the figures and the Director of Finance confirmed that these were correct and included in the capital programme;
· A question was asked as to whether interaction with the public would be reduced as a result of a smaller Civic Centre. It was confirmed that the intention was that the new Civic Centre be the ‘front door’ to the Council and that consideration was being given as to how interaction with residents could take place, for example, at libraries and the Arts Centre. There would also be rooms bookable for meetings at the new Civic Centre;
· A member of the Sub-Committee challenged the figures in that the Cabinet report indicated (page 127) that the total forecast for the Accommodation Strategy was £44,194m which contrasted considerably from the £14m agreed by Council as part of the Capital budget;
· Concerns were expressed about the lack of business plan and an officer clarified that references to the business plan related to the Harrow Strategic Development Partnership.
In summary, the representative of the signatories reiterated that the reason for the call-in was due to the way the Cabinet decision had been made and the lack of evidence. The Council’s capacity to be flexible was being removed, there had been no analysis in terms of the amount of parking required, many of the figures were out of scope or not included and significantly more was being spent than had been planned for. He challenged the decision in terms of the adequacy of the consultation, the EQIA, the budget and policy framework and stated that the Strategy was not going to be cost neutral. He reminded Members that the original intention of the Strategy was to regenerate Wealdstone.
The Leader of the Council, in summary, stated that the decision was about the size of the new Civic Centre in Wealdstone and whether the Forward Drive site was used.
The Chair thanked the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council and the signatories to the call-in notice for their attendance, participation and responses to questions.
The Sub-Committee adjourned from 7.09 pm to 7.54 pm for deliberations.
RESOLVED: That the challenge to the decision should be taken no further and the decision be implemented.
[Councillors Stephen Greek and Norman Stephenson requested to be recorded as having voted against the above resolution].