"Bizarre Secrecy" at Stroud District Council

The process of selling Stroud’s iconic Sub Rooms has been highly secretive. Key documents have been withheld, meetings have been held in private, and due process has not been followed. The Council may have breached the lawful requirement for openness and transparency in local government decision making.

UPDATE: since this article was published, the council published all three bids and part of the February consultation report on their website.

Last Wednesday, Stroud District Council were forced to announce that a secretive committee had made a decision about the Subscription Rooms. Their recommendation: that Ecotricity should buy the Sub Rooms and the square for £300,000. The process has been secretive – and possibly illegal. Read below to find out why.

Sub
Rooms and forecourt
Sub Rooms and forecourt.
Photo by Philip Halling

Anna Powell-Smith, a local software engineer and concerned citizen, has written an excellent article which asks three important questions about the process:

  1. Is the forecourt included in the sale of the Sub Rooms, and will it be protected for public use?

  2. Will the building be protected for public use?

  3. How will the public now be consulted, and is the Council’s process legal?

We’ve had no more information from the council or Ecotricity, so it seems likely that the forecourt is included; that no protections have been stipulated; and no more consultation is planned.

A local lawyer (who’d prefer to remain anonymous) has been digging into the legality of the council’s process. With their permission, we’ve used their research to dig into Anna’s third question in more detail.

Who will make the decision?

The Strategy and Resources Committee (S&R) is in charge of finance and asset management. Its 13 councillors will be deciding the fate of the Sub Rooms and the main square on 5th December.

The S&R Committee will base their decision based on the secretive work of 8 councillors known as the Task and Finish Group (T&F).

The Community and Licencing Committee has, apparently, not been involved meaningfully. It is the decision-making authority for whether a service is to be reduced, changed or abandoned, so we think they should have been part of the process.

The Full Council will not be involved. Major decisions should be made by the democratically-elected representatives of every part of the District. This decision will not be referred to them.

With these decision-making bodies in mind, here are some further questions:

Why have the activities of the T&F Group taken place in private?

All of the work so far has been done by the T&F Group, entirely in secret.

No agendas, minutes or reports have been published. The only published documents about the Sub Rooms review are the S&R report of Jan 2017, and a list of organisations who expressed an initial interest. These are the only public records of work which has spanned over a year. Anna’s Freedom of Information requests have failed to get any new information, except the names of the councillors in the group.

The Council have told us there are no formal decision criteria, because this “is not a procurement exercise”. This is unfair to all parties. Even with the best of intentions, goal posts can shift. In the interests of fairness and transparency, criteria should have existed and should have been public, and made available before the bid process started.

Finally, it appears that T&F Group meetings are meetings of the Council. They are not pre-meetings, nor informal meetings. They have been supported by officers who have provided regular advice. The meetings have not been compliant with the requirements for public access in accordance with the legislation. According to at least one member of staff, the internal reporting on the process has also not been adequate.

The T&F Group’s recommendation was due to be published on 17 November. However, by the end of October, their recommendation of the Ecotricity bid was common knowledge. This is why the decision was announced early. However, the report has still not been published, and is not due to be published until the day before the “information session” scheduled for 18 November.

Was there any meaningful consultation?

In November and December 2016, the Council carried out a “pre-review consultation”, which recorded a notable … call for an open review of all options.

Accordingly, as the January resolutions note, a crucial part of the review framework and community asset transfer process is, of course, consultation and engagement with the community and all stakeholders.

The consultation process as agreed by the S&R Committee included commitments to (my emphasis):

  • Issue press releases to provide updates on progress and future opportunities to consult
  • When appropriate, hold open drop-in sessions at the Sub Rooms to explain options coming forward and what they will mean, to gather feedback for assessing the options.

There was a single “drop-in” event on 18 Feb. The press release for that promised a report on the SDC website, but it isn’t there. However, it turns out that the report does exist - and luckily we have a copy.

At the event, a handout was distributed which said that the following would happen in October 2017:

  • Preparing and advertising a public consultation event on the options
  • Holding a consultation event and collating feedback for the task group.

Since February, there have been three press releases regarding the sale of the Sub Rooms: two notifications about the deadline for expressions of interest, and a notification that the property would be advertised for sale. No consultation sessions have been advertised, or happened (to our knowledge).

It is bizarre that the T&R has recommended the winning bid before gathering feedback on its report.

The second (and final) “drop-in” session will be on 18 November. This is just one day after the T&F Group report will be published. The event has been described by officials as being “only for information purposes”, and is expressly not a consultation event.

Was the T&F Group entitled to include the square in the sale?

The recorded resolution of the S&R Committee in January 2017 was for the T&F Group to invite bids for the building, but it has apparently included the square in the sale, as far as we know.

Does the Council have the right to sell the building at under its market value?

The recommendation is to sell the site to a private company for £300,000. This is at 50% of the assessed market value.

Current legislation and guidance requires local authorities to obtain best value when disposing of an asset. Any disposal for less must get consent from the Secretary of State, unless the disposal promotes or improves the well-being of the community.

As all the relevant documents are hidden, it’s not possible to understand the basis for this decision. However, the bid assessment must be seen to be open and transparent, and there would need to be a very clear rationale for selling the Sub Rooms and square to a commercial organisation at less than the assessed market rate.

Is T&F Group allowed to make a recommendation?

The S&R Committee’s January 2017 minutes resolve that “any bids received and consultation feedback will be reported back”.

However, a full recommendation has been made: much more than a report. And although we now know their recommendation, the actual report will apparently be withheld for two more weeks.

Does the Strategy and Resources Committee have the power to take the final decision?

Shouldn’t a major decision like this be made at a meeting of the full (50-member) council, not by a small committee?

And in any case, does the S&R Committee have the power? The Sub Rooms is a building where a public service is provided: the provision of cultural and community activities. The Committee is only allowed to consider finance and asset management. They have no remit or power to recommend the reduction or alteration of a service; this is the responsibility of the Communities Committee.

Yet the Communities Committee have never received a written report on this matter. They’ve not discussed it, and they’ve not delegated their responsibility to the Task and Finish Group. Instead, the Sub Rooms have been considered solely as an asset.

Our position

We believe that the Council has undertaken a process in which they have ignored the legal requirement for public access, ignored constitutional delegations, ignored committee delegations, and failed to consult appropriately on a significant change to a public service in contravention of their own decisions.

There appears to have been no constitutional decision to review the service or alter the provision provided at the Sub Rooms. There has been no decision to include the forecourt in the disposal, yet it appears to be part of the sale. We think the process breaches the lawful requirement for openness and transparency in local government decision-making, let alone accepted good practice.

There appears to be no lawful justification for selling the building at less than best value, to an organisation whose bid will involve a reduction in public access.

We are all hampered by the lack of information, and instead have been told just to “wait and see”.

What you can do

Write to your councillor here. Some questions you might want to include:

  • Has the decision making process been lawful?
  • Will the council publish all bids, reports on the sale, T&R minutes or notes, and the final T&R briefing document, well before the next drop in event?
  • How will the building, square, and public services be protected for public use in the event of a private sale?
  • Why won’t there be a full council vote on the decision?

Come to the “information event” on Saturday 18 November, from 9.30am at the Sub Rooms.

Attend the S&R Committee’s vote on the Sub Rooms on 5th December, from 7.30pm at Stroud Council, Ebley Mill.