Friday, 4 December 2015

Charitable Land: Who Cares?

It’s getting harder to remember, but there was a time when we expected people holding public office to deal plainly and honestly with those of us who pay their salaries. Some of us still do have such expectations, but it feels as if we’re just a small rump of naive citizens, slowly dying out – but not quickly enough for the spiv element in so-called public service.

Great public benefactors of the past like Alderman Graves would feel confident enough in the public servants he was dealing with to decide to give to the people of Sheffield large tracts of land for recreational use. This was designated charitable land. Nowadays nobody but the most guileless would dream of handing over important assets to Sheffield City Council.

Blacka is Charitable Land, an important legal status and one that should not be taken lightly. Sheffield City Council has already fallen foul of the Charity Commission when it decided to lease Blacka to SWT, a situation that took several years to resolve.

There is a published guide from the Government and the Charity Commission explaining to councillors the Council’s role and responsibility as charity trustee. It is made clear that it is the council as a whole, i.e. the body of councillors which is “the trustee”. As it says: “While ongoing management may be delegated to officers, responsibility for decision-making and oversight rests with the councillors.”

That is definitely not the way things have been happening here. In fact no proper oversight at all. They were not even doing the minimum of what they claimed they were doing.

My Freedom of Information request to SCC last year asked how the Council was performing its function as charitable trustee. After considerable delay (6 weeks and the statutory period for replies is 20 days) I got a reply from a senior officer copied to a Director, along with a few other documents. The full response can be read here.

In that letter from the officer I was told:

One method of monitoring and ensuring accountability that has not happened in the last three years has been the annual report to the relevant Scrutiny Board. This has not happened for a variety of reasons but I am very clear that it needs to be reintroduced this year. Clearly this report to Scrutiny is much broader than just Blacka Moor but it is an important tool in ensuring transparency and accountability for Sheffield City Council’s open space sites that are managed through a long term lease to a third party.
Clear enough, really clear. So it's going to happen.

But wait! No it's not. We can't have accountability. Whatever next? The above words meant nothing. They had a complete about-face when  Mr Paul Billington, the SCC Director responsible, stopped to think.

Note the words:

I am very clear..”,  and “an important tool in ensuring transparency and accountability”.
In fact almost the same words I have used myself when raising this. The reports to the Scrutiny Board were a condition of the funding agreement by which SRWT received an amount from the Council each year. They were also an opportunity for the Council to publicly carry out its duties as charitable trustees, take responsibility for decisions and perform an oversight function. Three years had passed at least when those duties were not carried out – three years during which significant decisions were taken by SRWT without the oversight of the charitable trustees. Those decisions were highly contentious, and worse than that, because they were decisions which tied in the management to ten year legal agreements with other organisations - all without the oversight of those who were the legally responsible trustees. That is bad enough, seriously bad. But the thing is made many times worse because the one group that was scrutinising SRWT, the RAGhad been killed off, enabling the organisation to function with no public oversight at all - and that with the connivance of officers of SCC. All to enable the organisation to make self serving and contraversial decisions that needed proper scrutiny.

In any properly run organisation this would be seen as serious dereliction of duty – a managerial car crash. But in Sheffield? Just the way stuff happens, presumably? But no, it's not that at all. It's actually a carefully thought out strategy disguised as an accidental blunder, a slip up on the part of the officers.

“Oh dearie me how could we have forgotten to do this? Who would have thought it? Terribly sorry and all that. But, you know, as the saying goes, 'we are where we are'.”

Local officials are not experts in much, but disguising bad practice and cheap skulduggery to look like culpable but forgivable incompetence is what they're very good at. They hope they'll get away with nothing worse than the citizens shaking head in disbelief. That's manageable in their view.

It could even have been planned ahead from 2006. They have to do something in their offices and meetings.

Having connived and colluded so far, officers were then  emboldened to go a step further. A little stroll down the corridor to a mate in the legal department was all it took. Having said (above) that the report to Scrutiny clearly “needs to be reintroduced this year” he persuaded the legal department to overrule his own commitment and declare that SRWT does not need report to Scrutiny.

Proof once more if it’s needed that SCC officers liaising with partner organisations get into cosy relationships in which they routinely side with the private interests of the service providers to the detriment of the public interest – the interests of the public which employs them.

So no oversight of the charitable land whatever the Charity Commission expects and no scrutiny of the self-serving management of SRWT. To the two ‘c’ words used above, connived and colluded let’s add a third – contemptible. But I can think of a couple of others.

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