by Alan Dean on 14 October, 2018
I am writing this post wearing the hat of the chair of Uttlesford DC’s Scrutiny Committee. For those not familiar with local government structures, clause 6.3.8 of UDC’s constitution says that one of the Scrutiny Committee’s functions is to “question members of the executive (cabinet)….about their decisions and performance”. I am not writing today on behalf of the Liberal Democrat council group.
The issues I will write about are (i) comments in the local press about the Council’s investment strategy at Chesterford Research Park over investment risk; (ii) comments in the national press by the nearby Wellcome Trust about Brexit; and (iii) the refusal of the cabinet member for Finance & Administration, Cllr Simon Howell, to respond in an open and constructive manner to my questioning on these matters at the Full Council meeting on October 9th 2018.
Since that meeting, I have been asked to comment by a press reporter. This blog post meets that request.
In May 2017 the Council loaned to its wholly owned subsidiary Aspire (CRP) Ltd the sum of £47.25m to purchase a 50% share in Chesterford Research Park to the north of Saffron Walden. The loan to Aspire was funded by the Council borrowing money at favourable interests rates. The decision was made by the Council’s Cabinet and was endorsed by the Full Council.
The Council’s investment strategy was considered at the Scrutiny Committee on September 27th. The Council is seeking to build up revenue-earning investments that plug the gap in its finances caused by central government’s withdrawal of funding to all councils. The alternative would be significant cuts in council services or large rises in Council Tax, which the Westminster Government effectively blocks.
The investment strategy can be read here: Appendix One – Investment Strategy , item 8. PDF 2 MB
The draft minutes of the Scrutiny meeting record: “The Cabinet Member for Finance and Administration (Cllr Simon Howell) introduced the report on the Council’s Investment Strategy. The Chairman asked whether the Council had a risk register relating to its investments. The Assistant Director – Corporate Services said there was a risk register for Chesterford Research Park and a similar approach would be taken for other acquisitions.
“In response to a question regarding the risks to the Council’s investment following Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the Cabinet Member for Finance and Administration said reserves were in place and a covenant of tenancy had been agreed to safeguard the Council’s position. He added that the tenants were not overly concerned as they were research, rather than manufacturing, companies and would not be adversely impacted by a withdrawal from the customs union. In general, he said, good progress had been made and the park was attracting new tenants.
“The Chairman said he had asked for feedback from the non-executive directors of Aspire on the progress and risks of the Council’s investment at Chesterford Research Park. This feedback would be brought to Members at a future committee meeting.”
In fact, I asked the Cabinet Member for Finance and Administration to raise my questions about Brexit risk at a meeting with non-executive directors of Aspire due two days later. This he promised to do, but it seems that he forgot. I have since been refused leave to put my questions in writing to the non-executive directors, though I have been assured they will be relayed to the whole Aspire Board in a month’s time.
I asked Cllr Howell at last Tuesday’s (October 9th) Full Council meeting to comment on the national press report that the Wellcome Trust based on Chesterford Research Park’s doorstep at Hinxton could be at risk from Brexit.
Wellcome’s Director, Mr Jeremy Farrar, had written: “Wellcome, both politically and financially independent, wants to support scientists and researchers, wherever they are from, to tackle the greatest global health challenges. We have invested in the UK for more than 80 years. It has provided an environment in which science and innovation can thrive, but if the conditions and the culture here are damaged, that will affect our support. It is not unconditional”
If a major operation like the Wellcome Trust were to downgrade its UK operations owing to the UK becoming less attractive as a medical science base after Brexit, it is reasonable to ask questions about risks to the whole science park cluster around Cambridge, including Chesterford Research Park.
Last Tuesday’s response from Cllr Howell was a matter of regret to me. He described my questioning as grandstanding and comprising cheap political points that should not be raised in public at a Full Council meeting. I responded that I was concerned at his defensiveness, as it suggested to me that there was something to hide.
Brexit is a topical matter of public interest both nationally and locally. Risks to all businesses need to be addressed. I hope that I am wrong about Cllr Howell’s defensiveness. I await feedback from the Aspire Board meeting on November 22nd.