Ten days ago, the Shropshire Star broke the news that the Conservative administration is preparing to spend £7.5 million on refurbishing its central offices at Shirehall. The tender document for consultants to advise on this work has been published but councillors have yet to see any details. Papers for Thursday’s council reveal that costs of replacing its defunct computer systems have grown by £1.7 million to more than £23 million. That’s more than £30 million on computers and buildings at a time when we are told there is a shortage of money to keep leisure, arts and youth facilities going. Campaigners have accused the council of double standards in finding money for Shirehall but not for repairing diving boards at The Quarry swimming pool. Certainly, this is a “mire” created by the Conservative administation that has rule Shirehall for 8 years,
But first, after the recent elections, the council must elect a new leader.
The Conservatives will elect their new leader on Monday. That person will inexorably will become leader of the council. Leadership hopeful Malcolm Pate used an interview on BBC Radio Shropshire last Monday to make his pitch. He told Eric Smith and Clare Ashford that he might have challengers. He said he was standing for the leadership again not out of any egotistic motives but to “get the council out of the mire” it is in.
Pate: There’s a lot of superegos dashing about the place but I am confident we have a majority in the [Tory] group.
Ashford: Some might say you are included in [the superegos].
Pate: Not really. To be honest with you, I’ve been previously leader of the county council for six years. I have already done it and got the T-shirt. I am doing this purely for one reason and one reason alone. And that’s to get the council out of the mire it was in when I took over 15 months ago.
No egotism in that statement, obviously.
The admission that Shropshire Council was “in the mire” at the end of 2015 after more than six years of the Conservatives being in charge was not, of course, mentioned in the Tory manifesto for the recent elections. Pate is clearly blaming the problems on the previous Conservative leader, Keith Barrow. But he and other Conservatives voted Barrow in year after year and voted unanimously for whatever policies Barrow put forward, no matter how damaging. Those included blanket support for the failed commercial venture, ip&e. The Conservatives only acted to get rid of Barrow when the whiff of scandal around him became a stink.
Eric Smith asked Malcolm Pate about plans to refurbish Shirehall. Pate seemed irritated by the question.
Smith: You are having to find an extra £7.5 million to do a refurb job on Shirehall. Was that planned?
Pate: I do get a bit cross at times when we had the kind of headlines we had.
Smith: Well, I’m only asking.
Pate: I know… One of our philosophies and one of the ways we are going to get us out of problems is by investing to save. Now, Shirehall on a square foot by square foot basis is the cheapest accommodation you can possibly get in Shrewsbury.
Ashford: Is that because it is such a mess?
Pate: It is a 1950s building. It hasn’t had a lot of money spent on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that is all council money that will be spent. What we are going to try and do actually is market Shirehall as a venue for other businesses to move into there… So, it’s an income generator. It’s an invest to save… It should pay back in about four years, we hope.
Shirehall needs refurbishment. It’s doesn’t look good in the public areas and it is worse in the corridors of offices. This does not include the West Wing, which was refurbished to house former leader Keith Barrow and former chief executive Kim Ryley while the rest of the building was left to decay. There are areas of the building that are regularly checked for asbestos. The building is too hot or too cold and frankly shabby.
It got into this mess because Keith Barrow’s aim was to disinvest in Shropshire Council. He forced pay cuts on staff, got rid of key managers and lost experienced staff through an “anyone can leave” redundancy scheme. Nothing was spent on Shirehall, except for his own offices. At one point he said that Shirehall would be emptied of staff by the end of 2014. In 2015, he said the building was too expensive to run and was still for sale. How odd that his successor, Malcolm Pate, now says that remaining in a refurbished Shirehall is the cheapest option.
While the debate over the future of Shirehall continued, the council’s computer systems remained hopelessly inefficient. The need for an upgrade became long overdue.
The anticipated bill for new computers and software has gone up from £21.324 million to £23.037 million over the course of the last year. I have previously been sceptical of the business case for this upgrade because it is overly reliant on non-cashable benefits (see my previous article). I have no doubt that computers need upgrading but I am not sure that we have the right price for the work. When this project was put to council in July 2016, we Liberal Democrats asked for a second opinion on the costs. That has not been provided. I am concerned that the council has gone from spending almost nothing on its IT systems to throwing money at them.
It worries me that that could also be the case for refurbishing Shirehall.
At a time when Shropshire Council apparently can’t afford to fund leisure, cultural and youth services, we need to ensure that any investment in the council’s own facilities is absolutely essential and at the right price. I fear that we are lurching from a ‘spend nothing, run the council down regime’ to one that pays over the odds for essential work.
Whoever is elected leader at next Thursday’s council meeting, they must guarantee that we will get value for money on capital expenditure. The new leader must also ensure that communities as well as the council’s operations benefit directly from capital investments.