Thursday, 6 August 2015

Penzance 400 over spend report

After much mud slinging, hand wringing, press coverage and the like. The report into the over spend for the Penzance 400 celebrations has been published and placed in the public domain. Here I want to draw attention to some of the points but as it is 35 pages long and available online for those willing to go through it, I won't here. Although of course I have been through it and am willing to talk about either in the comments section below or via email robscornishblog@gmail.com.



As a short summary of what happened. The council had agreed to hold events to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the town receiving a charter last year. Although a number of events including a charter fair, a beating the bounds ceremony, theatrical performances, a Penlee exhibition were organised the big event was the 'Pirates on the Prom' Guiness World Record Attempt. To cover the costs of running these events the town council budgeted for £22,850 (which came from £12,000 sponsorship and £10,850 from council budgets. There was a HLF bid to pay for the rest. Unfortunately and what was a rather embarrassing mistake picked up in the report, there was another bid being entered for Penlee House, the problem being one organisation can not apply for 2 grants simultaneously. Therefore the PZ 400 bid was withdrawn, the rest of the narrative is picked up in the report:

"When the clash of bids was finally realised (late February 2014), the bid from PZ400 was withdrawn, with less than three months before the event. By then a substantial number of contracts had been issued and considerable advance publicity arranged – not least the event was being featured in First Great Western’s onboard magazine. 

It is clear cancelling the event at such short notice was not a practicable option available to the Council or the Director of the event, without causing serious damage both to the reputation and financial standing of the Town and the wider area. 

Finally, with only days to go before the event, both Cornwall Council and Devon & Cornwall Police raised their requirements for Health & Safety and Policing the event. There had apparently been insufficient advance dialogue with these parties to plan for these eventualities. 

The day itself, although it did not break the Guinness Book of Records figure, was by all accounts a success and went off without a hitch. The event brought a large number of people to Penzance – who spent a considerable amount of money in the town." Page 17 

This is where procedures went out the window. The council remained committed to the total spend which had rocketed to £63,622.75, therefore £55,846.81 over the agreed budget. This money was duly spent and recorded through the Finance and Property Committee. However there was no official decision to spend this extra money (as demanded by the Council's Standing Orders and Financial Regulations). The report unfortunately did not apparently uncover record of who made these decisions although the money was spent. It neither reveals what council and other members of the Penzance 400 Organising Committee had to say when it was reported to them that the HLF bid would not be submitted. Certainly staff and members of the council were aware of this problem and surely aware of the increasing potential financial liability for the council.

There are a number of recommendations and conclusions in the report, they are well worth a read (as is the whole report). For me, my culpability and the reason I should apologise is for not paying better attention and asking more questions. The Good Councillor Guide is clear in the following statement: "As a councillor, you share collective responsibility for financial management of the council." (page 3) The report notes that the Penzance 400 spend went over budget it also notes that only 1 councillor picked this up, this is clearly not good enough with any amount of money let alone £55,000+. This is even though clearly in black and white to 3 committee meetings it was in the papers the difference between the budgeted and actual expenditure. It's with little surprise that one of the report's recommendations is this:

"Councillors in Penzance Town Council have, on this issue, abdicated their responsibility to scrutiny. This is a fundamental duty and should be carried out regularly and within the public domain. If scrutiny had been regularly exercised this issue would never have arisen." Page 31

Draw your own conclusions from the report available online here, There is various levels of blame levelled at people in authority and those more involved in the day to day matters of this. But for myself even though I was not in a position of authority within the council relevant to this over spend, I have to be aware that the major role of councillors is to ask questions, to not show complacency to always be listening, reading and scrutinising and acting accordingly.

I hope this report will be ultimately a good thing for the council and councillors will consider what is asked of them more readily, I also hope that the Report's recommendation of healing differences between members is listened to. We have this huge devolution agenda coming up and Penzance Town Council seems eager to have more powers, responsibilities and bigger budgets, I feel for this to happen we need to show the people of this town that was can deal with what we do now, in a professional and competent manner.

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