September 29, 2022 10.03 am This story is over 14 months old

“Culture of secrecy” accusations as scrutiny review discussed more than a year later

Report was hidden for months before it was released

Councillors have accused South Kesteven District Council leaders of a “culture of secrecy” as a highly-critical report on scrutiny was examined for the first time in over a year.

The report from the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny was received by the authority in August, but was not released for public consumption until July and did not appear before council discussion until Wednesday, September 28 – more than a year later.

It had highlighted a lack of regular scrutiny of the council’s leader, along with a number of gaps despite a “clear commitment to scrutiny”.

Alliance SK member Councillor Ashley Baxter said the amount of time it had taken to come to committee was “disgraceful”

“It’s taken over a year for it to get from the desk of the recipient to this meeting, that’s way too long.

“The levels of secrecy around the report over the last year are indicative of the council’s general attitude to openness and scrutiny. We have a culture of secrecy and opacity and I understand that the cabinet members, they absolutely hate scrutiny.”

He accused the ruling group of “forcing” through changes to the Constitution that reduce the amount of public and councillor access to meetings and reject supplementary questions.

“Nearly all the changes to the constitution [agreed recently]  resulted in less and not more scrutiny,” he added.

He said the report “does nothing to address the problems identified” and was instead being used as a mechanism for bringing in changes the administration wanted “which are going to be to the detriment of this council”.

He also accused council leaders of punishing previous committee chair-people.

“Look at the the previous Chair of planning committee, Bob Adams, and the previous Chair of finance, Graham Jeal, who had been removed from their posts because they had the audacity to challenge the administration,” he said.

Fellow Alliance SK member Councillor Phil Dilks, who was not a member of the committee but was allowed to speak said the council had a “track record” of issues with openness and transparency, pointing to issues such as the Riverside scandal.

However, Councillor Paul Wood, the Independent chairman of the committtee defended the leadership saying: “It’s wrong you say about this council’s about secrecy, it’s not and I don’t think the cabinet hate scrutiny, we’re all trying to improve scrutiny.”

He said there had been opportunity to discuss the plans and consult on the plans, however, Councillor Baxter disagreed.

Deputy leader of the council Councillor Adam Stokes said he took offence to the comments that cabinet members did not like scrutiny.

“You will see me at scrutiny meetings, you will see me at most scrutiny meetings if I’m able to attend but you choose the language that you choose Councillor Baxter which doesn’t help any debate.”|

He said that the report before councillors and the work to tackle it had to “start seomewhere”.

The report on Wednesday included an action plan for the council to undertake, however, councillors felt there was a lack of information and called for the review to go before a full scrutiny workshop before returning to members for recommendations to full council.

Actions will include a series of comprehensive reviews, further informal meetings to share best practice and changing how the chairmen and vice-chairmen of committees are appointed.